How Sarajevo Fest’s Punk Rock Ethos Is Shaking Up the Film Biz in South-East Europe

How Sarajevo Fest's Punk Rock Ethos
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Danis Tanovic's Oscar win for 'No Man's Land' was a seminal moment in the development of Bosnian cinema

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The Sarajevo Film Festival, which wrapped Saturday, played a crucial role in the rebuilding of the film industry in Bosnia-Herzegovina after it was decimated during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. The festival has gone on to become a leading force in the movie biz in South-East Europe, a region of some 140 million people. Now, it is reaching out to new markets in Asia, South America and the Middle East.

At the heart of the festival’s efforts to develop the region’s biz is CineLink, its industry program, which is comprised of the Co-production Market and the Work in Progress section. Sarajevo’s head of industry, Jovan Marjanovic, is a long-serving member of the festival’s parent organization, Obala. He joined Obala more than 16 years ago, initially as a volunteer, and then becoming a member of staff at its theater, the Meeting Point. Obala, which was founded in 1984, takes its name from the Obala Arts Center, which is located on the banks of the River Miljacka in Sarajevo. (Obala means “embankment” in Bosnian.)

SEE ALSO: Sarajevo Film Festival Was Born in Wartime, Now a Thriving Marketplace

By the time Marjanovic joined, Obala had become involved in a wide range of activities, including live theater, film exhibition and distribution, contemporary arts, and lectures about a variety of topics, but during the Bosnian War the film department had assumed a leading role in the organization, and the Sarajevo Film Festival — which was set up in 1995 — became its flagship program.

The film industry in Bosnia had been strong before the war, with Sarajevo-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1985 for “When Father Was Away on Business,” and the best director prize at Cannes in 1989 for “Time of the Gypsies.”

During the war Sarajevo was under siege by Serb forces who subjected the city’s residents to bombardment and sniper fire from the surrounding hills. The conflict led to the destruction of much of the film industry’s infrastructure — film studios, equipment, film stock, archive materials and crucial paperwork, such as legal contracts — as well as the emigration of key staff.

“Out of the whole Yugoslav cinema in the 1980s, Bosnia was the hot spot within Yugoslavia. The war just cut this in its entirety. You can’t manage a film industry in the middle of a siege,” Marjanovic says. “Almost all of the filmmaking capacity that the country had — 90% of which was in Sarajevo — was destroyed in the war.”

A few filmmakers remained, and they wanted to document what was going on around them, and this generated a fresh approach to filmmaking.

“A new scene was created during the war that made films about life under the siege, and these films resonated vitally and caught the eye of the international business, and most of the auteurs that were active in those days in Sarajevo went on to create the new Bosnian scene, of which the Sarajevo Film Festival is a part. They made their films during the siege and were on the front line of this revival,” Marjanovic says.

The Oscar win in 2002 for Bosnian film “No Man’s Land,” helmed by Sarajevo director Danis Tanovic, was a seminal moment in the development of Bosnian cinema. The Academy Award and the film’s successful box office run in Bosnia, where it got around 500,000 admissions in a country of 3.7 million people, generated a new wave of enthusiasm in the country for filmmaking, and encouraged local people to engage with the movie business and to take it more seriously. Obala had distributed the film in Bosnia, which gave it further credibility as an industry leader.

“It was therefore natural that the next step for the festival would be to develop some programs that would help the industry in this region,” Marjanovic says.

The new Bosnian cinema was initially auteur-driven and “more intimate,” Marjanovic says, with many films dealing with the war, including traumatic personal experiences, and its aftermath. But now it is maturing, he says, and has become more diverse, with market-oriented movies being produced alongside the auteur-driven films.

However, the volume of movie production in Bosnia is still too low, he says. Between two to five films are produced a year. “The problem is the amount of financing available, and the strength of the market. People have much more to do in terms of entertainment than they did 10 or 15 years ago, before the digital revolution,” he says. Piracy is also an issue.

Faced with this crisis in the local industry, Obala’s approach has been to try to seek solutions without waiting for the government or the commercial sector to act, which is consistent with its overall philosophy.

“Obala is very much punk rock. These were the times from which it came, and this ethos was always there,” Marjanovic says. “When we started dealing with the film industry, it was always with a DIY approach to everything.”

“Over time we learned to work with the powers that be to get our own way, but, yes, a lot of the things that the festival initiated were ahead of processes run by the authorities. It was very grass-roots,” he says.

“Also, a lot of things happened that helped us, like the Oscar for ‘No Man’s Land,’ which was a film that was produced without a single penny from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Then our question was: how can you not support the local film industry after this? So, immediately after that, a new film fund was established, and a system was put in place, whereas before there was no system. The film changed the attitude of the authorities, so they thought: Okay, now we need to reorganize the cinema industry,” he says.

The lack of state film financing in Bosnia — which at best contributed 20% of the budget — in the years after the war forced Bosnian producers to adopt a more international mind-set and to look for foreign partners for their projects. CineLink, which was launched 12 years ago, helped Bosnian producers find partners abroad through its co-production market. This was launched with the support of the Rotterdam Film Festival, whose staff shared their experience of running CineMart, the first co-production market of its kind, and Sarajevo received financial support for the first edition of CineLink’s co-production market in 2003 from Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund.

One priority for Obala was to get producers in the countries of the former Yugoslavia to pay more attention to the development of projects, which had been neglected in the state-controlled socialist era in Yugoslavia.

“The whole notion of developing a project did not exist in the culture of state-organized filmmaking,” Marjanovic says. “The greenlight for films came from just one place. There was no need to go around to get answers from different bodies. People were very unprepared for this world of pitching and going around to raise funding.”

Obala started to bring on board script-editors, pitching trainers and other types of consultant to assist the producers whose projects had been selected to feature in CineLink’s co-production market.

“We said: Let’s do this or we will invite 15 producers from France, Germany and so on, and (the producers from South-East Europe) will have nothing to show them,” Marjanovic says.

CineLink would select projects at least six months ahead of the festival, and the producers would then participate in two or three sessions, each lasting four or five days, in which they would prepare for the market.

Development has now taken root within the film biz culture of South-East Europe, Marjanovic says, but CineLink continues to coach its producers. CineLink arranges one-to-one meetings for them, so they can pitch their projects to potential co-production partners. The way the meetings are scheduled is one-way only, so it is the potential partners who request the meetings, not the producer with the project.

CineLink’s other program, Work in Progress, which is for pics in post, draws from a wider geographic area than the co-production market, with the addition of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia to the core South-East European countries. Around 40 sales agents, distributors and key festival selectors are invited to attend, to whom CineLink shows five or six films, rough-cuts or parts of the film, which are being shown for the first time.

However, CineLink’s principal focus remains South-East Europe.

“What we want to be — and we already are — is a platform for this region. If you are interested in meeting key people from any of the 15 or so countries in the region, then this is a one-stop shop for you to see what’s out there,” he says.

One recent initiative for CineLink is to bring 30 exhibitors from the countries of the former Yugoslavia, who have more than 300 screens between them, and then show them trailers of 18 new films from those countries, most of which share a common language, Serbo Croat, or dialects based on that. They are then match-mated with the producers and distributors of those films with the aim that they will discuss programming and book the films. This enables the films to access a market of around 20 million people.

“We try to cater to every sphere in the value chain and to different players, from policy makers, producers looking for financing with projects in early development, in late development, looking for completion financing, sales agents, and bookings at the cinemas. So we are trying to offer services across the board and to service the industry according to its needs, but also to carve some new needs,” he says.

The latest focus for CineLink is on the new markets in Asia, Middle East and Latin America, and the festival has strong links with organizations from those regions, such as Doha Film Institute, the Mexican film institute, IMCINE, and India’s NFDC.

SEE ALSO: Turkey’s ‘Song of My Mother’ Takes Top Prize at Sarajevo Film Festival

“Regional co-operation is functioning, European cooperation is functioning, but is very competitive and is very expensive sometimes, so let’s do something in the new markets that can be creatively challenging, maybe a bit less expensive, maybe it can bring more funds into our films, maybe it can place our producers into films that might be globally successful, and help them better their businesses,” Marjanovic says.

Such thinking has led the festival to launch a global co-production fund, the Sarajevo City of Film Fund, this year. The fund will be open to producers from the former Yugoslavia and the wider region that wish to find partners in new markets outside Europe. The Middle East, North Africa, the Americas, India and East Asia are intended as the primary geographical focus.

The fund is looking to support the production of up to eight films, for which it has secured a budget of Euros 400,000 ($530,000) for the next two years. It will feature a co-production scheme with up to Euros 60,000 ($79,500) per project, and a P&A scheme with up to Euros 60,000 ($79,500) per project, both of which are in the form of a soft loan.

“It’s just about creating the right infrastructure and bringing the right people, and then things start happening,” Marjanovic says.

The proof of the effectiveness of Sarajevo’s industry program is that projects presented in CineLink have returned as finished films. A case in point is “The Lamb,” helmed by Turkish director Kutlug Ataman, which was pitched in CineLink by Ataman, and through that he found his producing partners, German producers Fabian Gasmia and Henning Kamm, and the film played in competition at the fest this year.

Ataman, Gasmia and Kamm are now working on another project together, “Hilal, Feza and Other Planets,” which they were pitching at CineLink this year, and which won the Arte International Relations Cinelink Award.

“You get into creating these working relationships and then things just go on from there,” Marjanovic says.

Another example of how things can work is the Romanian film “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle,” a prison drama directed by Florin Serban. The project was selected by CineLink, which was considered a “quality stamp” by the Romanian national film fund, triggering production finance for the film. It then screened as a work in progress in Sarajevo, and landed a co-production deal with Sweden’s Chimney Pot and Film I Vast, who invested in the completion of the film, and it was then the subject of a bidding war between two sales companies for an MG. It went on to win the Silver Bear at Berlin in 2010, and established Serban as a leading director of the Romanian New Wave.

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  1. In fact, Emir Kusturica has won Palm d’Or twice: once in 1985 for ‘When Father Was Away On Business’, and once in 1995 for, of course, his censored masterpiece ‘Underground’ in addition to his best director prize for ‘Time of the Gypsies’ in 1989. Cultural censorship – omission or extreme neglect – in the States is alive and well. What a loss, especially for cinema lovers world over.

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