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10.14.09

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Phaedra

WHERE EAGLES DARE: Dorothy Fadiman's documentary about voters' rights in New Mexico, 'Reclaiming Their Voices,' shows at the UNAFF.

World of Difference

The United Nations Association Film Festival in Palo Alto is all informative—and lots of it free

By Richard von Busack


IN THE SPACE of nine days, Oct. 17–25, the UNAFF—maybe the most worthwhile and best-curated film festival in the Bay Area—brings 25 separate programs to numerous local spaces. The program is free for Stanford students and rife with free events for the rest of us. "Energy and the World" is the theme of this year's all-documentary fest. The event also celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—talk about your customs honored in the breach. The Palo Alto–based festival, sponsored by a friends of the United Nations group, screens 50 films from 50 countries.

The real beauty of this festival is the pan-educational quality: there's informative work here on international law, health issues, woman's rights, ecology and activism. One learns not only about the parts of the world kept out of the nightly news and off the entertainment world's radar but also about what people can do to change things.

The headliner this time around is local treasure director/producer Dorothy Fadiman, bringing her new film, Woman by Woman: New Hope for the Villages of India. The group Janani is trying to bring birth control to the rural areas, and Palo Alto's Fadiman was there to record their efforts. Fadiman's When Abortion Was Illegal was nominated for the 1992 Oscar for short documentaries. It is, among other things, a first-person account of the back-alley abortion that almost killed her. At the UNAFF's press conference, Fadiman noted, "I was strongly urged by PBS to get a man to narrate the film, on the grounds that it would be less biased."

Fadiman will be on hand Oct. 19 at 7pm at the Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto for a tribute and an interview with the festival's director, Jasmina Bojic. The night features three of Fadiman's films, including Reclaiming Their Voices, about the instances of voter fraud in rural New Mexico.

The opening-night session, Oct. 17 at the Aquarius, includes the documentary Power Paths. Essential to L.A.'s power grid was Southern California Edison's Mojave Generation Station in Laughlin, Nev., a coal burner fed with slurry via a pressurized pipeline from the Four Corners area. Mr. Peabody's coal company, famed from the John Prine tune "Paradise," strip-mined the Navajo and Hopi nations and sucked out 1 billion irreplaceable gallons from the desert aquifer to brew the slurry. And though the operation provided union jobs for Dine and Hope, the tailings caused the usual diseases.

To top it off, nationals in the Four Corners area were still off the grid, cooking with wood and lighting with kerosene. When Southern California Edison got its federal payoff for closing the Mojave plant, it believed that the money should go to Edison's shareholders; the Just Transition Alliance begged to differ. Peter Coyote narrates Bo Boudart's documentary on what happened next.

This year's documentary Oscar finalist, The Garden, is also on the opening-night plate. It's a terrific story of L.A. strife mixed with everyone's dream past-time: urban gardening. A beautifully tended patch of L.A. river-bottom land falls prey to the power politics of L.A.'s blighted South-Central. It's one of those movies about private property rights that make you want to bring back the guillotine.

The 25 sessions on view include a free matinee children's program at the Aquarius on Oct. 18, with the food-centric What's on Your Plate? and Naming Pluto, the true story of the euphoniously named Venetia Phair, the 11-year-old girl who came up with the name for the recently decommissioned planet.

Bringing free movies to East Palo Alto, at the Eastside Theater, the UNAFF hosts an Oct. 20 screening of My Neighbor, My Killer about the efforts to bring closure to the Rwanda slaughter. Oct. 19 has a free matinee of The Strangest Dream (at Stanford) about the little-known Sir Joseph Rotblat—the physicist who left the Manhattan Project and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in nuclear disarmament.

The Oct. 20 screenings include The Road to Fallujah, shown in conjunction with the Arab Film Festival. Journalist Mark Manning investigates the aftermath of the terrible fighting in Iraq. The other half of the double bill is a lot lighter, in a sick comic sort of way. Welcome to North Korea! is designed for us slaves of the Rick Steves genre.

A Czech tour group gets to visit North Korea as long as the members don't talk to strangers and don't bring camcorders. Good thing the Czechs have centuries of practice in nodding, smiling and then doing whatever authority doesn't want done. And North Korea is everything you've heard—and more. Visit the Office of Questions and Answers in Social Sciences! See the Korean War cyclorama depicting the way the U.S. Army was utterly crushed for all time! Gawk at gimcrack 300-foot-tall Stalinist monuments ugly enough to harelip the blind! Kowtow to the colossal idol of old man Kim, or else! And rub shoulders with a tour group whose bullshit detectors are finely calibrated by years of Soviet occupation.

The closing-night benefit, Oct. 25 at Cubberley Auditorium at Stanford, is another winner; including food and music by the group Potential. The subject, as in Welcome to North Korea, is public bamboozlement. The good thing about the very obedient is that they're very credulous. In The Yes Men Fix the World, directors and stars Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno prank the Powers That Be—one more demonstration at the UNAFF of how much can happen when you get the word out.

THE UNAFF takes place Oct. 17–25 at Stanford, the Aquarius and other Palo Alto locations. See www.unaff.org/2009 for details.

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