In marking its 15th anniversary with this year's edition, the Sarajevo Film Festival has long ago realized its first year promise to offer a cultural refuge to what was then a city still under a siege by Serbian forces that had been going on since 1992. Since that founding in 1995, the festival has become the premier cinema event in the Balkans, regularly spotlighting note-worthy international and regional films and, since 2007, hosting the Sarajevo Talent Campus, modeled after the Berlinale's successful program, to provide mentoring for emerging film talent from the region.
In this first of two reports from the 2009 Sarajevo Film Festival, I look at two special tributes and one controversial panel taking place as part of the event. The second report at the end of the festival will take a closer look at the film line up.
Tribute to Jia Zhang-Ke
Jia Zhang-ke, the Chinese director of the 2008 Sarajevo Film Festival's Panorama section opening film, "24 City," was so taken by the city and the festival that he returned once again this year for a retrospective of his work, organized by programmer Howard Feinstein. The 16 film series includes a re-presentation of "24 City," along with other documentaries, narratives, and shorts that have garnered international critical acclaim.
At an intimate dinner in his honor on Saturday evening, taking place at a hillside restaurant with a stunning panoramic view of the city below, Jia and his actress muse, Tao Zhao, were feted by Feinstein and a select group of attending filmmakers, industry, and press, including local director Jasmila, Zbanic (whose "Grbavica" won the Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlinale), visiting Mexican director Michel Franco ("Daniel & Ana"), Diane Weyermann (Participant Media), and Michael Werner (Fortissimo Films). The assembled watched as a bemused Jia was serenaded with "Happy Birthday" by the restaurant's staff, who mistook a cake presented to the director honoring his attendance as a birthday cake.
The following day, the festival presented an official reception for Jia, hosted by Festival Director Mirsad Purivatra and Programmer Howard Feinstein. The director expressed his thanks to the festival for hosting his first ever full career retrospective, humbly saying, "I still think of myself as a beginning filmmaker," and enjoying the opportunity to revisit his earlier work with the Sarajevo audience.
Celebration of Wouter Barendrecht
Sunday evening also saw another tribute take place - this one preceding an open air screening of first-time director Michel Franco's "Daniel & Ana." The film, represented by Fortissimo Films, provided the opportunity for the festival to honor long time festival friend and partner, Wouter Barendrecht, who passed away suddenly this April. In a special presentation before the screening began, Purivatra, Feinstein, Screen International's Mike Goodridge, and Wouter's partner at Fortissimo, Michael Werner, all spoke eloquently about how much Wouter meant to festivals like Sarajevo. Feinstein told the audience, "Most of you never met Wouter, but his generosity affected all of you - he went out of his way to make films available and affordable to Sarajevo in a way that most other distributors wouldn't have for a festival of this size." Werner, who has participated in many tributes for his friend and partner in the past four months, acknowledged that he was still emotional speaking about Wouter. Thanking the festival and the audience, he noted, "Wouter came from the world of film festivals and would have loved to see all of you here." Following the speeches, the audience was asked to hold lit candles aloft as the screen presented a slideshow honoring Wouter, with "Thank You For Being A Friend" as the soundtrack (the Andrew Gold original, not "The Golden Girls" version, though that would have been appropriate too).
There Are [No] Gays in Sarajevo?
On Monday evening, I took part in a first-of-its-kind (for Sarajevo) panel entitled "Gays in Long Shot and Close-up: Adding Insult to Injury." Inspired by the controversy and violence that erupted after Organization Q attempted to hold the first Sarajevo Queer Film Festival nearly a year ago, in September 2008, Programmer Howard Feinstein pushed the initially resistant Sarajevo Film Festival to include a panel discussion about LGBT representation and the story of the Queer Festival.
Moderated by Feinstein, the other panelists included Svetlana Durkovic (Organization Q/Sarajevo Queer Film Festival), Danis Tanovic (Oscar-winning director of "No Man's Land" and founder of progressive political party Our Party), Mike Goodridge, and Michael Werner. The program began with screenings of two short films addressing LGBT life in Russia ("In the Theme") and in 1980s NYC ("Second Guessing Grandma"), as well as a clip from a documentary about the Sarajevo Queer Film Festival controversy. After the first film screened with only the first of double lines of subtitles visible, Feinstein brought some levity to the event by quipping that it was "good for tops, bad for bottoms," eliciting laughs from the surprisingly knowing audience.
Panelists then began a wide-ranging discussion of a number of issues related to LGBT visibility, politics, and media representation, in the Baltics and beyond. Durkovic provided extensive information about the difficulties facing her organization, including news that the festival may largely consist of an online component so as to protect participants from violence while simultaneously getting their ideas out to a wider audience. The well-respected Tanovic, who, like many other progressive straights in September, lent his support to Organization Q, spoke of his disgust at the rhetoric of political leaders who denounced the event and essentially condoned the violence committed against the LGBT community. For my part, I related the similar resistance faced by the Side By Side festival in St Petersburg, Russia. Goodridge was asked to relate the controversy over Proposition 8 in California, illustrating that homophobia is still widespread, while Werner discussed the relatively quick opening up of the formerly restrictive Taiwanese society in regards to LGBT issues.
When the discussion moved on to a consideration of LGBT representation and politics in mainstream Hollywood films, Tanovic's producer, Cedomir Kolar, from the audience urged the panelists to refocus on the situation in the Balkans, and, unsurprisingly, audience questions focused a great deal on matters closer to home. Kolar played the devil's advocate, offering that in many ways, the situation of LGBT people during Soviet times was safer (if not necessarily "better"), likening it to the US military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and suggesting that Durkovic and her colleagues showed great courage in demanding visibility - under Communism, he said, LGBT officially didn't exist, but unofficially many were "out" to their close friends and relatives. They didn't push for public visibility, and thus were largely left alone to live their lives in peace. But for Western Europeans and Americans in the room, of course, that very visibility is the point, and is why the work of the beleaguered Durkovic is so important - attempting to use media to unite and organize a minority. It's to the Sarajevo Film Festival's credit, and especially to Feinstein's, that they provided a (incidentally well-attended and sympathetic) public forum to address these issues and to continue a dialogue.
[Basil Tsiokos is Programming Associate, Documentary Features for the Sundance Film Festival.]