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United Nations Association Film Festival: A look at ‘Guangzhou Dream Factory’

Behind the scenes of “Guangzhou Dream Factory.” (Courtesy of Christiane Badgley)

“Their Communism is better than some democracies.”

This line from the documentary “Guangzhou Dream Factory” elicited some chuckles from the audience. The light was dimmed, and the small screening room was crammed with ardent viewers coming from drastically different walks of life. In fact, many of them had made this pilgrimage to the United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF) multiple times in the past two decades. Originally a pioneer project of the Stanford Film Society in 1998, UNAFF was founded by Jasmina Bojic, a lecturer in International Relations at Stanford. At the time it was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but known for its “fearless independence and integrity,” UNAFF had become one of the oldest film festivals in the US devoted purely to showing documentaries and had provided valuable outlets for film premieres. The festival this fall marks the 20th year of UNAFF upholding human rights and celebrating humanity through films.

As one of the film selections this year, “Guangzhou Dream Factory” was screened this past Saturday through the courtesy of The Midpen Media Center. Opening with a scene of a Nigerian woman boarding a bus amongst an ocean of Asian faces, the 65-minute documentary records the trajectory of a group of Africans traveling to China for the pursuit of better business opportunities. As globalization expands its sphere of influence, the fast-developing Chinese economy became the dream for a lot of Africans suffering from their own tepid markets. Large communities from African countries including Nigeria and Ghana flock into major Chinese cities such as Guangzhou, and there they start their painstaking journey combatting xenophobia, poverty and the lack of a working visa. Some eventually succeeded and established retail businesses to supply the market back home, but most continue to struggle. The documentary is a beautiful piece that tells the unexposed stories of Africans traversing tens of thousands of miles for a better life, and it stays true to the story with a tone both informative and cutting.

One of the two producers, Erica Marcus, was present at the screening to further answer questions about the film. When asked about her political intention for such a story, she explained that it was mostly “a picture of globalization.” The increase of trade affects the economy in ways all too visible, yet the impact of globalization on the way individuals live their lives is often overlooked. From studying abroad in Manchuria in the early years of the 1970s, Marcus discovered the existence of such African communities through her connections in medical school. As she and the other producer, Christiane Badgley shot the film through a period of almost six years, they found themselves starting from a group of dark-skinned dreamers amidst a racially homogenous China, to the roots of these immigrants, their home countries in Africa — Cameroon, Chad, Kenya and many more. Marcus concluded that this entrepreneurial development should have been channeled to benefit the home countries of these entrepreneurs, and it will be up to the African governments to implement policies to protect their own economic interests.

Authentic documentaries such as “Guangzhou Dream Factory” are not a lone case on UNAFF. Screening 60 films that cover themes from acid attack victims to honor killings of women in Arab society, from homelessness to gender testing in female athletes, UNAFF could easily challenge one’s perception of the world and change the way one thinks. As intimate stories usually do, these films touch on different aspects of life and shed light on human rights issues across the globe.

The 20th annual UNAFF ran from Oct. 19 to 29 in the Bay Area.

Contact Cathy Wang at cathywnx ‘at’

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