2006-11-24 / On The Town

Journalist, student present dynamic films on justice, hope
Journalist, student present dynamic films on justice, hope

Contrary to popular notion, most victims were not prostitutes and even if they had been, Mendez-Quiroga said, they were still human life.

The filmmaker placed the blame for the murders on the city's drug cartel and corrupt police force. The city of Juarez is on the Mexico-U.S. border and on a busy route for drug smuggling. Due to their low wages, police often take bribes from the cartel.

Journalists who tried to uncover the story were threatened by the cartel and authorities. At one time, 88 Juarez police officials were indicted for corruption connected to the murders, but due to the statute of limitations only five were jailed.

Mendez-Quiroga said the bad publicity from the slayings has given some American companies second thoughts about moving plants to Juarez. Seven companies have pulled out of the city, but not necessarily because of crime; China and other countries can provide cheaper labor.

The second director at the festival was Eli Akira Kaufman with his narrative short, "Winning the Peace," which has already received many prizes from the festival circuit. This moving piece follows Sgt. Charlie Latif (played by Don Hany), an Iraqi American Marine on a tour of duty overseas, who keeps insisting his "homeland" is America, not Iraq. The actor himself is half-Iraqi.

Latif daily calls his wife and young son back home. The film intercuts the son playing a soccer game while his father kicks a ball around with Iraqi boys. Latif finds his life changed when one of the Iraqi lads steps on an artillery piece and he holds the dead boy in his arms.

"Winning the Peace" is actually a student film Kaufman shot while in his second year of the UCLA graduate film program.

Kaufman said he shot "Winning" in six days in Saugus, in the desert behind a school and at the Blue Cloud Ranch, which is often used for movie shoots and the TV show "Jag." The ranch allowed him to shoot for free as long as no paying gigs showed up.

He found his actors from industry casting notices requesting Iraqi speakers, and announcements over Iraqi-free radio in Los Angeles. To achieve authenticity, the actors playing the soldiers were coached by Marines from Camp Pendleton.

When filming Hany's climactic emotional moment, Kaufman helped set the mood for the actor by discussing Hany's family in Iraq, where one family member has died. When the actor "got in the moment," Kaufman said, he rolled the cameras and caught the performance on the second take.

Much of Kaufman's film used donations to offset costs. The military vehicles and gear were loaned by the armed forces and Kodak contributed the film. The film was largely financed with a fellowship from a Showtime competition. Kaufman used $5,000 of his own money.

The idea for the film came from Kaufman's personal heritage. He's half Australian and half Iraqi. His father escaped Iraq before Saddam Hussein came into power. He has family members in the Marines.

Kaufman spend four months in preproduction while studying in college full time and he edited the film on his home computer with Final Cut Pro Edit. He stressed the importance of storyboarding before shooting

His film does not "take sides" or make an political statement, but Kaufman said Marines who have seen the film thank him for it.

While finishing his degree, Kaufman teaches at Antelope Valley High School and also works periodically in professional film productions. Kaufman said his thesis film is "a dark comedy about a mattress salesman who falls in love with an insomniac," adding that after "Winning" he needed something more upbeat.

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