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Film festival's focus on human rights as urgent as ever a quarter century after its founding

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"Orchestrating Change," one of UNAFF's opening night films, tells the story of the world's only orchestra created by people living with mental illness

Much has changed since the United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF) made its debut 25 years ago.

The documentary festival has nearly quadrupled in size, growing from three days of screenings to 11. And now, the festival not only hosts screenings around the Peninsula, but it also takes some of its offerings on the road to national and international destinations throughout the year. The festival's jury, which selects the films, has grown as submissions have steadily increased.

What hasn't changed is the festival's mission, which focuses on human rights issues — and the fact that many of those issues remain as timely and urgent as when the festival was founded.

"There are a lot of film festivals now, and they're screening a lot of films, but it's focusing on a particular group. And our film festival was always really for bringing these topics and themes to bring us together and try to create a space for people to talk about the issues through these images and that's the core purpose," said UNAFF Founder and Executive Director Jasmina Bojic.

The 25th anniversary UNAFF, which has the theme "Reflections," takes place in person through Oct. 30 at venues in Palo Alto, Stanford University, East Palo Alto. This year's festival will screen 60 films from around the world and include six panel discussions. Among the films will be four world premieres and a dozen U.S. premieres.

Urban planner, activist, professor and filmmaker Victor Pineda, who uses a breathing machine 24/7 and could not go out in the early days of the pandemic, shares his personal journey in "Unconfined." Courtesy UNAFF.
Urban planner, activist, professor and filmmaker Victor Pineda, who uses a breathing machine 24/7 and could not go out in the early days of the pandemic, shares his personal journey in "Unconfined." Courtesy UNAFF.

Though UNAFF is not affiliated with the United Nations, it was directly inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Bojic, a Stanford University educator, is also the director of Stanford Arts' Camera as Witness program, which uses documentary film as a tool to help illuminate important topics, in particular, human rights.

"For us. it's not just a presentation of the film, you come and see the film and then you're gone. We now have more than 10,000 documentaries in our archives," Bojic said of the Camera as Witness program. Over 600 of those films have shown at UNAFF.

She points to the importance of these films in helping students understand historical events that they may not be familiar with. Recently, she screened "Panama Deception," one of the films that UNAFF showed in its first year, to help teach students about the United States' 1989 invasion of Panama. UNAFF also sometimes revisits films from past editions of the festival with special events during the year, such as Moving Forward with Music, a month-long series offered this past summer that highlighted films that looked at human rights issues through a musical lens.

UNAFF screenings are grouped into sessions of two to three films each, with several sessions offered each day. Some of the topics explored by the films are fairly recent, such as COVID-19, while many more look at longstanding issues, including social justice, reproductive rights and the environment. There's even a free special session with a lineup of short films geared for families, "UNAFF and Kids Program," on Oct. 22.

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren appears in the documentary "A Decent Home," which captures the struggles of mobile home residents who often lack the legal protections of residents of other types of dwellings. Courtesy UNAFF.
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren appears in the documentary "A Decent Home," which captures the struggles of mobile home residents who often lack the legal protections of residents of other types of dwellings. Courtesy UNAFF.

The festival kicks off Oct. 20 on a high note with a trio of films celebrating the breaking down of barriers: "Maldita: A Love Song to Sarajevo" by filmmakers Amaia Remírez and Raúl de la Fuente Calle tells of how Bosnian musician Božo Vrećo builds bridges and challenges gender norms in his reinterpretations of traditional Bosnian sevdah music; Margie Friedman and Barbara Multer-Wellin's "Orchestrating Change," about the Me2/Orchestra, the world's only orchestra created by and for people living with mental illness and the Oscar-nominated "Writing With Fire" from the directing/producing team of Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh, Patty Quillin, Hallee Adelman and Anurima Bhargava about women journalists from the marginalized Dalit group in India who have pushed back against a male-dominated field to found the nation's only newspaper by Dalit women.

"We really wanted to (set) a celebratory mood for the 25th anniversary and we want also to focus of course on human rights issues and issues which are important to our deep core of the festival," Bojic said of the opening night films.

The opening event also features a reception with refreshments from Flea Street and Judy’s Breadsticks, music by POTENTIAL Jazz Ensemble and an opening address by Palo Alto Mayor Patrick Burt.

The six panel discussions, which take place throughout the festival, follow sessions that highlight specific topics, which include the pandemic, youth and climate justice, housing and mental health. The panels feature filmmakers as well as experts on the topic.

The first panel on the schedule, "How We as as Society Treat Children," on Oct. 22 follows "Butterfly, Butterfly," a unique work for which filmmaker Len Morris captured footage of children around the world over 30 years, looking at the changes, positive and negative, in children's human rights, and "The Children in the Pictures," by Akhim Dev and Simon Nasht, that looks at an Australian police task force that seeks to stop online sexual abuse of children.

One of the festival's closing night films is "Kicking Balls," which explores the efforts of a nonprofit in Rajasthan to help teenage girls avoid child marriage by teaching them to play soccer. Courtesy UNAFF.
One of the festival's closing night films is "Kicking Balls," which explores the efforts of a nonprofit in Rajasthan to help teenage girls avoid child marriage by teaching them to play soccer. Courtesy UNAFF.

A panel with perhaps particular local resonance is "Homes and Inequality," which takes on housing issues and explores, as Bojic said, "home as a human right." The discussion, held on Oct. 23, follows two films, "This Adventure Called California" by filmmaker Jennifer Huang, which tells of a man who immigrated to the Bay Area who struggles with labor exploitation and homelessness, and "A Decent Home," Sara Terry's documentary looking at the unique challenges faced by mobile home residents, who are often left out of legal protections that residents of other types of dwellings may have.

Screenings of two films that look at COVID-19 from a personal perspective and wide-ranging view precede "COVID, Past, Present and Future," a panel held at Stanford Medical School on Oct. 25. With "Unconfined," filmmaker Victor Pineda, who uses a breathing machine at all times, captures his personal experiences as he's confined to his room during part of the pandemic, while Michael Welch's "COVID Century" raises questions about the relationship between public health leadership and the pandemic and how a similar event in the future might be handled.

Filmmaker and human rights activist Dorothy Fadiman
Filmmaker and human rights activist Dorothy Fadiman will receive the UNAFF Visionary Award on the closing night of the festival. Courtesy UNAFF.

A pair of screenings on the final night of the festival, Oct. 30, explore the ongoing fight for women's rights, with "Kicking Balls," Vijayeta Kumar's documentary about a nonprofit in Rajasthan that aims to challenge the practice of child marriage by teaching teenage girls to play soccer, and Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin's "The Janes," about a group of women in Chicago, pre-Roe v. Wade, who provided low-cost and free abortions.

The films lead into the festival's annual ceremony presenting its Visionary Award, this year to Oscar-nominated filmmaker and human rights activist Dorothy Fadiman, whose film "When Abortion Was Illegal: Untold Stories," screened in 2004 at UNAFF, and who is also a subject of "The Janes."

"She created this documentary in 2004 and now it's part of 'The Janes,' a new documentary about abortion issues. She reflects (UNAFF's) work and how important documentaries are," Bojic said.

UNAFF takes place through Oct. 30 at venues in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford and San Francisco. For more information, visit unaff.org.




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About the Author: Heather Zimmerman

Heather has been with Embarcadero Media since 2019. She writes and edits arts stories, compiles the Weekend Express newsletter, curates the community calendar, helps edit stories for the Voice and The Almanac and assists with the Express newsletters.
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