Always a day away | News | Palo Alto Online |


Always a day away

International documentary film fest looks toward 'Tomorrow?'

Every year -- and, for some of us, every day -- brings with it increased anxiety about the future. Apart from the state of the U.S. government and political unrest around the world, global climate change gives reason enough for intense concern. Of course, as fears and injustices rise up, so do heroes, those who urgently work to right wrongs and those who inform the public at large. So if this year's theme for the United Nations Association Film Festival, "Tomorrow?," sounds a little anxious, it's meeting us where we live -- but it's also looking forward with hope.

With a full slate of documentary films rolling out between now and Oct. 28, the 21st UNAFF continues the festival's mission to celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by showcasing global documentary films demonstrating diversity, compassion and justice. Venues for this cherished local event include the Aquarius Theatre, Mitchell Park Community Center, Midpeninsula Community Media Center, Eastside College Prep, and Stanford University. The fest's 60 films, including four world premieres and eight U.S. premieres, hail from Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Croatia, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Germany, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Mozambique, North Korea, Norway, Palestine, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Spain, Syria, UK, Uruguay and the U.S.

As always, the films cover a wide array of topics, from the opioid crisis to the refugee crisis, women's and LGBTQ rights, gun laws, history, race, technology and the arts. One can find a film about finding love while HIV positive, another about the last surviving Nuremberg Trials prosecutor, as well as films on the sexism facing female chefs, efforts to combat untreatable bacterial diseases and racial stereotyping in comics. As a bonus, local filmmakers and subjects are always well represented at UNAFF, and this year is no exception. A handful of films represent the Bay Area's thriving documentary film community.

"The New Fire" explores the importance of nuclear power and follows a few startups racing to develop the next generation of nuclear reactors. One of those startups is Oklo, operating out of Sunnyvale under co-founders Caroline Cochran and Jacob DeWitte. Also local: executive producer Ross Koningstein (a Stanford grad and Google engineer), and professors Ken Caldeira (a Stanford-based climate scientist) and Per Peterson of U.C. Berkeley (currently on leave to work at a nuclear startup he founded in Alameda), both seen in the film.

Nuclear disasters, "No Nukes!" protests, and Mr. Burns on "The Simpsons" have given nuclear power a bad name, but as the scientists in "The New Fire" point out, it is relatively safe and getting safer, not to mention absolutely essential to meet the planet's clean energy needs (wind and solar can help, yes, but they aren't enough). By doing the math on nuclear and looking at innovation in the field, "The New Fire" makes for a fascinating and vital documentary. The film screens Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m.

"From Baghdad to the Bay" profiles local chef Ghazwan Alsharif, with footage covering his eight years living in the United States after fleeing persecution in his native Iraq (featured in an interview with the Weekly in July). Highly valued as one of the best interpreters recruited by the U.S. military after its invasion of Iraq, Ghazwan found himself jailed without warning by the Iraqi military police and tortured under accusations of being a traitorous double agent or even a terrorist.

Upon confessing under duress to being gay, matters didn't get any better, until a former colleague got him released, and Alsharif started over in America, enjoying new freedoms and dreams to make it in the food industry (he even appears on the Food Network) even as he suppresses a few old fears and fights depression to maintain his generally upbeat demeanor. Alsharif's story of refugee to U.S. citizen underlines the at-times forgotten contributions of military translators and of today's immigrants. You can see "From Baghdad to the Bay" Oct. 21 at 4:30 p.m.

"Generation Zapped," executive produced by Palo Altan Peter Sullivan, gets into the increasingly documented health harms (and need for more study) of cellphones, other screen-based devices and wireless routers. The long-overdue documentary features interviews with numerous experts and testimonials by doctors and patients linking cellphones to tumors. When her husband developed a brain tumor likely caused by his cell phone use, Ellen Marks became an activist, founding with her son Zack the California Brain Tumor Association, which has scored wins with the San Francisco and Berkeley city governments regarding regulatory warnings and consumer protections. "Generation Zapped," expertly assembled, will likely change how you think about your phone and your home Wi-Fi. It plays Oct. 26 at 4:45 p.m.

"Silicon Valley: The Untold Story" is actually Episode One ("Secret Sauce") of a three-part Science Channel documentary on that subject of endless fascination: the innovation and industry of this place we call Silicon Valley. Chasing breadth over depth, the doc covers a lot of ground and makes some interesting connections across time about the history and current development of the place, and for starters, it gives an overview of the breakthroughs that put Silicon Valley on the map in the first place. Check it out Oct. 23 at 4:40 p.m.

The festival also offers six free panels with questions and answers about "Tomorrow?": "The Future of Conflicts and Resolutions," "Climate Change, Energy Revolution and New Technologies," "Music and Literature Bring us Together," "Gender, Race, Religion and Politics in Popular Culture," "Health Challenges and Technology." and "Therapies for Our Planet."

UNAFF has a documentary film for every interest and a world of possibilities to explore topics one might never have otherwise become aware of or considered. To begin exploring those possibilities, find complete details at UNAFF.

Freelance writer Peter Canavese can be emailed at

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Los Altos's State of Mind opening NYC-inspired pizza shop in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 16 comments | 8,389 views

Flying: How much is enough? It's personal.
By Sherry Listgarten | 15 comments | 2,911 views

Wait, wait – we’re working on it
By Diana Diamond | 18 comments | 2,544 views

My Pet Peeves
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 7 comments | 1,987 views

Goodbye toy stores
By Cheryl Bac | 8 comments | 1,295 views


Short story writers wanted!

The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 27, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

Contest Details