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Movies That Begin Where the Wars Won't End

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CRITIC'S CHOICE/Film; Movies That Begin Where the Wars Won't End      By STEPHEN HOLDEN (NYT) 593 words    genocide   .

June 13, 2003, Friday


CRITIC'S CHOICE/Film; Movies That Begin Where the Wars Won't End

A hero can be someone who desperately tries to save the day but fails. Such a man is Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who served as the commander of the United Nations forces in Rwanda in 1994.

The general, a Canadian who sounded the alarm about the possibility of mass killings, is the subject of Steven Silver's documentary portrait, ''The Last Just Man,'' which is having its New York premiere tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.

As all signs pointed toward an organized, large-scale massacre in Rwanda, General Dallaire frantically alerted United Nations officials in New York to the imminent catastrophe and five times requested reinforcements for his tiny contingent of peace-keeping troops. Each time, the answer that came back was an emphatic no.

Especially adamant about not intervening in Rwanda was the United States, which was reluctant to sustain any more casualties after the loss of American lives in Somalia and did not view the country as a threat to national security. Three months later, Rwanda turned into a killing field where more than half a million people were butchered by machete and machine gun fire in just 100 days (genocide). The movie insists that the slaughter could have been prevented.

''The Last Just Man'' is the kind of unflinching documentary you can see only at the Human Rights Watch festival, which runs at the Walter Reade Theater through June 26.

In the film, the general recounts the events leading up to the massacre and describes how he ultimately decided to break the rules and become personally involved. That involvement nearly cost him his life.

Two other festival documentaries look deep beneath the surface of the societies they examine. The first is Hany Abu-Assad's ''Ford Transit,'' a portrait of a Palestinian cabdriver and his passengers, filmed in his taxi as he makes his daily rounds between East Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Frequent roadblocks and inspections along the way have turned the route into a frustrating obstacle course, which he has found ingenious ways to circumvent. Reflecting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most of his passengers lament the Palestinian suicide bombings and show a sophisticated understanding of the region's history and politics.

In taking you to the heart of a trouble spot, ''Ford Transit,'' like ''The Last Just Man,'' reminds you that there are no simple solutions. It also points out the degree to which ordinary people who abhor violence find themselves caught in the crossfire of fiercely militant forces beyond their control.

Patricia Castano and Adelaida Trujillo's anguished personal documentary, ''War Takes,'' a meditation on Colombian society that took four years to complete, is similarly steeped in the culture and history of the country it studies. The volatile mix of left-wing revolutionary guerrillas, right-wing militarism and the drug trade in Colombia has resulted in a society that barely holds together and whose democratic government is too weak to bring about peace. This sad, scary portrait of a country in crisis suggests that much worse lies ahead.

These three films are a rich sample from a festival that, at its strongest, fulfills its mission of being the cinematic conscience of the world.

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival runs through June 26 at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center, (212) 875-5600; Admission: $9.50; $7 for students; $5 for members; $4.50 for 65+ at weekday matinees.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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