Every film festival has a history but at the Sarajevo Film Festival, the past, as Faulkner might say, is never dead. It’s not even past. Launched during the Bosnian War, in the middle of the nearly four-year siege of the city, the event is inextricably linked to its origin story.
“I don’t know of another festival that was founded in a city under siege, in a city without running water and electricity,” says Jovan Marjanović. “I think the story of the founding of the festival is something that is really in our DNA, it very much informs everything that we’re doing today”
Nearly three decades on — the 29th Sarajevo Film Festival kicks off August 11 and runs through August 18 — Sarajevo remains a sanctuary for cosmopolitan culture in a region still torn by nationalist politics.
This applies to the international line-up, which this year features such festival season best-of picks as Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, Aki Kaurismaki’s Fallen Leaves and Celine Song’s Past Lives and to its opening night film, the documentary Kiss the Future, which chronicles the underground art and music movement that sprung up during the siege of Sarajevo and how they convinced rock band U2 to help raise global awareness of the conflict, eventually coming to the city to do a post-war concert in 1997.
But the festival’s unique approach to its own history is exemplified in its “Dealing With the Past” program, a sidebar of feature films and documentaries united by the theme of their confrontation with painful histories. This year’s selection includes Jean-Gabriel Périot’s documentary Facing Darkness, which premiered at Karlovy Vary, and which features home video material and news footage shot during the siege of Sarajevo, some of which was used by the Bosnian Army for its own propaganda.
“So half of the film is this material, these home videos or films and the other half is interviews with the people who shot the material, reflecting on what these images mean to them now and how they were used to construct certain narratives about the war,” says Maša Marković, curator of the Dealing With the Past sidebar and head of the festival’s film industry section CineLink. “Screening films like these we hope to open a small window in people’s minds of people, to show them how these narratives are constructed and how big an impact these images have on our perception of reality.”
Also screening in the Dealing With the Past sidebar this year are Delegation from director Asaf Saban, a drama about three Israeli high-school friends who take a class trip to Holocaust sites in Poland before beginning their military service. And The Happiest Man in the World from Macedonian filmmaker Teona Strugar Mitevska, which explores the lasting trauma of the Bosnian War through a lightly-fictionalized tale of a speed-dating event gone wrong.
“I think what we’re doing is really unique because we’re putting together different generations and addressing their different needs,” says Marković. “So we are still addressing those who experienced the trauma of the past, who need to tell what has happened, or to give the context to what has happened, but we’re also addressing the younger generations that have been completely shaped by the things that they have not experienced, and the traumas transferred to them.”
Recovering from the wreckage of the past also means rebuilding and, from the start, the Sarajevo Film Festival has been focused on supporting and expanding connections between Southeast European cinema. Only films and filmmakers from the region qualify for its competition program (though the regional definition is flexible: Following Russia’s invasion last year, Marjanović expanded it to include films from Ukraine).
“At the beginning, when we started this, rolling out the red carpet for regional filmmakers, not for Hollywood stars but for regional directors, people thought we were crazy,” remembers Elma Tataragić, head of Sarajevo’s competition section. “Doing a gala premiere, in prime time for 500 people, for a Bulgarian movie? Everyone thought we were nuts. But we needed to do it. Because the region was suffering. There was this new generation of filmmakers but they had no support. The big festivals — Cannes, Berlin, Venice — were ignoring movies from this part of the world. They needed a place to meet, a place to start. And Sarajevo became that place.”
29 years on and most of the world has caught up. Romanian, Bulgarian and Balkan filmmakers are regular guests on the Croisette and the Lido, in Sundance, Toronto and Berlin. But Sarajevo remains the place for Southeastern European cinema.
“We always have the biggest selection of films from southeastern Europe that you can see in one place, anywhere in the world,” boasts Marjanović, noting Sarajevo received 1,200 submissions from the region this year, a new record. With its CineLink industry section — which includes a co-production market, a new talents campus, a works-in-progress section and programs highlighting documentaries and TV series — Sarajevo has only strengthened its position as the must-attend event for the region’s power players.
“Sarajevo is still the place where we all come to meet, where we celebrate our new films and talk about new projects,” says Tataragić. “Most of the people at the festival have been here for 10,15, 20 years, which is important because we follow what is happening in the region, we know who the people are, we follow the projects. There are like 21 countries in this region but from the production side, it’s not so big, it’s like 100 producers. And we know all of them. We have personal relationships with all these people, and that’s something people appreciate. We’ll see how that will change in the next 20 years but for now we’re still the hub, we’re the place everyone calls home.”