What do you take for granted? For some, it's their basic needs: food, drink and a roof over their heads. Others may take their health -- or the health of the planet -- as perpetual. Perhaps you assume journalism and justice will take care of themselves. At the United Nations Association Film Festival, now in its 22nd year, homegrown journalism meets justice in the form of human rights-themed documentaries. But what happens when UNAFF itself gets taken for granted?
Stanford educator and film critic Jasmina Bojic, who founded the fest in 1998, says this year could be the last without funding from the community. UNAFF has set up a "support" page, but another way to help would be to literally show up.
This year's festival -- running Oct. 17-27 in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford University and San Francisco -- has the theme "Scales of Justice" and, as always, offers feature and short documentary films on a wide-range of justice issues spanning the globe. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains the fest's guiding document in programming a slate that this year includes 60 films eligible for six festival awards.
Once again, films and filmmakers with a local connection make a good showing at UNAFF. One such film, "Waking Dream," comes from director Theo Rigby, a local resident and Stanford alumnus. "Waking Dream" profiles six "Dreamers" left fearfully adrift when the Trump administration rescinded DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). The film's subjects, among them a Richmond middle-school teacher and a San Francisco health care consultant, face very real existential threats to their homes, their jobs and their higher-education degrees in progress. Rigby stays close to his subjects as they navigate an ever-more-complicated bureaucracy and attempt to plan ahead for themselves and their families.
In Gabriel Diamond's "We Are in the Field: Adventures of a Third World Animal Rights Activist," we meet 26-year-old Manoj Gautam, a Nepalese protégé of Jane Goodall. Inspired by Goodall's work, Gautam founded Nepal's first wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center. Diamond follows Gautam to get a sense of his day-to-day work, resulting in an eye-opening half hour about an extraordinary individual making a difference by inspiring other individuals to step up and do the same (what Gautam calls a "wave effect"). Looking out for baby elephants and vultures alike, Gautam finds and talks with smugglers, abusive zookeepers, trainers, snake charmers and more, educating them and appealing to their morality (and, when necessary, to their self-preservation instincts). Diamond, who works in Palo Alto, got his filmmaking start in Oakland and has studied and taught in San Francisco.
Menlo Park-based filmmaker Bo Boudart helmed the aptly titled "A Concerned Citizen," a profile of environmental activist Dr. Riki Ott. Ott was working in Cordova, Alaska, in 1989 when she predicted the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill hours before it occurred. While remaining in her devastated community, Ott became the face of resistance to corporate personhood, fighting to protect people from companies that callously disregard the safety of American citizens. Ott's background in toxicology made her not only an activist but a much-sought-after expert appearing on news programs during the BP Deepwater Horizon incident. Like Gautam, Ott inspires others to practice environmental change for the better using grassroots social and political means.
Another Stanford alumnus and local filmmaker, Chris Beaver, examines the global water crisis in his film "Once Was Water." Like many of our current global challenges, the water crisis will devastate underdeveloped countries before our own, but of course that neither means that we shouldn't care nor that the problem doesn't pose local challenges that will only increase over time. As many Americans continue blithely to water their lawns, Beaver's film asserts that water is a resource as non-renewable as it is necessary for all life on the planet. The search for solutions takes "Once Was Water" to the driest city in America: Las Vegas, Nevada. The lessons being learned there, and the innovative tactics being tried, may show the way for a trying but sustainable future. Here's a film that tips its scales of justice from doomsaying to hopefulness, looking optimistically at creative solutions to the widening crisis.
In one of the closest-to-home documentaries of this year's UNAFF, former diplomat and local filmmaker Ashleigh McArthur shines light on an artistic endeavor that memorialized a disaster for the sake of healing. Produced in Stanford's documentary film MFA program, "Ignis" depicts the work of artist Gregory Roberts, whose Sonoma Ash Project offered to collect ash from the homes lost in the 2017 Tubbs Fire and incorporate it into ceramic pots. The finished works, gifted to the erstwhile homeowners, could then grace new homes as a reminder of what's been lost and what hasn't. McArthur's short but sweet doc shows Roberts at work, and sharing his art with a grateful community.
Speaking of sharing art with a grateful community, UNAFF has spent over two decades doing just that. The film festival will again offer an opening night reception, featuring remarks from Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth, and a closing night party following the presentation of awards. The fest's 26 sessions offer a treasure trove of enlightening documentary films but also seven free panels fostering discussion on some of the issues raised, including prisons, aging, immigration, health and technology, climate change, and gender, race, religion, and politics in popular culture. UNAFF reminds us that the notion of "doing our part" doesn't only refer to political activism and environmental stewardship; it also means education and support of the institutions that keep us informed.
Freelance writer Peter Canavese can be emailed at [email protected]
What: United Nations Association Film Festival: "Scales of Justice."
Where: Screening locations in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford University and San Francisco.
When: Oct. 17-27.
Cost: $12 general admission per film/$220 festival pass. Discounts for youth and seniors available. Open and closing night celebrations are $70 general admission.