The Sarajevo Film Festival closed out its 15th anniversary edition last night honoring films recognizing both everyday and out-there subjects, with Serbian films doing especially well. Offering a realist view of both the drudgery and soul-killing aspects of war, Vladimir Perisic’s carefully composed Serbian drama, “Ordinary People,” charting the course of one day in the life of a young Serbian soldier, won the festival’s “Heart of Sarajevo” awards for Best Film and for Best Actor for understated yet powerful lead Relja Popovic. In pointed contrast to that film’s starkness, Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist look at the lives of a family raised in deliberate and peculiar isolation from society, “Dogtooth,” from Greece, took home awards for Best Actress for cinematic sisters Angeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni, as well as a Special Jury Prize. Best Documentary went to Dragan Nikolic’s “The Caviar Connection,” focused on two Serbian fishermen brothers stuck in a small village, while fellow Serbian Marko Mamuzic’s “Heated Blood” was awarded the Human Rights Award for its focus on the threat posed by right-wing nationalist anti-gay, anti-Jewish hate groups.
It’s not surprising that winners should include films focused on war or hate – while the city of Sarajevo survived a 1992-1996 siege, reminders are ever-present in the bullet holes marring building facades, the occasional remnants of a mortar blast on the sidewalk, and the graveyards dotting the hillside. Other countries in the Balkans, of course, faced similar upheaval, and many filmmakers from the region are still attempting to reconcile this troubled history through their work.
At the same time, the festival’s programming aims not only to expose regional cinema and its sometimes preoccupation with ethnic and religiously motivated violence, but also to bring a wide range of work from all around the world to an appreciative audience. Sarajevo was bookended with “Tales of the Golden Age” and “The Wrestler,” and in-between screened numerous films that made similar waves at other major festivals, including “The White Ribbon,” “Antichrist,” “Fish Tank,” “Mammoth,” “Sin Nombre,” “The Maid,” “In the Loop,” “Broken Embraces,” “Bronson,” “Goodbye Solo,” “Recycle,” “Food Inc,” and “Cooking History,” among others.
Emerging talent from the region is also cultivated through the Sarajevo Talent Campus, modeled after the successful Berlin Talent Campus at the Berlinale. Young writers, directors, producers, and actors experience the festival through a program of special workshops and lectures with established professionals speaking about their craft – such as Stellan Skarsgard, Jim Sheridan, Lukas Moodysson, and Gillian Anderson. Skarsgard did double duty at Sarajevo, also serving as the guest curator for the Katrin Cartlidge Foundation, established to honor his co-star from “Breaking the Waves” after her untimely death. In this capacity, the actor announced the Foundation’s grant recipient, Irish writer/director Juanita Wilson, represented by her short film “The Door.”
While I watched many regional films, I also took the opportunity to catch up on some titles I previously missed. Among the standouts:
“Dogtooth” It’s not surprising that the jury recognized Lanthimos’ impressive feature, which debuted at Cannes and takes a completely twisted premise to a satisfying, blackly comic extreme. For reasons left unclear, a couple have raised their children, now past adolescence, under a total house arrest, and keeping their knowledge of any concepts connected to the outside world carefully controlled and bizarrely mediated. When an outsider, brought in to service the sexual needs of their son, opens a window into life outside their gated property, curiosity is piqued and their safe reality is threatened.
“I Killed My Mother” This Cannes Director’s Fortnight award winner also focuses on a family, specifically a gay teen and his single mother, both prone to driving each other crazy as they navigate their ever-contentious relationship, adolescence, and parenthood. Much has been said about debut writer/director/actor Xavier Dolan’s age; the 20-year-old impresses with believable, flawed characters, artful shot compositions, and a deliberate handling of mood and tone.
“Daniel & Ana” Another Cannes entry, writer/director Michel Franco’s debut, based on a true story, also mines the realm of the family – the relationship between the titular siblings, portrayed by Dario Yazbek Bernal and Marimar Vega. After being subjected to a harrowing abduction and forced to have sex on camera, neither is able to reclaim the normalcy they took for granted in their privileged, affluent family. Franco eschews melodrama for an at times devastating psychological portrait of grief and vulnerability, expertly realized by its impressive leads.
“Ordinary People” Perisic’s jury winner is as notable for its long stretches of silence and inaction as it is for the regular punctuations of matter of fact violence its young lead is forced to mete out to prisoner after prisoner. Following Popovic’s Dzoni from the time he and his troop awake, through their deployment to an abandoned farm, the execution of their mission, and the end to a long day, the audience becomes witness to, and complicit with, the job of a soldier.
“Police, Adjective” Romanian cinema’s impact on contemporary world cinema continues with Corneliu Porumboiu’s unique take on a police procedural. While the film perhaps overdoes it in pressing the tedium (and moral ambivalence) of Cristi’s stakeout of a suspected drug dealer, the bravura final scenes display an inpriring mastery of timing, humor, and performance, as the policeman’s superior literally schools him in his job.
“Slovenian Girl” Director Damjan Kozole’s story of a university student finding her life spiraling out of control when her hidden career as a call girl threatens to be exposed features the breathtaking debut of new talent Nina Ivanisin in the title role. Appearing in virtually every scene, she brings a raw energy to the role that simultaneously portrays strength and vulnerability, pragmatism and hope, marking an actress to keep an eye on.
“Heated Blood” Offering a chilling account of the growing influence of extreme right wing hate-motivated groups on public opinion in Serbia, Marko Mamuzic’s documentary blends harrowing footage of violent propaganda and riots and interviews with both the victims of violence and its perpetrators, only too eager to espouse their short-sighted, fear-mongering ideologies targeting anyone they view as non-Serbian. Even more frightening – the religious leaders and politicians who tacitly or explicitly endorse their actions.
“On the Way To School” Directors Orhan Eskikoey and Oezguer Dogan achieve a remarkable level of trust with the inhabitants of a remote Kurdish village, and with the naive Turkish teacher who has been sent to teach their children, in this verite documentary. Expertly utilizing sly humor and irony, they expose a government practice that attempts to assimilate through the dissolution of the Kurds’ native language.
“Cash & Marry” Atanas Georgiev also uses humor to explore a serious issue in his documentary – the difficulties facing illegal Eastern European immigrants in obtaining legal documents in increasingly xenophobic Austria. Facing imminent deportation, Atanas turns to his friend Marko for help in finding an Austrian citizen who will help him by marrying him. While the film becomes a comedy of errors and red tape, with Marko especially emerging as an unforgettable and lovable character, at its heart it reveals a serious, deep divide based on socioeconomic, national, and regional differences.
[Basil Tsiokos is Programming Associate, Documentary Features for the Sundance Film Festival.]
-for a complete list of winners at the Sarajevo Film Festival, go to page 2-
Winners of the 15th Sarajevo Film Festival:
Heart of Sarajevo for Best Film:
Director: Vladimir Perii Serbia, France, Switzerland
The Special Jury Award:
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos Greece
Heart of Sarajevo for Best Actress:
Anggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni
Heart of Sarajevo for Best Actor:
RELJA POPOVI ORDINARY PEOPLE Serbia, France, Switzerland
Heart of Sarajevo for Best Short Film:
Director: Dalibor Matani Croatia
Special Jury Mentions for Short Films:
Director: Goran Odvori Croatia
The History of Aviation
Director: Balint Kenyeres Hungary, France
Heart of Sarajevo for Best Documentary Film:
The Caviar Connection
Director: Dragan Nikoli Serbia
Constantin and Elena
Director: Andrei Dascalescu Romania
Human Rights Award:
Director: Marko Mamuzi Serbia