Films for a better world

United Nations Association Film Festival celebrates the human spirit

In an election year when racism and xenophobia have played a significant role in the national conversation, there's no better time for UNAFF, the United Nations Association Film Festival. UNAFF celebrates its 19th year with the theme "Compass for a Better World," and though the festival has a San Francisco arm and a "Traveling Film Festival" with a national and international reach, UNAFF remains distinctly a Palo Alto-area institution.

Stanford University educator and film critic Jasmina Bojic founded the festival with the help of the Stanford Film Society and the local nonprofit UNA Midpeninsula Chapter, and venues include the Aquarius Theatre, four sites on the Stanford campus and Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, among others. The festival kicks off Oct. 20 at the Aquarius with opening words by Palo Alto mayor Patrick Burt. UNAFF presents documentary films with an emphasis on human rights issues and aims to spotlight "current events from across the globe." This year's program includes 60 films, among them six world premieres and 16 U.S. premieres, with more than 50 of the filmmakers in attendance to meet the public and field questions.

Among them is Sunnyvale-based filmmaker Harleen Singh, whose short film "The Odd Couple: A Story of Two Triathletes" details the local human interest story of Jeff, a below-the-leg amputee, and Parvin, a Sikh man dealing with an injury. With Jeff's example and encouragement, Parvin pursues his goal of participating in a triathlon, and a friendship builds in the process.

The daughter of an Indian army officer, Singh once worked on the "corporate side of things" at National Geographic Channel and The History Channel, but felt the siren call of her personal creativity. Singh quit her job, turned her attention to filmmaking and began by studying film at the Midpen Media Center. A subject landed in her lap during a social dinner with Parvin, a friend. The conversation turned from health in general to Parvin's struggle to be a triathlete.

"Over the course of the conversation, I just got drawn to his story -- his journey, his struggles, his friendship with Jeff were all interesting elements. Then I met Jeff and heard his story and how he 'chose' to be an amputee and never gave up on his dream of being a triathlete. Just hearing their stories inspired me, and I thought it would be wonderful to share their journey on the screen to inspire others to follow their dreams and never give up," she said.

In explaining the pull of her debut film, Singh offered, "What is really appealing to me about 'The Odd Couple' is that, as humans, all of us have challenges in life. But most of us do nothing and accept our fate -- we would rather find an excuse to overplay the challenges and feel demotivated. Parvin and Jeff, however ... both have one passion, to push their own limits."

Commitment to personal growth and social causes, regardless of the cost, is a common theme in many of the festival's short and feature documentaries. Take "Sonita," director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's unflinching look at the political and patriarchal obstacles facing an 18-year-old undocumented Afghan immigrant living in Tehran. An artistic impulse drives Sonita, who raps and is hatching a plan to start a group with a boy and record a song. But her poor family hasn't granted her permission and, worse, struggles to make the rent. Her family's solution: sell Sonita as a bride to a new family. Sonita's unbowed creativity and personality (and the education she pursues) give the film a hopeful spirit but also inspire powerful sadness and anger at her plight. (The film screens Oct. 22 at 8:15 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Community Center.)

Barry Frechette's "Paper Lanterns" (Oct. 23 at 8:20 p.m. at Mitchell Park Community Center) explores the "never forget" mission of Shigeaki Mori, who does outreach education about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. A witness to and survivor of the bombing (when he was in his third year of school), Mori's curiosity and love of history led him to research the event. He saw healing potential in empathy, and thus commemorates not only the tens of thousands of Japanese victims, but also the little-known fact that a dozen American POWs died in the blast. Frechette takes his camera around Japan and America to interview veterans, witnesses and family members, collecting stories and sharing in Mori's educational goal by following him in his work.

The stylish and energetic "Under the Turban" (Oct. 23 at 1:30 p.m. at Mitchell Park Community Center), by filmmakers Satinder Garcha, Michael Rogers and Meghan Shea, emerges from a 9-year-old's question: "What makes me a Sikh?" To help young Zara answer the question, Satinder Garcha and Harpreet Bedi travel around with their children and a camera, meeting with practitioners and scholars to explore the roots, character and diversity of the world's fifth-largest religion.

These few examples only scratch the surface of the globally ranging subject matter explored in the festival's entries. What drew local filmmaker Singh to the story of "The Odd Couple" aptly describes the potential in every film at UNAFF.

"All successful movies have some sort of a universal human element that allows people to relate to the story," Singh said. "When people imagine themselves as part of a film, the characters become real and that's where the human connection takes over."

Freelance writer Peter Canavese can be reached at pcanavese@bcp.org.

What: UNAFF 2016

Where: Venues in Palo Alto, Stanford, East Palo Alto and San Francisco

When: Oct. 20-30

Cost: $10 for individual screenings; $180 festival pass

Info: Go to UNAFF.

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