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Arts & Entertainment - October 5, 2012

Human-interest stories

Seventy documentary films, including world premieres, to be screened at 15th United Nations festival

by Rebecca Wallace

In a film still from a documentary about his life, Gene Robinson stands in his elegant bishop's vestments, a pointed miter atop his head, as he holds the tall ceremonial staff known as the crozier. He's the picture of this year's theme for the United Nations Association Film Festival: "Human Dignity."

Dignity, Robinson's story shows, is often something you have to stand up and fight for. In 2003, when Robinson was ordained as the first openly gay Anglican bishop, he had to wear a bullet-proof vest underneath those elegant vestments because he had received so many death threats. The threats and opposition have continued even as Robinson has worked in his New Hampshire diocese and beyond for marriage equality and equal rights in the church, and in society.

"I appreciate the Church of England from which so many churches around the globe were birthed. But I long for it to express its full and unequivocal acceptance of women, and to find its way toward embracing and celebrating the gay men, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people within and beyond its congregations," Robinson recently wrote in a blog on the Huffington Post.

In 2010, Robinson announced that he would retire early because of the threats, controversy and continuing strain on him and his husband, Mark Andrew, stepping down in January 2013. But many say it's likely he'll remain in the public eye as a symbol and speaker in the gay-rights movement. He gave the invocation at President Obama's opening inaugural ceremonies in 2009, and his story was told in the 2007 documentary "For the Bible Tells Me So."

Now a new documentary about Robinson, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, is coming to Palo Alto this month as part of the United Nations Association Film Festival. Directed by Macky Alston, "Love Free or Die" will be shown at 4 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Aquarius Theatre at 430 Emerson St. It depicts Robinson's story and his calls for equality against a background of change in the church.

As the film's synopsis puts it, this is a time when "American churches debate whether or not lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are equal to heterosexuals in the eyes of God, while our nation debates whether LGBT people are equal to heterosexuals in the eyes of the law."

Debates will no doubt continue in the wake of Robinson's book "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage," which was released in September.

Now in its 15th year, the Stanford University-based film festival runs Oct. 18 through Oct. 28, with 70 screenings at Stanford and in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, San Francisco and San Jose. The all-documentary lineup focuses on films that deal with timely global issues such as interracial marriage, philanthropy, human trafficking, Internet crime and freedom, and scarce natural resources. Stanford lecturer Jasmina Bojic founded the festival in 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Besides offering screenings, the festival also puts on free panel discussions on such topics as filmmaking and philanthropy, and arts activism. Many filmmakers are scheduled to be in attendance, with one Oct. 23 panel consisting of the Stanford filmmakers in the festival. All screenings are free for students and seniors.

The festival starts at the Aquarius Theatre on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 18, with live music by world-music percussionist James Henry and opening remarks at 6:45 p.m. by Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh. A screening of the short film "Mexican Cuisine" follows at 7 p.m., with the feature "The Well: Water Voices from Ethiopia" at 7:15. Directed by anthropologist and filmmaker Paolo Barberi, the Italian/Ethiopian film looks at survival during the dry season in southern Ethiopia, thanks to an unusual water-management system.

At 8:30, the Polish/Russian/American feature "The Red Button" will be shown. It centers on Stanislav Petrov, a Russian officer who is billed as having saved the world from atomic war in 1983. Petrov opted not to sound the alarm when a false alert came in about incoming American missiles, and the film goes on to analyze the repercussions of his choice. Ewa Pieta and Miroslaw Grubek directed the 52-minute film.

Screenings continue at the Aquarius through Oct. 21, then move to the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and other locations.

On Oct. 23, several screenings will also be free for teachers at the Girls' Middle School at 3400 W. Bayshore Road in Palo Alto and at Eastside College Preparatory at 1041 Myrtle St. in East Palo Alto. Films include the feature "Buffalo Girls," about two Thai girls trying to win the country's Muay Thai championship, to be shown at 1:45 p.m. at the middle school; and "The Lord is Not On Trial Here Today," a feature about a 1940s church-and-state battle in public schools, screening at 4:10 p.m. at Eastside.

Several of the films in the festival are world premieres, including "State of Control," a 90-minute documentary about the Tibet-China conflict and Internet freedom in Tibet. The film is directed by Christian Johnston and Darren Mann, who went undercover in Tibet to profile five activists. It will be shown at the closing session on Oct. 28 at Stanford's Annenberg Auditorium, at 3:45 p.m.

What: The 15th annual United Nations Association Film Festival, with screenings of documentaries from various countries, along with free panel discussions

Where and when: Events are at Stanford University and in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, San Francisco and San Jose, Oct. 18-28.

Cost: Most film sessions (one-and-a-half to three hours) cost $10 for general admission. Daily passes are $25 on weekdays and $35 on weekends, general admission. Panels are free, and some screenings are free for teachers (all screenings are free for students and seniors).

Info: For a complete schedule and ticketing information, go to or call 650-724-5544.