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UNAFF Teaches Tolerance

By Chuleenan Svetvilas

From Allison Berg's Witches in Exile, which screened at the 2004 United Nations Association Film Festival. Courtesy of Allison Berg

"In every great faith and tradition one can find the values of tolerance and mutual understanding."

--Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations

from his 2001 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech


"The Values of Tolerance" was the theme for the 2004 United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF), which took place in Palo Alto, California, October 20-24. According to the festival's founder and executive director, Jasmina Bojic, the theme was inspired by Kofi Annan's eloquent acceptance speech.

UNAFF "shares the values of United Nations," says Bojic, but she is quick to emphasize that the festival is not affiliated with the United Nations, nor does the festival receive any UN funding. In fact, Bojic says that the festival receives 85 percent of its budget from in-kind donations. The festival is co-presented by the Stanford Film Society and the United Nations Association-USA, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supporting the UN's work. Bojic says that her main focus is to show international documentaries about human rights and other UN issues. "I also wanted to create a festival that brings together students and the community in a university setting," says Bojic, who is also a filmmaker, film critic and teacher.

Over a four-day period, the 2004 festival screened 27 documentaries covering a wide range of subject matter, including human trafficking, women's rights, peace and environmental issues. "The selection committee is composed of students, professors, community members, myself and filmmakers whose work screened previously in UNAFF," says Bojic. "The process is very democratic and everyone on the committee sees at least half of the films submitted." Bojic programs the selected films, which vary in length from a few minutes to more than 90 minutes.

For this year's festival, she put together 12 sessions with two or three films in each time slot, creating some intriguing pairings, such as Dorothy Fadiman's When Abortion Was Illegal: Untold Stories with Allison Berg's Witches in Exile. Fadiman's 1992 documentary features interviews with American women who had abortions before Roe v. Wade, when shame, secrecy and danger surrounded the outlawed procedure. She also interviews people who helped women get an abortion, performed abortions or knew women who had had an abortion during that time. The film remains timely and serves as a grim reminder of what women may soon face under the Bush Administration.

Witches in Exile, produced in 2004, focuses on women in Ghana who are accused of being witches and forced to live a primitive existence in Kukuo Witches Camp. Anyone can claim a woman is a witch for any number of reasons--success, independent behavior, a mysterious death...or simply because it is convenient to be rid of her. Longstanding superstitions refuse to go away even as the government tries to change this attitude.

Jerry Henry's I Promise Africa screened with Japanese director Hiroshi Shinomiya's feature-length God's Children. Henry's short documentary (less than three minutes) alternates between compelling footage of African children as they gaze curiously at his camera and text describing his experience at the moment. The soundtrack is of the children singing. Gradually, the text reveals the promise he made to the children and the heartbreaking reason he fears he will be unable to fulfill it.

God's Children is about the inhabitants of Smoky Mountain, an enormous garbage dump in Quezon City in the Philippines. Incredibly, more than 3,000 families live in the dump and make their living by scavenging through piles of refuse and selling their finds to buy food and necessities. Each time a truck dumps a new load of garbage, entire families immediately pick through the leavings. Through unobtrusive interviews and vérité footage shot over a four-month period, Shinomiya slowly tells the stories of three families who struggle valiantly to make a living after the government shuts down garbage deliveries when a large section of the dump collapses, tragically killing many people.

In another program, a trio of films screened together: Judy Jackson's Talk Mogadishu: Media Under Fire, about three courageous Somali-Canadians who return to Somalia to create an independent television and radio station in a city controlled by warlords; Dawn Westlake's short A Life after Death, the filmmaker's visual counterpart to a poem about the irony of wars fought to create peace; and Ebtisam Maraiana's Paradise Lost, in which the director attempts to examine the history of Paradise, her hometown, an Arab community in Israel surrounded by Jewish settlements. She also tries to discover what happened to a woman she idolized as a young girl.

Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson's Deadline, about (now former) Illinois Governor George Ryan's unprecedented decision to suspend the sentences of all death-row inmates, was paired with Leslie Neale's Juvies, about young women and men in Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall facing very severe sentences after being tried as adults. Farming the Seas, Steve Cowan's look at fish- and shrimp-farming practices and their effect on the oceans, society and health, screened with Thirst, Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow's global look at three communities facing the privatization of water.

The festival also presented the roundtable Documentaries--From Production to Distribution, with panelists from Bullfrog Distribution, Film Arts Foundation, IDA and ITVS. The roundtable was followed by Jan Krawitz's Big Enough, a sensitive film about dwarves and the challenges they face living in an "average-sized" world, including some dwarves featured in her 1982 documentary Little People.

This year 16 filmmakers attended the festival. All the filmmakers interviewed for this article stated that the festival treated them very well and with great respect--nice hotel accommodations and volunteers ready to drive them to wherever they needed to go. Besides the hospitality, the filmmakers remarked that the audiences were diverse--students, faculty, community members--and asked intelligent questions. "Some people were even familiar with the issue, which surprised me because that hadn't happened in any other screenings," says Allison Berg, director of Witches in Exile. "After the Q&A, an Indian man told me that the same practice occurs in India."

The festival also received a small grant from the LEF Foundation to cover the costs of 60 festival passes for East Palo Alto High School students, who are primarily Central Americans.

Westlake reports, "The audience really responded to A Life after Death, which is part of my peace trilogy. I sold DVDs of the trilogy at the festival." Krawitz, who also teaches a course in Stanford's documentary program, says that she sees a lot of films at UNAFF that she can't see elsewhere.

Following the festival, the UNAFF Traveling Film Festival begins. UNAFF works with the United Nations Association, which has 176 chapters throughout the country, and universities so the films can continue to have a life after the initial festival. "The universities or UNA chapters can select any of the films they want," says Bojic, "and they can program them in any way." As of this writing, the traveling festival has screened at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, San Diego State University and New York Film Academy, which screened a program of five films on International Human Rights Day. "There are screenings every month," says Bojic. The only drawback is that in the name of accessibility, the traveling films are only screened in VHS or DVD.


Chuleenan Svetvilas is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.