"Fuse" Lights Sarajevo's Cinematic Fire; Ninth Edition Reaches Peak with Post-War Works
by Anthony Kaufman
The Blackout of 2003 didn't stir Sarajevo residents much. "One night, that's not too bad," one aspiring film critic said, as several million North Americans were without power two weeks ago. "We had that for over three years." During the bloody siege of this Balkan cultural capital from 1992-1996, more than 10,500 Bosnians died; the rest struggled to survive, running their electricity on generators and car batteries, reading by candlelight, and starting in 1995, going to a film festival in a basement.
Nine years later, the city of Sarajevo is no longer war-torn -- merely ragged around the edges -- and the 2003 Sarajevo Film Festival has evolved into an international event, showcasing world premieres of local productions and bringing Hollywood and European films to audiences who once worried about snipers picking them off on the way to the cinema.
The ninth SFF's kick-off with open-air celebration encapsulated the spirit of renewal in Sarajevo: before the movie started, there were no speeches, no government officials or festival director to be found. Instead, a couple dozen members of the attractive young staff stood on stage in front of some 2,500 spectators and waved their arms exuberantly. Just to be outside has never felt so inspiring -- though the few unexpected fireworks blasts at the end of the night showed just how quickly the jitters could return.
Likewise, Sarajevo's regional premieres portrayed a darker picture of the region, as the area recovers from post-war corruption and enduring wounds. Sarajevo's opener, "Fuse," directed by Pjer Zalica ("MGM Sarajevo") -- which swept the festival's inaugural regional awards competition -- chronicles the inhabitants of a small Bosnian town as they busily sweep their demons under the rug in preparation for the rumored arrival of then American President Bill Clinton. (A fireman's brigade proves its forward-thinking by including Serbs from the neighboring town; a gold-chain-wearing black market baron dresses up his prostitutes as folk singers.) An ambitious first feature, combining dark comedy and melodrama with several interlocking stories (Zalica cites influences from "Magnolia" to "Happiness" to Milos Forman's "The Firemen's Ball"), the film was a favorite among local audiences and set the tone for a festival steeped in moral uncertainty, from human trafficking and depraved cops to rampant deceit and payoffs.
The festival's regional program began with the similarly irreverent and dire "Summer in the Golden Valley," another first feature, directed by Srdjan Vuletic ("Hop, Skip and Jump."). Mixing a hackneyed kidnapping plot with the fresher story of a Bosnian hip-hop slacker out to repay his late father's debt and uphold his family's honor, "Summer" touches on similar post-war themes of loss, disaffection, and a society that no longer makes sense. One key moment follows a power-hungry criminal who replaces the U.N.-imposed flag of Bosnia-Herzegovina with his underwear.
Another regional highlight was Slovenian entry "Spare Parts," directed by Damjan Kozole, and winner of a special jury prize. Even more somber and embittered than its Bosnian counterparts, "Spare Parts" follows two refugee smugglers based in the city of Krsko, both the site of the only Slovene nuclear power plant and a motorcycle speedway. Kozole mixes harsh tales of the desperate émigrés -- raped, suffocated, and then used unwillingly as organ donors, or "spare parts" -- with its sensitive portrait of the two traffickers, one a confused young man, the other a former celebrated racer now washed up and afflicted with cancer.
During the war, Bosnian filmmakers Zalica and Vuletic were members of SaGA (Sarajevo Group of Authors) and started their filmmaking careers making documentaries about the siege. While their aesthetics are different (Zalinca admits to following in the wild and wooly Bosnian footsteps of Emir Kusturica and Vuletic attempts to capture a starker, contemporary reality), the two filmmakers have joined forces -- along with director-producer Ademir Kenovic ("The Perfect Circle") -- to form the aptly named Refresh Productions. The fledgling company made its mark this August, not only in Sarajevo, but also across the way in Locarno, where "Fuse" won the Silver Leopard in a boost of confidence for the local film community.
Despite the excitement (and an extended celebration upon Zalinca's trip back home), the filmmaker says Balkan films get a bad rep. "People hear it's a Bosnian film and they go, 'Oh, no, not another one,'" he says, as if all the films deal in death and destruction. Zalica is at work on a new project about a Bosnian in Brooklyn, post 9-11, and Refresh is cultivating a couple of new projects from up-and-coming Bosnian directors.
To further cultivate local talent, the festival began a new initiative this year called CineLink. With added resources from the Rotterdam Film Festival and the Hubert Bals Fund, 19 producers came to the city to meet with six area filmmakers (from Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia) in order to help establish co-production possibilities. (Among the projects was "Bare Skin," from director Zlatko Topcic, director of "Remake," one of the rare local productions to receive theatrical exhibition in the region).
According to Sarajevo festival director Mirsad Purivatra, the lack of a strong support network for local filmmakers is the industry's biggest challenge. "We have talented authors, we have talented directors, we have talented actors, but we need producers and production companies and contacts with international funds and producers," he says. "This is the main problem I can see now."
For a country that prides itself on its multi-ethnic, multi-religious culture (Sarajevo embraces its Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish inhabitants), it's surprising that Purivatra also complains of a deeply divided film and TV business. "There is no collaboration between producers, in film or TV, distributors, and exhibitors," he says. "The people in the business don't think about the business as a whole."
The Sarajevo Film Festival is trying to counter such problems, giving locals a place to meet and discuss the craft and business of making movies. To wit: Sarajevo also hosted its third annual Film Critics seminar, organized by New York writer (and indieWIRE contributor) Howard Feinstein, to help cultivate a new generation of savvy filmgoers.
"The most important part of this festival is that it helps us to get to know our neighbors," commented Ludmil Todorov, one of the directors of the Bulgarian comedy, "Emigrants." Such themes of cultural unity -- and disunity -- were palpable at the festival. In another Bulgarian project, documentary director Adela Peeva investigates the origins of a Balkan tune that each country claims as their own, in "Whose is This Song?" Humorous and yet penetrating, Peeva's film finds Greeks denying the song's Turkish roots, Bosnians and Albanians negating any Serbian influences, and on and on.
In a city where bullet-hole riddled buildings and bombed out structures are still difficult to miss, Sarajevo's festival also affords the locals a little bit of a glitz and glamour: new this year, the festival transformed the Sarajevo National Theatre into an official festival venue, complete with a red carpet, a corral of photographers and onlookers, and a house staff of Bosnian models greeting guests as they entered. And the festival may also help foster the construction of a new cinema multiplex, which according to Purivatra, may be up and running for Sarajevo's big 10th anniversary bash. "This is the size where we would like to keep our festival," admits Purivatra. "The festival has reached a peak."