Human and political conflict form an important nucleus for programming choices at the Sarajevo Film Festival. And that should come as no surprise as the city's name itself conjures up war. Sarajevo's 400,000 or so citizens endured 44 months of constant bombing and sniper fire from the beautiful hills that surround it resulting in 10,000 deaths and countless injuries. When I told a friend in Europe I was going to Sarajevo in a few days, he jokingly (and a bit sarcastically) replied, "great, I have a cheap ticket to Baghdad myself..." But if it's at all possible to make lemonade out of an f'd up situation like that, the people of Sarajevo have managed to re-invent their beautiful city and create a world-class film festival from like-- what choice is there?
A hardly atypical programming move by festivals around the world is to give the high-profile opening night screening to a local filmmaker - and for obvious reason. Often the local filmmaking industry is struggling, and an opening night slot focuses press and attendee attention on the lucky filmmaker, though the hype is often a disappointment. While I unfortunately missed the opening night, the word on the street in Sarajevo was that local director Aida Begic's debut feature "Snow" (Snijeg) escaped the opening night blues. Centered on a post-war ravaged village in which most of the inhabitants have been killed, a small remaining group tries to escape poverty by selling plum jam and fruits on a roadside. Two businessmen visit the village wanting to buy the group out, leaving them with the dilemma of taking the offer and potentially escaping poverty or remaining and sticking true to their roots.
"Style is dictated by the material and what you want to say," commented Begic during a panel later in the festival, commenting on her film's "documentary-esque" style. "'Realistic' always has to be the truth. You can't fool an audience on the basics of life."
Personal trauma and the fallout of a lengthy prison sentence of a leftist student in nearby Turkey is the backdrop of conflict in Ozcan Alper's "Autumn" (Jesen/Sonbahar), screening in SFF's competition. After release from incarceration for anti-government activities in the '90s, Yusuf (Onur Saylak) returns to his familial home in a remote area of the Black Sea, only to find that his father has passed away and most of the village's younger people have moved away. Only one friend is still there and he attempts to escape loneliness after meeting a pretty Georgian prostitute, but their circumstances make it difficult for the two to find the companionship they desire.
During a discussion after the screening at SFF's open-air "Festival Square," director Ozcan Alper criticized his country's regime for imprisoning political foes and said his film is primarily a tribute to the thousands of people who lost their freedom for opposing the state. "I did not stay neutral in this story. I'm against the domination of the majority against the minority, and I always fight to let the minority retain rights." Continuing Alper said, "I wanted to emphasize the element to be free. What's important is man's struggle for freedom - any kind of freedom - economic, political, cultural..."
Gore, blood and violence aren't typically my idea of a good time at the movies - though I know I'm a bit of an exception on all that - and had I known much about Serbian director Dejan Zecevic's "The Fourth Man" (Cetvrti covjek) prior to the morning screening at the ornate National Theatre in the heart of the city, I might've opted for a stroll in the nearby beautiful old town instead. Thankfully blissful ignorance reigned because the film sucked me right in. After awakening from a two-month coma and plagued with amnesia, a man learns that his wife and child were murdered. Slowly, his past is revealed by a Colonel who claims they're best friends and discovers he's a major for the state security agency. Though he's skeptical, he accepts the game his "friend" sets up with a businessman, a mafia don and a politician, and along the way learns he's a war criminal and the identity of his family's murderer.
As the credits rolled for the film's morning screening, also a part of the fest's competition, the audience erupted with applause though the director was in the festival square at a press conference already underway. The film is seductive, but I couldn't help feeling uncomfortable when scenes of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia hit the screen while sitting with an audience who undoubtedly had direct experience with such atrocity.
Other titles in the festival were big draws, including Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah," which will screen at next month's Toronto International Film Festival, James Marsh's "Man On Wire,", Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's "Trouble the Water," Jia Zhang Ke's "24 City" and Steve McQueen's 2008 Cannes Camera d'Or winner, "Hunger."
Audiences were also attracted to the big named visitors attending SFF. Actor Kevin Spacey and writer/director Charlie Kaufman (in town with his Cannes competition film, "Synecdoche, New York") were coming to town for the second half of the festival as I headed back to the States, and directors Mike Leigh ("Happy-Go-Lucky") and Todd Haynes - the subject of this year's festival tribute - were already in town.
"I reject the notion that my films are about England," said Mike Leigh, who drew quite a crowd on a hot weekday afternoon for a chat, despite his sometimes crusty back and forth with attendees who he deems, "dumb." "'Happy-Go-Lucky' is set in London, but I hope and believe it transcends to other places."
In his first film since the Oscar-noinated "Vera Drake," Leigh's "Lucky" is the story of Poppy (Sally Hawkins) who lives in North London's Camden area. While her sister has moved away to a 'comfortable' life in the 'burbs, Poppy is content to prepare lessons for her primary school and hang out with friends in the local pub. After her bicycle is stolen, she decides to take driving lessons which exposes her to a life and character very much different from her own.
"I think it's important to make good parts for women, mostly because there aren't very many," said Leigh about his work. "I always do very strong personalities for my central characters..." Leigh also talked at length about his time consuming process in building the characters in his films with his actors, something not available to most filmmakers. "I have the luxury to work without a script. I spend six months with the actors in which we collaborate over time and create a character."