It's a former Uganda child soldier now going to classes. A Roma (Gypsy) youngster helping to desegregate a school in rural Romania. And a camel named Gellow. That sturdy animal vagabond is part of Kenya's mobile camel library, which brings books through the savannah to remote residents.
"In the villages with their houses of mud and dung these tenacious desert ships are wishfully awaited by the people of the nomadic Muslim tribes. Under the shade of acacia trees, especially the children are excitedly turning pages of school books, novels and comics," reads a website blurb for the film "Caravan of the Books." The 50-minute movie was made by German filmmaker Herbert Ostwald.
Audience members at the festival screenings may come away with a greater appreciation for their own educations when they watch the films' subjects struggling to teach and learn in the face of poverty, prejudice, learning disabilities, book shortages and wars. The theme for this year's festival, the 14th, is "Education is a Human Right."
The event runs Oct. 21 through Oct. 30, showing 70 documentary films in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford University and San Francisco. Panel discussions and receptions with filmmakers are also planned.
The festival has long covered a wide range of topics; others that will be explored this year include the concept of the modern revolution, women's rights in India, and, closer to home, the battle over preserving San Bruno Mountain.
Founder and executive director Jasmina Bojic originally conceived the festival to mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This year, opening night is Friday, Oct. 21, at Palo Alto's Aquarius Theatre at 430 Emerson St. Following opening remarks by Palo Alto Mayor Sid Espinosa at 6:45 p.m., "The Thing That Happened" will be shown at 7 p.m. Directed by Andrew Walton, the 20-minute Ugandan/American film looks at the Hope North Secondary and Vocational School in Uganda and its efforts to educate children affected by civil war, including former child soldiers.
The 96-minute film "Pink Saris," directed by Kim Longinotto, follows at 7:40 p.m., telling the stories of persecuted women in India and the activist Sampat Pal who tries to help them. The last film of the night is Sybil Wendler's "Once Upon A Rooftop," a 29-minute movie about children and families living in makeshift, illegally constructed dwellings on the rooftops of Hong Kong.
The festival then continues through Oct. 30 in various Palo Alto-area locations. Scheduled films include the 94-minute Romanian film "Our School," in which directors Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma profile three Roma children trying to desegregate their village school. It will be shown at noon on Oct. 22 at the Aquarius Theatre.
"Caravan of the Books" will bring the camels to the Aquarius' big screen at 11:20 a.m. on Oct. 23.
Later screenings include sessions at local schools. On Oct. 25, the festival heads for Palo Alto High School at 50 Embarcadero Road, with two films: "Setting the Stage," about teaching Shakespeare in a diverse classroom, is at 2 p.m., followed at 2:45 p.m. by "Original Minds," about teens navigating the American special-education system.
"American Teacher," which profiles four contemporary teachers in urban and rural schools, will be shown at 4:15 p.m., followed by a panel discussion titled "Teachers' Pay as a Factor in Education Quality" and a reception with the filmmakers, at Stanford University's Encina Hall.
East Palo Alto's Eastside Prep at 1041 Myrtle St. hosts several screenings beginning with "Raising Yuriya," about girls being educated in rural Egypt, at 4 p.m. Also in East Palo Alto, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula at 2031 Pulgas Ave. starts its screenings with "Play Again," about high-tech kids growing up in the real and virtual worlds, at 7 p.m.
While technology is certainly an issue on the Peninsula, some of the films are even more local in their subject matter.
"There's No Sound in My Head," a 20-minute film directed by San Francisco filmmaker Robert Arnold and produced by Stanford University composer Mark Applebaum, looks at Applebaum's experimental-music project "The Metaphysics of Notation." The pictographic score for the piece, rich with hand-drawn symbols and glyphs, was installed for a year at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, where different musicians came each week to play their own interpretations of it.
The film includes performance footage and interviews with Applebaum and other composers. Fittingly, it will be shown at the Cantor, at 2 p.m. on Oct. 29.
"Butterflies and Bulldozers" will be screened at 9:20 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Balboa Theatre, 3630 Balboa St., San Francisco. A 62-minute film by Ann and Steve Dunsky, it looks at the conservation fight over San Bruno Mountain and its rare butterflies. And, in the spirit of the festival, it also takes a broader viewpoint.
"This film deals with the global dilemma of economic growth versus species preservation," the filmmakers note on their website. "San Bruno Mountain provides a context to explore these complex questions."
What: The 14th annual United Nations Association Film Festival, with screenings of 70 documentary films, as well as panel discussions and filmmaker receptions
Where: The events will be in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford University and San Francisco.
When: Oct. 21 through Oct. 30, with late-morning, afternoon and evening events
Cost: General admission for a film session (one-and-a-half to three hours) is $10. Other tickets include daily passes for Stanford screenings ($20-$30). Opening-night screenings and panels are free for everyone, while all screenings and panels are free for students.
Info: For a complete schedule and price breakdown, go to http://unaff.org or call 650-724-5544.