Crowds erupted in the narrow streets outside Sarajevo’s stately National Theatre as security guards cleared a space for someone unexpected – though we had a pretty good inkling who it was – pulling up to the red carpet for opening night ceremonies. The featured film, Kiss the Future, recounted U2’s mission on behalf of the city during the 1992-95 Siege of Sarajevo, so frenzied chants swelled all evening: “BONO, BONO.” Our wish came true, with The Edge and Adam Clayton also turning up. Having seen the critics’ screening that morning, I was pretty sure its stars would not pass up the chance to appear here. Bono and his bandmates were among a number of outside figures – a small number, to be sure – who worked to capture international attention during the Bosnian War while much of the world looked away.

Directed by Yugoslavian-born Nenad Cicin-Sain and produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the film is not a conventional band movie. “If we were going to make a documentary about just the concert, U2 would say no, because that’s not who they are,” explained writer Bill Carter, who adapted his book Fools Rush In for the film. “But Nenad and I started thinking and broadening the scope in a really cool way. It’s about how people lived there [during the war], but, also, it’s a cautionary tale, that if you don’t pay attention to your democratic tendencies and you let misinformation divide you and create hatred, Bosnia is what can happen — you killing your neighbour.”  

Slobodan Milošević, leader of a crumbling Yugoslavia after the Cold War, attempted to reconfigure the multicultural region – empowering Serbs and repressing everyone else – in a campaign marked by rampant war crimes, most horrifically Muslim genocide. The film shows how Sarajevo had always cherished its tolerance and diversity. There was a lot of intermarriage, one Sarajevan says: “You’d have to go through the bedrooms to put up Berlin Walls here.”  

It was eerie seeing newsreel clips of sniper attacks on the very building in which I was watching the film – you can’t get more “in situ” than that.  Attacks rained down from the beautiful hilltops surrounding Sarajevo. “You’re sleeping; you wake up, and you realize you woke up in a war,” one man recalls. For years, people risked death every time they went out for food or school.  

“Unlike ever before, in this war, journalists were explicitly targets,” Christiane Amanpour, the CNN journalist who provides political and military context in the documentary, reflected. “I was a baby journalist, and I grew up in the war here,” she told a press conference. “I learned how not to be neutral, which has informed all my subsequent reporting.” She chose to tell the truth about “the resurgence of savage nationalism and land grabs,” rejecting “false equivalences with the people in the hills shooting down on Sarajevo.” And she emphasized that the film’s lesson was not merely historical: “The Russians are doing the same thing right now, to a culture they want to destroy and a people they want to eradicate.” 

Early in the war, Bono talked about Sarajevo on MTV, saying, “We see you.”  Growing up in Ireland with The Troubles made him especially empathetic with the crisis in Sarajevo and when Carter asked if he might come to perform, Bono said yes.  But Carter was hesitant: “I don’t want to be the guy who invites Bono to Sarajevo and then he dies.” So, at first, instead of visiting the embattled city, U2 brought Sarajevo into their concerts, live via satellite. 

Bono helped these isolated people feel connected with other Europeans, and vice versa. “We have over 50,000 people here tonight,” he’d say, “and we are with you, Sarajevo.” They were honest, personal chats: simple and moving. “We don’t know what to say to you,” Bono confessed. “I’m ashamed to be European. We have no answers for you. We feel rather ridiculous tonight being in a rock band, considering your reality.”  

Then, precipitated by one woman’s comment from the war zone – “You’re really doing nothing for us” – U2 ended these video conversations. “It started to look a little bit like reality TV,” Bono acknowledged, “using people’s pain and anguish for entertainment.”

Kiss the Future

But U2 kept up their campaign, with such encouragement and publicity as their song “Miss Sarajevo,” and they finally arranged to come in 1997, to perform in the venue where the 1984 Olympic Opening Ceremonies and football matches had been held. Shelled to ruins during the war, it became a morgue, its wooden seats repurposed into coffins. In preparation for U2, the stadium was reconsecrated as a site of culture and humanity, and organizers worked to restore what had been a unified community. Opening acts included Bosnian punk rockers and a high school Islamic choir – planners were worried about the mix, but the audience got the point and loved it. The concert, as magnificent as everyone had hoped, marked a turn in the national consciousness, signalling their ability to come back from the horror they had lived. Towards the end, Bono shouted out: “Viva Sarajevo! Fuck the Past. Kiss the Future.” An audience member recalled: “The war ended the moment they appeared on stage. All of a sudden, life is back. People are together, singing together, laughing together.”

I came to SFF wondering if Balkan stories about their conflicts from the 1990s might inflect Ukraine’s stories unfolding in this moment: can we read those films through today’s brutal upheaval? Every year, SFF includes a strand titled “Dealing with the Past”, which sets out to do precisely what its name suggests. As the program explains, “In order to deal with the many and unresolved issues that date back to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia – the impact of which is still widely felt today – a sincere, clear-eyed discussion around that painful past is of utmost importance.” They hope this commitment “can lead to cinema that achieves its ultimate, perhaps noblest aim – cinema that opens a door to genuine empathy, to peacebuilding in its truest sense.” Since 1995, Sarajevans have restored a good deal of the city’s spirit and beauty – its cosmopolitan social fabric – that disappeared in the rubble of the Siege. Film alone didn’t do this, but SFF was as prominent as any cultural organization at coaxing the world to come back in peace rather than war. I wondered if it could be a model for the Ukrainian film community in the decades ahead.

And from this first film, my hypothesis feels validated: Kiss the Future linked Balkan and Ukrainian experiences with a montage of recent scenes of political-military unrest and authoritarianism. Included at the end of the film are snippets of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin. It is mere seconds, but registers pointedly. As I shared my thoughts, between screenings, with other festival attendees about correlations between Balkan and Ukrainian films – and it turns out, many others had the same idea – one caveat was common: the situations then and now are similar, but not overwhelmingly so. Many of today’s Balkan films suggest, or hope, that reunification and reconciliation of some kind is possible. In some places, in some circumstances it has already happened, to an extent, and is still happening. But that’s not a precedent Ukrainians consider likely. “We won’t be sitting with Russians at a film festival in 30 years,” said Ukrainian director Alisa Kovalenko, whose We Will Not Fade Away also screened at the festival. “Maybe in 100 years, but I don’t know if even then.  Their brains are full of propaganda. They are zombies.” When war broke out, she put her film aside: “I was a soldier. Russians tried to kill me.”

I asked Festival director Jovan Marjanovic about how Bosnian experiences could help Ukrainians deal with their challenges. Last year, SFF adopted Ukraine into their region, Southeastern Europe, not just because they were geographically adjacent but also because they were adrift, their own film culture pretty much stultified or exiled. They needed help. “Inviting them into SFF is the best we can do. Our reaction to the war was feeling appalled by the news, but also understanding where they are because we lived with something similar not so long ago.” When Russia invaded last year, “PTSD was palpable throughout Sarajevo”: many experienced déjà vu. “Our empathy for Ukraine came through direct experience. I think people here understood what many in Ukraine perhaps didn’t. The world’s attention will come, and then perhaps disappear, and return. But that’s not going to solve things. People in Ukraine should brace for a very long period of suffering.” 

Marjanovic said Ukraine’s good fit at SFF “comes from the fact that we were formed in conflict. Dialogue and reconciliation is a part of the festival’s DNA. A festival has to be a place where people cooperate.” Besides screening Ukrainian films, SFF offers training, marketing, professional workshops, and platforms for international collaboration to struggling Ukrainian filmmakers, and hired some who lost Ukrainian festival jobs.

This 29th edition of SFF marked the 30th anniversary of “Cinema Apollo,” a project that emerged during the thick of the Siege and led to the festival’s actual creation the following year. In 1993, in the basement of the Academy of Performing Arts, VHS tapes were screened on projectors run by generators, with a “symbolic admittance fee” of one cigarette. Several of the films shown then – Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)– were reprised this year (with slightly more expensive tickets: 5 Marks). Still, today, Sarajevans embrace SFF so vibrantly because they remember its roots as a manifestation of their resilience.  

One Ukrainian filmmaker who has partaken enthusiastically and gratefully in SFF’s Talent program, Lesia Diak, agrees that Balkan experiences can inform Ukraine’s present, When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, she told me as we sat at a café the first day, “Presses started translating books about the Bosnian war into Ukrainian. That helped me to process things, to keep moving. The situation is different, but still, watching Bosnian films helps prepare me for my own work now.”

Making films about the war is “a needed project: it’s my mission,” Diak said. “There is no other choice. It’s something that drives me.” Similarly, Kovalenko told me when we met for an interview, “Our films are a last document of a world that doesn’t exist anymore.” But filmmakers get sucked into the war’s darkness, Diak warned, explaining why it has taken five years to finish her forthcoming film, Dad’s Lullaby, which she was promoting at the festival. It is about a veteran returning from the 2014 conflict after three years of war, euphoric to be home, but still agitated by war memories. The film is not cheerful, but there are glimmers of hope.

Motherland, a mainly Belarusian film edited in Ukraine, explores the bullying of Belorussian army recruits: “grandads” who went through it themselves a few years earlier inflict dehumanizing hazing on new soldiers who are starved and beaten. Filmmakers Hanna Badziaka and Alexander Mihalkovich note that many former Soviet state armies do this sort of thing, which was common also in the Soviet Army.  

It’s not hard to connect the dots to the Russian Army’s institutionally bred barbarism: hurt people hurt people. We thus learn something about Russian militarism in a film that’s not explicitly about them. Mihalkovich (who is half-Ukrainian) and Badziaka infuse the film with a haunting dystopian mood. Attitudes inculcated from day one in the barracks can be easily extrapolated to explain how an army blithely commits war crimes. “Compulsory military service for men in our country does huge damage to society at large,” Badziaka said at a press conference. “You are trained to embrace this violence, and you have to be really strong to break the cycle.” When asked if domestic violence was a large problem in her society, her response was that the two issues are connected, “We have a huge level of DV in Belarus, and of course this is connected. Men who come out of the army practice violence in their families.” I asked how difficult it was to make this film in a country that is one of the most repressive in this part of the world (and that strongly supports Russia’s invasion). She replied that she is used to working in such conditions, in constant danger, suppressed by authorities. Badziaka sees it as just another part of their reality. It struck me as terribly frustrating when she said it would be impossible for Belarusian audiences to see this film in theatres. Even to  distribute it “underground” (online), would, she intimated, put anyone in the film at risk.  

Horror Vacui, Croatian filmmaker Boris Poljak’s experimental wordless short, is another film that isn’t (but is) about Russia, and the idea of war. It’s a series of long, slow pans of warplanes on an aircraft carrier, various military parades (one on horseback), rows of tanks displayed for public inspection, and a March of the Immortal Regiment where families walk, holding pictures of their veterans.  

I could guess, but only tentatively, at the nationalities represented. The aircraft carrier seemed American? The horse-parade French? I thought I saw a Russian flag among the tanks, and the Immortal Regiment march is a Russian ritual, though perhaps other former-Soviet armies have the same tradition. I can’t tell for sure. I assume the point is that it doesn’t really matter; war is war, and identifying its common practices and overlaps might help illuminate its formulaic absurdity.

Horror Vacui

The soldiers and warcraft are bedecked with exorbitant frippery, and that’s Poljak’s message. “Horror vacui” means fear of emptiness, and the more we look at these scenes, the “fuller” they get: more planes, more tanks, more soldiers. More wars. It all seems silly, excessive, dangerous, tedious. The ceremonies and costumes fill up a world that people believe (wrongly!) would otherwise be horribly empty: just trees, and swimming, and making dinner, and the like. Poljek induces us to mock the fetishistic celebration of militarism in all its self-important vastness. We can easily apply his perspective to World War I, the Balkan wars, the Ukraine war… in fact, to any and every war, all cut from the same pathologically overcrowded template.  

Two of the Ukrainian films were shorts. Valeria Sochyvets, a filmmaker I met who has made four shorts and is now developing her feature debut, made the sensible point that short films are “easier to make in a time of short resources and production challenges. If we find someone to give us €15,000, we can make a short.” 

Marta Smerechynska’s quick and moving film, One Aloe, One Ficus, One Avocado and Six Dracaenas, frames war upheaval in terms of people’s physical possessions. She pans across piles of things being boxed, wrapped, stacked, and then finally waiting to go somewhere: to someone who has had to leave Ukraine quickly and traumatically. The stuff shouldn’t seem so important, we might think, at least not compared to the people, but somehow it is. It’s partly what makes us who we are: what we’ve accumulated, what we preserved, what makes our homes our homes. Worrying about how things will survive the war may be a displaced way of worrying about how people will endure. If the boxes are okay, maybe we too will be.

One Aloe, One Ficus, One Avocado and Six Dracaenas

One evacuee packing up her plants explains how she acquired and raised each one: the six dracaenas were all grown from one big dracaena plant mother; the ficus was with her for 20 years; and the avocado was grown from a seed she got in Thessaloniki during a rare trip to the sea and which had to be repotted into a bigger pot before the war. Mixed in with all the other boxes and wrapped in plastic, the plants’ survival doesn’t seem all that likely, I have to think, but I hope I’m wrong.

When Smerechynska packed up her own flat, she arranged it via Skype with her sister after she had already left. “It would’ve been harder to choose what to take if I had done it in person, and I was lucky I had someone to help – many people didn’t,” she told me during our interview. She stayed in Kyiv for the war’s first week, then left for Poland. “I just wanted to sleep, and it was impossible to sleep in Kyiv.” She later returned to Ukraine. Some people have gone she said, some have stayed, many have gone, and returned and gone again. “It’s hard to leave Ukraine, and hard to stay. And it’s impossible to take everything with you, and impossible to decide what to take.” 

Like Smerechynska’s film, Daniel Asadi Faezi and Mila Zhluktenko’s Ukrainian short Waking Up in Silence is more about capturing a mood than a story. Young kids and teenagers relocated to safety in Bavaria are getting settled, learning the language, seeming to enjoy making new friends, but of course traumas percolate in all of them. A young girl draws in chalk on the curb – all kids do this, but what she writes, over and over down the block, is “Putin stop killing people.” The kids look okay, sort of – weaving flowers into garlands, making joyful noise. They seem resilient: I think they are, in part, but also partly not; they haven’t yet taken in what has happened in their lives.

Waking Up in Silence

Their refugee camp had been an American Army base after World War II, and then a Wehrmacht compound. A boy sees military murals from the camp’s past and says, “Oh, it’s the war in Ukraine. I think they are helping to defend Ukraine from Russia.” Another kid corrects him, “It’s not from now. That was before, a long time ago.” And we wonder, prompted by the mouths of babes, if Americans, Germans, and others are doing enough to defend their families.

Charlie Kaufman’s eloquently curmudgeonly Masterclass featured a grumpy screed: “Be truthful.  You can do an enormous amount of damage putting bullshit into the world. People become addicted to shit, and shit is enormously popular.” His contrarian alternative: “Make things of value, and truth.” (If this sounds like a platitude, well, you had to be there; it seemed inspirational in person.)  He offered an ominous observation about the Hollywood picket lines: “Remember that Trump skyrocketed during the last writers’ strike, thanks to the platform afforded him by reality television,” which flourished during the walkout; he hopes writers don’t remain sidelined again in the upcoming election cycle.

On the festival’s first day, a horrible femicide took place in Gradačac, 170 kilometres north of Sarajevo. A man with a violent record killed his ex-wife – who had reported him as threatening – and two others, wounding three more, while streaming live on Instagram. Across Bosnia and Herzegovina protesters demanded that the government do more to protect women from male violence, and Wednesday, in the middle of festival week, was declared a National Day of Mourning. All SFF activities were cancelled, except an event arranged to discuss ‘Femicide in film, television and new media,’ as festival organizers pledged their solidarity with all victims of violence against women. Screenings were rescheduled; the festival ended up running a day longer. I wondered if such a tragedy would have been similarly commemorated in the US, my home country, where such things happen with numbing frequency; I think probably not. This is on brand for the festival, and for the country as a whole. Their culture foregrounds an intense commitment to transcending violence, of which they have had too much lately. For Americans, it has become a macabre joke when violence on this scale, and often much worse, elicits nothing more than politicians’ boilerplate response: “our thoughts and prayers are with you,” full stop. Rearranging the schedule must have been complicated, but it was the right thing to do, and struck me as a concrete way of “dealing with the past.”

Lingering ethnic tensions remain volatile: a Serbian production company showed a few post-production clips from a forthcoming film that manifested blatant historical revisionism (at an industry event – not an actual festival screening, as SFF management later noted). It depicted an inaccurate, sanitized account of the Chetnik army, which fought alongside Nazis and Italian fascists during WWII and was venerated by Serbian war criminals in the 1990s. The mayor called for the resignation of everyone responsible, saying the incident “caused immeasurable damage to the festival and the city of Sarajevo.” Festival organizers accepted responsibility for the “inappropriate content,” decried the media firm’s “breach of trust,” and promised SFF programmers will in future vet any films or clips shown, even from business meetings and workshops.

Elene Naveriani’s Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry, awarded Best Feature Film, is my favourite Georgian film ever. (I’m pretty sure it’s the only one I’ve seen, but that’s exactly why I’m here: to broaden my horizons.) It’s a gem: an exquisitely well-acted, well-written, quietly sophisticated portrait of a 48-year-old virgin, Etero (Eka Chavleishvili), who has chosen to live independently up until this point of her life, but finally gives love and sex a try… for better and worse.

Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry

Philip Sotnychenko won as Best Director for his Ukrainian film La Palisiada, a noir crime story set in the 1990s. I didn’t notice anything particularly relevant to the contemporary crisis, but Valeria Sochyvets, who worked with Sotnychenko as Executive Producer, told me, “As Philip was making the film, he didn’t think it was about the war. But when we watch it now, we understand that it is about our own roots. It’s about the system, and corruption.” In one scene a newscast mentions Russian aggression in Sebastopol and Chechnya; I asked Sotnychenko if that reference was an allusion to today’s conflict. “It was a real fragment from the news in 1996. Russian aggression has always existed, and now we see where that unstoppable pattern has led. It’s not an allusion – it’s just what it is,” he replied.

Another Ukrainian feature, Antonio Lukich’s Luxembourg, Luxembourg, also set pre-war, again seemed to have nothing to do with current events. Like La Palisiada, it depicted Ukraine’s gangster-crime culture. A mid-level mobster who has spent all his energy pursuing criminal enterprises leaves his sons essentially fatherless. When they learn he is dying in Luxembourg – they have no idea why he’s there – they travel to say goodbye to him. I decided the muddled road trip from their down at heel Lubny home to their father’s deathbed was an allegory (and there was no press conference, so the director couldn’t refute me) of Ukraine’s distance – culturally, socially, politically, economically – from the rest of Europe, where even one of the tiniest countries seems vastly more successful. As in many other Ukrainian (and also Balkan) films I saw here, dysfunctional families proliferated, microcosms of a dysfunctional nation. Lukich acknowledged this resonance in a magazine interview, highlighting “the problem with which we, as Ukrainians, will be faced after the war – the problem of absent fathers. There was a generation of absent fathers during the 1940s, after WW2; there was a generation of absent fathers during the 1990s, after criminal wars; and unfortunately there will be a big generation of absent fathers after this cruel war in Ukraine.”1 I don’t know if this is what his story was originally meant to be about, and many of SFF’s films commenced production before the 2022 invasion, so such resonances may be coincidental.  Nonetheless, even such accidental insights into the current horror of Ukrainian life are opportunities to explore and engage violence with art, reason, creativity, and all the other things that happen when we sit and watch a movie, something that causes no harm in the world.

Sarajevo Film Festival
11-19 August 2023
Festival Website: https://www.sff.ba/en


  1. Nancy Tartaglione, “‘Luxembourg, Luxembourg’ Filmmakers Issue Plea For Ukraine’s Families.”  Deadline, 7 September 2022.

About The Author

Randy Malamud, Regents’ Professor of English at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA, is a critic and scholar of modern literature and culture. His books include The Importance of Elsewhere: The Globalist Humanist Tourist; Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers; Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity; and An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture. Forthcoming from Bloomsbury next year is his latest book CRASH! Aviation Disasters and the Cultural Debris Fields.

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