By Heather Zimmerman
The United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF) is returning to the big screen after playing exclusively on the smallest screens — computers, tablets and phones — for its 2020 edition.
The documentary film festival, which made a pandemic pivot to an all-virtual format last year, is back Oct. 21-31 in theaters for 11 days of screenings of 60 films at venues in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and the Stanford University campus. San Francisco’s Roxie Theater also hosts an evening of screenings.
The films vary in length from shorts to feature length, making it easy to take in a session of as many as three or four films in an afternoon or evening. Over 30 countries are represented in this year’s schedule of films, including Cuba, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
With 24 years under its belt, UNAFF is the oldest documentary film festival in the United States, said founder and Executive Director Jasmina Bojic, a Stanford University educator. Bojic is also the director of Stanford Arts’ Camera as Witness program, which uses documentary film as an educational tool to help illuminate a number of important topics, such as the environment and human rights — a role which has complemented her work with the festival.
”When I founded the festival, I was really wanting to have an opportunity for our community to be educated about human rights issues particularly,” Bojic said, noting that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 informed the festival’s mission, though the event is not affiliated with the United Nations.
UNAFF remains its own entity, and although it has weathered the most recent economic threat brought by the pandemic, like all nonprofits, it needs continuing support, Bojic said.
”We are an independent nonprofit organization, and we need support from our community in order to continue with it.”
She said her longtime dream is to create a Camera as Witness Institute — a facility that would be a home for documentary film and learning. Such an institute is a much longer term pursuit.
For the moment, with the return to in-person, indoor screenings, Bojic underscored the stringent public health rules that will be in place. All in attendance are required to wear masks and must have proof of vaccination or a negative test result from no longer than 48 hours prior.
”The first and the most important rule is safety,” she said.
But Bojic was effusive about once again presenting films to audiences in the theater. The festival aims to create a sense of community among filmmakers, speakers and audiences, she said, which is bolstered by the in-person experience.
”It’s not just being at a film festival, coming to see a film and then you’re out,” Bojic said, emphasizing the festival’s six free panel discussions that explore the larger issues covered by some of the featured documentaries, including criminal justice reform, crossing borders, youth action for climate, and censorship and the press. Panels will have filmmakers as well as local subject matter experts, such as government officials or members of the Peninsula media, depending on the topic.
”Moving Forward” is the theme of the 2021 festival — a concept that might sound like it’s happily heralding a return to theaters after the pandemic lockdown, but there’s more to the idea, according to Bojic, who said that the slate of 60 films and half-dozen panels offers an opportunity to delve into pressing political, economic and health issues of our day and explore how we can go forward together. And with the pairing of documentaries and discussions, festivalgoers can get a more informed picture of world and national events.
”The best way to move forward is having knowledge about a situation — what’s happening in the world. You get the idea of what’s happening in Afghanistan, what’s happening in China, what’s happening in the Middle East, or what’s happening in our country,” she said.
The United States’ two decades of war in Afghanistan are the subject of “Ghosts of Afghanistan,” one of a trio of films opening the festival on Oct. 21 at Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park Community Center, along with “Hunger Ward,” which examines the efforts of health care workers to battle starvation among children as war wears on in Yemen, and “Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power,” about Bay Area Rep. Barbara Lee, who cast the lone dissenting vote in Congress against authorizing the broad use of military force following the Sept. 11 attacks. The film chronicles Lee’s longtime work for human rights.
Some other festival highlights include, on Oct. 23, “Resurrection! Airto Moreira & the Preservation Hall Jazz Band,” by Bay Area filmmaker Dale Djerassi, which captures a meeting of musical legends: renowned Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira playing together with New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band on Mardi Gras morning.
Moreira’s daughter, jazz singer Diana Purim, and her husband, hip-hop artist Krishna Booker, will perform after the screening.
Also on Oct. 23, local filmmaker Ines Hofmann Kanna will be on hand for a screening of “United States vs. Reality Winner,” about National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner, who disclosed a document about Russian election interference to the media.
In celebration of United Nations Day on Oct. 24, the festival hosts a screening for young audiences of the film “Zero Gravity,” which follows San Jose middle school students as they compete in a nationwide tournament to code satellites aboard the International Space Station.
The power of young people coming together is also highlighted in a screening of “Youth V. Gov,” about 21 youth climate activists ages 8 to 19 who filed suit against the United States government for violating their constitutional rights in creating and failing to mitigate the climate crisis.
The screening takes place just a week ahead of the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Bojic noted. The film will be followed by a panel discussion with youth climate activists, presented in partnership with Anamatangi Polynesian Voices, a nonprofit focusing on environmental justice for the underrepresented Pacific Islander community. The film and panel will be presented Oct. 27 at Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto.
The festival’s closing night, which takes place Oct. 31 in Palo Alto, includes screenings of “In Case of Emergency,” which looks at the key role of emergency rooms and nurses in U.S. health care, and “To the Street (A la Calle),” a look at political activists in Venezuela. The final film to be screened will be “Solutions,” which chronicles a 10-day retreat by some of the world’s leading scientists and experts in fields ranging from the environment to technology, democracy to social media, who come together to discuss how to secure humanity’s future. Danish director Pernille Rose Grønkjær will be on hand for a Q&A about the film.
For more information and a full schedule of screenings, visit unaff.org.