If there was any doubt about the resilience of the cultural sector during times of great turmoil, one need only look to the Sarajevo Film Festival to see how an industry can, literally, rise from its ashes. The festival began during the Bosnian War in 1995, in the midst of an almost four-year siege on Sarajevo, which ravaged the capital. To this day, it remains the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare.
The aim of the Sarajevo Film Festival was to rebuild and rejuvenate a city and its inhabitants, a collection of people cut off from the rest of the world while at the forefront of many segments of international news.
“When the festival started, people lived without electricity and food shortages, with thousands of rockets being fired into the city center from nearby fields,” says Jovan Marjanović, longtime industry leader from Sarajevo who Deadline can exclusively reveal is now co-director of the festival alongside founder and director Mirsad Purivatra. “However, culture was important and keeping it was a form of resistance back then. In the first screenings, which started in 1993, admission cost a cigarette instead of a ticket.
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It is these humble beginnings that make it even more remarkable that in a relatively short period of time Sarajevo has grown into one of the largest and most interesting film festivals in Europe. With high-quality programming, a strong industry segment, an educational and networking platform for young filmmakers, the festival has succeeded in generating a strong international film industry that continues to attract top-level film talent and premieres. from directors established around the world. Former participants in the Bosnian capital included Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Pawel Pawlikowski, Robert De Niro and Angelina Jolie to name a few.
“It started with an act of resistance, but then continued to develop as a true film festival that carefully reflected on its audience and its filmmakers,” says Marjanović, who has been part of the event since 1999, d first as a technician and program coordinator. “Our manifesto still stands today as the festival is first and foremost for the people of our city with an idea of supporting young filmmakers in the region while rebuilding an international film industry around it all.”
Getting out of some of the toughest conditions to become a flourishing event that is the envy of many is no easy feat. Fortunately, says Marjanović, he has been sustained over the years with the support of international festival veterans, intellectuals, filmmakers and his local community. Marco Mueller, who ran the Locarno Film Festival at the time of Sarajevo’s emergence and former Edinburgh Film Festival director Mark Cousins, are just a few of the “good friends” that Marjanović indicates to help get the first edition of the festival “through the enemy to the front lines and into the city.”
Each year, more than 100,000 paying spectators attend the event, many places in pre-reservation even before the announcement of the program, a sure sign of a region that loves to discover the cinema.
This year’s edition takes place from August 13 to 20, its usual time slot in the summer calendar, well positioned between Locarno and Venice. It will be a welcome return to the physical event that was moved online last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The festival typically hosts around 2,000 industry guests each year, and if you talk to someone from the international film community who has attended, it is a festival that is highly regarded and fondly spoken of. “When you think of Sarajevo it may conjure up images of tragedy, but it is a beautiful and resilient city and the festival is one of the most fantastic on the international circuit,” says an industry official. Indeed, the Bosnian capital is nestled at the bottom of a valley surrounded by idyllic mountains. Most of the festival’s main events take place within a few blocks of walking, making it a manageable event for an industry delegate to come over for a few days to experience new projects in the area.
For this year’s edition, a total of 48 films will compete for its Heart of Sarajevo Awards in its four competitive sections – Feature Film, Documentary Film, Short Film and Student Film. Of these films, 18 are world premieres and three are international, including the world premiere of Not so nice neighborhood affair, by Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanović. This film will be screened during the outdoor screening of the festival on the opening night while the title omnibus Letters from around the world, from the film collective Bistrik 7, an international group of first-generation directors from Béla Tarr’s iconic Sarajevo Film Factory, will be screened the same evening as part of the Special Screenings program. (The festival is also launching, for the first time this year, a new award category, dubbed Heart of Sarajevo for TV series, to cover the emerging TV drama sector in the region.)
While this year has a solid list of premieres, it’s not something the festival feels precious to be. The competition sections, says Marjanović, are more focused on showcasing films and talent from the region rather than an exclusive premiere.
“Our idea here is to have the best films from South East Europe rather than being guided by the premieres because we want to show who are, in our minds, the best cinematic voices from the region”, a he declared. “Focusing on world premieres would limit our ability to showcase the best films from the region and if we were to hunt them down it would collide with our mission, which is to be a platform for these projects. We want to highlight them and improve their situation in larger festivals and other markets. This is why the history of the festival and the media attention it receives is great, because we can use it as a beacon for these great talents.
Sarajevo takes great pride in nurturing young film talent from scratch and has created an ecosystem over the years that sees these first-time filmmakers that it has supported return to the festival again and again.
An example this year is Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, whose first feature film Murina won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Alamat Kusijanović’s first short film In the blue won the Heart of Sarajevo Award for Best Short Film in 2017.
“We’re trying to create an ecosystem that is really a 360 degree type of thing from start to finish,” says Marjanović. “But he really has the filmmakers at his center and we try to follow their careers from the early days when they’re in film school, to their entry level projects and their first big projects and so on. . “
As part of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia had an abundant cinematic heritage, but the war almost wiped it out. The Sarajevo Film Festival was intended to be an event that would not only rebuild the industry, but strengthen ties with neighboring countries. One of the most important strands of its festival is its CineLink Industry Days program, which is the main hub for professionals from South East Europe and has played a crucial role in expanding co-production opportunities in the region. This year, its CineLink Co-Production Market will present 10 works from the region in the development and funding phase. Its popular television component, CineLink Drama, has been added in recent years to meet demand from filmmakers in the region who wanted to start making high-end drama series, just as their global counterparts have done in recent years.
“I think that an integral part of the overall theme of the festival’s growth is to use [Cinelink] as a platform to plug into new trends, ”explains Marjanović. “It was essential that Sarajevo become a key meeting point for the people of the region’s film industry to meet and meet with the rest of Europe. “
Indeed, the industry platform has been integral in unifying the voices of the region and projects such as the Oscar winner. Son of Saul by Oscar nominated doc László Nemes Honey country by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov and winner of the Berlinale Golden Bear Do not touch me all benefited from the festival’s co-production market.
“Many filmmakers not only from the Balkan countries, but also from countries like Romania, Greece or Turkey have united with key European co-production territories like Germany and France,” he said. “But a lot of these filmmakers started working together in the region. There are countries that a few years ago were at war with each other and suddenly started to co-produce. So it wasn’t just a strategy to get into international markets or to get your film funded. There was also a process of reconciliation going on and that’s what we all think is important. This has always been a big part of the festival’s position as a symbol. “