The Sarajevo Film Festival
by Vanda Vucicevic
The first Sarajevo Film Festival (SFF), held in a city that had by then been under siege for three and a half years, was initially a form of resistance in itself. Turning mere survival into grace, it opened on the 25 October 1995 with a screening of Pulp Fiction. Its beginnings are best described by Steve Kettmann of the LA Times, who referred to it as ‘a brave act of defiance’. Naturally, there were doubters who wondered whether Bosnia had set herself too big a goal – just as there had been before the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, whose success put the modern city on the world map. Yet this ambition to screen Pulp Fiction in a city under siege did exactly what the Festival has been doing continuously ever since: creating hope. In accordance with their stubborn thirst for life under every adversity, Bosnians – here personified by the SFF team - thus celebrated a rebirth despite everything, confirming the transformation of Sarajevo from a symbol of suffering into a symbol of resistance to destruction – a symbol of life.
Now in its eighth year, the SFF has become the most important and dependable festival in the region. Maintaining a consistently high level of commitment and quality, it has remained true to itself and to its unique - though often imitated - formula. Although over time the number of days the festival lasts has been reduced, the number of films screened each year has tripled as has that of their countries of origin.
The Festival features two programmes that set it apart. First, there is the free Children’s Programme, which actor Steve Buscemi has described as ‘a fine example of investing in the younger generation, which may not necessarily result in their reintegration, but which is a symbolic beginning.’ Children are bussed into Sarajevo from all over Bosnia for a special SFF youth programme, during which some of them are are in a cinema or seeing a feature film for first time in their lives. Secondly the Festival includes a regional programme, with both short and feature films from Bosnia-Herzegovina itself, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and FRY. The fact that Bosnians together with their neighbours can finally show the films they made during the war is significant, since they were rarely granted that opportunity in wartime. Younger generations of filmmakers thus have a chance to make their own voices heard, which is perhaps the essential thing about this Festival. In a city still de facto governed by dubious foreign officials, as Steve Kettmann suggests, ‘the Sarajevo Film Festival remains Bosnian to the core’.
Moreover, the Festival is always an eagerly anticipated event in a city that otherwise has little to look forward to. The suffering of Sarajevo granted it an exposure that resulted in the city being largely associated with the horrors of war and siege. SFF now allows it to enjoy real satisfaction at having the world recognize Bosnia’s cultural achievement. The festival is a rare opportunity for Sarajevo to regain its previous charm and energy, in the company of a considerable and growing international presence. The opening of the Festival this summer inserted an element of glamour into the city, where one could see young Bosnians strolling down the river bank, a glass of wine in one hand, the festival programme in the other. As in the days when Kirk Douglas used to sit in Bascarsija eating a kebab during the 1984 Winter Olympics, the SFF now once again attracts famous cinema and other personalities, who find Sarajevo and its film festival inspiring.
Although considered a large festival in terms of the amount of people who attend it and the media that cover it, SFF is a cultural, national and professional melting-point that nevertheless retains a crucial element of spontaneity. Steven Frears argues that: ‘In America or Europe films are sort of delivered to you, while here you feel a hunger; there’s a sense of passion in the air.’ Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the war left Bosnians with a sense of having learnt far too much about life and its grim possibilities, so they recognize the importance of a cultural event which works wholeheartedly in their interest. In other words, while opening the doors wide to the outside world and not necessarily ‘playing on the card of localism, the SFF is at the same time not ashamed of its own localism’, claims Bosnian critic Ognjen Tvrtkovic.
There is no doubt that Sarajevo is a special city. Danis Tanovic once suggested that: ‘You can be a star in Los Angeles and not be a star in Sarajevo, it’s as simple as that. It’s the spirit of the people. People are kind of cool in Sarajevo.’ For this reason SFF has also managed carefully to build its profile, so that the festival is now considered to be stylish and profoundly European. Previously the Open Air programme, which shows mainly Hollywood productions, was the most popular part of the Festival, with several thousand people watching big production films every night. This year, however, an interesting twist was added. Set up as an experiment three years ago, the Panorama programme which shows art-house and independent cinema productions continues to grow in popularity, to such an extent that the Eighth SFF saw Piedro Almodovar’s new film Talk to Her emerging as the most popular film in the Open Air programme itself. Howard Feinstein, the New York film critic and SFF Panorama selector, insists that ‘this indicates the presence in Sarajevo of a heady, vibrant and curious audience.’
Hence, although one must naturally be realistic about what the role of a festival can be in a country that barely exists, there is little doubt that the Sarajevo Film Festival is doing its utmost to bring a degree of normality to Bosnia’s capital city. As Bosnian writer Miljenko Jergovic argues, ‘there were more interesting stories from the darkness of cinematography and from the taverns and restaurants into which the festival people crowded - more cultural life during those ten days - than there had been in forty years of high-budget state ceremonies.’ After all, given that Sarajevo is a city with such a uniquely rich past and given the resilience of its people, it should be hardly surprising that it has given birth to a Festival of such importance. Some years ago while SFF was still in its infancy, the magazine Slobodna Bosna wonderfully described the Sarajevo Film Festival as: ‘one of those rare phenomena in our lives which constantly, year on year, offer more then we are capable of. SFF is always a “cult excess” [kultni eksces]. Once it becomes a constant, then we shall also stop being a province.’