Art Despite Everything: The Sarajevo Film Festival
It’s late summer in Sarajveo and the blackberries alongside the mountain road are deep, glistening purple and ready to pick. But no one dares go near them, not with the small red signs every few hundred yards warning of land mines. Four UN peacekeepers were killed earlier in the week defusing some of these deadly calling dards left behind after the four-year siege of Sarajevo—the longest in modern history.
The war has effectively been over for five years, ever since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in 1995, and, predictably, world attention has wandered on to other crises—Kosovo, East Timor, the Middle East. But while Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has been bumped from the front pages, it is still a wounded nation, struggling to overcome lingering effects of war. Unemployment iin the capital city of Sarajevo stands at 70 percent. Housing is either in ruins or in dispute. Ethnic divisions have hardened—a mindshift that’s evident in countless details, like the fact that no one there refers to the “Serbo-Croatian” language anymore. It’s “Serbian” or “Bosnian” or “Croatian,” depending on who you talk to.
But healing is taking place. It’s apparent in the newly pastered facades and the pervasive dust of reconstruction. Its in the reopening of shoops and the return of outdoor cafés and casual evening promenades in the city center. And it’s in cultural events like the Sarajevo International Film Festival, which is trying to rebuild the country’s filmmaking infrastructure at the same time as it’s offering local residents a pleasant night out on the town.
THE FILM FESTIVAL GREW OUT OF A WARTIME EFFORT centered at the Obala Art Center, which adopted a stance of “Art...Despite Everything.” The possibility of live theater was effectively stopped by the siege, so theater director Mirsad Purivatra redirected his focus and opened a small 100-seat cinema, the War Cinema Appolo, which used video projection to exhibit the miscellaneous tapes that had on hand.
“One of the first who came to Sarajevo was Phil Robinson, who directed Field of Dreams,” recalls Purivatra over an expresso in Obala’s outdoor café, which now serves as the meeting place for film festival participants. “He came as a journalist in ’92 or ’93—in the beginning of the war. When he saw our cinema, he sent thousands of tapes through American soldiers.”
The cinema took off. As Purivatra proudly admits, “We did quite a good job, in spite of the shelling. People started to go to the cinema. It was sold out all the time.” The videos were a mix of arthouse and commercial films, and produced a number of local hits, such as Basic Instinct, which packed the theater for 20 days straight. “But it’s strange; one of our guys who saw the film was more impressed by the luxury and food than by Sharon Stone. That was a time when it was better to see light and food than a naked actress,” Purivatra laughs, then continues: “Some journalists reported about the War Cinema, and after that the Locarno and Edinburgh Film Festivals, French Film Institute, and Swiss Pro Helvetie sent messages through journalists and asked how to come.” In the winter of ‘94/95, people and programs from these European film organizations started to arrive, then later in 1995 the first Sarajevo Film Festival was officially launched by Purivatra and Izeta Gradjevic with 37 films from 15 countries and over a dozen international guests.
“Everyone was happy to be here, but very afraid also,” says Purivatra. Small surprise, given the sandbags stacked in front of the theater’s entrance and other pointed reminders of a state of siege. “Those days it was relatively calm, but no one knew; it was possible to be bombed. During the war, it was strange; maybe you’d have seven days with no bombings, and then next, one bomb would kill 20 people. Always it was a big risk.”
In the five years since, Sarajevo has been helped enormously by friends in foreign places. You see signs of it walking through the city streets: the shiny yellow fleet of buses, a gift from the Japanese; the burnt National Library being reconstructed thanks to the Austrians, who built it in the first place during their reign last century; the art center, orphans’ home, and various housing developments being renovated by foreign governments, each prominently credited on the ubiquitous construction signs.
The same thing has occurred within the film community. With the Sarajevo Film Festival acting as a conduit, the Goteborg Film Festival contributed a precious 16mm camera and editing table, and this year announced a much-needed production fund for BiH filmmakers, which will award $10,000 to the winner. A Swiss arthouse provided projectors for the festival, and more recently the Rotterdam Film Festival with the Hivos Foundation gave mobile projection equipment to take films into schools around the country. Now the British Council is in discussions with Purivatra about holding one of the their “Know How” training seminars in Sarajevo, which brings in film professionals to educate local filmmakers on ways to produce and pitch work for the international market.
Now that the festival’s raison d’etre is no longer pure psychic survival, Purivatra is trying to turn it into a regional meeting ground for filmmakers and industry players from the former Yugoslavia. It’s a tall order, for this kind of regional cooperation runs counter to a competing impulse towards fractionalization that’s splintering the region’s people and resources. That has affected such things as the television industry; after the Dayton Accord gave Serbs control of 49% of BiH’s territory and a Muslim-Croat Federation 51%, the national television has split into two stations. Network journalists now barely make a living wage, and BiH’s TV production has dwindled to a trickle.
Resources must be pooled to survive, in Purivatra’s view. In order to coast that along, the festival has undertaken several initiatives. This year a small Television Festival accompanied the theatrical features. In addition to tapes of dramatic series and programs, the two-day event brought in reps from TV stations in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, and Bulgaria. Side by side, former rivals sat during a morning roundtable discussion, sharing laments of plummeting production. One BiH editor made a plea for regional cooperation to help protect local culture from being pushed off the airwaves by inexpensive American series. “We need a Program Bank to deposit our programs which can be made free for broadcast amongst ourselves”—a low-maintenance idea that found favor among some. No one knows yet what might come out of this sidebar event, but Purivatra is hoping it might grow into something along the lines of Rotterdam’s CineMart—where commissioning editors and development people meet with regional filmmakers in order to initiate cofinancing and coproduction deals. Just getting these folks together in one room was the first incremental step in that direction.
Another program of quite a different order also brings Serbs, Bosnians, and Croatians together for the sake of film, and that’s the massively popular Children’s Program. Seven Disney films, from Toy Store to Lady and the Tramp to Air Bud, were seen free of charge of 3,000 ecstatically screaming children and their parents. All seemed unfazed by the subtitles, with the younger ones content to watch Disney-style mischief and mayhem erupt on the screen. But more significantly, this was the first year that the festival bused in kids from all over the BiH, including the Serbian territory Srpska, and no disturbance was created by the fact that all were squeezed together on the bleacher seats.
“Six or even two years ago, we wouldn’t have imagined kids from Republika Srpska here in Sarajevo,” says Elma Hadziredzepovic, one of five film students at the local arts academy and curator of the festival’s Bosnia sidebar. “It’s hard to send your kids to a place where you think the enemies are. But we’re getting over that problem. If this year there are one hundred to two hundred children bused in from Banjaluka, I think next year they’ll come by themselves. And the year after, we’ll work together on a film—because we do not live separately.”
UNDER A BALMY NIGHT SKY, 2,500 FILMGOERS in the Open Air cinema watch a clip from Fargo. Steve Buscemi plays a kidnapper who is going completely ballistic when the wrong man shows up with the ransom money, then he gets shot in the jaw. Afterwards, the actor/director, the subject of the festival’s first Tribute program, trots on stage to wild applause and graciously thanks the festival and audience. He then turns to his nine-year-old son seated below (who has never before seen any of his father’s more violent and foul-mouthed films), sternly shakes his finger and says, “Don’t use this language at home!”
Later in the week, we chat outside a children’s workshop being conducted by his wife, choreographer and filmmaker Jo Andres. The couple have a long relationship with the festival organizers, whom Andres first met at a theater festival in Spain in 1989, then stayed in touch with throughout the war. Several years ago, Andres created an emotionally powerful short film about domestic life under the siege, Black Kites, based on the diaries of one of these theater friends. She was surprised to learn that the arts center we’re now in was in fact the very building whose basement her friend hid in during those dark, dangerous years.
Buscemi says, “It’s extra meaningful for us to be here because they’re such good friends of ours and we’re really trying to support what they’re trying to do. I really made a point that, no matter what I was doing, I would be here.”
In addition to his regular festival duties (film introductions, a televised discussion with Panorama curator Howard Feinstein, a party in his honor at the U.S. Ambassador’s home), Buscemi agreed to do a PSA about land mines, along with Willen Defoe, star of Buscemi’s latest directional outing, the prison drama Animal Factory. As with many foreign guests, the country’s nightmare period has registered deeply with Buscemi.
“It’s frightening to think how close everything was,” he says. “The city’s layout sort of reminds me of L.A.—if you can imagine West L.A. being attacked by people in the hills. It’s that close. And it’s a small city. I just can’t imagine how people lived that way for four years—without electricity, without access to water.”
By now, the festival has figured out that international guests who make their way to Bosnia and Herzegovina want to see more than just films and Absolute concoctions. So instead of offering a heavy party schedule, the festival organizes a number of tours. There’s a visit to the former front lines on the mountains overlooking the city, lead by a no-nonsense retired General, Jovan Divjak, who served as Deputy of the High Commander of the BiH Army during the siege. There’s lunch at a trout farm that was once a favorite haunt of Communist capos before the breakup of Yugoslavia. And there’s a daylong excursion to Mostar, once “the pearl of Bosnia” and now a divided and scarred city, and the nearby Blagaj, where a meditation temple for dervishes is nestled under a towering cliff from which springs an icy-col crystalline stream.
As we gawk at the splendor and devastation of BiH, Sarajevans in turn get to stare at the celebrities in town—Buscemi, Defoe, Mike Leigh, and Bono, among others. And residents get a rare opportunity to watch 115 selections of contemporary world cinema. Once boasting 142 theaters, BiH now has just 17 and virtually no international distributors doing business there. So this is probably residents’ one-and-only chance to see recent releases like American Beauty, Jesus’ Son, Topsy Turvy, and La Ciudad, as well as films now on the festival circuit, like Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. No less important, the festival offers a Regional Program with features from Poland, Finland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, and Croatia.
Three years ago, the festival added another critical component: the Bosna Program. Begun when Ademir Kenovic’s The Perfect Circle was the first feature to emerge from the wreckage, this sidebar has since showcased mainly shorts and student work, reflecting the tough reality of production in BiH. So, too, does the Insert Program, a new section this year that shows short works from BiH shot on video.
Admittedly, a number of these productions lose something in the translation, like Selimir Sokolovic’s The Secret of the Mobile Phone. A simple scenario that was edited using two VHS decks, this video shows a young slacker with his cell phone on a street corner trying with all his might to persuade a female friend to come outside. She blows him off—”her hair is wet,” but he persists, trying the same lines again and again—or so the subtitles would make it seem. However, the Bosnia audience was in stitches listening to his ineffectual monologue, andlocal jury awarded it the Kodak Prize, so it seems this character’s rap just didn’t translate.
Many others, BiH works needed no translation, however, like the three shorts on opening night, all of which dealt with the recent war. The Abyss, for instance, was virtually a silent movie, showing the meticulous unearthing of massacred bodies in a mass grave and their identification by wailing relatives, who often have nothing more to go on then the pattern of a plaid jacket. The 26-year-old filmmaker, Adis Bakrac, got his start at age 16 as a cameraman during the war for a local TV station. A recent graduate from Sarajevo’s film school, he’s anxious to move on to a dramatic feature he’s written, one that’s “about my generation after the war: what’s their future?”
When I ask him what he imagines his own future to be, Bakrac states, “I’m here, even though it’s hard to freelance and there are no foundations to help.” Unlike many of his peers, he intends to stay in Sarajevo and develop projects and international coproductions through INK, a five-person film and video production group he cofounded. But when our interview ends, Bakrac appears less resolute. “What do you think I should do?” he asks.
I later pose the question to Purivatra, who must have constant conversations with local artists about staying versus going. “It’s a personal question,” he responds. “One one side, I know that many of them would be lost outside. I know that in America it’s not easy for Americans to get a chance to shoot a film, so imagine the difficulties of a Bosnian. I decided to stay here, and sometimes I’m depressed, but sometimes I’m very happy that I stayed.”
Others are glad he stayed, too, given the role that the Sarajevo Film Festival has played in the city’s recovery. As Buscemi observes, “One of the tragedies of the conflict is that a lot of good people left—smart young people, who haven’t come back. For those who have stayed, it’s been really. hard. You can’t go through something like that and it’s over just because it’s over. So there’s a struggle to keep positive. One of the ways. to do that is the film festival; it’s a great idea. But inviting other people to come in, hopefully it gives them a sense of pride that people are interested.” With its attendance climbing every year, it’s clear that people are interested. And with Purivatra’s plans for a regional meeting ground, it’s possible the Sarajevo Film Festival just might turn into the pearl of southern Europe.
Published in the November 2000 issue of The Independent Film & Video Monthly.