United Nations Association
Film Festival

Bay Area documentary fest looks at the ways the world is in trouble
and the people trying to save it
'Silicon Valley: The Untold Story' is one of the documentaries playing at the United Nations Association Film Festival.

Bringing more than a hundred documentaries from all corners of the troubled world, the United Nations Association Film Festival is sponsored by a group aiming to support the goals of the UN. This year's fest is titled "Tomorrow?" in the question of how long humanity has if it continues on the current path.

Unpreviewed is the opening-night film, Poisoning Paradise by Keely Shaye Brosnan, on the subject of the dosing of Kauai with pesticides. The executive producer and director's husband is an actor and organic gardener named Pierce. He's saved the world a few times himself, and he may or may not also be on hand for the festivities.

Opening for Poisoning Paradise is Irina Patkanian's short, Little Fiel. The documentary recalls a UN motto taken from Isaiah 2: 3-4, and illustrated by Yevgeny Vuchetich's statue of a man beating a sword into a plowshare. (Note that Vuchetich, having made this famous statue viewed by all who visit the UN headquarters in NYC, also created a monument to the battle of Stalingrad, with Mother Russia wielding the largest sword in the world.)

Mozambican sculptor Fiel de Santos acquired guns from a national buyback program, and he uses his art to make sure they never kill again. The Mozambique civil war, which ended in 1992, left a million dead and loads of armaments behind. De Santos had brothers on both sides and was unable to be at his mother's deathbed because of the strife. Now he welds and hammers these dead guns into abstract human figures, with the springs as coils of hair and spent cartridges for the joints of the fingers. Three animators bring his work to motion, as de Santos tells the story of his life.

Flight of the Condor is a fascinating story of the contradictions of intellectual property, unfortunately told with a maximum amount of academic starch. At one point, tweed-wrapped narrator Valdimar Tr. Hafstein literally addresses the audience from a leather wing-chair. The framing is perhaps immaterial, since Prof. Hafstein's field is the subject of what UNESCO describes as "intangible heritage"—the jewels of any given culture.

"El Condor Pasa" is a doleful audio blight at farmer's markets everywhere. Appropriated and bleached, the song became exactly what critic Steve Almond called "Africa" by Toto: "The child of colonialism and muzak."

Paul Simon heard a version of a Quechua traditional titled "I am the dove that was lost from the nest" being performed in Paris by an Argentinian band, before recording it as his megahit "Bridge Over Troubled Water." However, "El Condor Pasa" was nominally the copyrighted composition of a Peruvian folklorist named David A. Robles (Simon had to settle out of court with Robles' son).

The elder Robles had used the old tune in a miner's struggle-themed operetta a century ago. In the 1970s, Bolivia's military junta tried to seize the rights to "El Condor Pasa" to give themselves heartland credibility—much as, say, a lifelong New York millionaire might slap on a red baseball cap to show his solidarity with the little people. Peru and Bolivia still contend for the honor of the composition of the "Louie, Louie" of the altiplano. Some might reply that if that particular song went to the Andes and never came back, that'd be super.

The UNAFF mixes consideration of cultural artifacts with warnings of dire environmental threats, bits of stray history and occasional victories by the good guys. This was the fest that alerted us to the problems of fracking when it gave Gasland its local debut. This year the festival brings us Generation Zapped, questioning the health hazards of cellphone use by children.

There's a spot of local interest as well. Two-time Peabody Award winner Michael Schwarz has a documentary on Silicon Valley: The Untold Story. Schwarz tackles the high fail rate of start-ups, and the importance of Department of Defense money in the rise of the valley. The story of all that government moolah somehow got swept aside in favor of libertarian fantasias of friction-free labor and lone dreamers. It's as if, to contradict the proverb, there was only one father for every success.

Here's a healthy mix of information, from documentaries that make you feel like you're looking into your open grave to films that deliver unexpected bursts of realizable hope that go far beyond mere bumper-sticker sized platitudes.

Oct 18-28
Various Locations

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