What hasn't changed is the festival's mission, which focuses on human rights issues — and the fact that many of those issues remain as timely and urgent as when the festival was founded.
"There a lot of film festivals now, and they're screening a lot of films, but it's focusing on a particular group. And our film festival was always really for bringing these topics and themes to bring us together and try to create a space for people to talk about the issues these images and that's the core purpose," said UNAFF Founder and Executive Director Jasmina Bojic.
The 25th anniversary UNAFF, which has the theme "Reflections," takes place in person through Oct. 30 at venues in Palo Alto, Stanford University, East Palo Alto. This year's festival will screen 60 films from around the world and include six panel discussions. Among the films will be four world premieres and a dozen U.S. premieres.
Though UNAFF is not affiliated with the United Nations, it was directly inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Bojic, a Stanford University educator, is also the director of Stanford Arts' Camera as Witness program, which uses documentary film as a tool to help illuminate important topics, in particular, human rights.
"For us. it's not just a presentation of the film, you come and see the film and then you're gone. We now have more than 10,000 documentaries in our archives," Bojic said.
She points to the importance of these films in helping students understand historical events. Recently, she screened "Panama Deception," one of the films that UNAFF showed in its first year, to help teach students about the United States' 1989 invasion of Panama. UNAFF also sometimes revisits films from past editions of the festival with special events during the year, such as Moving Forward with Music, a month-long series offered this past summer that highlighted films that looked at human rights issues through a musical lens.
Festival screenings are grouped into sessions of two to three films each, with several sessions offered each day. Some of the topics explored by the films are fairly recent, such as COVID-19, while many more look at longstanding issues, including social justice, reproductive rights and the environment. There's even a free special session with a lineup of short films geared for families, "UNAFF and Kids Program," on Oct. 22.
The six panel discussions follow sessions that highlight specific topics, which include the pandemic, youth and climate justice, housing and mental health. The panels include filmmakers as well as experts on the topic.
A panel with perhaps particular local resonance is "Homes and Inequality," takes on housing issues and explores, as Bojic said, "home as a human right." The discussion, held on Oct. 23, follows two films, "This Adventure Called California" by filmmaker Jennifer Huang, which tells of a man who immigrated to the Bay Area who struggles with labor exploitation and homelessness, and "A Decent Home," Sara Terry's documentary looking at the unique challenges faced by mobile home residents, who are often left out of legal protections that residents of other types of dwellings may have.
Screenings of two films that look at COVID-19 from a personal perspective and wide-ranging view precede "COVID, Past, Present and Future," a panel held at Stanford Medical School on Oct. 25. With "Unconfined," filmmaker Victor Pineda, who must use a breathing machine at all times, captures his personal experiences as he's confined to his room during part of the pandemic, while Michael Welch's "COVID Century" raises questions about the relationship between public health leadership and the pandemic and how a similar event in the future might be handled.
A pair of screenings on the final night of the festival, Oct. 30, explore the ongoing fight for women's rights, with "Kicking Balls," Vijayeta Kumar's documentary about a nonprofit in Rajasthan that aims to challenge the practice of child marriage by teaching teenage girls to play soccer, and Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin's "The Janes," about a group of women in Chicago, pre-Roe v. Wade, who helped people get abortions.
The films lead into the festival's annual ceremony presenting its Visionary Award, this year to Oscar-nominated filmmaker and human rights activist Dorothy Fadiman, whose film "When Abortion Was Illegal: Untold Stories," screened in 2004 at UNAFF.
"She created this documentary in 2004 and now it's part of "The Janes," a new documentary about abortion issues. She reflects (UNAFF's) work and how important documentaries are," Bojic said.
Read a longer version of this story at paloaltoonline.com/arts.
UNAFF takes place through Oct. 30 at venues in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford and San Francisco. For more information, visit unaff.org.
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