FESTIVALS: Sarajevo Shoots Fireworks; 7th Fest Celebrates "No Man's Land," Future Hopes
by Lael Loewenstein
(indieWIRE/ 08.29.01) -- Conceived in 1995 as a defiant refusal to allow war to decimate cultural life and nurtured with an indefatigable resolve unique to the Bosnian spirit, the Sarajevo Film Festival has finally arrived. The most prominent film event in
the Balkans, the annual fest (which ran August 17-25), has become a draw for international cinephiles and vacationing Eastern Europeans alike. Drawing well over 60,000 spectators, it featured more than 100 films from 35 countries.
"This year we have seen some of our most important goals become a reality," says Festival President Mirsad Purivatra. "When we started [with a makeshift fest composed largely of borrowed videocassettes], we hoped that the festival would one day become an important cultural event in the region and eventually help to stimulate domestic film production and promote awareness of Bosnian film."
Those goals have been a long time coming, but with the appearance this year of native son Danis Tanovic's award-winning "No Man's Land" in the opening night slot, they are no longer illusory. Just two years ago, there were no new Bosnian works at all, and last year the fest showcased only a handful of Bosnian shorts.
Tanovic's tragicomic film revolves around two soldiers, one a Bosnian, the
other a Serb, caught in a neutral trench during the bloody civil war. Having picked up the screenplay prize at Cannes, Tanovic, 32, saw the opening night screening as a welcome, albeit bittersweet homecoming. "When we went to Cannes, we were outsiders and nobody knew us," explains Tanovic. "We were hopeful but we didn't expect anything, so when we won the prize it was, of course, great. But with Sarajevo, everybody already had expectations of the film, and I'm glad they were satisfied.
"For me Sarajevo is more important than Cannes," he continued, "not in terms of my career but as a person, as someone who comes from here. And I think it was the hardest crowd I'll ever have to face, because the film is so personal to the people of Sarajevo."
Though it has struggled to rebuild itself since the war, Sarajevo is no longer the vibrant multicultural oasis it was during Tanovic's youth, when Muslims, Croats and Bosnians coexisted peacefully and the city hosted the 1984 Olympic winter games. Stucco may make the scars less visible, but everywhere there are signs of war: apartment buildings and sidewalks are riddled with holes from mortar blasts; a few edifices, like the Oslobodenje newspaper building, lie in crumpled heaps.
Despite its international success, "No Man's Land" also proves that Bosnian
film production has a long way to go. Having been denied financial support from local authorities, Tanovic was forced to seek funds elsewhere. Shot in Slovenia, "No Man's Land" is a French-Belgian-Italian-Slovenian co-production, though it will be Bosnia's official contender for the foreign film Oscar. Picked up by United Artists at Cannes, the film is slated to open stateside in November.
Regional programmer Elma Tataragic rebuked the Bosnian authorities for not having supported Tanovic's film, adding that she hoped its success might teach them a lesson. "Danis had wanted to make his film here but found that doors were shut to him," says Tatargic. "It's a real shame for us and for our country. Now that it's getting international recognition, the Bosnian authorities are starting to realize that film is important for the promotion of the country; it's not only art, it's also marketing. I can only hope that they don't repeat their mistake."
Overlooking the film's financial origins, the people of Sarajevo proudly welcomed "No Man's Land" as a Bosnian film. It is, after all, the story of their war, directed by a Bosnian, and featuring several Bosnian actors. The gala screening at the filled-to-capacity 2500-seat Open Air Cinema culminated in an elaborate fireworks display, the first in the festival's history. But with the sound of fireworks eerily reminiscent of shelling and gunfire, some crowd members initially panicked.
Tanovic had disliked the fireworks idea, but Festival Director Purivatra insisted the festivities were not only appropriate but also vital to the proceedings. "It is important for the people of Sarajevo to know that sound [of fireworks exploding] can also be a joyful sound, to associate it with normal life, and not just the sounds of war," Purivatra said
In the same spirit, Purivatra and his staff have taken steps toward helping to normalize cultural life and restore Bosnia's artistic promise. This year the fest sponsored a new Bosnian cinema co-production project, in which filmmakers -- who had finished scripts and at least 30% of their budgets secured -- were invited to pitch their projects to a commission composed of producers, script consultants and film fund representatives.
Similarly, the fest mounted two new workshops, one aimed to promote an exchange of ideas and practices between foreign and Bosnian documentary directors, the other designed to stimulate domestic film criticism. The latter event consisted of a five-day seminar in which international film journalists were invited to teach film criticism to 18 college students from the region. Given what workshop organizer Howard Feinstein termed the "Bosnian brain drain" -- the departure of intellectuals during the war and the lack of any film critics whatsoever in the country since then -- the event was a small but key step towards helping to reinvigorate Bosnian intellectual life.
"This seminar in particular, and the festival in general, make it possible for Bosnians like me to look to the future, not the past," explains journalism student Leila Kurbegovic, 22. She should know: Kurbnegovic and her family were forced to shelter themselves underground in Sarajevo during the war, with little food or water and no electricity when many others simply left the city.
Other programs at the festival included the popular open-air screenings of Hollywood films, the Panorama section, which samples the best of global film fests, a children's program, a regional selection and a program called New Currents, showing only first-time features. ("No Man's Land" received the prize for Best First Film; runners-up were "A Time for Drunken Horses" and Japan's "19.") Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi ("The Cirlcle") attended, and special guest British director Stephen Frears was present for a career retrospective, having picked up the baton from last year's honoree, Steve Buscemi. Next year's career retrospective subject has already committed to attend: English director Mike Leigh had such a good time last year when he came to present "Topsy Turvy" that he has signed on for another visit.
In the meantime, films from the former Yugoslavia will be showcased at this
fall's Hamptons Film Festival (October 17-21). The event will include a
screening of "No Man's Land" and Tanovic's rarely seen but highly acclaimed war-related documentary shorts.
"This year has been a definite turning point for the festival," allows
regional programmer Tatargic. "But I still think we have a ways to go."
[Lael Loewenstein is a film critic for Variety and has written about film for
E!Online and the New York Daily News, among other publications.]