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Now Playing! Past is Prologue at United Nations Association Film Festival

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Sonia Kennebeck’s 'United States vs. Reality Winner' traces the saga of a woman who acted out of conscience and was betrayed by her country. (Courtesy UNAFF)

The old-school definition of documentary—a nonfiction work of journalism or history with a social-justice mission—prevails at the United Nations Association Film Festival (opening Oct. 21 and continuing through Oct. 31). Founded a quarter-century ago and continuously led by Stanford professor and force of nature Jasmina Bojic, UNAFF is a conscience-rouser for Peninsula and South Bay students and faculty (and city folks on Oct. 27, when the festival plays the Roxie).

UNAFF is a second-chance program in the sense that many of the 60 films have played the Bay Area within the last year. Local filmmaker Abby Ginzberg’s Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power returns to the spotlight on opening night; congresswoman Lee and singer-activist Harry Belafonte will be saluted with the UNAFF Visionary Award on closing night.

A still from ‘Zero Gravity.’ (Courtesy UNAFF)

Thomas Verrette’s Zero Gravity, a Cinequest premiere back in March, profiles a group of novice coders—San Jose middle-school students—vying to develop a robot for the International Space Station. Human connection is likewise at the heart of San Francisco directors Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel’s Cuba-inspired, music-infused Los Hermanos (The Brothers), being reprised at the Roxie. East Bay filmmaker Rick Goldsmith is represented by a couple of older works, Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw and Oscar nominee Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press, the latter chosen to mark its 25th anniversary and to highlight the ensuing decline of journalism.

This year’s theme is “Moving Forward,” which evokes the world’s reemergence from the pandemic while reaffirming UNAFF’s longstanding support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Compassion is the defining quality of The Return: Life After Isis, Spanish director Alba Sotorra’s South by Southwest portrait of two teenage Western women who idealistically joined Isis in Syria and are now stateless and stranded in a refugee camp.

A still from ‘Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw.’ (Courtesy UNAFF)

Sonia Kennebeck’s United States vs. Reality Winner (another SXSW premiere screening hereabouts for the first time) traces the painful saga of another woman who acted out of conscience and was betrayed by her naivete—and the FBI and her government. Air Force veteran Reality Winner was an NSA-contracted intelligence analyst when she leaked a report about Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. Imprisoned without bail for a year pending trial, she eventually took a plea “in exchange for” the longest sentence ever handed down under the century-old Espionage Act.


The star of the film is Billie Winner-Davis, a regular ol’ Texan who backed her daughter completely and argued tirelessly to the media and the public during the Trump years that Reality was a whistleblower, not a traitor. Reality was released from prison earlier this year (after the completion of Kennebeck’s film) to home confinement. It’s hard to conceive of anybody in the UNAFF program more enthusiastic about moving forward.

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