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The World on Screen: UNAFF Turns Ten

By Cathleen Rountree

At Stanford University this past October, the United Nations Association Film Festival ( celebrated its 10th year with the theme "Camera as Witness." UNAFF's 32 documentary shorts and feature films were divided into numerous categories: human rights, environmental survival, women's issues, the protection of refugees, homelessness, racism, disease control, universal education and war and peace. The festival's goal is to "humanize global and local problems," and as such, it hosted academics and international filmmakers to discuss the various films' topics with members of the audience.

The countries represented included Afghanistan, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, Cuba, France, Haiti, Kenya, Kosovo, Iceland, India, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Iran, Israel, Italy, Lesotho, Macedonia, Mongolia, Nigeria, Norway, Palestine, Peru, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Spain, Sudan, Uganda, the UK, Ukraine, the US, Vietnam and Zambia.

Several of the 32 films, such as The Devil Came on Horseback, Orange Revolution, War/Dance, Hot House, Gypsy Caravan and The Fighting Cholitas have had long and successful exposure on the festival circuit, and may already be available on DVD. However, they deserve to be seen on large screens and with a simpatico audience.

Similar to the Global Lens Festival, UNAFF established a Traveling Film Festival, which takes place throughout the year in northern California, San Diego, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Honolulu, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, DC, New York, Harvard University and Yale University. The festival travels to Berkeley and La Crosse, Wisconsin in February, and in March to the University of Wisconsin, Waukesha; Vermont; and Davis, California.

Some of the highlights of this year's festival include:

Abstaining from Reality (Kenya/Uganda), directed by Daniele Anastasion, a short documentary, which provides a snapshot of the Bush administration's abstinence-only approach to HIV prevention as part of its global HIV/AIDS assistance. The film examines how these ideologically-driven programs are actually endangering the lives of the people they're supposed to be protecting. This policy is disconnected from the reality of the lives of women and young people, who are disproportionately affected by the epidemic.

Bam 6.6: Humanity Has No Borders (Iran/USA), directed by Jahangir Golestan-Parast, about the 2003 earthquake measuring 6.6 magnitude that struck the city of Bam, Iran, killing over 50,000 people, injuring over 20,000 residents, and leaving more than 60,000 citizens homeless. The earthquake destroyed much of the beautiful ancient city, known for its old quarter, and decimated its 2,000-year-old citadel. Bam 6.6 follows the experiences of Adele Freedman, a Jewish-American woman who was vacationing in Bam with her fiancé, Tobb Dell'Oro, who died in the tragedy. The film interweaves Freedman's experiences with the experiences of Iranian survivors, who provide a painful reality of the earthquake's devastating toll on their community. Freedman and her family quickly discover that falling bricks and collapsing walls do not distinguish among Jew, Christian or Muslim, or between American and Iranian.

The Battle of Chernobyl (France/Russia/Ukraine), directed by Thomas Johnson, dramatically chronicles the most serious nuclear accident in history and the series of harrowing efforts to stop the nuclear chain reaction and prevent a second explosion, "liquidate" the radioactivity, and seal off the ruined reactor under a mammoth "sarcophagus." The consequences of this catastrophe continue today, with thousands of disabled survivors suffering from the "Chernobyl syndrome" of radiation-related illnesses, and the urgent need to replace the hastily constructed and now crumbling sarcophagus over the still-contaminated reactor. Based on top-secret government documents that came to light only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1999, the film reveals a systematic cover-up of the true scope of the disaster, including the possibility of a secondary explosion of the still-smoldering magma, whose radioactive clouds would have rendered Europe uninhabitable.

A Minority Report (Italy), directed by Stefano Glantin, is the result of more than two years of research and shooting in the UN-administered province of Kosovo. The film analyzes the human rights situation of Kosovo minorities after eight years of international administration through interviews with IDPs (internally displaced persons), refugees and returnees as well as with the international civil servants that have ruled the province for the last seven years. Those who returned have found their properties destroyed or occupied. They live in ghettos dispersed throughout Kosovo, often without access to basic services. Threats, harassments and isolation are part of the daily life of returnees.

On a Tightrope (China/Norway), directed by Petr Lom, visits an orphanage in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, where children study tightrope walking. The children are Uighurs, the largest Muslim minority in China. Fearing the Uyghurs' separatist movement, China rules with an iron fist in Xinjiang. Youngsters are forbidden to profess their religion, and the regime jumps at every opportunity to glorify the unity of China. Walking the tightrope is an age-old Uyghur tradition, and their feats are spectacular. The film follows four children in the orphanage in their struggle to build a better life for themselves.

Soldiers of Conscience (Iraq/USA), co-directed by Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan, is a powerful documentary narrated by Peter Coyote, that looks at what it takes to enable soldiers to kill, and what it takes for some soldiers to refuse to kill. From West Point grads to drill sergeants, from Abu Ghraib interrogators to low-ranking reservist-mechanics, soldiers in the US Army today reveal their deepest moral concerns about what they are asked to do in war. Their message: every soldier wrestles with his conscience over killing.

Toxic Bust: Chemicals and Breast Cancer (USA), directed by Megan Siler, examines why growing numbers of American women develop breast cancer each year and why we still do not know why, or how best to prevent it. Most breast cancer funding and research has gone toward treatment, and finding the elusive cure. Far less emphasis has been given to prevention and discovering the causes of breast cancer. Toxic Bust uncovers the growing evidence that links breast cancer to chemical exposure. The film follows a 40-something woman who finds a lump in her breast, but like the majority of women with breast cancer, she has none of the "established" risk factors. As she questions what may have caused her cancer, the film focuses on three cancer "hotspots" (Cape Cod, the San Francisco Bay Area and high-tech manufacturing workers) to more fully explore the connection between breast cancer and chemical exposure in the home, community and workplace.

Cathleen Rountree is a film journalist and author of nine books, including The Movie Lovers' Club, about the process of creating community through finding meaning in movies. She covers film festivals and writes extensively about films and directors for print and online publications.