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Celebrating the True Values of Documentary: The United Nations Association Film Festival

By Lily Ng

From 'Nisha,' Duco Tellegen's portrait of an 11-year old Indian girl who lives in a slum, unaware she is infected with HIV.

In the lobby of an oft-used auditorium at Stanford University, tables sheathed in white cloth and brimming with sandwiches, crudités, hors d'oeuvres and cold drinks line the room. Guests browse about, waiting for the heavy double doors of the theatre to open.  You'd think it was Oscar night, or at least a gala event at a major film festival, but it's the lavish opening night for the small, but influential United Nations Association Film Festival.  And thanks to its founder and executive director, Jasmina Bojic, it has the feel and glamour of a major festival, but also the warmth and welcome that bigger festivals lack. "All the food and drinks were donated by Whole Foods and other local sponsors," Bojic says. "Whatever we don't use goes to the homeless shelter."

That's one of the ways that UNAFF, a nonprofit film festival, remains in contact with its community—an extension of the major themes and tenets of the film festival itself. "This festival is not financed by the United Nations, nor are we affiliated with them," says Bojic.  Sponsored by the nonprofit United Nations Association and the Stanford Film Society, the festival has been bringing filmmakers and the community together for five years. This year the festival took place October 24-27, with additional screenings in nearby San Francisco.

"There's amazing interest from people to see the films that we offer," maintains Bojic. In order to heighten the interest, she shows two or three films per screening, about nine or ten per day. The films are grouped not by similarity of content, but by complementary issues. One screening session offered China 21, a lyrical documentary that follows four families as their country lurches toward the 21st century. "The title is significant for a number of reasons," says producer Lambert Yam. "Through the film, we're revealing how China is meeting the 21st century by talking a great deal to the generation of Chinese who are in their late teens and early 20s. This is the first generation to come of age after the Cultural Revolution, which is really significant."  In the same afternoon, audiences also saw Nisha, Duco Tellegen's portrait of an 11-year old Indian girl who lives in a slum, unaware she is infected with HIV. Another screening program,  "Underground Zero," included 13 short docs by indie filmmakers grappling with the resounding effects of September 11, 2001. All were preceded by a one-minute animated flash movie on a similar theme, Three Blind Mice. "We don't make a lot of money off ticket sales," Bojic explains. "But it's a way to get films screened and seen."

Passionate about documentary as a forum for social truth, Bojic sees the purpose of the festival and of documentary film as one of bringing awareness and involvement to both local and global issues. "Become a member, do something," she urges. "[Documentary film] is a vehicle for action and to make a positive change in the world."  As for the state of documentary film today, Bojic adds, "Documentaries, more and more, are becoming entertainment because that is what can be sold. We try not to present sensationalist films; there's a place for that--on TV, for example. These are artistic films with values that are rarely seen anywhere else. This festival is about going back to the true values of documentary film."

The 2002 festival showcased 28 films from five continents and 26 countries.  "The festival is really unique," Bojic maintains.  "It's small, but filmmakers are supported by their governments and cultural centers and are able to come to the festival and promote their films. Also, it doesn't matter if a film has won awards or not. It may not be accepted through the jury process. But a film could be made a year ago or 30 years ago. There's no limit there. It doesn't have to be current. We care about the cross-cultural connections, about unifying countries."  A recent vote by Variety as one of the top 500 film festivals in the world has given the festival, which is solely run by volunteers, significant clout. And its popularity is growing. Bojic is already fielding calls from hundreds of filmmakers who want to submit films for next year's festival.

In response to a demand and a need to show the films nationally, a traveling arm of the festival was established in 2000. Screenings were organized in Washington, DC,  Philadelphia, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Salt Lake City and Monterey, California. "That's the main idea: to bring films to communities in order to connect educational institutions, students, filmmakers and the public," says Bojic. "Being able to view the documentaries is a way [for audiences] to educate themselves; docs are a way to get facts and learn about issues. Docs are not political ‘jargon.' They bring facts not solutions. The message and the issues are extremely important."


Lily Ng is the executive producer of Happily Even After, a narrative feature.  She lives in San Francisco.