Cinema of War and Peace: Bosnian Film from 1992 to the Present

By Nataša Milas

© Nataša Milas, 2012

Ex Uno Plures: Yugoslav and Post Yugoslav Cinematic Traditions

When in 1991 Yugoslavia disintegrated, the Yugoslav film tradition—one of the major film traditions in Europe—came to an end. The rise and fall of Yugoslav film followed the trajectory of the Yugoslav state. A major part of the self-fashioning of Yugoslavia carried out by president Tito was the formation of a powerful cinematic tradition. At its height this tradition produced massive epic retellings of formative historical events of the Yugoslav state, featuring Hollywood stars and essentially unlimited budgets. As new independent countries of the Former Yugoslavia were formed, new regional film traditions began to emerge. Even though the new film traditions of Yugoslav successor states clearly have their origins in Yugoslav film, none of them embody the historical legacy of Yugoslav cinema entirely.

Yugoslav film was able to extend itself outside of the borders of that country precisely as Yugoslav film, and by no means as Serbian, Croatian, or Bosnian film. Perhaps due to the international language of film or because films from the countries of Former Yugoslavia are grouped now under the even wider umbrella of Balkan film, the film traditions from Former Yugoslavia still hold a reputable place in the West. The Bosnian film tradition can be divided into two time periods: before and after 1992. While Bosnian film during Yugoslavia represents the Bosnian input into the larger Yugoslav tradition, whether we consider the work of Bosnian directors, actors, or Bosnian production houses, Bosnian film from 1992 to the present is a tradition in and of itself. This article examines the two decades of Bosnian film history from its humble beginnings in 1992 to its maturation into one of the major cinematic traditions in South Eastern Europe.

Cinema of War: Documentary Film and Sarajevo Super-Realism (1992-1995)

The history of the Bosnian cinematographic tradition, if we consider this tradition to have begun in 1992, starts with documentary. Documentary filmmaking is not, however, new to Bosnia. In fact, in the 60s and 70s documentary filmmaking in Sarajevo became well known as the ‘Sarajevo Documentary School.’ Rada Šešić, an official selector for the Sarajevo Film Festival documentary film category, notes for SEEDOX, “If there was anything that distinguished Bosnian filmmakers within the former Yugoslavia, and even within Europe, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was their remarkable, courageous, poetic and discursive documentaries. Film critics at a Leipzig festival in the 1970’s praised this style of Bosnian cinema, calling it the ‘Sarajevo School of Documentary Filmmaking.’” During the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) more than sixty documentary films were made, recording life during the war years. The most famous, and internationally most acclaimed documentary from this period is a trilogy entitled, MGM, Sarajevo: Čovjek, Bog, Monstrum (1994). This tripartite compilation was produced by SaGA (Sarajevo Group of Authors), who produced almost all the documentaries during the siege. While the first film in the trilogy, “Personal Affair,” directed by Mirza Idrizović, captures the daily lives of Bosnian citizens living through the horrors of war, “Godot-Sarajevo,” by Pjer Žalica, chronicles Susan Sontag’s 1993 visit to Sarajevo and her staging of Waiting for Godot in the city during the war. The third film, “The Confession of a Monster,” by Ademir Kenović, features a confession of the first war criminal to be tried in 1993 in Sarajevo. This is a rather controversial documentary as it puts a face to the crimes committed during the war in Bosnia. In 1994 SaGA was awarded a Felix prize, European Film Academy Award, out of solidarity with and admiration for extraordinary work in difficult circumstances. Other noteworthy documentaries that were produced during the war years include a mockumentary by Semezdin Mehmedinović and Benjamin Filipović, Mizaldo, The End of Theater (Mizaldo, kraj teatra, 1992); Ecce-Homo, by Vesna Ljubić (1994); I Shot Legs  (Palio sam noge, 1993) by Srđan Vuletić; War Art (RatArt, 1993) by Nedžad Begović, and Diary of a Filmmaker (Dnevnik redatelja, 1993) by Mirza Idrizović.[1]

godotRada Šešić further elaborates for SEEDOX that, “These films are relevant not only because they captured a specific period of history, but also because they became a testimony of how the human spirit can survive and be creative even under utterly inhuman conditions. Several films achieved a great mastery of the medium, and will be forever noted as moving stories or impressionistic tone poems on the reality of war.” Bosnian director Pjer Žalica points out in an interview given to Peter Scarlet (2008) of Cinemondo in regards to film production during the war: “we had a feeling we were fighting by making the movies.”

During the siege of Sarajevo many foreign filmmakers made films about the war in Sarajevo and Bosnia. They include Chris Marker’s Prime Time in the Camps (1993), Bernard-Henry Levy’s Bosna! (1994) and Bill Carter’s Miss Sarajevo (1995). However, the films made by the domestic Bosnian filmmakers are invaluable artifacts on conflict in Bosnia because they belong to the realm of ‘participatory cinema’ that documented the siege of Sarajevo from within.

“War has always been a natural subject for cinema,” Peter Scarlet of Cinemundo, notes (2008). The Bosnian film tradition has emerged, so to say, out of flames. Pjer Žalica noted that making films during the siege was like filming lava inside of a volcano as it was erupting (ibid.). Documentaries made during the siege of Sarajevo are firsthand accounts of one of the major historical events of the twentieth century. The existence of such footage changes the way we perceive war today since it enables us to view war as it unraveled in time. Bosnian filmmakers created a new kind of film aesthetics in their war documentaries that could be called “Sarajevo super-realism.”

Post-Bellum: Cinematic Cries and Whispers

The next phase of Bosnian cinema departs from these documentary roots to treat the war from a dramatized perspective. Most famous of these are Ademir Kenović’s Perfect Circle, (Savršeni krug, 1997), and Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land, (Ničija zemlja, 2001). Kenović’s film was the first feature film produced after the war. Unlike documentaries, dramatized features not only capture the war as it happens but attempt to contain it and understand it within a narrative structure. Ademir Kenović wanted to depart from the documentary genre in this feature film and, instead of chronicling the war, Kenović wanted to capture how it felt to live under siege for four years. On the level of plot, the main protagonist, the poet Hamza (Mustafa Nadarević) meanders between life and death, and his poems serve to underline his metaphysical stagnation. Hamza remains in the besieged city even after his wife and daughter leave. Soon enough though, a new family joins Hamza—the two boys who seek refuge in his apartment after fleeing their burning village. Much of the plot centers on Hamza’s relationship with the boys, and their struggle to survive in the war zone. The film ends tragically, with the death of the younger boy Adis (Almedin Leleta), while Kerim (Almir Podgorica)—the mute boy—survives. The older boy embodies the general state of the citizens in Sarajevo during the siege as voiceless and disabled by their circumstances. This was the first film out of Bosnia that projected to a wide international audience the story about the recent Bosnian war. Although The Perfect Circle ends on a rather silent note, Kenović’s intention was quite the opposite. For Télérama the director notes (1997), “I wanted to shout out loud, with all my strength, that no one, anywhere, should ever again have to live through what happened in Sarajevo between 1992 and 1997.”

no mans landDanis Tanović put Bosnian film on the international map. His No Man’s Land won many awards, most visibly the Academy Award for Best Foreign film in 2002. Tanović made the Bosnian war accessible to a wider audience because of his employment of allegory and dark humor. A graduate of the Sarajevo Academy of Dramatic Arts, Tanović began his carrier as a director during the Bosnian war, more particularly during the siege of Sarajevo, when he filmed the war as a part of the Bosnian army. Post-bellum, Tanović continued to engage in war subjects, in his documentaries L’Aube (1996) and Awakening (Buđenje, 1999), in his contribution to the 9/11 omnibus “Bosnia and Herzegovina” (2002), and in three out of four of his feature films. Tanović’s L’Enfer (2005), based on a script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, is his only feature that does not deal with the subject of war. Tanović’s war trilogy includes his pre-war feature Circus Columbia, his war film No Man’s Land, and Triage, the post-war feature dealing with the psychological consequences of involvement in the war in Kurdistan. 

 No Man’s Land takes place between two enemy lines, Bosnian and Serb. The film captures the absurdity of war in the image of a man stranded on a mine that will explode if he moves and that cannot be diffused by anyone. Although the film does not make a judgment regarding who is guilty for the war—the two protagonists, Čiki (Branko Đurić) of the Bosnian Army and Nino (Rene Bitorajac) of the Serb army perpetually accuse their respective ethnicities as being the guilty party—it does point out the inefficacy and absurdity of the UN’s neutral presence in the war. No Man’s Land is as much war drama as it is a dark comedy. Tanović refers to No Man’s Land as a “serious film with a sense of humor” (Fischer 2001). Tanović’s film is the most widely acclaimed Bosnian film to date, brilliantly approaching a grave situation with humor.  As the director notes, “The humor…makes the film more universally appealing and the characters more accessible. You may not understand the complex political and social events leading to the Bosnian conflict but you certainly can identify with the human frailties of the stranded men” (Accomando).

Although several reviews have praised The Perfect Circle for finally producing an authentic story from the war, especially in comparison with such features as Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) by Michael Winterbottom, some critics, like New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden, found the film to be bordering on sentimentality. Dina Iordanova (2000: 11) likewise notes in her introduction to The Celluloid Tinderbox that The Perfect Circle is “a film marked by overt sentimentality.” The Perfect Circle was temporally and psychologically close to the war that it did not create the necessary distance between the subject and the filmmaker. In No Man’s Land, Tanović, who had, like Kenović, filmed the siege of Sarajevo as an official cameraman for the Bosnian army in order to create archival footage of the war, achieves distance where The Perfect Circle fails to do so. He uses dark and absurdist humor, the Bosnian brand of humor reminiscent of the Top List of the Surrealists (Top Lista Nadrealista), so famous in the eighties, to create distance between the subject of his film and his viewers. Humor is surprising in the context of war. The viewer, especially the foreign one, approaches the Bosnian film with expectations of pathos for the Bosnian subject. Tanović undercuts this with humor, therefore staying one step ahead of the viewer. Humor is one way to resolve the problem of sentimentality when dealing with the subject of war. In an interview at the Venice Film Festival, in 2010, Tanović noted that “humor helped us during the war, it created a distance; it was a way to deal with a problem we had no way of resolving.”

Cinema of Peace: The Glass Menagerie

fuseBeginning with Tanović’s cinematographic triumph, the decade from 2001 to the present has witnessed a growth and diversification of the Bosnian film tradition. Tanović’s Oscar win and the rising prominence of the Sarajevo Film Festival in the region influenced the establishment of state funding to help bolster the development of Bosnian cinematography.  Following Tanović’s success in 2001 and 2002, the year 2003 saw a number of remarkable features, including Remake by Dino Mustafić, Summer in the Golden Valley (Ljeto u zlatnoj dolini) by Srđan Vuletić, and The Fuse (Gori vatra) by Pjer Žalica. Žalica’s Fuse proves once again that the way to depict difficult histories of the region is through humor. As Žalica notes, “the tragicomic optimism that gives the human spirit its inexplicable strength to recover from awful war and bitter peace. The ability and courage to laugh and find humor in hardship, even when the toughest life refuses to improve, helps us to survive and to continue to have faith in the future” (Žalica, Fuse). Much like Tanović, Žalica approaches a difficult post-war reality in a small Bosnian town, Tešanj, with an element of humor. Music, composed by Saša Lošić of Plavi Orkestar, also plays a significant role in the film.  Žalica incorporates music in all his feature films, portraying it as an integral part of the Bosnian way of life.  In preparation for the main event of the film, the arrival of American president Bill Clinton to Tešanj, a special song welcoming the president has been prepared and is sung by Hitka (Jasna Žalica) while the town is awaiting Clinton’s arrival.  Due to the president’s imminent arrival to Tešanj, the town’s mayor goes out of his way to try to clean the town of crime, prostitution, and general corruption. Miraculously, everyone cooperates in this task. While it seems easy to clean up, or cover up, the criminal elements in town, it proves to be much harder to cover up people’s wounds and Zaim’s (Bogdan Diklić) lament over his son’s death finally triggers the fuse. The Fuse features Jasna Žalica as Hitka, Enis Bešlagić as Faruk, Bogdan Diklić as Zaim, Izudin Bajrović as Mugdum, and Emir Hadžihafizbegović as Stanko. The Fuse has won many international awards, including the Silver Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2003, the Golden Star at the Marrakech International Film Festival in 2003, and Best First Feature Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival, also in 2003. Pjer Žalica again in 2004 comes with a successful feature about Bosnian life in his Days and Hours (Kod amidže Idriza). Žalica’s second film is also interested in the “fixing” of people’s wounds, and what starts as Fuke’s (Senad Bašić) fixing of Uncle Idriz’s boiler, results in his healing of people’s hearts. While Zaim’s lament over a lost son in The Fuse is incurable, Uncle Idriz (Mustafa Nadarević), faced with the same situation in Days and Hours, shows acceptance and a willingness to move on, with the help and love of the rest of the family.

days and hours The year 2005 saw several major films appear, a documentary Back to Bosnia (Na putu kući, u tuđinu) by Sabina Vajrača, which deals with the director’s visit to her native Banja Luka after a decade of living abroad, and her encounter with post-war reality in that city—a home that is simultaneously viewed as familiar and strange. Go West, a drama by Ahmed Imamović, tells the story of two gay men, Muslim Kenan (Mario Drmać) and Serb Milan (Tarik Filipović), who flee Sarajevo at the beginning of the war to temporarily hide in Milan’s native village, before they go west. Since the village is predominately Serb, and very conservative, Kenan hides his identity and disguises himself as a woman, Milan’s wife. When Milan is conscripted into the army, where he ultimately meets his end, Kenan is left to cope in a small village by himself. One of the highlights of the film is a comparison made by Kenan just before he finally goes west. Kenan contrasts the horrors of the Balkan wars and the hatred that stems from them with what the people in the West focus on in the 90s—creating microchips. “We’re slaughtering each other like in the Middle Ages, while abroad they’re making computer chips. You know how much data a computer chip the size of a fingernail can contain? A million! And where are we? Persecuting each other on hills and in forests like we didn’t have anything more intelligent to do.” Finally, in 2005, we have a dark comedy by Benjamin Filipović, Well Tempered Corpses (Dobro uštimani mrtvaci), a film that showcases several attempts by its protagonists to live a “Bosnian dream” and return their lives to normalcy. One of the stories features a local farmer, Ruždija Kučuk (Lazar Ristovski) who puts all his effort into getting the trains in Bosnia running again by converting a tractor (donated to Bosnia by the Dutch government) to run on a state-maintained track and transport people from the outskirts to the capital. Another story involves a man Srećko Piplica (Miralem Zubčević) who is converting an old car into an airplane with a desire to fly to the United States on it to visit his daughter. Filled with irony, and dark humor, the film reflects the efforts of Bosnians to improve their lives and to put Bosnia “back on track.”

well tempered corpses The new wave of films that came out in Bosnia in the new millennium largely focus on the post-war reality in Bosnia: the recovery process, war traumas, economic hardships, corruption, reconciliation, and the defining of self in a post-war transitional system. While post-war features dealing with the war wanted to digest the war years, the present phase has endeavored to figure out how to deal with the challenges of peace and a broken society in Bosnia. Croatian film critic Jurica Pavičić has identified certain films in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia that deal with political, social, and economic recovery in the region after the year 2000 as belonging to a “cinema of normalization.” Among the representatives of Bosnian films of normalization, Pavičić (2010) identifies Srđan Vuletić’s Summer in the Golden Valley, Pjer Žalica’s Days and Hours, Jasmila Žbanic’s Grbavica, Land of my Dreams and Aida Begić’s Snow (Snijeg).

Acclaimed Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić received major international attention with her film Grbavica, Land of My Dreams in 2006.  Žbanić, who has previously dealt with severe social issues in post war Bosnia in her documentaries After, After (Poslije, poslije, 1997) and Red Rubber Boots, (Crvene gumene čizme, 2000), turns the world’s attention to the mass rape of women in Bosnia that occurred during the conflict. This film features Esma (Mirjana Karanović) and her 12-year old daughter Sara (Luna Mijović). Esma’s secret stands between mother and daughter for most of the film. Sara’s pending trip with her school prompts Sara to inquire further about her missing father. Sara grew up thinking that her father was a war hero, and when she did not get on the list of students who travel for free as children of fallen soldiers, Sara pressures her mother to tell her the truth: Sara is a child of rape. In the end, the mother and daughter’s relationship builds its strength on a new and honest foundation. The truth, as tragic as it is, brings them closer. Žbanić received many major international awards for this feature, including the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006.

snow Srđan Vuletić’s film, It’s Hard to Be Nice (Teško je biti fin) began the Sarajevo Film Festival in 2007, a film for which Saša Petrović won the Heart of Sarajevo Award for best actor.  The film deals with a man who wants to be decent and the difficulties he encounters in this task. In 2008, it was Aida Begić’s debut film Snow that opened the Sarajevo Film Festival. Snow deals with the story of several women in the small Bosnian village of Slavno, and their efforts to cope with the post-war reality, all without men. The movie presents a feminine, domestic world—jam and pastry making, and carpet weaving. The film poses a question, How will these women survive when the snow comes? But as the snow falls in their small village the resolution of many of the film’s issues emerges. The women of the film locate the bodies of their missing males at the Blue Cave, and instead of selling their estate to a foreign company they remain in their village. The main protagonist Alma (Zana Marjanović) gets help to sell and distribute their food, which consequently provides for the women of the film. Thus when the snow comes these women ultimately manage.

At the 2009 Sarajevo Film Festival, the film that received a considerable amount of attention was Sevdah, a documentary about Bosnian traditional songs, sevdalinke. Directed by Marina Andree, the film chronicles the history and love of sevdalinke in Bosnia. The camera mainly follows the three generations of sevdalinke singers, beginning with Zaim Imamović, then his son Nedžad Imamović, and finally Damir Imamović, who is the main focus of the film, and who is giving sevdalinke a modern interpretation. Sevdah was the recipient of the Audience Award at the 2009 Sarajevo Film Festival and at the 2010 New York Bosnian Film Festival.

on the path In 2010, two of the most famous Bosnian directors, Jasmila Žbanić and Danis Tanović, made their return. After the widely acclaimed Grbavica, Jasmila Žbanić directed another film that deals with post-war reality, On the Path (Na putu), which treats the Wahhabi community in Bosnia. As Amar (Leon Lučev) joins the Wahhabis, his relationship with Luna (Zrinka Cvitešić) changes radically. Both ethnic Muslims who have their share of war wounds, they are at a crossroads as Amar accepts the Wahhabi outlook on religion, and life in general, while Luna and her family keep their moderate beliefs. Danis Tanović’s film Circus Columbia, based on the eponymous novel by Ivica Đikić, features Divko (Miki Manojlović), who returns from Germany to his native Herzegovina, just as the communist system is breaking down. Divko brings with him his girlfriend Azra (Jelena Stupljanin), a Mercedes, and a considerable amount of money.  Even though the film takes place in the early nineties, it brings back the old regime and time of Divko’s youth. The central allegory of the film, expressed in its title, refers to the circus that used to come to town when he was a young boy. At film’s end, when the new generation of men and women is about to flee Herzegovina due to the impending war, Divko and his wife Lucija (Mira Furlan) take a spin on one of the rides in the amusement park, an act which marks a symbolic return to their youth, and their love, before Divko left his homeland.  The film ends with Divko’s and Lucija’s renewed love, while in the background bombs fall on their small town, thus marking the beginning of the war in Bosnian and Herzegovina and, symbolically, the end of the Yugoslavia.

New Horizons: The Sarajevo Film Festival

Contemporary Bosnian film is inseparable from the Sarajevo Film Festival. Bosnian director Pjer Žalica has noted (2011) that his career as a filmmaker is closely linked with the Festival, and that as long as he makes films, they will be linked to the SFF. The Sarajevo Film Festival stems from a one-time International Sarajevo Film Festival held during the siege in October 1993. The 1993 Film Festival was a prelude to the annual Sarajevo Film Festival that began in 1995. Since then the Festival has grown considerably. At the 17th Annual Sarajevo Film Festival, in July 2011, 220 films were presented, and attendance reached over 100,000 viewers. Each year sees the premier of a major Bosnian feature, either as the opening film or the festival’s “in focus” film. In 2010, for example, Circus Columbia gained much attention in this regard, while in 2011 it was a new documentary by Bosnian director Pjer Žalica, Orchestra.

As the 17th Sarajevo Film Festival came to an end on July 30, 2011, the local daily and weekly papers were full of praise. The issue of a local weekly magazine Gracija immediately following the festival proclaimed: “Bolje ne može!” (It can’t get any better!) on its cover page. The headline refers to the success of the last festival in general, but in particular to the guest stars of the festival, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, whose visit elevated the visibility of the festival within the international press.  Even though the Jolie-Pitt visit came as a surprise to the audience of the festival, and the entire town of Sarajevo, it was in fact connected to Jolie’s directorial debut, In the Country of Blood and Honey (2011), a film that treats the recent war in Bosnia.

Judging by last year’s film festival and its screening of Bosnian films, one notices the prevalence of documentaries. Pjer Žalica, in cooperation with the front man of the band Plavi Orkestar, Saša Lošić, directed a new musical documentary, Orchestra. The film tells the story of a time (mainly the eighties in Yugoslavia) through the prism of the band Plavi Orkestar, their music, their rise to fame, and finally the war that dismantled the band. The film is comprised of many interviews with musicians who shared the music scene with Plavi Orkestar, (Elvis J Kurtović, Rambo Amadeus, Leibach, Bajaga), and friends (Miljenko Jergović, Aleksandra Broz) and, finally, politicians who reigned during the time of Yugoslavia (Stipe Mesić and Milan Kučan). Orchestra tells the story of a time that, as Marcel Štefančić notes, “does not exist any more except in their songs.” There are definitely nostalgic elements to the film, but this is not so much Yugonostalgia, per se, but nostalgia for youth. Orchestra’s most famous song from the early eighties, Suada, which celebrated the band, voices the following lines: “We are already reaching our twenties, and one needs to sing and live (već nam se bliži dvadeseta, a treba živjeti i pjevati).” In the documentary, Lošić wonders about the age he and his generation are approaching now—the fifties—to bring the song up to date. But in between the then and the now, Plavi Orkestar has achieved the Yugoslav dream. “There is an American dream” Loša notes in the film,  “this was the Yugoslav dream.”

orchestra The winner of last year’s competition in the documentary section was an experimental documentary by Nedžad Begović, A Cell Phone Movie (Mobitel). Nedžad Begović has made a reputation as one of the most innovative documentary filmmakers in Bosnia—his 2005 autobiographical documentary, appropriately entitled Totally Personal (Sasvim lično), has won the director much recognition at festivals across the globe. Other important documentary filmmakers made their return at the 17th Sarajevo Film Festival, including: Namik Kabil’s film Magnet, Šejla Kamerić’s 1395 Days Without Red (1395 dana bez crvene), Vesna Ljubić’s Bosnian Rhapsody…On the Margins of Science (Bosanska rapsodija… na rubu znanosti), and finally, Danis Tanović’s Baggage (Prtljag).

To add to the stream of documentaries at the 17th Sarajevo Film Festival Serbian filmmaker Mila Turajlić presented her film, Cinema Komunisto. The film had its BiH premier at the Festival, while the US premier occurred at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2011. Turajlić’s film follows the development of Yugoslav cinematography hand-in-hand with the development of the second Yugoslavia. The protagonist in both respects is Tito, as president (director) of Yugoslavia, and as an avid lover of cinematography. We learn in the film that Tito saw on average 365 films a year. His position as president gave him the unique opportunity to invest in the production of Yugoslav film, and Turajić’s film explains this through interviews, clips from films, archival material, but mainly through the voice of Leka Konstantinović, Tito’s personal film projectionist. Turajlić’s film compliments Orchestra, since both films strive to understand the time of Yugoslavia and the Socialist regime through the prism of art—Orchestra through music and Cinema Komunisto through film.

At the Sarajevo Film Festival in 2011 Orchestra was the film that gained the most attention. In many ways, this film may stand as representative of the arc of Bosnian cinema to date. As its subtitle suggests, the film which deals with the rock band Plavi Orkestar is not simply a documentary of a popular band from the 80s and 90s: it is a document of a time. Contemporary Bosnian film continues to marry music and cinema, and in addition to Sevdah, Orchestra, and Bijelo Dugme (by Igor Stoimenov), a forthcoming animated film about the musician Edo Maajka, by Edin Osmić and Jasmila Žbanić, will contribute to the opus of films about music scene in Bosnia. Bosnian film is the most fully thriving art form in the country today, and some of the films that are coming out in the near future are: Aida Begić’s second film, Djeca (Children of Sarajevo), Namik Kabil’s Only For Swedish Girls (Samo za Šveđanke), and Jasmila Žbanić’s (co-written by noted émigré Bosnian author Aleksandar Hemon) Love Island (Otok ljubavi).

Bosnian cinema has undergone many changes since 1992. Bosnia’s war, the closing down of the production houses, and the lack of financial support both state and private, were just a few of the impediments to the development of the Bosnian cinematographic tradition in the nineties. In fact, only one feature film was made in this period, Ademir Kenović’s The Perfect Circle. While neighboring Serbia and Croatia were setting their national cinemas on their courses, Bosnia was seriously lagging behind. Bosnia never participated in the trend so prominent in the nineties that came to be identified as the cinema of ‘self-balkanization,’ which featured Balkan as exotic locale and its inhabitants as savage and psychotic.[2] The only feature film that was made during the nineties in Bosnia, The Perfect Circle, differed from the tendency of ‘self-balkanization,’ offering the western viewer an alternate perspective.

Bosnian film, instead, was able to present itself through an admirable number of documentaries during the nineties, both during the siege and after. While war in Bosnia was a serious impediment to the production of feature films, it did provide inspiration and subject matter for documentary films. Documentaries made during the nineties continued the already strong tradition of documentary filmmaking in Bosnia, the Sarajevo Documentary School.  Throughout the nineties, even after the war in Bosnia, documentary remained a prominent genre, and many present-day Bosnian filmmakers had their debuts within documentary, including Žalica with Godot-Sarajevo (1993) and Children Like Any Other (Djeca kao i sva druga, 1995), Tanović’s L’Aube (1996) and Awakening (1999), Žbanić’s After, After (1997) and Red Rubber Boots (2000). These directors in the new millennium have moved on to make award winning feature films that have become high watermarks of contemporary Bosnian cinema. Grbavica and No Man’s Land are probably the two most famous among them, at least by the criteria of their international successes.

The new millennium has been a flourishing time for Bosnian cinematography. Each year Bosnian filmmakers have released at least one major production. Although the Bosnian state started investing in its film production only after No Man’s Land’s Oscar-winning triumph, and after the Sarajevo Film Festival established itself as an important outpost for films in the region, funding has remained very scarce. The lack of proper funding in Bosnia has lead to films being coproduced with other houses in the region and beyond. Most films produced in Bosnia are made in collaboration with several European production companies. Even though Bosnia did not participate in the cinema of ‘self-balkanization,’ Bosnian film has been a full participant in the new trend of ‘cinema of normalization,’ reflecting Bosnia’s economic and political attempts to return to normalcy.

In the first decade of the new millennium, Bosnian film has come full circle. After Bosnia firmly established itself as one of the leading cinematographic traditions in South Eastern Europe, it has come back, in 2011, to pay tribute to its source, the documentary. Judging by the latest Sarajevo Film Festival, the documentary genre is back in full swing, and some of the documentary filmmakers that put Bosnian cinematography on its course during the early nineties, like Pjer Žalica and Danis Tanović, are returning to the source genre to further explore the possibilities of documentary film.

The upcoming 18th Sarajevo Film Festival, which is to take place in July 2012, will launch with Aida Begić’s second feature film Children of Sarajevo, 2012—a film that has recently received a special distinction award in the section Un Certain Regard at the 65th Cannes Film Festival in May 2012. Children of Sarajevo takes the viewers back to the heart of the siege of Sarajevo (the director employs actual home made footage of the war in her film). The two recent films in 2012 have provided the viewer with a new perspective on the war that has marked their (the directors’) and our (the viewers’) generation: Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey and Aida Begić’s Children of Sarajevo bring the Bosnian war back to the forefront of discussion—symbolically (and cinematographically) marking the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo.


1] The list of documentaries made in Bosnia during the war years is hefty and exceeds the present format. However, other documentary films that are deserving of praise are: Sahin Šišić’s Planet Sarajevo (Planeta Sarajevo, 1994), Antonije Nini Žalica’s Angels in Sarajevo (Anđeli u Sarajevu, 1993) Zlatko Lavanić’s To My Friends (Mojim prijateljima, 1993) Haris Prolić’s Death in Sarajevo (Smrt u Sarajevu, 1994), Vuk Janjić’s Waiting for Parcels (Čekajući pakete, 1994).

2] For more on cinema of ‘self-Balkanization’ and ‘cinema of normalization’ see Pavičić (2010).  

Works Cited

Accomando, Beth. Cinema Junkie.

Iordanova, Dina. (2000), “Introduction,” in The Celluloid Tinderbox, ed. Andrew James Horton. Central Europe Review

Kenović, Ademir. Télérama, 1997.

Pavičić, J. (2010), “‘Cinema of normalization’ changes of stylistic model in post-Yugoslav cinema after the 1990s,” Studies in Eastern European Cinema 1.1, pp. 43–56.

Scarlet, Peter. Interview with Director Pjer Žalica. YouTube 10 June 2008.

Šešić, Rada. SEEDOX. South Eastern European Documentaries.

Fischer, Paul. “War as Satire,” Interview with Danis Tanović., 11 December 2001

Tanović, Danis. An Interview. Venice Days 2010.

Žalica, Pjer. “Director’s Statement.” Fuse.

Žalica, Pjer. Sarajevo-Pjer Zalica, “Drago mi je sto ce film imati premijeru u Sarajevu.” YouTube 5 May 2011.