FESTIVAL: From Tom Clancy to Michael Moore to Documents of Local Tragedy, Sarajevo Fest Addresses Violence in All Its Forms
Some say that history is written by the winners; but in Sarajevo, history is written by the filmmakers. The most remarkable sign of the city's survival of the devastating siege that lasted from 1992 to 1995 is the Sarajevo Film Festival. Now in its eight year, the SFF was founded during the war, in a strike of moral defiance against the Serbian aggressors who targeted the culturally renowned city in an "ethnic cleansing" attempt to erase its civic heritage of religious and social tolerance.
One of the lingering aspects of life during wartime in Sarajevo was the fact that so many film cameras and camcorders were capturing the travails of the innocent, and the SFF's annual screening of testimonial shorts and features give voice to these victimized. Seadi Hihad Kresevljakovic's "Do You Remember Sarajevo?" (1993-1995), a collection of moments capturing everyday life during the siege, is among the more affecting of this year's documents, showing the bombings and sniper attacks as well as the more intimate moments of joy among the surviving citizens, including a wedding amid the devastation. Nedzad Begovic's "War Art" (1993) follows the work of craftsmen who took pieces of twisted debris and transformed them into objects of beauty. And the 1995 short "Children Like Any Other," by Pjer Zalica, records the way in which kids were being traumatized by the war, whether running from the safety of a cellar to pick up a new book or playing cops and robbers in the ruins of their town. "Beauty and horror!" one child yells as he pedals through the streets on his tricycle. These and the dozen or so other short films about the siege kept alive the memory of the city's war-torn past throughout the festivities.
The SFF is a proud mix of high and low art, where "Return to Neverland" shares programming time with "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and a moviegoer can run from a screening of "Men in Black 2" to Aki Kaurismaki's latest, "The Man without a Past." And any festival that opens with "The Sum of All Fears" and closes with "Bowling for Columbine" is clearly open to discussing violence in all its forms. But what truly lingers in the mind are the constant, but never truly dissonant, cultural juxtapositions -- such as when an open-air screening of Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her" features a song by Caetano Veloso that quietly plays against the nearby mosques' lyrical broadcasts of calls to prayer. The very fact alone that "Talk to Her" drew a capacity crowd of 2,500 people to the festival's largest venue is the best evidence that in Sarajevo, there is no clear line between popular and elitist films.
The local Bosnians also don't mince words when it comes to discussing what they see. At more than one screening there were moments when a person would very calmly raised a hand and announced, "Your film -- I did not like it at all," and the director, without skipping a beat, would respond to the comments. "There's no bullshit," said Mike Leigh, this year's subject of a career retrospective. "Whether that's because of the war or simply part of the Bosnian character is hard to say. But it's refreshing." If anything, that character is one of perseverance, and that trait alone made Leigh's stories of social strife and familial fights, from 1973's "Hard Labour" through this year's "All or Nothing," an inspired choice.
Although peace came to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, Sarajevo is still a city that shows the deep scars of war. Building facades still bear the pockmarks of machine-gun fire and grenade holes that have been carved into plaster and brick, while the city's former parliament house -- a signature structure in the city skyline -- still lies vacant, its windows blown out and its walls crumbling. But little by little the city's architectural reconstruction has begun to reverse the effects of war. If anything, the population seems to be thriving, as throngs of people crowd the streets during the day and into the night, and cafes -- for both drinking and internet-surfing -- seem always to be busy. The SFF, in turn, feels like a natural extension of this vigorous hunger for activity, a way to be connected to the outside world and remain a keenly conscious part of 21st century Europe. No one better encapsulated the festival's atmosphere than Carlos Reygadas, here with his well-received Mexican drama "Japon," and who refuted the cliche of movies being escapist entertainment. "For me, cinema is not about dreaming," he said. "It's about living."