The first Sarajevo Film Festival, which took place in October 1995, as the city was withstanding its fourth year of a devastating Serbian siege, was no less than a vital act of cultural resistance and defiance. The Dayton Accord was signed two months later, and some semblance of normalcy has now returned to this erstwhile multicultural crossroads, though the first-time visitor, driving in from the airport along the main thoroughfare formerly known as Sniper’s Alley, is invariably startled by the surreally scarred cityscape. The festival, frequently derailed by mortar attacks in its first year, has gone on with the business of being a festival, mounting its heftiest program yet for this sixth annual edition, with a roster of illustrious international guests. Steve Buscemi, the subject of a career retrospective, took time out from the set of Tim Blake Nelson’s WW II drama, The Grey Zone, in nearby Sofia. (The Sarajevo screening of Living in Oblivion revealed a new subtext—the petulant dwarf is named Tito.) Buscemi’s wife, choreographer and filmmaker Jo Andres, conducted a children’s art workshop; Willem Dafoe, star of Buscemi’s new film, Animal Factory, stopped by and, with Buscemi, recorded a PSA for land mines; Mike Leigh, called upon to introduce Topsy-Turvy, stayed for the eight-day duration. (Burgeoning guest-list notwithstanding, the mood remained pleasantly low-key throughout—until the arrival, on the penultimate day, of Million Dollar Hotel star Bono plus entourage and camera crews.)
The war robbed Bosnia-Herzegovina of its film industry, distribution network, archives, and most of its theaters, and the SFF, under the leadership of cofounder Mirsad Purivatra, has taken on a dual goal—as a stimulus to local production and a service for movie-starved Bosnians. On the latter count, the festival is already a resounding success. The most popular venue is a 2500-capacity open-air theater with one of the largest screens in Europe, generally reserved for U.S. imports (Shadow of the Vampire provided one of the biggest thrills—Dafoe’s delicious, delirious impersonation of Nosferatu bloodsucker Max Schreck, 50 feet high). Hundreds of children are bused in from around the country for daily matinees. The auteur-heavy Panorama showcase compiles a best-of from the festival circuit.
Fittingly, opening night was given over to three local shorts: The Abyss, Red Rubber Boots, and Hop, Skip & Jump. The first two are bluntly emotional docs with a common starting point—the harrowing fact that 27,000 people presumably killed during the war and buried in mass graves are still considered missing. The third, which won a critics’ prize for its promising director Srdan Vuletic, recounts the fate of a couple on opposite sides of the front lines. There were two Bosnian features in the program this year, two more than last year: Faruk Sokolovic’s murky memory piece, The Tunnel, uses the end of the recent war as a springboard for an old man’s recollections of a rural life in the ’50s, and My Father’s Angel, by Davor Marjanovic, a Sarajevan who emigrated to Vancouver, couches its observations about the bitter hatreds at the root of the conflict in stiff melodrama. But the relative speed of recovery is encouraging, and in artistic terms, the specter of the war may not be a handicap at all. As Mike Leigh puts it: “It’s not only inevitable that these films are addressing the war, it’s desirable. A young Bosnian filmmaker asked me if I thought it was a bad thing. And I told him no. It’s important and interesting—it’s much better than having nothing to say.”