Documentaries, as Capturing the Friedmans and Bus 174 (among others) have proven, can indeed be riveting, but a compelling movie can be made from less hot-button topics than child abuse and hijacking. Take electricity, for example. Paul Devlin's Power Trip, screening this Thursday as the opener at the annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, depicts the struggle to keep the lights on in post-communist Tbilisi, Georgia, as a duel between chaotic disintegration and capitalist order. It's no contest! While the New Age-talking boss of the Virginia-based conglomerate that buys Georgia's decrepit electric grid has a picture of Mother Teresa on his wall and his minions are hipsters who vow to create "the most fun workplace ever," their efforts to get Georgians, used to native son Joseph Stalin's industrial legacy, to pay for what had been free is doomed. In the end the naive engineers of the New World are scammed by the corrupt Old Worlders, be they government officials who reroute power to their cronies or slum-dwellers who jury-rig labyrinthine tangles of wire to appropriate some light for themselves. The curse of an indignant indigent, turned down by the Yanks for a turning back on of his juice, comes true: "May God help you as you have helped me."
Devlin's film uses fast cuts and a zoom-happy camera to move his utilities saga along, but Rithy Panh takes the opposite, formal approach with S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, utilizing long takes and steady, contemplative compositions to show the confrontation between the few survivors of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s and their old jailers. Some of the latter sleep badly, while others have no problem re-enacting their rousting and torturing of prisoners. Panh's great movie is in its way about art: Only one painter survives, because his jailers like his gentle brushstrokes on their leader's face.
Admission is $8
The festival moves to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts next week
Many of the series' offerings -- from Colombia, the Philippines, and Israel -- plunge viewers into the ongoing bedlam of social disintegration as brave individuals make do. A particular standout is Balseros, which follows seven refugees who escape from Havana on homemade rafts in 1994 across seven years, revealing their new lives in America in 2001. Spaniards Carles Bosch and Josep Domènech move easily back and forth from Cuba to the United States. Life in the U.S. is good for some -- a man is reunited with a lost daughter -- but is shattering for others. One refugee deals drugs; another is an abusive male who moves from girlfriend to girlfriend. This last man has taken to heart his brother's motto about this country: "You have to resolve your own problems before you resolve the problems of others. And since there are problems every day, there's no time left for others."