13th Annual UNAFF Film Fest
by Richard von Busack
“Population, Migration, Globalization” are the three themes of the 13th Annual United Nations Association Film Festival, which brings a matchless selection of documentaries to the South Bay and beyond. Highlights here; below are just some of the features at the 11 day long festival. The full schedule is available at http://www.unaff.org/2010/schedule.html
$100 A Day
Lisa Hopewell had some trouble with drugs back east; she tried taking the geographical cure by moving back to Cupertino. There, she was murdered in her condo on Jan 10, 1991 by a drug dealer. In court, the dealer fingered Rick Walker, an East Palo Alto mechanic. Walker was convicted on the testimony, as well as some circumstantial evidence. Due to the work of lawyer Alison Tucher, Walker was sprung from 12 hard years at San Quentin, Pelican Bay and other prisons…but his career as an item of controversy had only begun. Democratic state Assemblyman Joe Simitian, now a California state senator, did his best to get Walker the legal compensation the unfairly imprisoned man was owed—$100 a day. But the gridlocked assembly of 2003, insurmountably broken over party lines, refused to pay up even that amount…Santa Cruz filmmakers Gwen R. Essegian and Mark Ligon take something we’d think of as the absolute quintessence of boredom—the state assembly—and make it exciting by highlighting its workings against a personal quest for justice. Interviewees include Walker, who recalls seeing one DA paying another a nickel in accordance to a bet they had going on whether Walker was going to be convicted. Former speaker of the Assembly Herb Wesson here recalls telling Simitian the Walker case was “a dead stick”. Jerry Uelmen of SCU Law School briefly explains how the injustice was done; and former Santa Clara County DA George Kennedy calls the Walker case “one of the worst things that ever happened” under his watch. $100 a Day is a sharp and strangely touching lesson in how justice is done. (Disclosure: in the early 2000s, my TV show CinemaScene was produced at AT&T Broadband in Scotts Valley, where Essegian and Ligon worked.) (Oct 31 at noon at Stanford’s Cubberly Auditorium, School of Education Building, 485 Lasuen Mall.)
Children of Gaza
“I’d rather be martyred than live like this,” says one of the children who survived the 3 week long siege and occupation by Israel that left 13,000 dead. Director Jezza Neumann, who has previously gone undercover in China and Tibet, examines the horrors of Gaza strip today. Walled in from land and sea by Israel and Egypt, children live in ruins and tents, dealing with the memories of how soldiers shot their parents and bulldozed their homes. Still carrying shrapnel in her brain, a little girl named Omsyatte is told she can expect pain and nosebleeds for the rest of her life. As the gift-giving holiday of Eid arrives, the local children ask for toy Kalishnikovs; in the vacant lots, the play “waterboarding” with a bucket of water. The UN tries to cool the situation through schools teaching non-violence, but the children here already know the rhetoric from Hamas and Islamic Jihad speeches. And when a boy’s uncle tells his nephew Mahmoud that he’ll be suicide bomber when he grows up, Mahmoud’s mother, listening in, says “Inshallah (if God wills it.)” Imperative viewing; it’s the results of your tax dollars at work. (Oct 30, 7pm, Stanford’s Annenberg Auditorium, Cummings Art Building, 435 Lasuen Mall.)
Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean
Some good news from a beautiful but sometimes war-torn part of Africa. In the town of Mbale, a group of coffee growers band together despite their serious religious differences…there are even Jews, descendants of those who read the Christian Bible when the missionaries came in, and who decided that to follow the Old Testament instead of the new. Translated, their co-op is called “Delicious Peace,” and the high-quality fair-traded beans are distributed by Thanksgiving Coffee. Organizer JJ Keki is also a noted musician raising some 25 kids (10 natural, 15 adopted) without electricity, without running water, and without squalor. Actor Ed O’Neill narrates. (Plays Oct 30, 5:05PM, Annenberg Auditorium, Cummings Art Building, 435 Lasuen Mall.)
Desert of Forbidden Art
After being told his art was “daubery” by an artist he respected, well-born Russian archeologist turned artist Igor Savitsky gave up painting and started collecting. Living more than a thousand miles away from the official censors in Moscow in a place called Karakalpakstan, Savitsky began collecting the artifacts of the local tribespeople—“We called him the rubbish man,” says one. He preserved their artifacts even as the Soviet Union’s government was pressuring them to end their folkways. The result today is a world-class collection not just of traditional fabrics and crafts, but of Russian avant-garde 20th century painting kept in a surpassingly remote location. It’s hundreds of works discarded by the philistine arbiters of art during the USSR’s infatuation with Social Realism. The museum faces an uncertain future: it contains valuables coveted by the international art market; the country is in the path of militant, figurative-art hating Islam. And many paintings are in desperate need of restoration, hanging from fraying canvas threads. How did such a place survive? “Like everything else in the Soviet Union, it was a matter of relationships,” comments one witness. Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgev’s saga of a trove deep in the desert includes interviews with the New York Times’ Stephen Kinzer, who reported on the museum, and voice acting by Ben Kingsley and Ed Asner. (Plays Oct 30 at 11:15AM at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center.)
In times of crisis, substance trumps style. Gasland, Josh Fox’s horrifying documentary exposé of fracking is a film guaranteed to rob you of sleep. Watching it one is forced to forgive Fox’s cheerfully inept, lookit-folks-I-can’t-even-hold-this-camera-steady approach, as well as his monotonous narration (like someone imitating the zonked Martin Sheen of Apocalypse Now).
Fox is a Pennsylvanian, accent on the “sylvan”, with 14 acres in the glorious Delaware River watershed. He and the state stand in the way of a natural gas gold rush that’s already contaminating the aquifer. He himself was offered $100,000 for the mineral rights for his property.When researching the deal, Fox discovered a story that’s mostly been kept out of the press; some thanks for this hushing is due to the infamous 2005 energy bill, drafted by oilmen under the supervision of Dick Cheney. Per the “Halliburton exemption” drillers haven’t been subject to clean air or water restrictions.
Fracking is short for “hydraulic fracturing”; a method of cracking natural gas out of subterranean oil shale. The drillers mix a brew of carcinogenic, never to be biodegraded chemicals—some of them unidentified for proprietary reasons—and inject them with great force underground to crack the shale. After the natural gas starts pumping, drillers slurp back some (but not all) of fluids, sometimes leaving them to evaporate in open sumps.
As Fox shows us, fracking has left some rural households with flames coming out of their kitchen sink taps, and water poisoned with chemicals that cause neuropathy or cancer. Meanwhile, drillers are eyeing the headwaters of the Delaware River as their next target: the source of the drinking water for New York and Philadelphia. (Plays Oct 30 12:45pm Stanford University Annenberg Auditorium, Cummings Art Building 435 Lasuen Mall.)
Killing In the Name
Rage Against the Machine supplied the title for this excellent Oscar 2010 short-listed documentary. In Jordan in 2005, Ashraf Al-Khaled was the groom at a wedding struck by a suicide bomber (the explanation was that “Jews and Crusaders” used the hotel where the wedding was held). Since then, Al-Khaled has become a world traveler, testifying at the UN. He’s since started Global Survivors Network to contact others who have lost family members to terror bombings. As a Muslim, Al-Khaled feels particularly duty-bound to reach the next generation of would-be Jihadists; of the 88,000 killed in terror bombings so far, most of them have been The Faithful. Interviewees include the glacially calm, black-clad Al Qaeda recruiter Zaid Horani, who tells Al-Khaled through a proxy that he hopes that the loss of his father and his father in law won’t “taint your picture” of the good work being done by the bombers. In Indonesia, we meet Muslim widows of the Bali bombing who try to reach out to an East Java madrassa; some young people there still believe that the demolition of hapless Australian partiers was supposed to magically lift the spirits of sufferers in Palestine. But the saddest sequence may be the Jordanian father Mansour Al-Banna—a affluent man built like the actor Eugene Pallette—who still can’t believe that his son wasn’t forced into blowing up 130 people. And how can he? His son Ra’ed Al-Banna had been a law student, had gone to California, had liked it there, and had actually worked for the UN…before coming back to Saudi Arabia and martyring himself. (Plays October 29 at 9:30PM; Annenberg Auditorium, Stanford University; co-presented with the Arab Film Festival)
New American Soldier
Reportedly about 5% of the US Army right now are non-citizens hoping for citizenship, and the Army is outreaching to green-card holders with promises of fast-tracking their applications. A Peruvian immigrant, a Ghana lottery winner and a Mexican illegal immigrant are the subjects here…one never makes it home and in fact also never made it to citizenship. A short and to the point documentary, very balanced and consistently informative. And it doesn’t work the obvious irony: the kind of people being howled against by our more militant citizens are dying for the Stars and Stripes. (Plays Oct 29 7:15PM, Stanford’s Annenberg Auditorium, Cummings Art Building, 435 Lasuen Mall.)
Olivero Toscani—The Rage of Images.
There’s a certain breed of self-satisfied advertising person. He believes that when he’s mined the look and art of exotic (black or Asian or criminal or whatever) peoples for his latest campaign, he’s actually subverted the dominant paradigm. Milanese fashion photographer Olivero Toscani is one of those people. He’s responsible for the eye-catching and sometimes attractive United Colors of Benneton ads of the 1990s. Rage of Images is about him, and I hope you can stand more than 15 minutes of it. I couldn’t. The trigger for a walkout might have been his “subversive” advertising image of black and white hands manacled together; Stanley Kramer gave himself an arm-dislocating pat on the back for that one in the film The Defiant Ones back in 1958. Or maybe it was the patronizing way Toscani handled a pair of Soweto girls on the street who asked for a little time in director Peter Scharf and Katja Duregger’s camera…shortly before Toscani goes all chummy with his driver: “Are white people allowed here in Soweto”? Huell Hauser couldn’t have asked it better. (Variety Club Screening Room, 582 Market Street, Oct 27, 9:40PM)
Rabbit A La Berlin
An unnatural history of bunny rabbits in Berlin since the end of World War II; a fable of the divided and reunited city itself through the point of view of the rabbits. Caught in the interzone between East and West, the rabbits flourished and became a weird tourist attraction for foreign dignitaries. Pets to the guards, they multiplied and became pests. And the rabbits turn from symbols of the gentle side of Communism to enemies of the state…Berlinese black humor duels with cuteness in this little tale. A point one can’t avoid noticing: the ultimate inefficiency of walls dealing with migrations, whether rabbits or men. The cheer one sees in watching the footage of the Wall coming down is frosted by the knowledge of the walls going up everywhere from Israel to Arizona. Caution: footage of bunny bashing and shooting. (Plays Oct 25 at 9:40 at the Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto.)
Secrets of the Tribe
In the second half of the last century, the renowned anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss turned his attention to one of the last stone-age tribes: the Waika also known as the Yanomami of the upper Amazon. These people became a blank slate upon which visiting anthropologists can figure their own ideas. Were they gentler than the Tasaday themselves? Were they bloodthirsty Indians proving that mankind is genetically predisposed to spilling blood? Jose Padhila’s witty and fascinating study observes the careers of several great names in the study of these Indians…nearly every one of them tarnished by accusations of misconduct. (There’s something to the joke made here by one of the scientists, the renowned, retired and now severely controversial Dr. Napoleon Chagnon. He says everyone thinks anthropologists are crazy. Except for an actual anthropologist, who thinks every anthropologist is crazy except for himself.)
Despite being a primary source of info on these people for decades, Chagnon has been accused of participating in Dr. Mengele style experiments because of his association with Dr. James Neel, who apparently was involved in some Cold War skullduggery through collecting blood and saliva samples. It almost makes one of Chagnon’s bitterest rivals Dr. Ken Good look a little better; all Good did was marry an underaged Yanomanmi (hey, it was the 1970s). Levi-Strauss’s own man, the still practicing anthropologist Jacques Lizot (who refused to dignify Padhila’s interview requests with an answer) is accused of serial molestation of the young men of the tribe, some of whom tell the camera what he made them do. Lizot is also accused of introducing the concept of prostitution to them via literal plane-loads of cargo.
Mutual snarls and much diverting backbiting ensue. It’s clear that the real losers weren’t the scientists dragged through the mud, but the subjects themselves, some of whom now likely wish there was a lot more space in Brazil between them and the anthropologists. The wit of the film’s title is not apparent until the end. Plus: a special cameo by the ever-sticky Sting. (Plays Oct 27 at 9:40 pm Variety Club Screening Room, 582 Market Street in San Francisco.)