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ROME — UN-sponsored eco-themed film fest Desert Nights: Tales From the Desert kicks off in Rome Friday, just as Hollywood has developed a taste for green themes.

Weeklong (Dec. 1-7) one-off event dedicated to the desertification plague and to raising awareness about how the planet is drying up, sees some 80 titles unspooling, including new pics, docus, and classics from 37 countries.

Most works are from areas hardest hit by desertification, which affects more than 1 billion people.

Pics include this year’s most lauded African titles, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Daratt” (Dry Season) and Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Bamako” (The Court), and also Belgian helmer Marion Hansel’s “Sounds of Sand” about the struggle of an African family to find water in the sub-Saharan desert, as well as Spanish documaker Gerardo Olivares’ “The Great Match,” which depicts folks in desert tribes going through superhuman efforts to see a soccer World Cup final.

“The films are not just a bleak litany of problems,” said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a statement. “Most of all, they reveal the vibrancy and optimism that abound in these places.”

Former Locarno chief Irene Bignardi is artistic topper of Desert Nights, being held in Rome’s Casa del Cinema. Several confabs are skedded, with Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh and Green Movement guru Fred Pearce, author of “When the Rivers Run Dry,” among guest speakers.

The idea is to “inform the public at large, through the magic of cinema, about the daily lives, the stories, the struggles and the dreams of people who live in the drylands,” said Bignardi, adding she hopes to get at least some of these pics to travel internationally as a package.

2006 is the Intl. Year of Deserts and Desertification under the Rio de Janeiro United Nations Convention to fight this plague.