Screens of Change

At Sarajevo’s Film Festival, politics trumps glamour

Skull from a mass grave at the Prijedor exhumation site

A skull from a mass grave at the Prijedor exhumation site | Film still: Vladimir Tomić, My Lost Generation

The bar of Kino Kriterion is brimming with people; the cool of its chessboard floor tiles and monochromatic, 1960s interior is matched by the crowd: little black dresses, angular haircuts, scarlet lipstick. This invitation-only reception could almost be taking place at the Berlinale, were it not for the cheap high-heels and unpretentious atmosphere.

There are other differences too: the Sarajevo Film Festival still has a newcomer’s urge for recognition by the international film world, epitomized by this year’s unintelligible honorary award for Angelina Jolie.

It need not be so: Sarajevo’s annual festival, staged this year from 22 to 30 July, has itself been around since 1995, and its implications are much more profound than those of the jaded festivals of Cannes or Venice: the Sarajevo Film Festival was founded to “recreate the civil society of the city” after a fratricidal war which split Bosnia into a Serbian part, and a Croatian and Muslim part, united under a shaky – and currently absent – federal government. Through its fund for cross-border collaborations and its competition screenings of documentary, short, and feature films from South Eastern Europe – including Austria, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Malta, alongside the Balkan countries – the festival has sought to counter the region’s fragmentation.

But how much can a film festival really do to reconcile Bosnia’s torn society?

Party politics

The festival’s most visible success is in turning Sarajevo into a big party: Beyond the exclusivity of Kino Kriterion, the streets are filled with people, spilling out of bars and clustering around elegant, white festival tents peddling booze and house music. It is this buoyant atmosphere, more than the films, that draws the crowds to Sarajevo.

Olga has come from Ljubljana with a group of friends. “You can watch the films at home,” she says, “I’m here for the people.” Strikingly, many of the revelers are young Bosnian expatriates whose families fled during the war. To Merima, a twenty-something living in Germany, the Film Festival is a sign of how much things have improved: “The festival is the best thing that ever happened to Sarajevo”. She enjoys the city’s multi-cultural vibe, and the fact that she, as a young Muslim woman, can go out in a (very) short skirt without anyone casting aspersions.

Truth and reconciliation

Clearly, the festive atmosphere – and the boons of the tourist industry – are doing their bit to heal wartime traumas and restore Sarajevo’s cosmopolitan identity. But to those who actually go to the cinemas a more complex picture is revealed: that of artists and audiences sharply divided over how the legacy of the Bosnian war should be remembered, represented, and overcome. Here, cinema crystallizes debates over “truth and reconciliation” which have long vexed post-conflict theorists and policy makers.

In the Bosnian Documentaries series, A Hero Of Our Time and My Lost Generation, screened back-to-back in an enlightened curatorial move, highlight two radically different approaches: The former is a pain-staking, forensic investigation alleging the complicity of a Montenegrin police chief, Slobodan Pejović, in turning sixty Bosnian refugees over to the Serbian militia. This flatly challenges the official account: Pejović received a medal for civil courage after the war for saving Bosnian lives.

According to this approach, reconciliation cannot fully take place until all individuals responsible for wartime crimes have been held to account. But the response to director Seki Radončić’s work shows just how divisive this approach is:

“I and my family have been physically attacked before, but this time I was completely alone. I had no support in Montenegrin society or the media, because I was attacking their national hero, and their very sense of identity,” Radončić tells the audience after the screening. In the cinema hall, however, he hardly lacks support: a woman thanks the film-maker for spot-lighting Montenegro’s neglected role in the war, and notes the country’s “long genocidal tradition against non-Montenegrins”.

It is precisely this slip, from holding an individual responsible to tarnishing an entire ethnic group, which the expat-Bosnian film-maker Vladimir Tomić is so wary of. His film, My Lost Generation, is a mournful auto-biography tracing the corrosive effects of the Bosnian war on his own identity, and that of his age group.

Having fled Sarajevo with his family as a teenager, Tomić spent three years in a Danish refugee camp where he was taunted for having a Serbian name. The fact that his family included Muslims, Croats, and Serbs no longer seemed to matter. Returning to Bosnia, Tomić faced the same stigma: During an interview for his film, a wartime survivor said to him, “you are a good boy, Vladimir, but you must beware of the evil of your people.” His people, that meant the Serbs, not the Bosnians. At the end of the documentary, Tomić argues that the evil encountered in war is inherent to humanity itself; it is a plea to stop the blame-game between population groups that has made the restoration of a multi-ethnic Bosnian identity all but impossible.

Cinema and social change

In his early thirties, Vladimir Tomić’s curly brown hair and wide eyes give him a boyish air, yet with the kind of gravity that sensitive, quiet children have. I talk to the film-maker, who was trained in Copenhagen and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, in the café of the gleaming new Cinema City. Rolling a cigarette, he points out that wartime atrocities were committed against all sides. Accordingly, empathy, not blame, is the key to reconciliation: “The most important thing is recognition of the losses of the other side as well, as they see it. Otherwise we will remain stuck.”

I ask him how the Film Festival can contribute to this process. “I don’t think film can change the world, but it can unite people in the cinema and start a debate. It can also uncover hidden things,” he says, seemingly implying Radončić’s investigative approach, “but artists should be responsible in using such a mass medium… The nationalist nerve is easily manipulated.”

Still, Tomić is guardedly optimistic: “The new generation is tired of the old nationalist ways. They’re making great progress in art, film, and music. They’re working on a united Bosnia, regardless of ethnic group.” This effort includes the Film Festival, but Tomić is wary that “what happens in Sarajevo, stays in Sarajevo. Outside, the villages are totally divided.” In the countryside, a pernicious cocktail of poverty, lack of education, and nationalist incitement keep ethnic barriers up and corrupt politicians in power.

While the Sarajevo Film Festival may not immediately bridge the divides between Bosnia’s autonomous Entities, it has certainly met its aim of recreating civil society in the capital. In a manner unseen at other European film festivals, it focuses the political debate of the middle class, draws a generation of young, educated expatriates back to their one-time home, and restores Sarajevans’ cosmopolitan confidence. Ultimately, this may have consequences for Bosnia’s political and economic development beyond the capital itself. The Sarajevo Film Festival deserves attention for more than Angelina Jolie’s smile.

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