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When Celebrity Overwhelms Auteurs: Howard Feinstein on Resigning From the Sarajevo Film Festival

When Celebrity Overwhelms Auteurs: Howard Feinstein on Resigning From the Sarajevo Film Festival

A view of the seats at the open-air cinema for the 25th Sarajevo Film Festival, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina 16 August 2019. The festival, which runs from 16 to 23 August, will feature 270 movies.25th Sarajevo Film Festival, Bosnia And Herzegovina - 16 Aug 2019

The Sarajevo Film Festival


We’re publishing Howard Feinstein’s first-person piece on his reasons for resigning from the Sarajevo Film Festival with the caveat that we’re not taking sides; there’s two for every story and here only Howard has the floor. (We’ve extended an invitation to the Sarajevo Film Festival for their take on events.) However, the issue of celebrities impacts every film festival.

— The Editors

Why I Left my Heart in Sarajevo: The Schizophrenia of Film Festivals

Daddy always said I was a quitter. He was uneducated, a champion Golden Gloves boxer and proud salvageman in Texas who lunged for his goals without detours. On account of his hard work, I had more choices at my disposal and prematurely abandoned Boy Scouts, United Synagogue Youth, B’nai B’rith Youth, Pi Lambda Phi, pre-med, and architecture, ending up first a film academic, then a critic. But I believe that he would not have condemned me for resigning as an international programmer three weeks ago after 13 years at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

Management’s unrelenting quest for celebrity actors – and I know that their appearance is a reality of the festival world and the sponsors and media who support it – began to spin out of control, so much so that it infringed on my principle goal: to present the best and/or most original films revealing a singular vision from around the globe that had had their premieres over the previous year. As much as I respect what thespians do, my heart belongs to directors. A dream job became a nightmare.

Why am I writing about what could be construed as an internal problem? Because it is not: The issues that led me to resign are endemic to festivals worldwide. Two tasks of film festivals that render them rather schizoid – wrangling stars and providing high-quality cinema – is something that needs to be balanced, or they run the risk of crassly catering to the rich and famous while showing merely mediocre films; or of having a roster with galas for mediocre movies with B- and C-list stars to satisfy journalists and staring locals. (Eric Kohn’s recent indieWIRE interview with Locarno director Olivier Pere suggests that that festival has become more balanced by adding some big stars to supplement its fairly esoteric fare.)

It doesn’t need to be like this: No matter which celebrities appear, the New York Film Festival is always first and foremost about the films themselves, as is Torino. Cannes and Venice get name performers but, Janus-faced, are able to remain showcases for esoteric fare. Deauville, on the other hand, unapologetically emphasizes American stars. Most festivals occupy, uncomfortably, the gray zone in between.

I curated two strands at Sarajevo: Tribute to…, a retrospective of a contemporary filmmaker, who presented one or two of his or her works daily, ending with a public career interview I conducted; and Panorama, a selection of about 25 fiction features and docs for which the filmmakers frequently came and interacted with the viewers. Both programs attracted a large, loyal following. I honestly think that their popularity stems from my having selected alone, without a committee or restrictions.

This year, however, the heads of the festival, Miro Purivatra, the director, and his wife, Izeta Gradevic, the creative director, suddenly began to restrict my choices. Interference is anathema to a programmer. The following examples might help explain.

Tribute To…

I invited the great Serbian director Oleg Novkovic to be the subject of a second tribute (after Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, the main honoree). I had done this combination of an international director (Abel Ferrara) with a regional one (Bela Tarr) before, at Purivatra’s request. But they nixed Novkovic. They kept changing the reasons, but it was clearly payback because he had pulled his most recent film, White White World, from last year’s regional competition in favor of Locarno. At the suggestion of the festival’s programming coordinator, I added White White World to Panorama. The management, who brought my guests this year alone from countries like Uruguay and Mexico, refused to pay his air fare—from nearby Belgrade.


At 12 noon and 6 pm daily, I showed films from Panorama in the state-of-the-art Meeting Point cinema. (The 3 pm slot was reserved for the Tribute.) The 9 pm screening time was the most desirable. The film was projected outdoors, in the large atrium of a functioning fire station called Vatrogasac, with old stucco walls heightening the soundtrack. I selected the films based not only on their aesthetic merit, but on their ability to push spectators to stretch their minds and senses.

The festival directors have always chosen more accessible films based on the availability of “talent” to wave at the crowd for their much program, called “Open Air,” which takes place in a much larger outdoor space. We never before competed; in fact, we occasionally showed some of the same titles. This year deemed certain titles from Berlin and Cannes unavailable for my Panorama, the kind of films that would have always been possibilities in the past—just in case someone might end up available to stand before the throngs and smile.

Someone was going to come from the Dardenne brothers’ “Kid With a Bike”? Of course not. I had to salvage it from the scrap bin. I had to fight to include in Panorama “The Guard,” which had been earmarked as the closing night selection for Open Air should Brendan Gleeson or Don Cheadle become available. Through the Irish producer, an old friend, I invited them and the director, John Michael McDonagh, the only one I cared about. Purivatra, who was only interested in the performers, gave his blessing. Only McDonagh came and, unbelievably, management wanted to keep him only for the Open Air screening, so he could blow kisses. I had to fight to have him do a Q & A with the Panorama audience. This is that murky area in which cult of (perceived) celebrity and the qualitative characteristics of selections overlapped in a negative way.

The celebrity craze reached its climax, though, just before the Open Air screening of The Guard. At the closing ceremony inside the National Theater, Purivatra presented a last-minute honorary Heart of Sarajevo award to Angelina Jolie, in town to direct her very first (as yet unfinished) feature, based on the rape camps run by the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 genocide.

Simultaneously, for Panorama’s closing night presentation in the packed Vatrogasac, less than 10 minutes’ walk away, I was doing an onstage Q & A with veteran Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, a proven director and humanitarian who had been honored with the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar earlier this year, about In a Better World (a Bosnian premiere). It had taken me four years of effort and interviews to get Bier to come. Jolie was, of course, mobbed by cameras. For Bier, there was not a photographer in sight. In the past, there had always been photographers sent to that event, alerted by the festival’s press office.

A fate similar to Bier’s befell Martel, even though the cinema was completely full for all of her screenings (three features and two shorts), with people sitting on the steps and floor. Virtually no photographers, not even for the annual career interview, which had always been filmed and its honoree photographed. No matter that her presence for the Tribute was a real coup for the festival. I find it symptomatic that their neglect followed the receipt of my letter of resignation three days into the festival. But also, taking into account the festival’s initial unwillingness to invite McDonagh, I, sometimes incredibly naïve, knew that directorial talent would increasingly take second billing to star wattage.

Before the war, Sarajevo was famed for its multicultural lifestyle and sophisticated arts scene. One Bosnian, a longtime Panorama attendee, commented on the downward spiral. “The Sarajevo Film Festival’s red carpet placed in front of the National Theater runs through Susan Sontag Square. (Sontag had frequented Sarajevo during the war, where she mounted productions.) The irony of Angelina’s triumph at Sontag Square illustrates the shift in Sarajevo’s cultural life toward celebrity culture and spectacle.” He paused, then added, as if having a sudden revelation, “It just may be symptomatic that the opening of Sarajevo’s first McDonald’s coincided with the opening of the festival.”

Jolie is well represented on the festival’s website, but there is little evidence of anything from the Tribute or Panorama. According to a well-known Sarajevan pundit, “The eradication of fact is an example of strategies from the autocratic system of the Communist past that have not only survived but been redeveloped in post-socialist Bosnia.” It’s as if Panorama, Tribute to, and Howard Feinstein had never existed.

My guess is that this is atypical of film festivals in general, though each has its own demons. Most are built on a corporate or nonprofit-arts model, which allows room for disagreement, or at least debate. In the case of the Sarajevo Film Festival, which is owned privately by Purivatra, a rigid organizational template prohibits constructive transformation. As in the time of the Communist dictator Marshall Tito, an inflexible top-down hierarchy is the norm. No one makes waves. Well, no Bosnian makes waves.

I had considered leaving several times over the years, but always thought of the audience and changed my mind. They were passionate about the tributes, many of them first-ever complete ones, to such great directors as Mike Leigh, Alexander Payne, Tarr, Todd Haynes, Jia Zhang-ke, Ulrich Seidl, Bruno Dumont, Tsai Ming-liang, Peter Mullan, Ferrara, and of course Martel. The spectators strongly supported the intentionally unpredictable Panorama, for which I brought such filmmakers as Darren Aronofsky, Michael Winterbottom, James Marsh, Lisandro Alonso, Carlos Reygadas, and Jafar Panahi. But this go-round, I decided to think first of myself: Why do this once the joy had begun to dissipate from the extensive labor of programming?

The focus on regional films at the Sarajevo Film Festival is, and should remain, first and foremost. My hope is that bringing Sarajevo’s problems with films from outside its orbit out into the open might help nudge priorities in a direction that would serve it and its culture-hungry spectators well—and, to be frank, aid in maintaining a legacy I can be proud of.

So, what do you think? We want to know your take on the role of celebrities at film festivals; tell us in the comments.

[Check out iW’s coverage of the event this year: 5 Must See Films from the Sarajevo Film Festival

Argentine Filmmaker Lucrecia Martel in Sarajevo: “Avoiding obviousness I discover other things”]

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