A U.N. Ten

Robert Avila October 20, 2006

The traveling version of the 9th annual United Nations Association Film Festival, “Sparks of Humanity,” runs from October 25 through 29 at Stanford University in Palo Alto. This year’s fest boasts 31 worthy films in all, but here are ten in particular to keep an eye out for, all featured as part of a pre-festival program at San Francisco’s Roxie.

1. Small Town Gay Bar

This will not come as a surprise: being gay in rural Mississippi is not always easy. But the oases of acceptance, camaraderie, and release formed by a unique handful of small town gay bars in Mississippi do tell a surprising, fascinating, fun, and sometimes tragic story about the possibilities for being oneself even in the most repressive of settings. Malcolm Ingram’s fine doc comes with great interviews, including from some right-wing Christians, and a cool soundtrack.

2. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars

Driven from their homes by the Civil War that raged from 1991 to 2002, six Sierra Leonean musicians continue pursuing their music as refugees in Guinea. “People who have problems, people who are frustrated, will be revived if they hear the greatness of a Refugee All Stars Band,” says one member. “I just took all the problems, the suffering of the people, and made a song of it.” Zach Niles and Banker White excellent doc brings a human face and spirit to a people obscured by news reports of war and atrocity, a people asserting themselves against horror and hardship with the help of up-liftingly irresistible music.

3. Pilgrimage

Noted documentarian Bahman Kiarostami, son of Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, stunningly captures the chaos, jubilation, desperation, absurdity and tragedy generated by a continual stream of Iranian Shiite pilgrims en route to the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, as they overrun, bypass, or otherwise attempt to negotiate the Iranian government’s heavily regulated border with Iraq, recently opened in the wake of the US invasion.

4. Independent Intervention

Giving pride of place to voices from the independent media movement, and juxtaposing the images of death and destruction on the ground with the sanitized images and jingoism on view in major US news outlets, Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary mounts a blistering critique of the militaristic and biased coverage of the war on Iraq in US corporate media.

5. In the Tall Grass

J. Coll Metcalfe’s fascinating and moving doc follows a Tutsi survivor of the Rwandan genocide who continues living in constant fear, surrounded as she is by neighbors who were the murderers of her family and of hundreds of her neighbors. Meanwhile, in her village the ancient “gacaca” court system of justice is resurrected in a high-stakes gamble aimed at bringing reconciliation to Rwanda.

6. Rights on the Line: Vigilantes at the Border

This film documents the experience of people living on either side of the US-Mexico divide whose rights are being threatened and undermined by increasing vigilantism and militarization along the border.

7. Lessons in Fear

Documentarian James Cullingham looks at the role of the classroom in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a site for contact and understanding as well as competing histories of the same land and the long-term conflict fostered over it. While the film explores education as a force for change, it remains aware of the severe limitations placed on ordinary lives by the reality of occupation.

8. America’s Brutal Prisons

Bush said Abu Graib was not the American way. If it sounded unconvincing, it is. Tasers, electric cattle prods, and dogs, for example, are all part of the routine abuse, and even torture, that takes place inside prisons across the United States, as director Nick London and reporter Deborah Davies reveal in disturbingly stark colors in a documentary that makes use of internal video footage and candid interviews with former guards and prisoners.

9. Beyond the Call

Adrian Belic’s doc follows three humanitarian thrill-seekers, Ed Artis, Jim Laws, and Walt Ratterman, as they travel unflinchingly, and on their own dime, to the world’s most troubled lands to distribute humanitarian aid. “We don’t want to change their politics or their religion,” says Artis, a no-nonsense guy who’s done this for 30 years. “It must be high adventure; it must be humanitarian. And it’s got to be in an area where few would ever go. If it doesn’t hit those criteria, we’re not interested.”

10. Are the Kids Alright?

In the US one in ten children suffer from severe mental illness. But in Karen Bernstein and Ellen Spiro’s intimate look at the Texas juvenile system, vital public services addressing the crisis in children’s mental health face serious budgetary cuts. Did someone say no child left behind? The filmmakers talk to children, parents, judges, psychiatrists, legislators, and others caught up in the system and the challenges facing it in this revealing and wrenching documentary.