Jesse Jackson, Joan Baez, Ira Sandperl, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dora McDonald from South Carolina. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations Association Film Festival)

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Early in the process, the organizers of the 23rd annual United Nations Association Film Festival realized that this year’s theme — “The Power of Empathy” — brought with it a most urgently needed message. But what they didn’t know then was just how divided this nation would become and how Americans would crave some form of compassion during this acrimonious time.

“When we chose the theme ‘The Power of Empathy’ more than a year ago, we could maybe anticipate the tensions of a crucial election year, but could not have known how a virus would upend everyone’s lives and, in doing so, both unite and divide us, bringing the word ‘empathy’ into everyday use,” said executive director Jasmina Bojic in response to emailed questions.

With its slate of 60 films, many with strong Bay Area associations, the festival opens Thursday and runs through Oct. 25, and is poised to enlighten, inspire and reflect the world from someone else’s eyes — a learning experience that is essential to understanding.

Executive director Jasmina Bojic. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations Association Film Festival)

“Immersing yourself in these films will definitely pierce the standard boundaries of our dialogues and bring us closer to understanding each other,” Bojic said. “The cumulative effect of the knowledge conveyed to us through powerful images and the art of film can bring anxiety about many problems around us, but simultaneously produces a strong feeling of hope.” 

Since it’s not viable to host screenings in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, San Francisco and Stanford venues as it has done in the past, this 23rd program migrates online.

While that’s a new approach, the festival does stick to its long-held tradition of honoring an inspirational figure with a Visionary Award. This year, the award goes to singer/activist Joan Baez, featured in the closing-night feature “The Boys Who Said NO!” from Bay Area filmmaker Judith Ehrlich.

Bojic said bestowing that honor on the Woodside resident and former Palo Alto High School student couldn’t be more appropriate.

“The arc of her engagement has lasted for so long, and yet she never strayed from the core values that we are still striving towards today,” she said. “She carried her courage almost effortlessly and provided a model of an ethics that centers about caring for each others’ destinies for more than one generation.

“We all need the strength to go through these scary times together, and Joan Baez brings us gravity and courage now, as she was able to achieve so many times before.”

The film she’s in is a must, but there are many others worth your time. Here’s a quick rundown of 10 features — from short- to long-form.

“The Reunited States”: Using Mark Gerzon’s nonfiction work “The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide” as a springboard, Mountain View native Ben Rekhi’s of-this-moment documentary is filled with hope in the form of various American citizens trying to unify, understand and not divide. Of particular resonance is Susan Bro’s courageous stance to affirm the spirit of what her daughter, Heather Heyer — killed during the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally — stood for. With so many outraged documentaries available, Rekhi’s is refreshing in how it points to solutions, and insists that we just not express fury at the problems.

Building a better union by understanding others is the focus of the hopeful “The Reunited States,” a documentary directed by Mountain View native Ben Rekhi. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations Association Film Festival)

“The Invisible Line — America’s Nazi Experiment”: History teacher Ron Jones’ unorthodox measures in 1967 to convince Palo Alto’s Cubberley High School students how easy it is to fall prey to facsism led to movies and numerous articles afterward. Questions remain on whether Jones placed others in harm’s way during his five-day experiment, but as his former students relate in Emanuel Rotstein’s brisk 60-minute documentary, they all learned an invaluable and frightening message that haunts them today.

“The Invisible Line — America’s Nazi Experiment” revisits the controversial days-long lesson in fascism that history teacher Ron Jones led in 1967 at Palo Alto’s Cubberley High School. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations Association Film Festival)

“The Last Mambo”: How could anyone resist a documentary wherein someone claims that “salsa is safe sex”? I can’t. Rita Hargrave and Reginald D. Brown’s energetic treat informs and entertains as it dives into the Bay Area’s effusive love affair with the dance traditions of the mambo and salsa. Taking us to former and current Bay Area gathering bright spots — some that have dimmed — this effervescent pick-me-up reminds us how dance and the arts can heal and bring us together. 

“Lolly Font, Yoga Rebel”: When she, at 43, was told by a doctor that the arthritis in her spine would hobble her for the rest of life, Palo Alto’s Lolly Font found a better treatment than the prescribed pills — healing through yoga. The 85-year-old human spark plug bucked her medical diagnosis and is still going strong. Liz Cane’s 14-minute documentary shows the no-guff Font in her element and inspiring others. 

“Lolly Font, Yoga Rebel” is a short documentary about a popular Palo Alto yoga instructor. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations Association Film Festival)

“Susana”: In just four minutes, Laura Gamse’s B&W documentary captures the reality of slaughterhouse workers, both on and off the job. Produced by Stanford University’s M.F.A. Documentary Film and Video program, it takes us on an immersive experience culminating with an ICE Raid — one of many. 

“Song Sparrow”: Even more experimental is Farzaneh Omidvarnia’s shattering depiction of refugees being loaded into the back of a meat truck. Her reinterpretation of events, via a reenactment with puppets, sounds like it could be superficial and trite. But Omidvarnia’s short animated tale is one of the most powerful films in the festival. Wouldn’t be surprised if this one pops on the Oscar nomination list.

“Cirque du Cambodia”:  In Joel Gershon’s underdog tale, two Cambodian brothers in a small city set their hopes on joining Cirque du Soleil. But as Sopha Nem and Dina Sok discover while attending circus school in Canada, dreams don’t always lead to the destinations one expects. Gershon’s involving doc makes us cheer for Sopha and Dina, but dually shines a light on a global program that helps disenfranchised youths find a career in the arts. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser and is receiving a world premiere.

Two brothers living in Cambodia travel to Canada in hopes of sticking the landing with Cirque du Soleil. “Cirque du Cambodia” is receiving a world premiere during the festival. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations Association Film Festival)

“I’m Not Bad Luck (The True Story of Kesz Valdez)”: This 20-minute documentary tore my heart right out. Filmmakers Marcos Negrao and Johanna Schnell follow the incredible journey of Valdez as this kind, young soul goes from an unwanted child in the Philippines to a sought-after humanitarian who dedicates himself to help other destitute and unloved children. Thankfully, a social worker extended a helping hand to Valdez whose abusive parents called him “bad luck” and led him to the streets. The sensitivity told film is receiving a world premiere.

“I’m Not Bad Luck (The True Story of Kesz Valdez)” receives a world premiere during the festival. It’s an inspiring story destined to make you tear up. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations Association Film Festival)

“A Normal Girl”: Interersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis provides much-needed insight about being intersex in a world dominated by being gender-specific. Filmmaker Aubree Bernier-Clarke’s short serves as a reminder that representation matters and this film reflects how activists are helping change parental and societal attitudes.

“The Boys Who Said NO!”: The festival draws to a close with this engrossing look back  at the Vietnam War draft resistance, and the brave men and women who went against the historical and cultural grain. Joan Baez is featured in Bay Area filmmaker Judith Ehrlich’s fascinating history lesson, which hones in on the Bay Area, particularly Oakland, and its pivotal role in organizing dissent.

To purchase ticket bundles and for further information about this year’s program, visit