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

Earlier this summer, Mirsad “Miro” Purivatra, director of the Sarajevo Film Festival, got a phone call from the new head of Ukraine’s Odessa Film Festival, who wanted to know how to stage such an event in the middle of a civil war.

Purivatra is, unfortunately, an expert in such matters. He launched the Sarajevo fest in 1995, toward the end of a four-year siege by troops from Bosnian Serbia, with snipers and artillery positions in the hills overlooking the city.

One of the buildings destroyed was city hall, which housed the national library. Purivatra recalls the ashes of books — including what had been rare manuscripts — drifting through his window.

“It was one of the saddest moments in my life,” he says. “How could someone … destroy such heritage, something of such cultural value, everything that a nation, a civilization has?”

As an act of defiance, and an affirmation of the redemptive power of culture, Purivatra decided to stage a film festival while the fighting raged across the city. Of course, it was no ordinary festival, and Purivatra refers to the event as “war cinema.” There was no running water, heat or electricity, and very little food, but nonetheless — with the help of generators and the willpower of the people organizing the event — they used video projectors to screen 37 movies to 15,000 besieged residents, and held Q&As with those filmmakers brave enough to come, including Leos Carax and Alfonso Cuaron.

Like the phoenix, the festival emerged from the ashes, and now, celebrating its 20th anniversary Aug. 15-23, stands as a testament to the power of art and reconciliation, Purivatra says.

Sarajevo has become the leading film event in Southeast Europe, a region of 140 million people, and attracts about 100,000 filmgoers a year. The festival competition section draws from the region, such as the world premiere of “I Am Beso,” from Georgian helmer Lasha Tskvitinidze; while such Cannes hits as “The Bridges of Sarajevo” and “White God” get Gala screenings.

The fest has managed to achieve its initial aims, including its goal to be a platform for filmmaking in Bosnia, and to establish links with other movie industries in the region and across Europe, via programs such as the CineLink Co-Production Market.

For Purivatra, the 20th anniversary seems like the end of an era. “We have fulfilled almost all the goals we set out in the beginning over the past 20 years, and now we are turning a new page,” he says. “One of our main targets is to be more open to the rest of the world.”

To that end, CineLink now accepts projects from the Caucasus region, as well as from North African and Middle Eastern countries around the Mediterranean, and has partnered with Qatar’s Doha Film Institute and Mexico’s Imcine film organizatioin to bring Middle Eastern and Mexican films to the fest.

Ultimately, he says, the festival’s ongoing mission is to advance art, even in the face of adversity. “It’s so important to keep your culture alive,” he says, “because, otherwise, what are you fighting for?”

Still, Purivatra notes, there are times when the politics of war is stronger than the spirit of creativity. “I can’t imagine you could organize a film festival in Gaza at the moment,” he says, adding that Sarajevo might help, inviting young Palestinian filmmakers this year to receive scholarships as part of the Katrin Cartlidge Foundation. It would be a way, he says, to give them a chance to document what’s going on.

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