Healing by Film

“Film is that beam of light, the nearest thing we have to dreaming.” Cat Villiers of the Sarajevo Film Festival

A scene from Ordinary People, by Serbian director Vladimir Perišic, winner of best feature film at the Sarajevo Film Festival | Photo: TS Prods

The Sarajevo Film Festival (SFF) does more than screen premieres and import Hollywood’s glamour to one of the poorest cities in the Balkans. It is a time when the city itself tries to heal the scars left from the war through the power of cinema.

“This festival in particular – the reason why many directors, actors, and producers come every year – celebrates that freedom that its birth gave it,” says Cat Villiers, British Co-producer of No Man’s Land.

The festival was founded in 1995, while Serbian forces shelled the city in one of the longest sieges in modern history. The festival’s office was covered with sandbags and the organizers smuggled in a power generator to screen the movies. In those days, something as ordinary as watching a movie became an extraordinary act.

There were other acts of defiance: Cellist Vedran Smailovic played for 22 days by the ruins of the National Library – one day for each person who died queuing up for bread.

Today, the Sarajevo Film Festival attracts more than a 100,000 visitors from around the world, including celebrities like Mickey Rourke and X-Files actress Gillian Anderson, but also young regional moviemakers showing their work for the first time.

This year, a total of 232 films from 53 countries were screened during the ten-day festival, from Aug. 12-22. Not surprisingly, war is a common subject, particularly among local productions. The city may be at peace now, but war is part of the identity of Bosnian filmmakers, says Jasmila Zbanic, awarded a Golden Bear for Grbavica. Her upcoming movie, On the Path, deals with a young couple in post-war Sarajevo.

“You have war memorized in your body and you cannot avoid it,” she says. “Otherwise you would be lying about your characters.”

In November 1995, the Dayton Agreement ended the Yugoslav War and created Bosnia & Herzegovina, a fractured country divided into the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina (B&H), populated by mostly Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats, and the Republika Srpska, a political entity with its own constitution and a Serb-dominant population. The country is further divided into cantons and municipalities, each one a bricolage of ethnicities measured in different percentages.

Danis Tanovic and Jasmila Zbanic talk about their experience as filmmakers in Bosnia & Herzegovina | Photo: Nayeli Urquiza

After 13 years, citizens are disappointed with the slow recovery of the country and angry at the rampant corruption. In Transparency International’s score card index last year, B&H scored a mere 3.2 on a scale of 10, and accusations of embezzlement of international aid destined for reconstruction abound.

Documentary-maker Ćazim Derviševic plans to move to Croatia because he is tired of waiting for his country to heal. He was hired by Organization Q, an LGBT rights NGO, to film the first Queer Festival in Sarajevo. The festival was cancelled after religious fundamentalists assaulted organizers and supporters.

He was hopeful just after the war, but now he feels social and political tensions in B&H are increasing.

“It is so frustrating; you work on something for a long time, talking about things, hoping they will help people to understand, you suggest through what you do, doing documentaries or programs, but then you see it’s useless,” says Derviševic.

The documentary Dreamers, by Nermin Hamzagic, also touches the topic of young people struggling in post war B&H. It shows the story of two young hip-hop artists, Samir  Karic and Amir Muminovic, who, after performing a song about the City’s corrupt mayor, were beaten up badly by the mayor’s son.

After the assault, Haris Pašović, director of the East West Theatre Company, hired them to act in his adaptation of Nigel Williams’ 1970’s play Class Enemy, presented at the 2008 Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. In this play about disenfranchised youth, Karic and Muminovic sing about the war crimes in Srebrenica and corrupt politicians who send their kids to study abroad.

“It is a good thing that the people in this country are willing to confront themselves through film or documentaries,” says Caroline Ravaud, Special Representative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe in B&H, at a panel discussion on the human rights day introduced to this year’s festival.

B&H is not the only country dealing with war through cinema. Denmark, Poland, and Germany, among others, have produced countless movies on the subject. In 2004 Director Oliver Hirschbiegel broke a German cinema taboo by giving Hitler a central role in the Academy Award-winning film The Downfall; in 2007, Austrian director Stephan Ruzowitzky too won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film for his tale of concentration camp sabotage in The Counterfeiters. Now in Sarajevo, Hirschbiegel presented Five Minutes of Heaven; a story set in Northern Ireland which questions whether reconciliation is possible.

British-Egyptian actor Khallid Abdalla dealt with the 9/11 attacks by playing one of the hijackers of United 93. He had been reluctant to accept a role that would stereotype Arabs, but thought of it as an opportunity to fight against the identity that the 19 hijackers had given to some 1.6 billion Muslims across the world.

“He had dehumanized me, turned me into his image,” says Abdalla. “My way of fighting him was by turning him into an individual.”

Films and documentaries can heal but also open wounds. In her documentary Patria Mia, Duška Zagorac reflects on the Chinese immigration into the northern city of Banja Luka. With the memories of war “suffocating her,” the director tries to come to terms with her own identity by exploring how migrants in post-war B&H incorporate her country into their own identity.

The red-carpet entrance prior to the arrival of guests as well-known as director Cat Villers | Photo: Nayeli Urquiza

Every night during the festival, a flood of dressed-up Sarajevans and festival tourists flood the streets in Baščaršija leading to the main open-air screening, where the directors or actors of the film-du-jour present their work and walk down the red carpet.

When the movies end, cars move slowly through the streets where the overflow of partygoers drink and mingle. But when the curtains fall down, films fade back into every day life.

“I think war is still around us,” says Jasmila Zbanic. “During the festival, it does not look like that, but during the rest of the 360 days, it is very tough to live. And if somebody has to deal with everyday life, with contemporary subjects, war is impossible to avoid.”

The festival alone cannot erase the damage of three and a half years of intermittent shelling and sniper fire, but Villiers is a firm believer of the healing power of film and of SFF. It is a unique festival that, instead of being about glitz and glamour, is a forum where real problems are talked about.

“Film is that beam of light, the nearest thing we have to dreaming,” said Villiers. “If we can tell stories that help us understand the world – as well as entertain and make us laugh and cry and all the rest of it – then we have been responsible filmmakers.”

“We have to keep trying,” she said. “Cinema is powerful and it allows us, at its best, to understand [reality]. And there can be nothing better than that.”

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