Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

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17 Sept

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Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land (2000)SARAJEVO
Brighter than all the stars in Hollywood
The 7th Sarajevo Film Festival provides hope to Bosnians

Sarajevo's film festival is not just a cinematic event but also a source of national optimism. Brian J Požun takes in the inspirational atmosphere.

In seven short years, the Sarajevo Film Festival has become the leading showcase for regional film production and one of the few success stories in post-war Bosnia.

The first festival was held in 1995, during the height of the bloody siege of Sarajevo. Over 12 days, 15,000 people showed up to watch 37 films from 15 countries. More an act of defiance than a proper festival, most of the films shown were video cassettes culled from personal collections.

In 1996, the second festival attracted 25,000 viewers and the following year the number doubled. The next several years saw the festival expand still further. Last year, 60,000 people saw 115 films from 35 countries.

With this year's event, the Sarajevo Film Festival once again proved its significance for Bosnia and the region. In nine days, from 19 to 25 August, almost 70,000 people took in 120 films. The program ranged from Hollywood blockbusters to Bosnian classics to obscure shorts, but the local and regional films were by far and away the biggest attractions.

A cosmopolitan line-up

International films were screened in several programs. The New Currents program was devoted to features and shorts by first-time directors from all over the world. The Panorama program was also cosmopolitan, featuring several top-shelf films including Julian Schnable's Before Night Falls (2000), Michael Cuesta's LIE (2001) and Marzieh Meshkini's Roozi khe zan shodam (The Day I Became a Woman, 2000).

The festival also continued its tradition of one-man retrospectives, this year focusing on the work of Stephen Frears of Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and High Fidelity (2000) fame.

But the biggest hit of the international half of the festival program was the Open Air section. Aside from the fact that this section featured the biggest blockbuster films of the past year (Pearl Harbor, Bridget Jones's Diary, Shrek, Moulin Rouge), there was another major draw—the theatre itself.

A screening at the Open Air Cinema
An open-air screening
Opened in 1996 for the second Sarajevo Film Festival, the Open Air Cinema sits inside a city block in downtown Sarajevo. It essentially consists of a giant screen suspended from one building with 2500 seats arranged in front of it. All nine screenings were sold out several weeks before the festival opened. Every evening, the outside theatre quickly filled to capacity.

When it opened, the Open Air Cinema was a major statement. After more than three years of war and the siege of Sarajevo that virtually forbade city residents from going outdoors for fear of snipers, the fact that 2500 people could sit under the open sky in the middle of Bosnia’s capital was a major psychological triumph. Now, six years later, international and even native festival-goers may have been less aware of the significance of the theatre for war-time Sarajevo, but they certainly enjoyed the unique experience the venue provides nevertheless.

Hometown hero

The cosmopolitan line-up was a major temptation for the average Bosnian who has limited access to international film, but the most anticipated film of the festival was No Man's Land (Ničija zemlja, 2001), directed by hometown hero Danis Tanović (See Ilya Marritz's article in this issue of Kinoeye Caught in the middle).

Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land (2000)
A hit at Cannes and in Sarajevo
The sum total production of Bosnian cinematography in 1999 was nothing; last year it was just a few short films. But 2001 was a tremendous year for Bosnia thanks to No Man's Land. The film made a splash at its international debut at this year's Cannes Film Festival, winning the prestigious award for best screenplay.

Though the film is an international production filmed in Slovenia, the film will compete for the Foreign Language Film category at the American Academy Awards as the official entry of Bosnia and Hercegovina.

A tremendous inspiration for local film professionals and students, No Man's Land opened the Sarajevo festival to a crowd of 3000 that squeezed into the Open Air theatre space—its intended capacity being only 2500.

The heart of the festival

Together with the all-important screening of No Man's Land, it was certainly the Regional Program that proved the Sarajevo Film Festival's worth. Every night the theatre was so full that even the stairs were packed. It seemed that the majority of the audience was Bosnian or from the region, and virtually every showing was sold out.

Radivoje Andric's Munje! (Thunderbirds!, 2001)
A welcome break from the introspection
Seven features and six shorts were drawn from all five of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, as well as from Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. The overwhelming highlights were two films from Yugoslavia, Ljubiša Samardžić's Nataša (Natasha, 2001) and Radivoje Andrić's Munje! (Thunderbirds!, 2001). Both films were audience favorites and drew huge crowds, even though political tension between Bosnia and Hercegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia remains quite high.

The much-hyped Nataša proved something of a disappointment, but Munje! was definitely a crowd pleaser. The hilarious story of two teenage Belgraders (riotously played by Sergej Trifunović and Boris Milivojević) and their attempt to form the first Serbian drum n' bass band.

Director Radivoje Andrić sums up Munje! as "...something like American Graffiti, only in Belgrade today, and instead of rock 'n' roll the music was drum and bass with a lot of shouting." After years and years of films exploring the legacy of the past ten years in the former Yugoslavia, the simplicity and humor of Munje! is a welcome break.

Bruno Gamulin's Polagana predaja (Slow Surrender, 2001)
Polagana predaja : Croatia at Sarajevo
Other features in the regional program included the Bulgarian Stefan Komandarev's Pansion za kucheta (Dog Pansion, 2000), the Croatian Bruno Gamulin's Polagana predaja (Slow Surrender, 2001) and the Albanian Gjergj Xhuvani's Slogans (2001).

The Slovene contribution was Martin Srebotnjak's Oda Prešerenu (Ode to the Poet, 2001). The film won the Audience Choice award at the national film festival in Portorož, and is an iconoclastic take on the central figure of Slovene culture, poet France Prešeren.

Srebotnjak comments:

Every nation has its own great myth, and most of them were already dealt with centuries ago. Slovenians have France Prešeren and no one ever dared to touch him, making him a contradiction of himself: suddenly this merrymaker became a saint, and the nightmare of every school child. And of all filmmakers it just had to be me to doubt the sterile myth, the perfect packaging, and make a comedy out of it.

The final film in the Regional Program was the only feature film made in Bosnia in the past year; Faruk Sokolovic's Mliječni put (Milky Way, 2000). The film's well-crafted plot tells the story of two Bosnian couples, one Croat and one Muslim, who desperately want to emigrate to New Zealand. Unfortunately, ethnically mixed couples take precedence. When both couples are refused visas, they hatch a plot to switch partners that seems like a good idea at the time, but quickly unravels once they get to the airport.

Of the six short films in the Regional Program, the Bosnian Aida Begić's Prvo smrtno iskustvo (First Death Experience, 2000) deserves special mention. Shown this year at the Cannes festival, the 24-minute film is uniquely Bosnian. Dado Bratović is a young comic book illustrator who survived the war, but is left without any form of identification documents. The short, as engaging and entertaining as any feature, portrays his vain travails in trying to re-establish his legal existence.

Cooperation, inspiration and information

The festival also included a program simply called Insert, which was dedicated to new Bosnian video works. In all, 15 VHS-format short films from the past year were included. There was also a Special Program with eight more recent Bosnian video projects.

The festival thus proved to be a major showcase for new Bosnian cinema. But festival organizers did not limit themselves to just putting contemporary local films on display. As an inspiration for Bosnians and as an important insight for festival guests another program, titled Partisan Westerns, featured classics from Bosnia’s cinema history.

Hajrudin Siba Krvavac Valter brani Sarajevo (Walter, the Defender of Sarajevo, 1972)
The Bosnian Wild West
All five in the program were the work of director Hajrudin Šiba Krvavac (1926-1992), a "pioneer of Bosnian film." Each film portrays the heroism of the Partisan forces during the Second World War, while using the conventions of the American Western. The films shown date from 1964 to 1979, with the highlight being 1972's Valter brani Sarajevo (Walter, the Defender of Sarajevo).

The future of Bosnian cinematography

The festival catalogue quotes Regional Program organizer Elma Tataragić as saying,

[t]he goal of this [Regional] Program is also the long-term goal of the Sarajevo Film Festival: to offer an opportunity to directors, producers, screenwriters, actors and all those who work in film in this region a place for socializing, and for promotion, presentation and creation of potential joint projects.

Aside from the moral support provided by the Regional Program, the special attention paid to No Man's Land and other recent and classic Bosnian films, the Sarajevo Film Festival also gave local filmmakers and students a measure of practical support.

Perhaps the most important was the New Bosnian Cinema Co-Production Project (NBCCPP). The idea was to give aspiring Bosnian directors and producers the opportunity to present their film projects to a commission composed of producers, script consultants and fund representatives in hopes of finding new support and resources.

To participate in the NBCCPP, filmmakers had to have already-established projects with finished scripts and 30 percent of their budgets secured. In total, four such films-in-progress were presented to the commission.

A battery of workshops targeted at young Bosnian film directors and producers that dealt with practical issues of film-project development was also organized, along with a two-day seminar for students with the goal of increasing local capacity in the art of film criticism.

Much-needed humanitarian aid

The seemingly unassuming Children's Program actually is one of the Sarajevo Film Festival's most spectacular features. The films, including The Emperor's New Groove, 102 Dalmatians and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, were donated and tickets were given free of charge to children two hours before the twice-daily showings.

Every day, 4500 children were transported from towns and villages throughout Bosnia by the European Commission and SFOR. Children from the Republika Srpska interacted with their counterparts from the Croat-Muslim Federation as they all enjoyed quite possibly the first big-screen film they had ever seen. All told, almost 35,000 Bosnian children were brought to the Festival in a remarkable, albeit unorthodox, gesture of humanitarianism.

Understanding Bosnia

The attention paid to local and regional film was far from the only measure festival organizers took to ensure guests walked away with a sense of Sarajevo and Bosnia and Hercegovina. One of the central features of the festival was a spectacular schedule of excursions, designed to give journalists and other guests a fuller understanding of the host country and its history.

Several times during the festival, walking tours of Sarajevo were organized, along with a tour of the city's former frontlines, led by General Jovan Divjak, the retired leader of the Territorial Defense of the former Yugoslavia and the Deputy High Commander of the Bosnian army during the war.

Excursions took guests to the idyllic town of Zunovica, just outside of Sarajevo, as well as to the ravaged city of Mostar and the nearby medieval Dervish Monastery at Blagaj.

Poster for the 7th Sarajevo Film FestivalThe Sarajevo Film Festival, taken at face value, certainly lives up to its name, offering a complete and diverse schedule of screenings. However, it is so much more than that. The festival brings important international films to domestic audiences, including children raised in time of war, who would otherwise have no chance to see them. It also provides an international venue for local productions overlooked elsewhere. Foreign guests are offered rare glimpses of Sarajevo and Bosnia and Hercegovina today—peace mingling with tension, reconstruction with ruins—and are adeptly guided through it all by festival organizers and staff.

As well as the history of the country being given, the background to the festival iself was also presented. In 1993, Dutch filmmaker Johan van der Keuken began a short film about the siege of Sarajevo and the first Sarajevo Film Festival. The short, called The Sarajevo Film Festival Film (1993), screened at this year's festival. As the American film critic Howard Feinstein desribes it:

[It revolves] around one young woman, whom we see enraptured as she watches a movie ("the only place I can show emotion") and struggling to survive outside the movie theatre. Her mother has been killed, her father needs care; she is responsible for everything. If ever there was a story about the power of film, this is it.

Just as the first Sarajevo Film Festival in 1995 was conceived to offer hope to all those trapped in the besieged city, the latest continues as a beacon of light to the people of all of Bosnia, brighter than any of the stars in Hollywood.

Brian J Požun

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About the author

Brian J Požun writes for Central Europe Review on Slovene and Balkan affairs. He is the author of "Slovenia" in the forthcoming 2001 edition of Freedom House's Nations in Transit annual report and Shedding the Balkan Skin: Slovenia's quiet emergence in the new Europe.

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