Population–Migration–Globalization. These words form the theme of the 2010 United Nations Association Film Festival, which took place in the San Francisco Bay Area in October.
Each year the UNAFF, a non-profit organization based in Stanford, California, chooses a different theme that fits its mission of celebrating “the power of films dealing with human rights, environmental themes, population, migration, women’s issues, refugees, homelessness, racism, health, universal education, war and peace.” Many of the films present bleak stories of unrelenting poverty, suffering, and human rights abuses. It is not a festival for the faint of heart but for those willing to confront some of the shocking realities of contemporary life.
Film critic and educator Jamina Bojic founded the festival in 1998 with the Stanford Film Society and the United Nations Association Midpeninsula Chapter, a nonprofit organization. The festival, which holds the majority of its screenings at Stanford University, initially began as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now in its 13th year, the 2010 festival screened a total of 60 documentaries from across the globe over a tenday period. The festival also holds year-round screenings through its Traveling Film Festival throughout the United States and abroad.
Several documentaries covered this time the theme of migration, including Climate Refugees, directed by Michael Nash, and There Once Was an Island by Briar March – documentaries that reveal the social, political, and cultural impact of global warming on local populations. Also Which Way Home, directed by Rebecca Cammisa, about the lives of migrant children from Central America and Mexico who attempt to leave their countries in search of a better life in the United States.
In Climate Refugees, UNAFF’s opening night film, U.S. director Michael Nash journeys to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Tuvalu (an island nation located halfway between Australia and Hawaii), China, and Sudan. He discovers first-hand how climate change is affecting people in those areas of the world. Nash also serves as a first-person narrator, offering his perspective as he travels to the various countries.
One of his goals was to reveal the “human face of climate change.” He interviews people who were the victims of climate change, such as a mother in Bangladesh who describes how her baby was ripped from her arms by a fast current when her home was flooded. Many of the people talk about how nature is now their enemy. Former and current U.S. government officials, United Nations and Red Cross workers, NGOs, environmentalists, and public policy organizations also get screen time. Climate Refugees points out that in Bangladesh, there are 150 million people living at sea level. So as the sea rises, serious storms occur more frequently and millions of people are forced to leave their homes. Grim statistics appear throughout the film either spoken by people interviewed or as text on screen. For example, a one-meter rise in sea level would strip Bangladesh of 40 percent of its ricegrowing land. A natural disaster would force the country to import food and between 10 to 30 million people would have to move to survive. “Climate wars” would be one of the results of food and water shortages. In fact, all the numbers presented in the film are utterly mind-boggling, for example, in 2030 years, 40-50 small islands could disappear; by 2025, 66 percent of Africa’s arable land will be gone; in 2020, 75 to 250 million people will be affected by water stress.
And where will these people go and who decides where they will go? A few people attempt to answer the question, offering the idea of a quota system, if a country is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, then it should take 25 percent of the refugees. Although Climate Refugees presents a truly ominous picture, the film attempts to end on a hopeful note with the filmmaker saying: “We are the people that future generations have been waiting for,” a statement that evokes one of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign themes.
But it’s hard to feel optimistic when the film makes it abundantly clear that things must change now, not later. After all, COP15, the U.N. Climate Change Conference 2009, did little to help vulnerable countries who urgently need substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
There Once Was an Island chronicles life on “The Mortlocks,” an atoll that is seeing the effects of climate change today. Part of Papua New Guinea, the atoll is only 5 kilometers long and a mere meter above sea level. The Taku people have been living on its island for 1000 years. But now for the first time in their history, the islanders may have to leave as the ocean encroaches on more and more of their land.
The people have no electricity and live off the land and the ocean, harvesting taro and fishing. They have very little regular contact with the outside world. The nearest town is about 240 kilometers away by boat and the boat service is irregular. So when disasters strike, they sometimes have to wait days before food assistance arrives. The tight-knit community won’t go without a fight and brings scientists to study what’s happening to their land and to find out what can be done to allow them stay.
The islanders struggle with the idea of leaving their homes and settling on the mainland. However, their move is dependent on the Government buying land for them to live on and the process is very slow. Should any of them move, they would have to earn a living because the proposed land is nothing like their home. Their entire way of life would be gone. There Once Was an Island illustrates the immense challenges of dealing with displaced people and how a people can literally disappear. If the ocean continues to rise, many people in the Pacific will become climate refugees.
Which Way Home takes a startling look at child migrants who leave behind their families to fulfill their dream of living in the United States, either to work or to be reunited with a family member. Director Rebecca Cammisa follows a few children on their audacious and risky 2300-kilometer freight train ride across Mexico. These are not passenger trains, which is what makes the ride so fraught with peril.
The kids have no money and no adult supervision. The freight train companies actually ban riders but thousands of people get on the trains anyway, hanging off the side, stowing away inside a boxcar, or sitting on top. The filmmaker befriends or films several young travelers from Central America, including Kevin, a 14-year-old Honduran who wanted to make money to help his mother, and his friend Fito who is 13 and didn’t tell his mother he was leaving; Jose, a 10-year-old Salvadoran caught by immigration and who has not seen his parents in three years (his mother is in New York); and remarkably, Olga, a nineyear-old girl who hadn’t seen her mother in three years.
All these children were traveling by freight train, a difficult journey for an adult and even more so for a child. And should they make it all the way to the border, the journey to the United States is a treacherous one due to unscrupulous smugglers, desert temperatures, and the Border Patrol.
Migrants are so common in Mexico that there are organizations near train stations that provide temporary shelter, medical care, and food for them. And some groups attempt to dissuade people from their trip. A man who works for the House of Migrants, lectures to them that the trip through Mexico is the “passage of death” and the United States “death itself,” 120 to 140 degrees in the desert. He also tells them that 10 to 20 people out of every hundred who make the trip will die and that many of them will never see their families again. But when he asks “how many want to go home?” no one raises their hand. No one wants to turn back despite the odds.
In keeping with the festival’s mission, it holds several panel discussions to explore the festival’s themes. For example, the screening of There Once Was an Island was followed by a panel “Climate Change Impact on Population,” with Paul Ehrlich and Anne Howland Ehrlich, co-authors of The Population Explosion, and Victor Menotti, executive director of the International Forum on Globalization. Which Way Home was followed by the panel “Ethics and Politics of Immigration Issues”. Other panels included “The Fight for Health – Global and Local” and “Deregulation – Solution or Problem?”
Festival-goers who are willing to sit through the programs will emerge enlightened and informed about many stories that remain under-reported or neglected – and hopefully they will be inspired to change things for the better.