Historic preservation in France, marine stewardship in Australia, racial tensions in Philadelphia and feminism in Iraq: These stories and many more come to Palo Alto this week as part of the 18th annual United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF).
The festival will be held from Oct. 15-25 in Palo Alto, Stanford, East Palo Alto and San Francisco. This year's somewhat ominous-sounding theme is "Running Out of Time," a reference to the eight human-rights, environmental and health goals set by the United Nations in 2000 to be met by 2015. Despite the title's heavy overtones, this year's selection includes everything from a comical seven-minute short about climate change starring a Palo Alto elementary student ("Worse Than Poop!") to reflections on the power of the arts to heal lives. All told, there are more than of 60 films from around the world, both somber and uplifting.
"From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction" is the story of what was once the most populous species of bird in North America, a species that was wiped out with astounding speed thanks to human predation and interference. (Watch the trailer here.)
"The passenger pigeon was probably the most abundant bird in the world, with a population in the billions, as late as 1860," explained film producer Joel Greenberg. "The last wild bird was shot in 1902, and the last of the species died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914. For that much abundance to be literally obliterated in four decades is unprecedented."
Greenberg wrote a book on the passenger pigeon's plight, "A Feathered River Across the Sky," which was published by Bloomsbury in 2014, just in time to mark the centenary of the bird's extinction. His work led to the collaborative formation of "Project Passenger Pigeon," an organization whose mission is "to tell the story about the bird and underline the messages that are still valid," he said. "Clearly, one way to reach lots of people was a movie."
He teamed up with filmmaker David Mrazek, and the documentary was hatched. The film uses CGI animation to recreate the former flocks in their glory days as well as their human-led demise. The hope is that viewers can learn from the mistakes of the past to create a more sustainable future, Greenberg said.
"No matter how abundant something is -- it could be water, it could be oil, could be something alive -- if we are not good stewards we could lose it," he said.
"We think differently now than we did back in the 19th century, when people were just killing things because they assumed (they were) limitless. Some things are under regulation, but there are other kinds of challenges -- pollution, introduced species, habitat loss."
The festival's theme clearly resonates with Greenberg and his topic. Time ran out quickly for the passenger pigeon, and today there are many other species whose days may be numbered, he said.
"There are now 7 billion people in the world, and we consume a lot as a species," he said. "If people care, there's a lot they can do as individuals to try and make things better. We want to let them know that it is important to be involved and they can make a difference."
Other films come at the theme of limited time from very different angles. Catherine Wigginton Greene's "I'm not Racist ... am I?" follows a group of New York City teenagers from diverse ethnic, cultural and financial backgrounds who agree to spend a year having facilitated conversations about racism.
"It's thinking about racism on the systemic, institutional level, not just hearts and minds and feelings but practices and historical context," Wigginton Greene said. While most of the teens first considered racism in terms of the kind of explicit bigotry of Jim Crow laws and segregation, they came to realize that it's more pervasive -- and subtle -- than that.
In addition to filming the teens' discussions with one another, the filmmaker also captured them conversing with their families at home, adding an inter-generational perspective. One white participant from a liberal family, for example, started the project with a belief that in modern-day America, everyone starts from a level playing field with the same opportunities. A conversation with his mother caught on film shows her reminding him that his privileged background afforded him tutors and other advantages. "She was surprised that he didn't get that he didn't start at the same place," Wigginton Greene said. "By the end of the film, everything had changed for him. He was realizing how messed up things really are."
An African-American student, on the other hand, realized he'd been unknowingly dealing with racism on a regular basis and came away feeling strengthened by his new understanding.
"It's empowering for students to understand that the system is bigger than them and they're still operating in the system," she said, adding that the film "doesn't give solutions to ending racism. It's trying to make sense of it all."
Speaking to the festival's theme, she said, "People are dying, literally, from this. Racism is pervasive in every part of society. If we ever want to live up to the ideals we're supposed to, we are running out of time if we don't address this soon."
If Wigginton Greene's reasons for making the film were altruistic, Bay Area journalist Maggie Beidelman's "The Trouble with Bread" had admittedly selfish beginnings.
"I had trouble digesting wheat, but I tested negative for celiac disease," she explained. "And then the whole 'gluten-free' food fad blew up, lumping me in with hypochondriac food-allergy fanatics. So I wanted to find out if non-celiac gluten intolerance was real, and if it really is increasing, what the heck happened?"
Her film goes from farm to mill to table, revealing some surprising discoveries about the way modern wheat is processed and why it's creating problems for consumers. The time has come for people to take a closer look at their diets and the business of food, Beidelman suggested.
"Our food system is all about efficiency and profit -- fast food, cheap materials and instant gratification," she said, adding that people are paying the price through poor health and increasing instances of disease.
"If this isn't reason enough to change our food system, and change it now, I don't know what is."
According to UNAFF's executive director Jasmina Bojic, Palo Alto mayor Karen Holman will open the festival. Bojic is especially proud that the event, which includes free public panel discussions, links the communities of Stanford, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.
"It's a rare opportunity to get together and talk about the issues that are really important to all of us," she said.
What: The 18th annual United Nations Association Film Festival
Where: Various locations in Palo Alto, Stanford, East Palo Alto and San Francisco.
When: Thursday, Oct. 15 through Saturday, Oct. 25
Cost: $10 per film session, $180 for a full festival pass
Info: Go to unaff.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.