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Human rights films jettison glamour for storytelling

Hollywood has wrapped its tentacles so strongly around our moviegoing habits that it's easy to forget how many worthwhile pictures don't fit the usual multiplex patterns. Prime examples are so-called art films and documentaries - or "nonfiction films," as insiders now label them, hoping this name will prove friendlier at the box office.

Good specimens from both categories have arrived in theaters. Documentaries are plentiful, ranging from the heartfelt "Return With Honor," about Americans held prisoner during the Vietnam War, to "Trekkies," dedicated to the proposition that "Star Trek" fans can be even more quirky and exotic than the show they love.

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Also running this month is the 10th annual edition of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York, a prime launching pad for movies about social, political, and humanitarian issues. While some of its offerings will stay on the festival and special-event circuit, others are already headed for theaters.

Among the more acclaimed entries is Regret to Inform, about to open commercially after competing in the Oscar race last year. Directed by American filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn, it focuses on the Vietnam era from a woman's point of view, etching the experiences and memories of widows who lost their husbands in that tragic conflict.

The director - herself a Vietnam War widow - conducts soul-searching interviews with women from North and South Vietnam as well as the United States, demonstrating not only the war's destructiveness, but the diverse responses this elicits from survivors raised in different cultures.

While documentaries perform an invaluable service by exploring their subjects in direct and realistic terms, complex issues can also be illuminated by fiction films that bypass commercial tricks, glamour, sensationalism, and superficiality in favor of serious, socially committed storytelling.

A strong example is The Terrorist, by Santosh Sivan, who uses political unrest in India to show how a violent movement may seduce people who've been unmoored from conventional morality by traumatic events.

The heroine is a 17-year-old girl whose brother has been martyred in a revolutionary upheaval, which is never historically identified in the film, so as to make the story's lessons appear universal rather than local. Recruited to play her own role in this cataclysm, she agrees to assassinate a well-known politician in a suicide mission.

After much preparation, she learns that she is pregnant and will be sacrificing not only her own life but that of her unborn child. Her agonized choice between political and individual imperatives and the difficulty of finding a tidy line between those categories give the lushly photographed drama a charge of suspense that remains until its final moments.

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Other movies in the festival hail from a variety of countries and regions. Cabaret Balkan, previously known as "The Powder Keg," is Yugoslavian director Goran Paskaljevic's scathing look at the human costs of recent Balkan turbulence, as experienced by ordinary people caught in a nightmare of moral and sociopolitical decay. The Rose Seller, by Colombian filmmaker Victor Gaviria, tells the tumultuous tale of a homeless girl struggling to survive in a street culture fraught with exploitation and brutality.

Politically minded pictures from the past are also included. The festival opened with Warren Beatty in "The Parallax View," a 1974 melodrama about a political conspiracy - directed by the late Alan J. Pakula, a Hollywood filmmaker with a strong social conscience - that makes up in energy what it lacks in credibility.

The festival will close with Sergei Eisenstein's great 1924 melodrama Strike, a triumph of silent-film idealism accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra's vibrant new music. Also on the program is Odds Against Tomorrow, a taut 1959 drama by Robert Wise, with Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte as small-time criminals tangled in their own racial tensions.

Features from Peru, Norway, and elsewhere round out the bill, plus many international shorts. An ongoing highlight is "Spotlights on a Massacre," a series of brief movies directed by celebrated international filmmakers as a protest against the use of land mines. While the films vary in quality and effectiveness, they share an urgent and unassailable message.

*The festival runs through June 24 at the Walter Reade Theater at New York's Lincoln Center. 'Regret to Inform' opens theatrically June 25, and 'Cabaret Balkan' opens Aug. 13. 'Strike,' with the Alloy Orchestra score, is available on video from Kino International. 'The Parallax View' and 'Odds Against Tomorrow' have also been released on video.

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