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Harry Belafonte Addresses IFP & U.N. Joint Forum, “Envision”

July 11th, 2010 · No Comments · Keynote Speech

Keynote Speech: Harry Belafonte

Envision: Addressing Global Issues Through Documentaries

A Joint Program of IFP and the United Nations’ Department of Public Information


New York, NY

July 10, 2010

By Brian Geldin

Photo by Erin Essemmacher.

The Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) and the United Nations Department of Public Information (UN DPI) presented its second annual “Envision: Addressing Global Issues through Documentaries” forum yesterday at TheTimesCenter in New York City. The event combined film presentations with substantive, live-audience discussions on pressing global issues. The U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) served as the focal point. The Spotlight Focus for was exploring creative solutions to our global education crisis, specifically focusing on the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education. World-renowned actor, musician and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Harry Belafonte (who my generation might best remember his song “Day-O, The Banana Boat Song” in the famous dinner table dance scene of Tim Burton’s 1988 classic, Beetlejuice,”) presented the keynote address. More of my notes (and fellow contributor Erin Essenmacher) from further panels and discussions at Envision will be posted soon here on The Film Panel Notetaker.

Belafonte began by saying he came to Envision wearing several hats that are filled with passion: for children, for the United Nations Children’s Fund, for people, for the arts and for filmmaking. Belafonte’s Goodwill Ambassadorship for the past quarter-century for UNICEF was based upon him putting together a campaign called “We Are the World,” which had a lot to do with conditions of children in Africa. “I am particularly happy to be engaged in the mission of Envision,” Belafonte said. “I don’t think there’s any one thing more important and certainly no greater cause to which the entire human family can commit itself to the welfare of the children of our planet.”

Belafonte said he’s had the pleasure of working on many campaigns that have tried to do remarkable things in places that need remarkable solutions, most of which are complicated. In Jennifer Arnold’s documentary, A Small Act (which screened immediately after Belafonte’s remarks and premiers Monday on HBO) deals with the country (Kenya) that he said he has had great history with. He said he was deeply moved by the film, not only for the magnificence of its content (about a Harvard graduate and human rights lawyer for the U.N. who creates a scholarship program in the name of the generous Swedish woman who once sponsored him when he was a student in Kenya, for impoverished Kenyan primary school students today), but with the clear use of language and vision to impart a simple idea that no act is too small to make a difference.

In 2004, Belafonte said he went to Kenya when its President at the time made a declaration that all of the public schools would be free for children to attend, but no one understood how that might translate to a population. Over a million children signed up on the say the schools were open, and the facilities were way too minimal to meet the urgency. UNICEF evaluated the conditions and initially contributed $25 million to open up facilities and find teachers, but much of that vision has since eroded. He said A Small Act does much to describe how despite the difficulties in Kenya, there’s so much that the world at large can do to make a difference for children.

Belafonte said he first came to know Kenya through the U.N. One of his closest friends was Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a great force in the creation of this institution, particularly in the writing of the declaration of human rights. Along with Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson and others, they put together an airlift for 143 Kenyan students that was in violation of an agreement with Great Britain and America, but they did it anyway, to place them in universities across America. One of the men in these groups of Kenyans was someone who gave life to the current President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.

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