Ordinary PeopleIn many respects the Sarajevo Film Festival is the antithesis of “glamorous” film festivals such as Cannes or Toronto. In a story that was widely circulated, Associated Press highlighted it as a festival that was “born in a sandbag-protected basement during the Bosnian war.” To the general international population, Sarajevo may be better known for things other than film, but for cinephiles and filmmakers in that part of the world, the festival has been transformed from a small basement affair into an event of major importance. After 15 years, it has distinguished itself as an event that seeks to present cinema in contexts that reach far beyond the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It offers a genuine celebration of Balkan cinema, a community event for the local audiences, and a significant one for the filmmakers in this region. Even as the festival increasingly becomes affected by the world of marketing and financing, it remains for filmgoers and filmmakers a more down to earth event than the festivals that are framed as glamorous marketing events.

The festival is as much about the city of Sarajevo as it is about film. From the monument that marks the murder of Archduke Ferdinand that sparked World War One, to neighbourhoods like Grbavica, which became the scene of atrocious crimes during the Bosnian war, history is omnipresent. This history has now entered the consciousness of film audiences, largely due to unforgettable films such as Grbavica (2006) made by the young Sarajevo filmmaker, Jasmila Žbanić. The capital and the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina boast an accomplished generation of filmmakers in Žbanić, Aida Begić, Marina Andrée and Namik Kabil among others, who have won recognition well beyond the Balkan borders or this festival. The sustained efforts of Mirsad Purivatra have made this festival successful for 15 years, growing exponentially in the process and showcasing the city’s richness in culture and in cinema. There is energy in the city, almost incomprehensible for an outsider whose prior impression is tainted with the tragic events of the recent and distant past. That energy is also found in the audiences that crowd the film theatres, as well as in the new thresholds that are established and crossed by the filmmakers of eastern and south-eastern Europe.

Among a truly diverse range of films presented at various venues in the city, the works that engage the topic of the war underscore a continuing concern in the region. They won some of the key awards and also presented audiences with memories that are complex, intimate and full of struggle. The central award of the festival, the “Heart of Sarajevo” for competition feature film went to Serbian filmmaker Vladimir Perišić’s Obicni ljudi (Ordinary People). A co-production of Serbia/France/Switzerland/Netherlands, Perišić’s film puts the historical context of the war in the background and instead focuses on the intimate and emotional states and reactions of soldiers forced to follow the commands of the superiors in carrying out the senseless, mechanical killing of civilians as part of their routine daily activities. On his first day at the job, Dzoni (Relja Popovic, a newcomer who bagged the Best Actor award) is a novice killer, reluctantly bowing at the commands to kill. As the day goes on, he turns into a trained killer, endorsing the successful machine that transforms ordinary citizens into murderers, unable to break free from the internal as well as external authority. Very few in command are driven to madness, with most ordinary soldiers merely towing the line at first and then responding with trained ferocity. The film progresses with a deliberate, slow pace and without dramatic tension. Its subtlety in showcasing the transformation and the recklessness of killing becomes a worthy attempt at highlighting the central moral and ethical dilemmas of the soldiers forced to play these brutal roles. The crisis between conscience and duty that frames the film is familiar to Europe, as it has brought upon unspeakable atrocities on the continent.

The “literal” and cold quality of the violence in Ordinary People is quite striking. As a film that appeals to and invokes popular memory, it can be seen either as a cathartic attempt to obtain distance from the war, or to engage explicitly with the various participants in the events. The film leaves much to be desired stylistically, as its pace and understated treatment of the crisis of conscience and war make less of an impression in the context of a competition program. But as the principal programmer of the festival, Elma Tataragic, pointed out in a conversation, this winning entry from Serbia is the first film from that country about the war. As such, it constitutes a landmark event for the region and its emotional appeal was quite strong, especially given the fact that Serbia had not sent a film during the first few years of the festival.

As the reception of Ordinary People shows, the memories of the war that concluded almost a decade ago still mark several films at this festival. It is an odd but revealing experience to watch these films in a place that was once a “theatre” for that war, with audiences that were very much a part of the events and its aftermath. Tataragic (who co-wrote Aida Begić’s superb debut feature, Snijeg [Snow] last year) defended strongly the presence of the war in films from the region, pointing out the need of the region to engage with and reflect on its history. Various perspectives on the war, she said, have yet to be articulated; the “victims need to know” why and how, and those who perpetrated the crimes need to present their perspectives as well.

In contrast to Ordinary People, a Croatian contribution to the feature film competition, Goran Dević and Zvonimir Jurić’s Crnci (The Blacks) is more abstract, more meditative and presents a challenging narrative structure. A group of four, led by a commander, takes on a self-commissioned rescue effort for their comrades, even after the cease-fire has been declared. The film moves from the tragedy of the rescue attempt to a deeper portrayal of the inner demons present in the four. They appear to be as psychologically-tormented as those they have tortured and killed in a place of their camp called the “garage”. This dark film is a ruthless examination of the personas involved and the morals encountered.

DonkeyIn Croatia’s second contribution to this category, Antonio Nuić’s Kenjac (Donkey), war moves to a backdrop as the everyday takes the centre stage. This family drama features strong characters that clash with each other over rough memories. Gritty in its approach yet universal in its storytelling, the film portrays the politics of family relations inherent in any part of the world. The donkey forms the central pivot in bringing people together, reminiscent of the central role it played in Ildikó Enyedi’s Az én XX. századom (My Twentieth Century, 1989) two decades ago.

War remains important to the short film category as well. The top winner here, Croatian Tulum (Party) is 15 brilliant minutes of brevity and imagination by Dalibor Matanić. It is a narrative that plays with the memory of war, questioning the divide between dreams, nightmares and flights of time. A group that includes two sexually charged couples, a driver and a young kid who insists on joining them, drives through the ruins of war in Vukovar for a picnic. As they settle in on lush green lawn each of them is lured into a dilapidated and mysterious building. A young woman, who begins the narrative with a sexual romp, remains and falls asleep in the grass. When she wakes up, her physical self is displaced into another time. The memory of war has taken a more real, concrete form in the cemetery of those who accompanied her. Presented as a “woman’s” perspective on war (the film is a part of an omnibus from the region presenting Balkan women’s engagement with their lives), the film shifts perspectives, time and identification. “Waking up” appears as a figure in the film, a metaphor that puts centre stage the role of women (including an older woman who recounts attacks on her) as well as that of the ruins of war that are present all around them in a deserted town and the mass cemetery of the fallen. War is less complex in two other shorts in the competition, Amra Mehić’s Zgarište (The Ruin) and Elmir Jukić’s Majka (Mother). These films remain at the level of recounting the stories that the news media have brought us over time, of encounters with victims and attempts at reconciliation after the bitter war. They bring the personal into the realm of the public, asking for a meditation on the ever-present memories that do not fade away.

As the region searches for a life after the war, the realities of new life and post-war Europe, with their promise of union, community and the global order of collaboration and competition, become vital. Damjan Kozole’s competition feature, Slovenka (The Slovenian Girl) captures this new dawn of changing contexts. Kozole’s film centres on the life of a Ljubljana student who is forced into prostitution in order to earn more money; the pressures of the new EU living standards are weighing in on her, as she stumbles, struggles and survives. Her personal life is so torn with conflicts that it is impossible to derive any solace from it. She is now living by a new ethic of a city that wants to be European and global, and demands that she expends herself for it. Kozole’s film is a simple narrative that focuses on the moral crisis rather than narrative innovation. It remains an engaging tale for the audiences, and it attracted large crowds to all its screenings, affirming its broad appeal.

Perhaps the most visionary film in the feature competition program came from Hungary. Roland Varnik’s Adás (Transmission), depicts a science fiction vision without images, when the entire “screen culture” of the present has died and all images have vanished. It is a powerful statement on the drug of technology, something that Marshall McLuhan predicted adeptly some time ago. Recalling McLuhan’s insights, the film, which depicts a realm of indifference, withdrawal and struggle, offers a world of screen technologies as a prosthetic extension of ourselves. Once this world disappears, we are likely to enter into a catatonic stage.

The audience prize went to Marina Andrée’s documentary, Sevdah, a Bosnia-Herzegovina/Croatia co-production that provides a wonderful glimpse into the cultural roots of the festival. A complex phenomenon in music and culture, Sevdah is a melancholic musical form distinct to the region, a place of solace and retreat in moments of solitude and sorrow as well as communal joy. Based on a form that implies a culture-specific feel for life, Sevdah is imbued in the local culture and breathes with experiences of the people. It is a lyrical film, with a gentle flow of visuals that paces itself in the rhythms of its music. The documentary was a major success with the audience, easily overshadowing any other offerings of Hollywood or World Cinema glamour.

The celebrities of Hollywood and international cinema that come to this genuinely unassuming festival, including Mickey Rourke, Gillian Anderson and Stellan Skarsgård, push the festival to the frontiers of glamour, but the audience’s enthusiasm for them is reserved and measured – another testimony to the fact that the festival is still first and foremost a marketplace for regional cinema, and for promoting cross-national productions even beyond the bounds of the European Union (with the collaboration of Cine Link). The cinephilic energy comes from the younger generation of audiences that has perhaps seen very little of war if any at all, who show up at the local promenade on the streets that lead to the famous Sarajevo neighborhood of Baščaršija.

Tales From the Golden AgeOne of the quiet hallmarks of the festival had to do with the four anthology/omnibus films, two from the region itself. The festival opener, Romania’s Amintiri din epoca de aur (Tales From the Golden Age), directed by Cristian Mungiu, Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu and Ioana Uricaru, is a delightful and bright achievement of the form, with a remarkable national and regional appeal. The very idea of the “Golden Age” here is an ironic invocation of the Ceauşescu regime with its professed prosperity and promise for all Romanians. The six tales of the days of Romania’s past are cryptic, ironic and caustic at the same time. Anchoring the present by means of a vigorous introspection of the past, the film serves as a testimony to the collaborative and collective visions that anthologies aspire to achieve.

An equally effective exercise in self-examination of history of the nation is to be found in Bulgaria’s anthology, 15: 15 authors, 15 years, 15 short films. It collects varied reflections on the past 15 years in the country, when the doors to the rest of the world “opened up”. Contributors include filmmakers as well as artists and poets, etc. This collective vision does not pull any punches in rigorous examination of misfortunes or of the national psyche from the perspective of creative artists. Producer Maritchka Bozhilova remarked how cathartic and collective this film was to her country as it marked a common moment of realising how the nation has withered and was still weathering the storm of change. It is energetic and insightful and provides a look into the prospects of a nation that can examine itself toward a different future.

The Sarajevo Film Festival is festive in every sense. Three outdoor theatres, one in the compound of a fire-house, programs rich with children’s films, animation, shorts, documentaries, and travelling festival films of international cinema of this year provide extensive and varied programming. The very imaginative workshop that engages young filmmakers to produce short films on the life in the city, Sarajevo City of Film, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national cinema showcase, and a special program for new talents of the region, only add to the broad menu that the festival offers. The enthusiastic audiences have plenty to whet their appetite. Even with the glamour of marketing and global financing threatening to swallow the celebratory sense of film festivals, Sarajevo’s contribution stands as unique and distinctive. The audience has the discriminatory taste of seasoned cinephiles. Given the chance, they voted for their own Sevdah, a musical journey of their soul, rather than Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler – and that ought to be a telling moment of celebration of cinephilia at a film festival.

Sarajevo Film Festival
12-20 August 2009

About The Author

Shekhar Deshpande is Professor of Media and Communication at Arcadia University in Glenside, in the US. He is the co-author with Meta Mazaj of World Cinema: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2018) and author of forthcoming Anthology Film and World Cinema (Bloomsbury). He has published essays in Studies in World Cinema, Studies in European Cinema, and Widescreen.

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