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Popoli, Desert Nights fests open

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ROME -- Italy's oldest documentary festival and a new environmental film fest both kick off Thursday, with the venerable Festival dei Popoli in Florence and the one-off Desert Nights festival in the Italian capital both starting seven-day runs.

The Festival dei Popoli -- also known as the International Documentary Film Festival -- will be in its 47th edition, screening more than 100 documentaries with in-competition screenings for both Italian and international productions. Traditional documentary-producing countries such as the U.S., Britain and host Italy are well represented in a program that also includes fare from Iceland, Colombia, Taiwan and Lebanon.

Additionally, for the first time, Florentine University Lorenzo di Medici will award a special prize of €2,500 ($3,300) for the best documentary as selected by a special student jury -- one of the new innovations festival director Mario Simondi said he was proud of.

"We have a tradition of calling attention to some of the best documentaries produced this year, and this is an opportunity to recognize more great work," Simondi said in an interview.

The Desert Nights festival is sponsored by the United Nations Secretariat for Desertification as part of a broader effort to call attention to the increasingly critical environmental problem. The festival will screen an array of films that feature the desert, either as part of the story or in documentary form. The U.N. has declared 2006 the International Year of the Desert.

The festival is headed by former Locarno International Film Festival artistic director Irene Bignardi, who in August was appointed president of FilmItalia, the agency that promotes Italian films abroad. Though heading Desert Nights while also establishing herself as the new FilmItalia chief was a lot of work, Bignardi said she agreed to the double duty because of the importance of the one-off Rome festival.

"This is a very important issue and I believe we can call increased attention to it with an event like the Desert Nights festival," Bignardi said in an interview.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan agreed, issuing a statement in support of the event.

"The world of film festivals may seem far removed from the issue of desertification, but Desert Nights connects them with an urgent message: desertification, the loss of productive land, must be halted if we are to protect the livelihood of more then 1 billion people," Annan said.

In addition to screening some 80 films from 37 countries, the festival will include a series of panel discussions designed to increase awareness of the issue of desertification.

Both festivals run through Dec. 7.