Chechnya, Sarajevo use fests for positive spin

The capital of Russia’s war-torn republic of Chechnya is not a place usually associated with glitz and glamour, but, as part of a putative “normalization” process, the city was host to the first-ever Noah’s Ark Intl. Film Festival in June.

The Grozny-set fest — hailed by the republic’s brutal Russian-backed President Ramzan Kadyrov as proof that Chechnya was developing tolerance — was prompted, like many the world over, by political expediency.

At a cost of $4 million — a tiny fraction of the billions Russia has spent pursuing a war against separatist fighters in the last 12 years — the festival was designed to showcase Grozny’s relative safety and security today.

Organizers managed to find 44 films from 21 countries to screen, attracted a smattering of thesps — actors Armand Assante from “American Gangster” and Mark Dacascos, who played a Serbian skier in search of a kidney donor in Brett Huff’s “Serbian Scars” — and found a respectable filmmaker, veteran Georgian director Rezo Chkheidze, to head the jury.

“The name of the festival corresponds to its content and goals. Noah was a prophet of three religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and the festival’s goal is to promote tolerance towards different religions among the international population of Chechnya,” Chechen Minister of Culture Dikalu Muzakaev said when the fest was announced.

The $30,000 grand prize went to Algerian director Amor Hakkar for his French-Algerian co-production “The Yellow House,” allowing organizers, according to some regional political observers, to both satisfy Moscow while announcing that the festival had fulfilled its brief.

Whether the Grozny fest becomes a fixture on the international circuit remains moot — but it is unlikely to be the last to emerge from the ashes of an unstable state.

Sarajevo’s annual festival was born of equally tragic circumstances — although, arguably, a festival begun as a symbol of resistance to an internationally condemned siege has a degree more humanitarian kudos than Grozny’s victors-backed showcase. Its inaugural edition took place in 1995 as Serbian shells, mortars and snipers’ fire continued to rain down on the besieged Bosnian capital from the mountains around it. Defiant and heroic, that first festival captured the hearts of all who attended and set it on the road to finding a firm place in the professional circuit.

With the ending of the Balkan war, Sarajevo’s role became that of a focus for creativity, continuity and — eventually — reconciliation.

Today the festival has carved out an important niche as a showcase for the Balkans and regional film, as an incubator for young filmmakers — it runs its talent campus in association with the Berlin Film Festival — and a magnet for top talent: British indie director Mike Leigh is a regular visitor, and actor Jeremy Irons chaired the jury last year.

Political considerations also gave birth to some of Europe’s top festivals: Cannes, founded in 1946, although first mooted in 1939, emerged from a country divided and stained by the wartime collaboration of its Vichy government; Berlin, launched in 1951 in an attempt to reassert the city’s position as a European center for arts and culture, had strained relations with the surrounding Communist East Germany well into the 1970s; and Venice was the creation of Italy’s Fascist state in 1932.

Other festivals are also motivated by impulses that often have little to do with purely cinematic concerns.

New festivals are sprouting like mushrooms after rain in the Balkans, where Novy Sad in Serbia is one of the latest.

One local film industry figure suggests that, since the event is based around an established international music festival, enthusiasm has triumphed over good sense.

“A music festival is about inviting half a dozen decent bands and getting on with it; making a film festival work is a much more complex proposition, and Novy Sad has a way to go in that respect,” he says.

Another newly minted fest is Banja Luka, based in Bosnia’s Serb enclave.

Pitched as the region’s bridge to re-enter the international community after years of isolation following the ethnic-cleansing atrocities of the 1990s civil war that was fought there, its first edition was somewhat marred when local officials refused to screen Jasmila Zbanic’s award-winning “Grbavica” — which was made by a Bosnian director and set in Sarajevo.

One new festival in Serbia has attempted to go completely anti-Hollywood. Sarajevo-born Serbian maverick director Emir Kusturica staged a mock funeral for “Die Hard” — complete with an incense-waving priest and black-clad professional mourners — to kick off his iconoclastic Kustendorf festival.

Billed as a noncommercial European antithesis to all that is Hollywood, it was held in Kusturica’s medieval village that he re-created and built high up in the mountains and straddling the border between Serbia and Bosnia.

Of course, the U.S. isn’t immune from political festivals either: Tribeca — the New York festival that Robert De Niro helped found — was set up after the 9/11 attacks to bring normality — and business — back to lower Manhattan.

Roland Rust, director of the Cottbus Festival of Eastern European Film in Germany, notes that his festival — set up in 1991 to sustain the cinematic links between East Germany and the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact regions — has moved from a small, personal initiative to something increasingly favored by politicians as a platform for proving their intercultural credentials.

Ahead of the curve on the expansion of the European Union eastward, the festival is now increasingly focusing on wider intraregional links.

This year’s special focus on the Baltic region looks at not only film from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia but also their links with Finland and Scandinavian countries.

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