The United Nations Association Film Festival proffers powerful humanitarian portraits.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Twenty-four-hour news, Twitter and YouTube have made information instantaneous and ubiquitous, allowing users to connect across cultures, languages and continents. Unfortunately, quantity hasn’t translated to quality – the flood of information often drowns meaningful messages in a sea of homemade music videos, talking heads and status updates about the moistness of this morning’s bran muffin. In short, the so called “connections” we’re making aren’t channeling much consequence.
Enter the Monterey Bay Chapter of the United Nations Association, an antidote to unecessary information overload. UNA members have sifted through dozens of films for their 10th annual International Film Festival Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 5-8, and the result is a mosaic of individual stories – like that of Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, who in 1971 became the first East African woman to earn a Ph.D. and in 2004 the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize – that plug audiences into actual accounts of serious significance.
Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, showing Friday night, reveals how Maathai launched the Greenbelt Movement, fighting the oppressive Kenyan government for the simple right to plant trees. Sunday night’s Freeheld focuses an investigative lens on gay rights, chronicling the story of Detective Lieutenant Laurel Hester, an Ocean County, N.J., policewoman whose cancer diagnosis led her to spend her remaining days fighting against the county she served for 25 years so her pension would go to her female partner after she died.
Each of the festival’s four evenings features three films – one feature-length documentary, one mid-length and one short. At $5 per evening (free for any student with ID) it’s easy to see why the festival has grown to accommodate an audience of 2,300.
“Attending just one session of these takes you around the world and really lets you see a range of issues,” says Paulina Nguyen, who spent the summer helping screen films and plan the festival.
Friday night’s ARUSI Persian Wedding, by Iranian-American director Marjan Tehrani, follows her brother as he takes his American fiancé to Iran after more than 20 years away for a traditional Persian wedding. The story unfolds through the couple’s eyes as they prepare for the elaborate wedding, struggling with their families’ clashing political views and exploring the country’s lush landscapes, traditional villages and historic cities.
Although the festival’s topics – like the fight against polio in Third World countries – are large in scale, films like The Final Inch relay them in intimate detail, following vaccinators to India, where they often encounter hostility.
Burma VJ, which won an award for editing at the Sundance film festival, is the premiere feature-length film of the weekend. Filmed undercover by a group of journalists in Rangoon during the 2007 Burmese monk-led protests against the Burmese ruling junta, the footage had to be smuggled to Thailand and eventually Norway for editing. Festival organizer Larry Levine says the film stands apart from the rest for its unique perspective. “The film has two themes at once,” he says. “One is what’s going on in Burma – people are protesting against a very closed government – and the other theme is the potential for this technology and how it’s very hard for the government to shut them down. It shows that you can close down the press but you can’t close down the people.”
Technical excellence is important, says Levine, but content is king: “Even though we’ve got some good quality films, what we look at is the level to which the films engage the audience.”
That content, in turn, transcends politics. “Maybe people are concerned that the festival is too political,” Nguyen says, “but it’s about humanitarian issues,”
Thursday night’s 60-minute film, Cartoneros, the festival’s only Latin rep in this year’s mostly Asian and African lineup, follows the movement of middle class workers who lost jobs during Argentina’s 2001 financial collapse. Now they take trains to the center of Buenos Aires to scavenge trash and recycle it for money. The business, a first for the country, has developed into an increasingly formalized institution and even receives subsidies for childcare. Unlike the U.S., the industry is valued more as a moneymaker than an enviro-effort.
Saturday night’s Afghan Star (which is up for an Oscar in the U.K.) describes how Afghanistan’s hit pop idol TV series challenged cultural paradigms. Levine says the film captured the spirit of a country where a third of the population watched the show’s final episode and music continues to be a controversial topic in the patriarchal tribal society (and is outright banned by the Taliban).
The documentary follows finalists as they compete and endure death threats, with one controversial finalist letting her headscarf slip, causing outrage across the country. “It shows a division,” Levine says. “On one level it’s about competition and entertainment and on another it’s about the society’s different conflicts.”
The rest of the films examine a head-spinning variety of topics like a women’s papad water-making cooperative of 42,000 and Bhutan’s use of a new index called gross national happiness to drive domestic policy.
For a society that can’t find its direction on the information highway, it’s films like these that remind audiences to slow down and pay attention to messages that mean something.
THE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL kicks off 7pm Thursday at Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey, continuing 7pm Friday and Saturday. Sunday’s session starts at 2:30pm. $5/person; free/with student ID. 372-3800, www.unamontereybay.org