58 – that’s how many kilograms Mexican filmmaker Dana Rotbart’s baggage exceeded the limit when she tried to board a UN military flight back to Sarajevo in 1995. Rotbart stared down at the seven boxes of film tapes at her feet, hastily gathered during ten days of scrambling around Paris. Then she stared at the UN soldier who told her she could only take the 68 kilograms worth of movies on board if she could manage it all in one trip. She tied ropes to the boxes and dragged them to the plane, literally breaking her back in the process.
During the siege of Sarajevo, the need to share new stories with a city cut off from the world was so great that Rotbart dislocated two discs in her back just for the sake of putting on a film festival – a brave act of political and aesthetic resistance. Today, SFF has become the leading Southeast European showcase of cinema from the Balkans and beyond.
At the 22nd edition of the festival, two new regional production initiatives with potential for boosting local industry were announced. First, the Sarajevo Film Festival and the Turkish national public broadcaster, TRT, announced the launch of a regional production fund. The Sarajevo City of Film For Global Screen initiative will disburse a total of $300,000 to fiction feature projects from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. HBO’s regional office, HBO Adria, also unveiled new plans for the Balkans with the announcement of the First Draft Contest, an open submission call for dramatic series set in the region.
Films from Bosnia-Herzegovina and other countries of former Yugoslavia comprise the core of the festival, and the documentary section was particularly strong this year. Ivan Ramljak’s Kino Otok (Islands of Forgotten Cinemas) excavates intimately personal and more broadly cultural memories from the long-abandoned cinemas still standing on several Croatian islands (the primary island sites are Brač, Korčula and the Pelješac Peninsula). Beautifully photographed, the Kino Otok solicits strength from stillness: the long-empty chairs of the defunct kinos appear to pose together as if in an early 20th century portrait of a class of students or extended family. Offscreen interviews with old cinema-going regulars are grafted poetically atop director of photography Ivan Slipčević’s finely shot images, re-activating them with a sense of movement and relevance. No place, person or moment is named so that the work functions as a collage of collective memory sewn together with the pervasive nostalgia for the cinema. Some locations are simply breathtaking, such as an outdoor cinema captured at sunset, its screen appearing to hover above the dusk-lit sea. The aching beauty of the moment is juxtaposed immediately with the upturned and decaying innards of a dilapidated theatre. But not every kino on Ramljak’s excursion into the past has remained dark. Several have been converted into cultural or community centres. People practice yoga, shoot rifles, perform in orchestras. Life goes on in – if not in the name of – the cinema.
A former theatre operator fondly recalls several stories from his old business. “If the film had ten reels we were overjoyed, because it meant we would spend more time at the cinema,” he laughs. He claims that the 1970 Danish sex comedy Bedroom Mazurka caused the deaths of two Czechs from “too much excitement,” when the film’s erotic content was perhaps fatally novel for the citizens of the heavily repressed Czech state. Kino Otok fades to black as the old theatre manager passionately declares, “nothing can replace cinema!”
Slovenian director Damjan Kozole (Slovenian Girl, Spare Parts) had both a feature and a short documentary in the festival. The short, Borders, received a human rights special mention following its world premiere. A single shot of Syrian refugees crossing the Slovenian border on foot, the ten-minute film depicts an array of human interactions and reactions to the camera. Uninterrupted farmland spreads across the expanse of the frame: wheat and green fields lined by trees on the horizon, a lone red-roofed farmhouse barely discernible through the branches. A few police and military personnel enter the shot first, walking along an unpaved road Konzole cutting a 30-degree angle across the frame. We hear the refugees before we see them, gravel crunching beneath many hundreds of feet. The road curves off screen, then winds directly in front of the camera, bringing each person in direct proximity to the viewer following the far off facelessness of their initial introduction. Some children and adults call out greetings and wave to the camera, others hide their faces, while many more merely glimpse and continue on, or do not notice the camera at. The piece represents an uncommonly evoked quiet moment – for a landscape typically photographed for its serene rural beauty, and of a journey typically photographed for its pain and trauma. Kozole remarked in the introduction before the screening that he did not truly direct the film, but rather, let it happen.
Kozole’s screened his feature-length thriller Nočno življenje (Nightlife) to Sarajevo audiences following his win for Best Director at Karlovy Vary. A horrific and mysterious incident signals the violently abrupt unravelling of a high profile defense attorney’s tightly wound personal and professional life. After a dubious win in court for getting a guilty criminal off the hook based on procedural error, Milan returns to his colourless, sterile flat. When he greets his wife, Lea, (expertly performed by Pia Zemljič) the air sags aloofly between them. Over dinner Lea tersely apprehends Milan for his ignoble legal victory. Ever so slightly noticeably forlorn, Milan sets back out into the night on further business. He is next seen strewn across the pavement on the side of a busy road, naked and covered in blood and dog bites. Lea, an equally if dissimilarly uptight professor, must now contend with the harrowing personal and political aftermath of the assault. Her husband’s public visibility and the extremity of the incident catapult her into a cascade of nerve-wracking dealings with police, reporters and hospital workers, as she attempts to hide evidence and shape the story, anticipating public relations fiasco at the same time as she worries for Milan’s life. Seeped in dread and anxiety, Nightlife reverberates with gripping tension, its stripped down narrative heightened with intensity thanks to the stark, spatially clever lensing of cinematographer Miladin Colakovic (Death of a Man in the Balkans). Zemljič’s steadily taut performance anchors nearly every scene.
Korida, Siniša Vidović warm-hearted feature debut about Bosnian bullfighting, premiered in the Documentary Competition. A bloodless version of bullfighting, in which two bulls face off and lock (blunted) horns until one runs away in fight, leaving the other the victor, koridas are held nearly every weekend between the spring and fall, with attendance of up to 50,000 at the largest events. With nearly 100 events annually in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the 240 year-old sport is lovingly profiled here. Fueled by charmingly passionate fans and participants of the beloved sport, Korida traces one annual season of bullfights. Generously applied slow motion revels in the animals’ every rippling muscle. Oscillating between moments where ethnic tensions are both eased and heightened around these gatherings, Vidović discovers a uniquely complicated past time. “You could say it‘s one of the crucial initiatives for reconciliation, and it has emerged from the people themselves, not politicians,” he said in an interview [in the press kit].
Vidović profiles a diverse range of subjects drawn to the sport, including former Yugoslavia’s first male kindergarten teacher – a man full of philosophical musings on the youth and strong political opinions about the proposed relocation of a particularly popular korida. The teacher and others contend that the korida currently takes place on a mass grave from World War II. Protests against the cancellation threw Vidović’s own assumptions about the purely peace-building nature of Koridas into question.
Renata, the “Queen of the Koridas”, stands as the sole female practitioner in the film. She appears at each Korida, decked out in signature looks such as pink boots, her affable husband Pero in tow. Vidović finds three generations of Korida fans in one family led by the eldest patriarch, Stipe, who migrated to Austria for work decades earlier. In one scene, Stipe’s son Marko shows his own two young sons an old VHS tape with footage of his journey with their grandfather, driving a tractor to Austria (Vidović himself spent much of his life in Austria and the film is an Austrian production).
At last year’s festival in the Docu Rough Cut Boutique, Vidović was awarded the Work in Progress Digital Cube Award worth €20,000 in post-production services, and the HBO Adria Award of €2,000.
Lidija Zelović received a standing ovation following the local premiere of her personal documentary My Own Private War, another title with Bosnian ties in the documentary section. Not long after beginning her career as a TV journalist in the early ‘90s, the war came to Sarajevo and Zelović fled for the Netherlands in 1993. Her brother and parents followed over the next few years. Driven to narrate her personal experience of the war through film, she spent the next two decades documenting her life with the hope of understanding how the irreparable loss caused by the war’s disruptive trauma continuously shapes her sense of self.
Zelović’s training in journalism morphed into work as a war correspondent for the BBC, and she returned to Sarajevo on the first publicly available flight after the war. She arrives at her old flat, now full of bullet holes, broken glass and water, with camera in hand. As she begins to read a sign posted on the door, a man opens it and Zelović is suddenly staring at a stranger. The state has just given him the flat, he explains, as he surveys the daunting remodeling job before him. Zelović weaves through the rubble, re-discovering old books and letters.
Edited non-chronologically, Zelović emphasises subjects for reflection rather than straightforward autobiography. Through interactions with family members, friends and her son, she engages with an array of political narratives, cultural memories and personal insights surrounding the war. Sometimes the absurdity and tragedy of war jumps to the fore in small, even mundane moments. One day Zelović arrives home to find her son weeping over a lego house that has fallen apart. “How would you feel if someone smashed your house?” he wails. Zelović’s reply is as simple as the question is impossible to answer: “It sucks.”
Zelović’s consuming impulse to mine her complex relationship to the past in order to build a cohesive identity manifests in numerous attempts to conduct deeper analysis of the war with her loved runs. This proves complicated; for example, her father is a Bosnian Serb from a rural village and her mother is Croatian, while Zelović was born and bred in Sarajevo. She and her father spar politically at several points. But the most severe impact is felt in a relationship with her cousin. Zelović recalls randomly encountering her estranged eldest cousin on the street in Belgrade. While in the Netherlands, Zelović was devastated to learn that back in Sarajevo, her beloved cousin had become a sniper. She swore she would never see him again. Running into him years after the war, he begs her to tell his side of the story. She films the interview straight on, showing bluntly the tolls that age and weariness have taken on her distant family member.
In a tense encounter with a friend and fellow journalist who harbours more sympathy for the Serbs, Zelović struggles and ultimately fails to create generative conditions for discursive disagreement. “Why would I want to hear someone else’s version of the truth?” her colleague wonders.
A thoroughly contemplated, intentionally layered personal piece, laced throughout with Zelović’s narration, My Own Private War is a survivor’s mature grappling for answers she knows she may never be able to attain.
The Life of Flowers, a feature debut by Jimmy Bontatibus, had its world premiere in the BH Film section. A transnational co-production, the film was directed by a young American and produced by Moamer Kasumovic, an actor in a popular Bosnian sitcom (with a small cameo here). In the microbudget drama, an American college student named Austin (Drew Gregory) spends his last few days in Sarajevo building a friendship with Maja, a young Bosnian woman (Mersiha Husagic, in a standout performance). The “will they or won’t they” tension threaded throughout is a narrative guise for subtextual ruminations on a youthful strain of self-paralysis spurred by uncertainty. Husagic’s magnetic performance effortlessly combines the seemingly counter-intuitive personality traits of laid back friendliness and brooding angst in Maja, and she binds the film together with sincerity and a consistently gripping performance. Developed while Bontatibus studied under Béla Tarr in the distinctive Film Factory program of the Sarajevo Film Academy, the film was shot on location in Sarajevo in twelve days. Director of photography Alexander Lenzi’s intimate lensing elicits a distinctive sense of longing from each close up of Husagic, and editor Christopher Day weaves the nonlinear narrative together with emotional coherence.
Sarajevo Film Festival
12-20 August 2016
Festival website: http://www.sff.ba/en