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Movie Stars in a Former War Zone: Sarajevo Film Festival Thrives For Locals and Industry Attendees

Movie Stars in a Former War Zone: Sarajevo Film Festival Thrives For Locals and Industry Attendees

It’s rare to find a film festival that has both noble intentions AND an industry relevance — Cannes isn’t trying to cure cancer, after all. That’s one reason that the Sarajevo Film Festival is such a standout on the festival circuit. The festival was started during the Bosnian war 11 years ago as a mark of artistic defiance and a way to let the troubled community find solace through film. More than a decade later, the war is over and the festival helps continue the healing process — embraced by the community through its strong children’s and teen programs as well as popular open-air screenings. And it is attracting more and more attention in the film world, with movie stars and industry types making the trip to Sarajevo.

At this year’s festival, which ran August 19-27, the 1000 or so industry guests in town included the likes of Sundance‘s Geoff Gilmore, filmmakers Isaac Julien, Terry George, Alexander Payne, and actor Miki Manojlovic — and that’s just to name a few on the juries. Other attendees included Tribeca Film Festival executive director Peter Scarlet, actors Margo Stilley, Emily Watson (this year’s curator for the Katrin Carlidge Foundation award), and Peter Mullan, French director Claude Lelouch, and many others. Even with all the big names, there wasn’t a lot of VIP attitude — it was easy to mingle with these folks at the nightly festival parties and the festival’s bar. The one evening I decided to call it a night early, it turns out I could have found Daniel Craig drinking in the wee hours with festival staffers while local hero Danis Tanovic (the Oscar winner for “No Man’s Land“) played piano.

One thing that attracts such talent is the infectiously enthusiastic presence of festival director Mirsad “Miro” Purivatra, who could be seen animatedly milling around at every festival event. The one thing that Purivatra couldn’t do anything, about, however, was the rain. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s normal summer sunshine was replaced this year by plenty of rainstorms. Usually that’s good moviegoing weather, but it’s a disappointment considering Sarajevo’s great outdoor screening venues (in particular the impressive 2,500-seat Heineken Open Air Cinema, which was quite happening on dry nights.) The sight of revelers dancing unabashedly during the opening night party’s downpours was proof that a bit of weather problems weren’t going to kill this festival’s energy (the raucous local band, and plenty of “sponsorship” from Jack Daniel’s, probably aided that opening-night enthusiasm.)

CineLink is another big reason for Sarajevo’s festival’s increasing industry presence. This co-production market and script-development program includes feature projects from Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Now in its third year, CineLink can celebrate its first completed project, Nedzad Begovic’s charmingly quirky documentary “Totally Personal,” which premiered at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival.

Even though some of the films I selected to see at this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival didn’t blow my mind, the breadth and overall quality of the program did impress me. The competition program includes only films from Eastern Europe, and there were also regional offerings out of competition, regional documentaries, and local films showing as part of the concurrent Second National Film Festival of Bosnia and Herzegovina (I’d already seen “Fuse” director Pjer Zalica‘s quietly funny and moving drama “Days and Hours” at another festival, but it’s definitely one of the highlights of the year in Bosnian film.)

The top competition prize went to Georgi Djulgerov‘s “Lady Zee” from Bulgaria, with a special award to the beautifully shot drama “Kukumi” by Isa Qosja from Kosovo. The shorts winner was Balint Kenyeres‘ “Before Dawn“. Special mentions went to two Bosnian shorts: Alen Drljevic‘s “Paycheck” (which also won the EFA/UIP award) and Elmir Jukic‘s “Frame for the Picture of my Homeland.” (Both of those were produced by local powerhouse Refresh Production.)

As you’d expect from a region with such recent turmoil, most of the features were heavy — if you live through a war, you don’t come out the other side wanting to make “Love Actually 2.” Among the regional highlights for me were “Lost and Found,” a group project with segments from six directors based in Eastern Europe. Like most similar projects, it didn’t feel as cohesive as its planners might have hoped, but as a collection of related shorts it was great.

Bosnian documentary “Borderline Lovers,” which won a human rights jury special mention, was a moving look at couples who faced obstacles because of their different backgrounds (Serbian-Muslim; Montenegrin-Croatian). “Borderline Lovers” was a fascinating, moving, and an eye-opening look at the personal politics of the region. The Human Rights Award, for documentary competition, went to Andrey Paounov‘s “Georgi and the Butterflies” from Bulgaria, a nimble and touching documentary about the remarkable head doctor at a home for psychologically challenged men.

The Panorama features and documentaries gathered some highlights from around the world. Section programmer Howard Feinstein (also an indieWIRE contributor) selected some of the best international offerings of the year. In fact, the two best films I saw during my days in Sarajevo both came from the Panorama section — Kyle Henry‘s “Room,” and Pirjo Honkasalo‘s “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia.” “Room,” the debut narrative feature from Austin, Texas, documentary filmmaker Kyle Henry, is one of the most exciting American indie films of the year — it’s a challenging, artfully crafted psychological portrait of a middle-aged woman who starts seeing strange visions. “Melancholia” was a lingering, poetic triptych — the opposite of a talking-head doc — looking at the Chechen war’s affects on children.

The festival’s infrastructure was impressive — guests were treated well, transportation went smoothly, and festival venues were in easy walking distance to one another (near the tourist-friendly old town.) Screenings started on time and projection at most of the venues was excellent. The fest’s other activities were also laudable — coffee chats with the big directors in town, kids having ice cream with the likes of “Lemony Snicket” director Brad Silberling, and lots of moving and educational tours of Sarajevo and beyond.

Having an industry presence in town can also mean more brutal discussions. Thomas Clay‘s controversial feature “The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael,” which ends with a horrifically graphic rape scene, spurred quite a heated audience Q&A during which Sundance’s Geoffrey Gilmore and director Isaac Julien really laid into Clay (rightly, in my opinion) for resorting to such cheap shock value. Of course, the local film lovers also asked some provocative questions during other Q&As. You could almost feel the catharsis in the room as locals asked the director of “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia” about how they might help the Chechen children growing up in the latest war-torn part of the world. It’s a reminder that a film festival can be a way not just to make deals and meet industry players, but connect disparate parts of the world through film.

[For the full list of winners, visit the festival’s website.]

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