At the forefront of film
Stanford's Jasmina Bojic sees documentary film as a powerful tool in human-rights education today
When you ask Jasmina Bojic, educator, film critic and film-festival director, what means most to her about her work, she's apt to mention a young girl in Nepal.
Last year, the United Nations Association Film Festival, the Stanford University-based institution that Bojic founded and heads, screened a documentary called "Big Sister Punam." It followed a motherless girl named Punam Tamang who dreamed of becoming a teacher but had to drop out of school because her family needed her to work.
Immediately after the film, several people in the Palo Alto audience jumped up, wanting to know how to help Punam, Bojic recalled. Ultimately, their contributions helped fund a scholarship for her, and now she's back in school.
"This is something that's fulfilling the purpose of the festival, and it's fulfilling my heart," Bojic said during an interview in her Stanford office surrounded by UNAFF fliers, calendars, pencils and giant posters. Other festival catalogues on her bookshelves have the big names: Sundance, Venice, Tribeca.
Throughout her 20 years at Stanford, Bojic has focused on a common theme in her work: educating people on human-rights issues and other global topics, and illustrating how film can be a vehicle for both teaching and change. At the university, she teaches courses on documentary filmmaking and human rights both for Stanford and for the general public, including her current Continuing Studies class, "Camera as Witness: Women Around the World From Victims to Leaders."
One of her major projects, the all-documentary UNAFF, turns 15 this year and is now ongoing through Oct. 28, with 70 screenings and several talks at Stanford and in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, San Francisco and San Jose. In addition, Bojic founded and directs the Camera as Witness Program, which is in its second year and based at Stanford's School of Education.
Camera as Witness presents the film festival and serves as an expansion of the event throughout the year, with screenings, panel discussions and filmmaker talks. Many of the non-festival events are smaller and presented in more intimate settings such as dorms to spark discussion. The program also has an archive of a few thousand rare documentary films that Stanford folks can use for research.
Bojic said her dream is to have a larger dedicated space on campus for a documentary-film institute, with a library and an auditorium for screenings. The UNAFF happens in various locations on campus and in the community, and "it's always difficult to find venues," she said.
Bojic grew up in the former Yugoslavia, where she attended law school and began working as a film critic in television and radio. She came to Stanford to work on a research project, and when teaching opportunities opened up, she stayed.
(By the way, she's no relation to the Jasmina Bojic who is the pastry chef at The Plaza in Manhattan, though she once met her name twin on a trip to New York.)
Bojic still works as a film critic for several European newspapers and travels widely, attending all the big festivals. But she keeps coming back to Stanford, where she enjoys the students' interest in global issues and the opportunity she has to educate them even more.
"These students are the future politicians and diplomats," she said. "These are the students who are going to be making the future decisions about our lives."
She also appreciates the proximity to East Palo Alto. Early on she decided it was important to have film screenings in this less-privileged area, and to provide free events for students and teachers. "Six years ago, when we started screenings in East Palo Alto, the kids said they were not worthy to come to Stanford to attend screenings," she said. "That was shocking."
Bojic's work at Stanford and with UNAFF has proved popular. The film festival has grown from a three-day affair to an 11-day event that also includes the Camera as Witness and other screenings, including films at the Avenidas senior center in Palo Alto. In 2007, Bojic was honored in Stanford's "Community Treasures" program, in which select Stanford staff were singled out for their community volunteer work.
Bojic follows the films in her festival and clearly takes pleasure in their success. One film from this year, "Inocente," about an undocumented immigrant artist coming of age in a troubling family environment, was just short-listed by the Academy Awards for Best Short Documentary, she said with a broad smile. It will be shown at UNAFF at 3:20 p.m. Oct. 23, at the Eastside College Preparatory School at 1041 Myrtle St. in East Palo Alto.
Bojic founded UNAFF because she wasn't seeing a good crop of documentaries in other festivals, especially those dealing with human rights. When most people thought of documentaries, they thought only of Ken Burns and Michael Moore. Now the genre is flourishing and the number of filmmakers has soared.
"It's a golden age of documentary filmmaking," she said.
Info: For details on the United Nations Association Film Festival, which runs through Oct. 28, go to unaff.org . The Weekly also ran an overview of the festival in its Oct. 5 issue; go to PaloAltoOnline.com and click on "Palo Alto Weekly."