"Sarajevo is certainly evidence of the resilience of the human spirit," commented one filmmaker off the cuff over the weekend at one of many informal gatherings organized by the very hospitable Sarajevo Film Festival. Now entering its teens, SFF may not have yet reached the cache of some of its older and richer Western European brethren in Berlin, Edinburgh or San Sebastian, but for a city that only a little over a decade ago emerged from a three year siege that left thousands dead in its wake, SFF has amassed a world class event luring top-notch filmmakers and others for its relatively young 13th outing, including high-profile titles like Cannes Palme d'Or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and Two Days" by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu who came into town, as well as fellow Cannes honorees "Persepolis" by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi (a highly praised animated film that has managed to continually piss off the regime in Iran).
But well-represented among the fest's lighter offerings were such films "The Simpsons Movie," "Ratatouille" and "Bridge to Terabithia" in a 175-title lineup that includes both home-grown and international films spotlighting conflict. Included were screenings of Bosnia & Herzegovina's own universally praised "Grbavica" by Jamila Zbanic, in addition to other stories about the country's tumultuous past, including Semsudin Gegic's look at an orphaned woman's journey to find her brother and sister evacuated to Italy in the early '90s in "Ambassadors Learning Languages" and fellow Bosnian Namik Kabil's film challenging the country's collective wartime denial in "Interrogation."
Still, the world's other hotspots have shared centerstage at the fest this year, including Israeli director Shai Carmeli-Pollak's doc "Bel'in My Love." Bil'in, a small Palestinian village of olive tree growers, has been catapulted onto the world stage as its inhabitants peacefully demonstrate to block the 28 foot-high wall the Israel is constructing along the West Bank, effectively cutting the village in half and seizing property belonging to its citizens. "Psychologically, there was hope that the demonstrations would somehow stop the fence," said Pollak, who joined the Palestinians after witnessing what he believed was a crime on the part of his government. "I was raised with a Zionist way of upbringing [and] never thought of myself as a political person... I think of this as a joint struggle [and] for me as an Israeli, I've made new friends and have been able to talk to people who should be enemies," he said to an emotional crowd following a screening of the film. Despite the two-year struggle, the wall indeed went up slicing Bil'in, but the effort continues.
Though the film has its raw moments, its passions strongly affected festgoers; a screening audience gave the film a rapturous applause during the credits, which turned into a long standing ovation for Pollak and three of Bel'in's citizens. As a mere visitor, I couldn't help but think that Sarajevo's own residents in the audience felt a kindred spirit with the folks from Bil'in.
But the question of oppression was not limited to the Israeli-Palestinian or Balkans conflicts. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker's "The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair," delves into the personal story of abuse in Iraq. Iraqi journalist Younis Abbas was incarcerated in Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison following a series of errors which lead authorities to believe he planned to assassinate British PM Tony Blair. At one point in the film, Abbas laughs snidely, "you know, I'm a human, not a monkey," which prompted one local audience member to recall later during the Q&A how she was told during the war in the former Yugoslavia as a teenager to remind people that Bosnians too were "just like people in the West" in order to engender sympathy when the news cameras were rolling. "We were encouraged at the time to make pop culture references like, 'here, I listen to Madonna and other music that you listen to...' I'm just like you and yet there are bombs dropped on my home..." Tucker commented that one of the biggest challenges for him was showing the film at festivals in places like New York and Los Angeles where "they have never experienced war." "It's frustrating because some audiences in America just don't care."
Outside of the war theme, SFF also chartered titles confronting personal conflict, such as the fest's Panorama section-opener, "Suely in the Sky" by Brazilian Karim Ainouz ("Madame Sata"), which Strand recently opened Stateside, and Ainouz described it as "an empowerment to women." Panorama, programmed by American journalist (and frequent indieWIRE contributor) Howard Feinstein, was one of the most popular nightly tickets, with outdoor screenings held in the courtyard of a fire brigade that--perhaps surprisingly--boasted excellent acoustics. The international-heavy sidebar included a healthy dose of Asian, particularly Chinese titles, such as Chinese director Ying Liang's seductively racy "The Other Half," which has yet to find a U.S. home, as well as Johnny To's gangster feature "Exiled," and Zhang Ke Jia's Venice Golden Lion winner, "Still Life." "Once again, we have significant representation from Aisa: six out of 16 movies," Feinstein says in his forward about the Panorama in the SFF catalog. "One chooses films from where the best are being conceived and shot, and Asia is still the magnet."
And, still to come this coming weekend are high-profile American offerings. Along with "Ratatouille," "The Simpsons" as well as Ash Brannon's "Surf's Up," Michael Moore's "SiCKO" and Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" will close the fest. Moore in fact is expected to show up in Sarajevo and will undoubtedly come with the "don't let this happen to you" message about private health care. SFF has hosted daily afternoon chats with some of its more prominent guests including jury president Jeremy Irons, "Control" director Anton Corbijn as well as director Alexander Payne, and Friday's billing is listed as "Surprise Guest," leaving some to excitedly speculate that it will be Moore. Whether the lightning rod director indeed makes it to Bosnia & Herzegovina or not, the fest has nevertheless packed quite a punch for an event so relatively young and born out of a country once ubiquitously displayed on CNN as a basket case of war and genocide. Sarajevo, though certainly not as affluent as many of its fellow European capitals, is slowly making the ascent, and its brash but friendly adolscent-aged film fest is helping the city show off its resilient make over.