Human Rights Documentaries for Healing: An Interview With United Nations Association Film Festival Founder and Festival Director Jasmina Bojic
Interview by Mehra Marzbani
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If you ask film-festival director, film critic, and educator Jasmina Bojic when she first discovered her love for documentaries, her eyes light up as she recalls her early days as an 18-year-old reporter.
“All of my interviews and reports were exactly like short documentaries. You create stories from three minutes, to half an hour, and then to an hour and a half. It’s a continuation of journalism in a very elaborate and creative way,” Bojic explained during our Zoom conversation.
Yet documentaries are more than just a presentation of the story, according to Bojic. She sees documentary filmmaking and documentaries as educational tools, where the audience can learn more about critical human rights issues such as environmental justice, gender equality, and racism.
“When you have images on the screen, the audience has empathy. With empathy, you are intrigued to learn more. And once you learn more, you become either engaged in the issue that is presented on the screen or you actually help the filmmakers engage in the community and enable the subjects of the films to do something,” says Bojic.
This, she believes, is why human rights documentaries are the answer to the polarized society we live in today.
“Documentaries [can help] bridge the gap and create a space where people can freely talk and express their minds. I wanted to use documentaries to help people open up and start talking about the issues that unify us.”
Cue the United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF). Founded by Bojic in 1998, the festival runs annually in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Stanford University. It takes pride in creating a community forum for discovery and dialogue about different cultures, social issues, and solutions. Not only is UNAFF one of the oldest documentary-only film festivals in the United States, but the first film festival of this kind founded and run continuously for 25 years by a woman.
“I founded the film festival because I wanted to create a forum for our community and for the group of documentary filmmakers to get together and then share with us their wisdom so we can break down barriers and create a better future,” she tells me. “We are facilitators of change.”
Her motivations for founding the festival also stemmed from her work at Stanford University, where she has taught documentary filmmaking for the last 26 years with a focus on human rights issues.
“Twenty-five years ago, I worked with young people who were members of the Stanford Film Society. There were students who were interested in film, but also in activism. As their faculty advisor, I said, ‘Why don’t we just combine the efforts?’ I was inspired by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision of broad engagement through knowledge and politics, so I thought a film festival would be a fantastic project” Bojic adds.
And it certainly was fantastic. What was once a three-day event is now an 11-day one; UNAFF 2022, which was held last October, presented 60 documentaries (selected by 26 Jury members from almost 600 submissions) spotlighting current events from across the globe. Additionally, the festival hosted six panel discussions during which renowned experts covered topics such as civil rights and racism, homelessness, child labor, COVID-19, and the intersectionality of art and mental health. Many of the films the festival has screened over the past 25 years have gone on to secure major accolades, including an Emmy Award, Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Award, and Berlin Film Festival Peace Prize.
With a smile, Bojic recalls the time UNAFF invited prominent filmmaker Barbara Trent to the screening of her documentary The Panama Deception, an Oscar-award winning film about the United States invasion of Panama.
“She actually brought her Oscar to the first screening in ‘98. And I vividly remember everyone lining up to touch the statue. People were really happy not only because they met an Oscar winner, but because her topic generated such a powerful message. There may have been only three or four people in the audience who knew about the Panama Invasion. We frequently get the comment ‘Oh, we didn’t know that,’ and that’s actually become a mantra since I founded the festival,” Bojic mentions.
Since the ubiquity of social media like TikTok has turned younger generations into more savvy media consumers children, too, are discovering the value of documentaries. Through the popular UNAFF & Kids and UNAFF in Schools programs, UNAFF brings screenings to schools, free of admission. Kids ages 7-13 can watch a film surrounding a particular topic (such as water, animals, or climate); following the screening, they have the opportunity to get creative and play games to further their knowledge on that subject. The response, Bojic notes, has been “extremely positive.”
“It’s a very practical and hands-on experience. In UNAFF 2021 we had a beautiful documentary about space–Thomas Verrette’s 2021 film Zero Gravity–and the young kids were really inspired to talk with the filmmakers and subjects of the film after the screening to learn more.. Their parents were happy too!” says Bojic.
One of the schools she has worked with, and continues to work with, is the Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto. Unlike Palo Alto, a hub for Silicon Valley’s “Unicorn” companies, East Palo Alto is populated heavily by minority communities, some of which do not even have access to a theater.
“Sixteen years ago I invited teachers to bring students from East Palo Alto to Stanford for some of the screenings. And I said, ‘Oh, it would be really wonderful if they could see the film, we will definitely give free tickets.’ What happened, actually, is the teachers told us that the students believed they were not worthy to come to Stanford to see the film. That was really shocking to me because I didn’t think it was possible in the 21st Century for any kid to feel they don’t belong. And I said, ‘If they feel like that, we’re going to respect their feelings. But we’ll come to them.’”
Bojic’s work with UNAFF continues to have an impact on many, connecting the Stanford, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto communities so that everybody can experience the unique educational potential of documentary viewing. Her favorite part about her work? Seeing the impact UNAFF has on audiences with her own eyes after each screening. “Everybody is engaged in a creative discussion about our common future. There are some tears and there are some hugs, and those are really rewarding and motivating moments for my dedicated team and myself alike.”
For additional information about UNAFF films, special screenings, events, and more, go to their website. To donate to UNAFF, please visit this page. Filmmakers can submit their documentary to the 26th UNAFF here. UNAFF 2023 will run from October 19-29, 2023 in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, San Francisco and Stanford University.