R-E-S-P-E-C-T. With apologies to Aretha Franklin, you can find out what it means to you at this year's United Nations Association Film Festival. This year's theme of "Respect" encompasses the festival's ongoing mission, to celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by showcasing global documentary films that feature diversity, compassion and justice. 2017 also qualifies as a year of self-respect for UNAFF, which celebrates its 20th year of programming over its 11-day span (Oct. 19-29) at local venues, among them the Aquarius Theatre, Mitchell Park Community Center, Midpeninsula Community Media Center, Eastside College Preparatory and Stanford University.
This year's fest encompasses 60 films, including seven world premieres and 17 U.S. premieres. Looking at a cross-section of the festival's offerings, one can find a feature film from Colombia about the stories of women living in the Andes, a short film from Greece about a heroic response to the refugee crisis and a panel discussion about nuclear power. As founder and executive director Jasmina Bojic noted, "topics covered by the films include climate change, gender testing in female athletes, social roots enabling the Holocaust, human consequences of US immigration policies ... African immigrants in China, children and gun violence, refugees using the power of photography, homelessness, rape in society and as a weapon of war, the last Jews in Baghdad, acid attack victims, the prison population in America ... (and) honor killings of women in Arab and Palestinian society."
As always, UNAFF's global stew retains a discernable local flavor, with some filmmakers and subjects hailing from the Bay Area. The Midpen Media Center's Zoom-In Collaborative gets credited on Mary Skinner's "Cuba Cubano Canibano" (28 min.), which profiles Cuban photographer Raul Canibano and documents for posterity his visit to Los Altos. As the film explains, "Foothill College photography professor Ron Herman curated Canibano's first solo exhibit in the western United States." Indeed, we see that exhibit and Canibano giving a presentation, as well as Canibano's surreal black-and-white photos, primarily of rural Cuba and its inhabitants. As explained by Herman and other awestruck local photographers, Canibano's photos are exemplars of composition and capturing the moment. Canibano also sits for Skinner's camera to provide good-humored recollections and reflections.
Stanford professor Lauren Knapp helmed "The Sandman" (19 min.), a productively uneasy investigation into the work and motivations of Dr. Carlo Musso, an attending physician for Georgia's executions. As Knapp's film points out, 17 states require a physician to be present at lethal injections, which means that Musso enables the execution to take place. Of course, it's complicated, with Musso offering a series of rationalizations in spite of widespread resistance in the medical establishment and typical interpretations of the Hippocratic Oath. He makes a compelling argument that he would want someone like himself there were he or a family member being executed, and describes himself as practicing end-of-life compassion ("Instead of a carcinoma, that individual's dying of a court order"). Eschewing overt judgement, Knapp also presses Musso and his wife Teresa to explain themselves, and gently, if plainly, establishes the profit motive of Musso's company, which provides medical care to prisons.
Two more local-interest profiles get paired in a closing-day showcase. The first, Daniel Chavez Ontiveros' "El Cisne," or "The Swan" (22 min.), introduces us to Sthefany Galante Bautista, a Mexican-American transgender woman. We first see Bautista self-announcing "the best transvestite show in town," the town in question being downtown San Francisco. It's been six years since Sthefany has seen her parents, who remain uneasy with the reality that their only son has become one of their several daughters. Bautista frets about how her family will receive her appearance and the fact that she now lives as a woman, in makeup and hair and dress.
Ontiveros' unobtrusive observation leads to many a moving moment as his camera follows Bautista home and into sometimes awkward but ultimately heartening reunions with her mother, father and sisters.
A parent of Stanford athletes, filmmaker Diane Moy Quon found a fascinating subject right under her nose in 68-year-old Clifford Steven Hayashi, a familiar figure at Stanford sporting events. Quon's film "Cliff, Superfan!" (27 min.) spends most of its running time in conversation with the voluble Hayashi, who muses, "I think every person's life is a mystery to everyone else." He's right: Even as we learn much of how Hayashi spends his time, and his backstory as a laid-off Lockheed aerospace engineer with a B.S. and four master's degrees (two of them from Stanford, natch), the film raises some spoken and implicit questions about the eager eccentric that aren't entirely answered. UNAFF itself gets a surprise shoutout in the film, as Hayashi's retirement pursuits pile up. Hayashi estimates he's attended considerably upwards of 4,000 Stanford games (in a laundry list of sports), but he has another obsessive hobby to compete with that one: his own research into the horrible history of WWII Japanese-American concentration camp Tule Lake. Despite his off-kilter mien ("I can say I'm not very dumb," he says at one point), Hayashi's joie de vivre pervades Quon's film.
UNAFF's endlessly impressive programs include outreach efforts "UNAFF for Seniors," "UNAFF with Veterans" and "UNAFF Women's Salon," as well as "UNAFF and Kids" and "UNAFF in Schools." The UNAFF Traveling Film Festival has unspooled films around the country and at international destinations, and 30 UNAFF selections have been nominated for Oscars, with seven claiming the prize. As the fest closes out its second decade, there's no better time to explore its world of offerings.
Freelance Writer Peter Canavese can be emailed at email@example.com.
What: UNAFF 2017.
Where: Palo Alto, Stanford University, East Palo Alto and San Francisco.
When: Oct. 19-29.
Cost: Individual passes and tickets available; see website for prices.
Info: Go to UNAFF.