October 23, 2008 / 9:24 PM / 10 years ago

Top film-makers focus on poverty, despite U.N. row

ROME (Reuters) - Wim Wenders and Jane Campion are two of the acclaimed directors behind a collection of short films on the United Nations’ fight against poverty, but the U.N. agency meant to sponsor the project has pulled out of it.

“8,” which premiered at the Rome film festival on Thursday, brings together eight film-makers to illustrate the eight U.N. Millennium Development Goals, set in 2000 and aimed at halving the number of extremely poor and hungry people by 2015.

Each director takes a different angle to show how poverty, climate change, lack of access to education and basic health facilities are affecting the world’s needy and also those living in the rich West.

African film-maker Abderrahmane Sissako looks at an 8-year old boy being taught about the U.N. goals in a bare school in Ethiopia; actor-turned-director Gael Garcia Bernal shows a father in Iceland explaining the importance of education to his son; Campion explores the ravages of drought in Australia.

Gus Van Sant, author of cult movies like “To Die For” and “Paranoid Park,” plays on the contrast between carefree American skateboarders and the dire statistics on child mortality in poor countries.

Dutch-born Jan Kounen follows a pregnant woman in Amazonia desperately trying to find a doctor while another of the film’s chapters, by Argentinian-born Gaspar Noe, focuses on AIDS.

But it is Indian director Mira Nair’s take on gender equality that sparked a row with the United Nations Development Programme, which has now withdrawn its support from the project.


Nair’s short film portrays a Muslim woman living in New York who decides to leave her husband and young son because she is in love with a married man.

“In April 2008, the UNDP came to us and demanded that we pull Mira Nair’s film or they would withdraw their logo from the project. They said it risked insulting Islam,” French producer Marc Oberon said after a press screening in Rome.

“We decided we could not take it out, so they pulled out.”

UNDP spokesman Adam Rogers told Reuters the agency felt Nair’s work “would get caught up in controversy.”

“We were afraid it would bring the wrong kind of attention to the cause of promoting gender equality,” Rogers said by phone from Geneva. He said the European Union had also backed out of the project.

Nair, in Rome to promote “8”, defended her choice, saying it was about a woman’s right to express herself.

“It’s a storm in a teacup frankly. It’s not what the film deserved,” she said.

“My film is inspired by a true story and was written by the person who lived that story. Freedom does not come neatly packaged. It comes with pain,” she said.

“I also wanted to make the film because of the reaction in the West to any woman who lives under a hijab or a burqa. They are usually identified as women who have no rights and are submissive ... which is completely untrue.”

Oberon said the UNDP had put pressure on some film festivals, including Cannes, not to screen “8,” but the UNDP denied this.

Controversy aside, Wenders said he hoped the film as a whole would raise awareness about poverty, especially as the global financial crisis risks diverting aid and developments funds.

“We are full of the best will, but the solution is only with governments,” the German director said.

“(The crisis) might make some nations even less willing to fulfill what they have promised and signed. I am very much afraid that the bill will again be paid by the poorest.”

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