"It's about having these rare stories about very interesting people that are changing our thinking about the way how we live and also inspiring us," said festival founder Jasmina Bojic, a Stanford University lecturer and film critic. She brought the festival to Palo Alto 16 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The 10-day film festival features 70 films, with screenings scheduled in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford, Atherton and San Francisco.
This year's films expand the notion of what constitutes a human-rights issue, touching on more common topics — environmental issues, health, women's rights, poverty — along with some unexpected ones: cyberbullying, altruistic organ donation, the science of human enhancement, the life of criminal defense lawyers.
The films come from far and wide, but some of the filmmakers are local. In "Perfect Strangers," Jan Krawitz, the director of Stanford's M.F.A. Program in Documentary Film and Video, shows the drawn-out pain — physical and emotional — of kidney disease through Kathy, a hospice nurse who has polycystic kidney disease.
The film shows Kathy doing home dialysis: a complex, intimate procedure in which an intimidating machine set-up transforms her living room into a hospital room five nights a week for hours at a time. Kathy's husband, Jim, is the dutiful partner and doctor, trained on the machine that cleans her blood as her kidney fails to do. Jim is not a match for Kathy.
Ellie Edwards, the massage therapist from San Luis Obispo, is a self-described "heart bleeding" liberal with blonde hair died pink at the tips. But she is not radical or hard to relate to but instead rational, kind and insightful. Krawitz describes her as an "every woman" who is not proselytizing or giving an organ away for anything except altruistic reasons.
After taking a community-college course and meeting a student with kidney disease who tells her about the need for donors, Edwards decides to look into the issue. She heads to Matching Donors, an online database that matches patients and interest donors for transplants.
"I kept looking at those profiles and thinking, 'If not me, then who?'" Edwards says in the film.
The film is punctuated with statistics that remind viewers of the gravity and breadth of the issue in this country: More than 350,000 people in the United States are on dialysis. Forty-two percent of patients on the transplant list will die within five years if they do not receive a kidney. Last year, 4,500 people died waiting for a transplant.
In making the film, Krawitz told the Weekly: "I ultimately wanted to speak to greater issues of altruism and make the viewer sit there and squirm a little bit and say: 'Is this something I could do?"
The film will screen on Oct. 26 at 2:40 p.m. in Annenberg Auditorium at Stanford. A Q&A will follow.
Another UNAFF film directed by Stanford-affiliated filmmakers follows a group of Indian children from Rishi Aurobindo, a slum in Kolkata, over several years. "Revolutionary Optimists" is very different from "Perfect Strangers" in subject matter but follows the same theme of individuals finding ways to effect larger change.
"Revolutionary Optimists" is co-produced by Maren Grainger-Monsen, filmmaker in residence and director of the program in bioethics and film at Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics; and Nicole Newnham, who has a master's degree in documentary film from Stanford. In it, the viewer meets 11-year-old Salim Sheikh, an inquisitive, confident leader who already has the wisdom of an adult.
"To work in this community, you have to have courage," he says in the film.
His friend and female co-conspirator, 11-year-old Shikha Patra, march through the slum with homemade megaphones, advertising about upcoming polio vaccinations.
Rishi Aurobindo, one of 5,500 slums in Kolkata, is a place of impossible odds for children like Salim and Shikha. The nearest water tap is a three-hour walk. Vaccinations are seldom accessible. Outside the slums are enormous brickfields where millions of children make and stack clay bricks instead of going to school.
Used to years of government inaction, most community members have become apathetic. But because of one man, many children are trying for better. Amlan Ganguly, a lawyer who has dedicated himself to empowering and educating children, is a charismatic presence in the slum. His organization is called "Prayasam," meaning "their own endeavors."
Prayasam is a multifaceted program, with Ganguly at the center: He teaches children English, instructs them in job skills, leads a dance-theater class, starts a school within a brickfield and helps the children turn a garbage dump into a soccer field. He takes tough love to the next level, asking the children hard questions. The girls are challenged to want more than to have a family at a young age; all of them are encouraged to counter their community's ever-sinking "aspiration level."
"What's really interesting about (Ganguly's) work is that he's not trying to rescue any of the kids," Grainger-Monsen said in an interview. "He's trying to really get them to become change agents and take ownership for the slum where they live and change it."
Prayasam is a multi-faceted organization, Grainger-Monsen said. "That is how I think real change happens. You can't just do one thing. ... And then the other part of that, which is also that he's really in it for the long haul."
She recalls a scene in the film where young Priyanka, whom the viewer meets as the 16-year-old leader of Prayasam's dance troupe, is no longer involved in the program. To evade abusive parents and their inevitable decision to marry her off, she has married her boyfriend, leaving her education and Prayasam behind. In the scene, Ganguly runs into Priyanka at the dance troupe's final performance. She watches with clear longing and sadness, singing the words to the song they dance to under her breath.
"And then his response to that is that he'll be there for her children," Grainger-Monsen said. "That's what it takes, though, to really make change. It's hard to do. ... The goal has to be to be willing to be there for the long term and watch change be incremental."
Grainger-Monsen and Newnham themselves became a part of the effort, launching a digital project called Map Your World, inspired by Shikha's desire to literally put the Rishi Aurobindo slum on the map.
The project, still in a beta-testing phase, allows youth anywhere to use cell phones to collect data on any topic (How many people live in one house? Where is the nearest water tap? Where is the closest market with fresh fruit and vegetables?) and then upload all that information, along with photos, to an online map.
Since then, the individual has gone universal, with groups of kids in the Philippines, Philadelphia, Oakland and Seattle getting on board with their own mapping projects.
"The film makes kids here feel a little ashamed sometimes — (they see) what these kids can do with so few resources and then what are they doing with more?" Newnham said. "And in other cases, there's really strong identification and parallels with communities that may be here but share similar problems: social disenfranchisement, poor education, lack of government action. It's nice to have the film be able to be universal enough that people can relate it to their own situation."
"Revolutionary Optimists" will have two screenings: Tuesday, Oct. 22, at 4:10 p.m. in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford; and Wednesday, Oct. 23, at 4:30 p.m. at Eastside College Prepatory School in East Palo Alto.
Another UNAFF film, "Submit the Documentary: The Virtual Reality of Cyberbullying," brings the need for change-makers closer to home.
The documentary, directed by Les Ottolenghi, is an expose on the world of cyberbullying. Interviewees include middle and high school students, school administrators, parents of children who have committed suicide after being cyberbullied, psychology professors, law enforcement, lawyers, Congress members and the director of engineering at Facebook.
"If what was going on online was happening in the real world, there would be people marching," Mary Kay Hoal, founder and president of Yoursphere, a youth social-media platform, says in the film. "There would be real change."
But there hasn't been yet, and the film tries to explain how and why. Students express how common cyberbullying is, how easy it is to hide behind an anonymous computer or cell-phone screen to bully others, how ineffective they feel their schools' efforts to help are and how little their parents understand the cultural changes that come with technology. Parents who have lost their children because of cyberbullying tell their stories. Experts discuss the lack of accountability in cyberbullying and the devastating effect of the bystander who sees all but does nothing.
As the film progresses, the question emerges: Where's the solution?
The answer seems to fall directly in line with the UNAFF theme: Look beyond the usual efforts — enacting new legislation to deter kids, telling parents to monitor their kids' internet activity, trying to prosecute cyberbullies — to the simple. Choose to speak out.
"Outnumber the bullies," one young man suggests to a crowd of his peers in the film.
"Submit the Documentary" will be screened at Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton on Oct. 21 at 4 p.m. with a panel discussion following.
Other films of local interest include "World Peace is a Local Issue," the documentation of a 1983 Palo Alto City Council decision to endorse a nuclear-weapons freeze, by longtime Menlo Park filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman; "Tesla: Master of Lighting," which tells a comprehensive story about the life and work of Nikola Telsa, drawing on the 20th-century inventor's writing; "Extreme By Design," which follows a group of Stanford design students on a trip to Indonesia, where they apply various design approaches to issues such as water storage.
The United Nations International Film Festival runs Oct. 17-27, with screenings on the Peninsula and in San Francisco. Tickets are $10 per film session (free for seniors and students). Free admission to the three films in Session 1 ("Eleanor Roosevelt: Close to Home," "Timbaktu" and "Alias Ruby Blade: A Story of Love and Revolution") on opening night. Free admission to UNAFF & Kids program on Oct. 18. Free admission to all panels. The full festival schedule is at unaff.org/2013/films.html.
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