Why a War During a Film Festival? A History of the Sarajevo Film Festival

By Trevor Laurence Jockims

© Trevor Laurence Jockims, 2012

The Sarajevo Film Festival (SFF) was founded in 1995, while the city was still under siege. During its first year, just thirty-five films were screened, although an impressive ten thousand guests—mostly Sarajevans themselves—attended these screenings. Since then, the Sarajevo Film Festival, now entering its eighteenth year, has become the premiere film festival in the region, and the only to exclusively showcase Balkan film culture. Last year, over two hundred films were screened and more than a hundred thousand people visited the city for the festival, making it clear that the SFF now performs the dual function of promoting Balkan films within and beyond the region. As Drake Stuteman notes in an article discussing the SFF’s eleventh annual festival in 2005:

Regional movies [from the Balkans] are typically hard to promote … and the [Sarajevo film] festival, as an outreach of its area to a wider audience ... [stands] as a crucial, and much needed, blending of today’s global politics and art (134).

Certainly, as Stuteman indicates, the festival is not without its geo-political resonance, a resonance particularly inescapable given that the events of the violent break up of the former Yugoslavia are still quite visible in the city of Sarajevo itself; indeed, this history makes up an important part of the SFF event.

sff 1993It may be that the phoenix-like associations that are often made between the festival and the city that created it are in danger of what W.G. Sebald has described as the inevitable retreat into sentimentality that one is likely to make when attempting to confront difficult histories directly; nevertheless, the history of the festival—those first years during the siege—stands as an irresistible root and symbol of the kind of work that the festival has simultaneously attempted to articulate and move beyond. Indeed, if one wishes to locate the beginnings of the Sarajevo Film Festival, and the linkages between this origin and the festival’s present form, it is necessary to go back before its official birth in 1995 to its real origin in 1993—the very center of the siege. It was in this year that theater director Haris Pasović (who also directed a production of Waiting for Godot in the city with Sontag that same year) organized the first, and only, Sarajevo International Film Festival (SIFF). As Turan describes this one-time-only festival:

Held for ten days in October 1993, in the teeth of the siege and shelling, the Pasović run one-time-only Sarajevo International Film Festival symbolized the furious and foolhardy daring of those determined to watch films …

Film cassettes were smuggled in, workers were paid in cigarettes and flour, and car engines were rigged to run the few available projectors. As one organizer from those first years recalled,

It was a war cinema, one hundred seats and a video beam projector … in spite of the war, in spite of the shelling, it was packed every night we had a showing …The audience reception of films was completely different here. Sharon Stone naked in Basic Instinct, no big comment. But there was a dinner scene in the film that got two minutes of applause.

stamp sff These years from 1993 to 1996 mark the infancy of the festival: in this period, there were never more than twenty thousand visitors to the festival, and often fewer than fifty films screened, most obtained in a random manner that, quite literally, took what it could get, with no formalized submission procedure or clearly delineated genres and competition sections. Then, in 1997, morphed now into the Sarajevo Film Festival, the SFF reached a kind of adolescence: that year, sponsorship expanded, growing from a reliance on humanitarian groups to some corporate sponsorship, notably from Renault and Swissair, among others. Sixty-five films were screened that year, representing twenty-seven countries, and attendance more than doubled from previous years, up now to 45 000.  The Bosnian government proudly issued a postage stamp in commemoration of the 1997 festival. In 2001, the festival reached yet another level of maturity with regards to its position among other European film festivals, and with regards to the festival’s role in growing and encouraging the development of Bosnian film. That year, the European Film Association granted the SFF the ability, along with just eleven other festivals, to nominate shorts for the “Europe’s Best Short Film” competition; more significantly, the winning film from that year’s competition—Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land—went on to win the academy award for best foreign film.

tanovicNow in its eighteenth year, the Sarajevo Film Festival is an influential, established festival on the international circuit. Genres covered include features, shorts, animated films, and documentaries, with competition films from all of the Balkan countries as well as Hungary, Turkey, and the Czech Republic represented. Now that the festival has become the representative of Balkan films, one is inclined to reflect on just how the festival performs this representative work, and how the performance of this work has had an effect within the Balkans, as well as beyond it. The concept of the Balkans as a cultural-political space is both reflected in and shaped by Balkan film, a process magnified by an event such as the SFF, which explicitly aims to “promote Balkan film.” The question of Balkan-ness—is it a geographical region? a political one? a cultural one?—is thoroughly treated in Dina Iordanova’s landmark study of film in the Balkan region, Cinema of Flame. According to Iordanova, the Balkan region is best thought of as a “cultural entity”(6), an entity that is centrally viewed (by the West at least) in terms of its difference from the rest of Europe. This view of the Balkans as an exotisized other is something which, Iordanova argues, is conveyed through films of the region, both as it is read back into the films by Western viewers and as the films themselves, in a process of “projective identification”(221) perpetuate.

poster sff 2007Perusing some of the highlights of the festival in recent years, particularly in terms of the films that have been celebrated and premiered within its schedule, is a very useful way to encapsulate some of the major trends and growth of Bosnian and Balkan film culture and its resonance with the wider political culture of the region. For instance, the role of political and social identity as continuing to shape and impact the film tradition of the region of the former Yugoslavia is exemplified by the year 2009 and 2010 winning films. The film that was awarded the Heart of Sarajevo Award for Best film in 2009 was Ordinary People by Serbian Director Vladimir Perišić and in 2010, Tilva Rosh also by a Serbian director Nikola Ležaić. These were the first Serbian films to win this award in the festival’s history. The films’ success at the festival reflects precisely the aim to promote Balkan film both within and beyond the Balkan region, a process that—particularly in the case of a Serbian film winning best picture in a Sarajevo-hosted film festival—also reflects how the promotion of film culture plays an integral role in promoting the culture of the autonomous regions of the former Yugoslavia collectively. This internal promotion, in turn, increases the influence and exposure the films are able to have outside of their own regions. As the 2010 SFF program describes the aim:

After four years long siege of Sarajevo, and with an intention to recreate civil society of the City, in 1995, we founded the Sarajevo Film Festival. Today, we are proud to say that the Sarajevo Film Festival represents the main meeting place for all regional producers and authors and is recognized by film professionals from all over the world as the pinnacle point for networking for all wishing to learn more about the possibilities this region has to offer.

poster sff 2010The opening screening at the 2010 SFF was Danis Tanović’s Circus Columbia. Bosnian director Tanović is, of course, best known for his 2001 No Man’s Land, which won best picture at the SFF that year, and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The continued involvement of a director of Tanović’s status—he also teaches at the SFF Talent Campus, a weeklong series of master classes and lectures held in conjunction with the festival—speaks to the stature of the festival and of the film industry it continues to foster and promote. In a region that is trying politically, culturally, and economically to return to Europe, it is easy to see a large-scale film festival devoted to the film culture of that region as a major part of this effort. It may not have begun that way, but the SFF now serves the essential role of not just increasing tourist dollars, or simply finding producers for films from its region but, perhaps more essentially, as a way to return the well-earned and, therefore, tragically tarnished, sense of Sarajevo as a cosmopolitan place: a true European capital that, by association, well-reflects its own country and, indeed, the region that the SFF tries to show off to a wider audience. This effort was, of course, there from the very beginning, as more than one viewer at the first years of the festival has attested. Speaking to this fact, Susan Sontag makes the following observation of her experience of being in the city in 1993 while directing Waiting for Godot with Pašović:

Outside a boarded-up movie theatre next to the Chamber Theatre is a sun-bleached poster for The Silence of the Lambs with a diagonal strip across it that says DANAS (today), which was April 6, 1992, the day movie going stopped. Since the war began, all of the movie theatres in Sarajevo have remained shut, even if not all have been severely damaged by shelling. A building in which people gather so predictably would be too tempting a target for guns; anyway, there is no electricity to run a projector.

This history is never far from the self-understanding of the SFF today. The 2009 festival was a landmark that was discussed overtly in the SFF’s own promotional literature in precisely these terms:

This year’s edition of the Sarajevo Film Festival marks a small jubilee … It is a short time for a European festival, but a long way for us, who started it all in a city under siege … We aspired to create a festival that would celebrate life through the celebration of film, promote regional cinematography, affirm young and novel film expression, and establish a platform for the exchange of experience and resources in this part of the world.

jolie and pitt Although this history may seem to rise, or at least separate the SFF from the stargazing associated with other film festivals, it is not entirely inaccurate to use the presence of Hollywood actors as a gauge of the festival’s international status. For better or worse, the presence of an A-list star will help a film festival garner more international press than any other single factor, and this is especially true of a festival like the SFF, which is apt to be rather overlooked by mainstream media. Given this premise, the guest appearance by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the 2011 SFF represented a high watermark in the festival’s ability to garner this kind of star power, and the presence of these two actors certainly gave the festival its widest media coverage to date. Importantly, this was not a mere photo opportunity, since Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, In The Land of Blood and Honey, which treats the war in Bosnia, was promoted prominently at the festival. Her film, which tells the story of a Serb captor and a Muslim prisoner who become, in a fashion, lovers, also gained some international traction, especially for a film about a war that has somehow always failed to capture truly wide attention, and one whose dialogue is in Bosnian no less. The presence of Jolie at the festival, one hopes, marks another graduating step for the SFF—one which will not change the essential core of the festival, but which will simply give that unique core a wider audience. Other significant films from 2011 include, Heart of Sarajevo Award winner for Best Film, Breathing, an Austrian film about a youth who works in a morgue in Vienna who discovers his family name affixed to a corpse, the Competition Program winner for best short film, Mezzanine (Croatia), and the formally inventive Mobitel (A Cellphone Movie), which was shot entirely on a cell phone, and which won the best documentary award. Aida Begić’s second feature film Djeca (Children of Sarajevo), a recent recipient of Special Distinction award at the 65th Cannes Film Festival, opened the 18th Sarajevo Film Festival in July 2012.

sffGiven its own complex roots, the Sarajevo Film Festival seems to be particularly well poised to carry out the work of articulated Balkan and Bosnian cultural space to itself and to others. Confronted by violence, perhaps a film festival—one that still rises up against a whole host of problems, as festival director Mirsad Purivatra humorously writes, “we are used to working under the constant pressure of economic crisis, present in BiH at least as long as the Festival itself, and to such an extent that we have almost failed to notice it becoming a global state”—always seemed like the correct response. As Pasović said when asked how he could conceive of a film festival during the siege: “The question is not, Why a film festival during a war, but Why a war during a film festival?”