Sarajevo film fest mixes promise, disappointment

'December 1-31' wins festival prize

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The fifth annual Sarajevo Film Festival ended its run on Sunday leaving the distinct impression that it, like its country, is at a crossroads.

The festival prize, awarded by the international critics’ group FIPRESCI, went to “December 1-31” directed by Germany’s Jan Peters, a chronological, quasi-experimental diary of the director’s reaction to a friend’s death.

Honorable mention went to the short film “Adrian” by Slovenian Maja Weiss. The audience award went to the Austrian feature “Models” by Ulrich Seidl.

While the fest has accomplished its objective of exposing Sarajevans to a wide variety of films, its long-range goal of helping to reinvigorate Bosnian film production still appears far off. Nevertheless, festival organizers termed the event a success, counting 53,900 admissions over its 10-day run — up from 47,000 last year — and a state-of-the art Web site that has received nearly 6,000 hits.

For a festival that began five years ago as a tiny event in a city under siege, those statistics are commendable. Nevertheless, attendance patterns suggest that Sarajevans were far more interested in mainstream Hollywood films than the frequently obscure and challenging — some felt disappointing — arthouse fare in competition.

Whereas the 2,500-seat Obala open-air cinema was filled to capacity every night for its slate of commercial pics like “Notting Hill,” “Entrapment” and “American Pie,” the competitive section, dubbed New Currents, failed to rouse much interest among either critics or audiences. That sporadically attended section, including a host of first and second features like “L’Humanite” and “Interview,” was criticized for its inaccessible features and parochial selection limited to Euro and Japanese offerings.

In comparison with previous years — when winners were the widely praised pics “Breaking the Waves” (’96), “Ma Vie en Rose” (’97) and “Seul Contre Tous” (’98) — this year’s laureate “December 1-31” polarized viewers and prompted a number of exits from its screenings at the Obala Meeting Point Cinema.

By contrast, crowds and critics warmed enthusiastically to two sidebars, a Regional Program repping Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and Panorama, a new section comprising a diverse array of pics from both budding talents and seasoned auteurs. The Apolo Cinema, at capacity for Todd Solondz’s “Happiness” and Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother,” was nearly as well attended for Michael Winterbottom’s “Wonderland” and Atom Egoyan’s “Felicia’s Journey.”

At the same time, new items like “Praise” from Australia (John Curran) and “Trans” from the U.S. (Julian Goldberger) drew popular attention and critical support.

Panorama programmer Howard Feinstein said the new sidebars raised the profile of the Sarajevo Film Festival, noting that this year’s event “marks the emergence of the festival from a good provincial venue blending first and second features and new Hollywood cinema into a truly international festival because of both a much more sophisticated regional program and the new Panorama section of the best non-Hollywood films from around the world.”

Still, there is much work to be done if Bosnians are to be inspired to resume their own film production. Whereas last year the fest featured eight short and documentary works by Bosnians, this year not a single new work from a native filmmaker was among the selection. Festival president and Obala Art Center director Mirsad Purivatra blamed the poor showing on several factors:

  • a federal government now unable or unwilling to establish a film production fund (though the Bosnia- Herzegovina government partially subsidizes the fest);

  • an older generation of filmmakers weaned on government handouts that is unschooled in the demands of independent financing;

  • a lack of producers with the resources or tenacity to support incipient filmmakers;

  • and a dearth of film schools, equipment and production facilities.

This year’s Sarajevo Fest took steps to address that problem. It promoted “Trojan Horse,” a feature screenplay still in development by outspoken Bosnian filmmaker Bata Cengic, by presenting two of his controversial works, “Little Soldiers” and “Mona Lisa from Sarajevo.” In addition, programmers organized a well-attended panel of producers from various countries, many of whom have worked in international co-productions. Participants included Australia’s Martha Coleman of Emcee films, Britain’s Kate Ogborn of the British Film Institute, Turkey’s Behrooz Hashemian of IFR and the U.S.A’s Scott Macaulay of Forensic Films.

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