The Horrors 

It's a mean old world


The Human Rights Watch Film Festival opens a monthlong Bay Area run at the PFA tomorrow, and it's understandable if you don't want to go. The festival, so dedicated to enumerating and confronting the world's many horrors, is no frivolous joyride; you'll need to steel yourself to see it. But don't doubt that there's hope to be had, too. What's most affecting, and elevating, is the filmmakers' common and unswerving commitment to truth and dignity. The Oscar-nominated documentary, Balseros, invested years' worth of attention to the lives of its subjects: seven Cubans who cast off for America in 1994, when Castro announced that he would do nothing to stop them. As if the journey itself weren't difficult enough, the American Dream that awaited these refugees is dark and dreary, often closer to a nightmare. In S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, filmmaker Rithy Panh returns to the Phnom Penh high school that in the mid-'70s became a death chamber for tens of thousands of Cambodian citizens. By gathering stories of victims and their tormentors alike, he manages not a total reconciliation, but the more believable feat of taking steps toward understanding the unthinkable. Paul Devlin's Power Trip examines, in the most human terms, a crumbling infrastructure in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where the cost of electricity becomes untenable in a fledgling market economy. Citizens can't and won't pay their bills, and the American-owned electrical company resorts to cutting off their power. Watching carefully in the dark, Devlin finds the true face of modernization.

For all the filmmakers assembled in this festival, whether they work in documentary or narrative forms, oppression and political strife are daily, omnipresent facts -- but the obstructions are never powerful enough to overcome the will and wisdom of the human spirit. The fest runs through March 26 at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; University of San Francisco; and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Call 510-642-1412 or visit for more information. -- Jonathan Kiefer


Cheep, cheep

Lit Happens

Ptarmigans tempt men in The Big Year, Mark Obmascik's madcap account of a birdwatching race. Swap lorikeet lore with Obmascik at Barnes & Noble Walnut Creek (Wed., 7:30 p.m.). ... What's more tragic, lyrical fun than a medieval love triangle? A Japanese imperial medieval love triangle, duh. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer reads from her historical novel The Snow Fox at Cody's (Wed., 7:30 p.m.). ... A playa, a couple of exes with axes to grind, a wife who won't do it anymore, and a prince of a man named Prince fret and strut through the pages of Carl Weber's Player Haters. Meet Weber at Barnes & Noble Oakland (Wed., 7:30 p.m.). ... "A pox on you" used to be more than just an empty threat. In The Speckled Monster, Oxford University's Jennifer Carrell charts the rapacious rise and fall of smallpox, said to have killed hundreds of millions before its eradication in 1977. She isn't contagious at Cody's Southside (Thu., 7:30 p.m.). ... From Depression-era tent-dwelling through two wars and the civil rights movement, Joe Coulson's debut novel The Vanishing Moon charts the lives and loves of an American family. He's at Diesel (Thu., 7:30 p.m.). ... At Elephant Pharmacy, ex-opera singer and Memory in Our Bones author Elizabeth Burke explains her unusual method for "erasing" fears and other bad feelings from cells, flesh, and skeleton (Thu., 1 p.m.). ... A shy girl newly arrived in America wonders which language birds speak in the colorful bilingual children's book Aekyung's Dream by Min Paek, who leads a program at the Oakland Public Library's Lakeview Branch celebrating 100 years of immigration from Korea (Sat., 3 p.m.). ... But do you like green eggs and ham? A birthday party for the late Dr. Seuss features readings from his beloved books at the Pinole Public Library (Mon., 7 p.m.). ... A half-hour open mic precedes RETURNTOIKNOWEXACTLYWHATYOUMEANSVILLE author Brendan Constantine and fellow poet Elizabeth Iannaci at Downtown Berkeley's Pegasus (Mon., 7 p.m.). ... The Contemporary Writers Series presents Coffee Will Make You Black author April Sinclair in the Faculty Lounge, Rothwell Center, Mills College (Tue.), 5:30 p.m. In which case, what will Clamato make you? -- Anneli Rufus

FRI 2/27

You Hurd It Here

Thacher Hurd -- author and illustrator of Art Dog, Zoom City, and Mama Don't Allow -- grew up in a large house near a river in Vermont, the son of two kiddie-lit luminaries (his mother was author Edith Thacher Hurd, and his father illustrated Good Night Moon) with a freezer full of homegrown vegetables. Some kids are not so lucky, and for them, we're glad there's Bay Area Children First. This evening at 5 p.m., BACF holds a festive open house at its new East Bay office in Shattuck Commons (1400 Shattuck Ave., Ste. 7, Berkeley) with an auction of foods and crafts donated by local restaurants and artists, and a keynote speech by Hurd (above). BACF was founded in San Francisco in 1994, and currently provides counseling for families separated by divorce, disease, death, and incarceration, as well as offering classes, counseling for government agencies, and more. Info: 510-883-9312 or -- Stefanie Kalem

SAT 2/28


Party like it's 501(c)3 in Oakland

This weekend will see the biggest party the Oakland Box Theater has hosted so far -- and that's saying a lot, considering the good times we've had there. The downtown space has just gotten its nonprofit status together, and it's celebrating with two Grand Opening events, one semiprivate and one for the public at large. From 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday will be a preparty for donors only, featuring special live performances, food, and drink. Not a donor? Not a problem. The Box is hoping to raise $25,000 during these two hours, so call 510-451-1932 or e-mail to RSVP (required) and join the charge. At 9 p.m., the party proper begins, with Bay Area worldbeat/jamtronica collective Hamsa Lila taking the stage at 9:30 and moving the crowd with its mesmerizing, African- and Indian-inspired sound for two whole hours. At 11:30, MCs Ras K'Dee, Carlos Mena, and others join forces with hip-hop collective Delinquent Monastery and Gimik, and members of Hamsa Lila for a hip-hop fusion jam till closing time. All this danciliciousness is $10-$20, sliding scale. 1928 Telegraph Ave. Info: -- Stefanie Kalem


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