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Dispatch from Sarajevo: A Festival Redefining Conflict Resolution

By Brian Brooks | Indiewire July 27, 2010 at 5:10AM

The city of Sarajevo is no stranger to conflict. In order to avoid a potential conflict of its own this year, the Sarajevo Film Festival moved its August dates to July to avoid the early start of Ramadan. In this first of two reports from the 2010 Sarajevo Film Festival, I will concentrate on the idea of conflict and what it means to the programming of this festival. The second will focus on specific premieres and other films that will likely be making their rounds on the fall festival circuit.
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The city of Sarajevo is no stranger to conflict. In order to avoid a potential conflict of its own this year, the Sarajevo Film Festival moved its August dates to July to avoid the early start of Ramadan. In this first of two reports from the 2010 Sarajevo Film Festival, I will concentrate on the idea of conflict and what it means to the programming of this festival. The second will focus on specific premieres and other films that will likely be making their rounds on the fall festival circuit.

Now in its 16th year, the Sarajevo Film Festival has both wrestled with and embraced conflict since its infancy. The festival that was launched while the war in Bosnia was still being waged, began as a conduit for conflict resolution. Over the years the festival has grown into more than just a showcase of films. With programs like the CineLink and the Sarajevo Talent Campus, the festival aims to be placed among the likes of Rotterdam and Berlin as a festival that not only presents film but also nurtures the growth of young filmmakers yearning for their stories to be told, which is especially important for the Balkan region. Also important to this region, the festival's two main competitions focus specifically on regional films, though there are several other sections that branch out across the entire spectrum of filmmaking.

The festival opened on Friday, July 23rd with the World Premiere of Danis Tanovic's "Cirkus Columbia." Though the film touches on the conflict that was featured in Tanovic's Academy Award winning film "No Man's Land," "Cirkus "is unlikely to gain the same amount of notoriety. The audience response to the film, however, proved that "Cirkus" was an appropriate selection for opening night. The film transports the viewer to a small village in South Herzegovina during time when communist rule was ending and the rumblings of war were beginning to spread.

Tanovic creates characters that are caricatures of the ones that audiences have come to know in many films from the Balkans that cover this moment in time. Tanovic's characters: a man who returns to the village after years of making money in Germany; his new wife (even though his divorce is not final) who dreams of moving to America; his previous dutiful wife who has waited in vein for his return; and their disturbed son who finds himself in the middle of a Serb who has become something of a father figure to him and friends who begin to embrace their nationalist cause, never quite meld in a satisfying way. Therefore, the film runs the chance of leaving a non-Balkan audience feeling empty because of the overuse of stereotypes. The film will have more opportunities to win potential buyers over in Venice and Toronto, but it looks like it will stay on the festival circuit.

One of the ways that the Sarajevo Film Festival has embraced conflict is through its programming choices. This is especially evident in the Panorama section and its Tribute To Program, that are selected by Howard Feinstein. This year, the Tribute To Program fully embraces conflict by honoring the indefinable French artist, Bruno Dumont. Anyone who is familiar with Dumont's oeuvre can agree that he does not shy away from potential conflicts within his films, he relishes in them.

By taking a unique philosophical approach to religion, love, violence and sexuality, Dumont creates worlds that on the surface are inconceivable, but he unflinchingly exposes the true nature of humanity hidden below in all of its raw glory, in what Feinstein describes as "the New French Deliberateness." Throughout his carreer, Dumont's work has been compared to the work of Bergman, Rossellini, and Bresson, among others, though Dumont claims that while he has been inspired by other directors, one must kill those influences to create original art, in the way a child must kill their parents to become an adult... That statement, is in essence what Dumont and his work is.

Outside the festival headquarters near Sarajevo's old town. Photo by Bill Guentzler.

Just about every film in Panorama, the festival's largest section, can be described with the word 'conflict.' This year, Panorama is following the Berlinale's model, mixing narrative and documentary underneath one umbrella. Whether the conflict is centered inside a military tank in Samuel Maoz's "Lebanon" or within the family featured in Lixin Fan's "Last Train Home," the conflicts are resolved slowly and deliberately, if at all.

Panorama this year features some of the most talked about and critically acclaimed films from the past year's festival circuit. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's winner of this year's Cannes Palm d'Or, "Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall His Past Lives," shares space within the program with Laura Poitras' "The Oath" and Geoffrey Smith and Roberto Hernandez's "Presumed Guilty," along with Alexei Popogrebsky's "How I Ended This Summer" and Panorama's Opening Night feature, Hans Petter Moland's "A Somewhat Gentle Man." This year's Sarajevo Panorama reflects the conflicts that this city has faced in the past by presenting some very personal stories that cross all boundaries.

The New Currents section effectively covers the conflict of what is new and innovative cinema. By featuring first and second features of some groundbreaking filmmakers such as Jesper Ganslandt's "The Ape" and Sergei Loznitza's "My Joy." Both of these films are conflicts within themselves, making the viewer question both the narrative style and film itself.

Though most of the films I have mentioned have been on the circuit for months now, and may be considered "old news," it is the combination of these films that makes the Sarajevo Film Festival the festival I have described. This absolutely can be said about any festival, whether it is film or another art form, but when seen through the context of conflict, these films give the city of Sarajevo its sense of place in the world, a city with a long history of being the center of conflicts, and a city that is able to pick itself up, dust itself off and show the rest of the world how conflicts can be resolved, and in the case of the festival, inside a theater.

[Bill Guentzler is the Artistic Director of the Cleveland International Film Festival]

This article is related to: Features, Sarajevo Film Festival