Every film festival has a history, but at the Sarajevo Film Festival, as Faulkner might say, the past is never dead. It’s not even over. Launched during the Bosnian War, in the middle of the city’s nearly four-year siege, the event is inextricably linked to the original story.
“I don’t know of any other festival founded in a city under siege, in a city without running water and electricity,” says Jovan Marjanović. “I think the story of the festival’s founding is something that’s really in our DNA, it informs a lot about everything we do today”
Nearly three decades later — the 29th Sarajevo Film Festival kicks off August 11 and runs through August 18 — Sarajevo remains a haven for cosmopolitan culture in a region still torn apart by nationalist politics.
The same goes for the international line-up, which this year consists of the festival season’s best-of picks, such as Wes Anderson’s Asteroid CityAki Kaurismakis Fallen leaves and Celine Song’s Past lives and to the opening film, the documentary Kiss the futurewhich describes the underground art and music movement that emerged during the Siege of Sarajevo and how they convinced the rock band U2 to help raise global awareness of the conflict, eventually coming to the city to perform a post-war concert in 1997.
But the festival’s unique approach to its own history is exemplified in the program ‘Dealing with the Past’, 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 darknesswhich premiered in Karlovy Vary and shows home video footage 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 movies, and the other half is interviews with the people who made the material, reflecting on what these images mean to them now and how they were used to to construct certain stories about the war. says Maša Marković, curator of sidebar Dealing With the Past and head of the festival’s film industry section CineLink. “By showing films like this, we hope to open a little window into people’s minds, to show them how these stories are constructed and the impact these images have on our perception of reality.”
Also screening in the Dealing with the Past sidebar this year Delegation by director Asaf Saban, a drama about three Israeli school friends who take a class trip to Holocaust sites in Poland before starting their military service. And The happiest man in the world from Macedonian filmmaker Teona Strugar Mitevska, who explores the enduring trauma of the war in Bosnia through a lightly fictionalized story about a speed-dating gone wrong.
“I think what we do is really unique because we bring different generations together and meet their different needs,” says Marković. “So we are still addressing those who have experienced the trauma of the past, who need to relate what happened, or give context to what happened, but we are also addressing the younger generations who are fully formed by the things they haven’t experienced, and the traumas that have been passed on to them.”
Recovering from the wreckage of the past also means rebuilding and from the beginning the Sarajevo Film Festival was aimed at supporting and expanding connections between South East European cinema. Only films and filmmakers from the region are eligible for the competition program (although the regional definition is flexible: after the Russian invasion last year, Marjanović expanded it to include films from Ukraine).
“In 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,” recalls Elma Tataragić, head of Sarajevo’s competition department. “Doing a gala premiere, in prime time for 500 people, for a Bulgarian film? Everyone thought we were crazy. But we had to do it. Because the region suffered. There was a new generation of filmmakers, but they had no support. The big festivals – Cannes, Berlin, Venice – ignored films from this part of the world. They needed a place to meet, a place to start. And Sarajevo became that place.”
29 years later and most of the world has caught up. Romanian, Bulgarian and Balkan filmmakers are regulars at the Croisette and the Lido, in Sundance, Toronto and Berlin. But Sarajevo remains the place for Southeastern European cinema.
“We always have the largest selection of films from Southeastern Europe that you can see anywhere in the world in one place,” Marjanović boasts, noting that Sarajevo received 1,200 entries from the region this year, a new record. With its CineLink industry section – which includes a co-production market, a new talent campus, a work-in-progress section and programs featuring documentaries and TV series – Sarajevo has maintained its position as the must-attend event for those in power in the region alone but reinforced. players.
“Sarajevo is still the place where we all 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 about 21 countries in this region, but from the production side, it’s not that big, it’s about 100 producers. And we all know them. We have personal relationships with all of these people, and people appreciate that. We’ll see how that changes in the next 20 years, but for now we’re still the hub, we’re the place everyone calls home.”