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Global Issues, Modest Crowds: UNAFF Looks to Grow Its Bay Area Audience

By Rene Lego

The 11th annual United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF) returned to the San Francisco Bay Area last month. I had the opportunity to watch the October 22nd lineup, which included Salim Baba (Tim Sternberg, dir.; Francisco Bello, prod.), Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney,; Eva Orner, prod.), Hammoudi (Anwar Saab, dir.; Tima Khalil, prod.) and Scarred Lands and Wounded Lives-The Environmental Footprints of War (Alice and Lincoln Day, dirs./prods.). This was my first time at this festival. I was struck by the hometown, grassroots feel, complete with free cookies and coffee and a moderate crowd ranging from college students to concerned citizens. The evening suffered a bit from technical difficulties with the video projector and sound. I was disappointed to see that the seats were not filled with busloads of local high school and college students; the fest suffers greatly from a lack of PR to the general public. An audience that is interested in UN and global issues will always attend. But how do you attract an audience that is unaware of these films and the issues they bring to the forefront? How can this fest and others like it attract a larger, more diverse audience? Many high school students would have benefited from seeing films in this festival.

In reading the welcome note from the founder and executive director, Jasmina Bojic, it does seem they are aware of the limited audience, and have taken steps to bring the festival to a more general public. For example, festival organizers programmed in venues away from the UNAFF home base on the Stanford University campus-in surrounding towns, and even in San Francisco, where UNAFF co-presented several films in conjunction with the San Francisco International Film Festival and the San Francisco Documentary Festival. A new addition this year was the inclusion of several panel discussions open to the public. Although I did not attend any of the panels, it's nice to see that Bojic and her team are thinking about and providing an outlet for thoughts and concerns instigated by the films. It is interesting and impressive that the Honorary Committee for the nonprofit festival included such well-known individuals as Ted Turner, Alec Baldwin, Peter Coyote, Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon.

My favorite film was the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. This timely film was brilliantly edited and it captivated the entire audience. The film elicited disgust and anger at the killing and torture of prisoners during our current "war on terror" and the overt violations of the Geneva Convention. This is a film that every American should see, and should be talking about. It makes me wonder how much torture is still going on behind the scenes. I've been telling all my friends and co-workers about both the issues and the movie itself. I knew a lot of separate facts about the torture policy, but the movie really pieced it together.

Scarred Lands and Wounded Lives - The Environmental Footprints of War unfortunately lost my interest in the first 10 minutes. The topic was very important and interesting but was hampered by the editing and the voiceover. The film was trying to cover so many topics and the production value was a bit uneven. It must have had about 15 separate segments about an aspect of how war and/or preparations for war are detrimental to the environment. I got increasingly lost and fatigued as the movie progressed, and never felt it was really tied together well. By the end, its impact was greatly lessened and the call-to-action ending seemed simplistic.

Rene Lego heads Sugar Pill Productions, along with Michelle Pollino and Peggy Ellithorpe. Sugar Pill Productions is an independent documentary film production company based in Philadelphia and San Francisco and is currently in production on a feature-length documentary film entitled Control Group.