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Dealing With the Past: Sarajevo Film Festival Addresses Balkan Wars

Two decades after the bloody Balkan wars, reconciliation in the region can still be hard to come by. The Sarajevo Film Festival is trying to do its part with Dealing with the Past, a program launched last year that comprises a festival sidebar of films dealing with the wars and their aftermath and an industry section called the True Stories Market.

The market seeks to connect filmmakers with organizations that are documenting and researching the conflict with the aim of bringing dramatic fact-based stories to light and to wider audiences through documentaries, feature films, and television productions.

This year’s True Stories Market presented nine stories, including “Profile of a Mercenary – Making Money Off the War or Crimes,” by the Sarajevo-based Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). The story focuses on a former convict who had served time for robbery and attempted murder before going on to serve as a mercenary, first with the Croat Defense Council, then the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina and finally with the army of the Republic of Srpska, the Serb region of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Another tale from the BIRN, “A Bosnian Turned Mujahedeen Then Terrorist,” examines the spread of the extremist Islamic Salafist movement in Bosnia via the several hundred Arab mercenaries who served in the country during the Balkan wars. Several thousand Bosnians are currently estimated to belong to the movement, including more than 200 who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. About 20 who have returned to Bosnia have been tried and sentenced on charges of terrorism.

The initiative has so far resulted in one production, Bosnian helmer Muris Beglerović’s “Restless Dreams,” about a man who has spent the last 22 years collecting human remains around Srebrenica, the site of a 1995 slaughter of an estimated 8,000 men and boys – the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. (Pictured: Srebrenica memorial.) Produced by Al Jazeera Balkans, the film grew out of last year’s True Stories Market and screened as part of this year’s Dealing with the Past sidebar.

This year’s section also included Lars Feldballe-Petersen’s “The Unforgiven,” a documentary about a Bosnian war criminal and former prison camp guard who tortured and murdered Serb prisoners. After serving 10 years in prison for war crimes, he left for Finland but returned to Bosnia in 2015 to seek forgiveness among his victims.

The discussion that followed the screening of “The Unforgiven” was quite intense, said Croatian filmmaker Robert Tomić Zuber, who hosts Dealing with the Past and serves on the selection committee for the True Stories Market. “It’s a very taboo topic. The tension was very high. But at the moment I felt it was a good discussion. I hope that we will have these kinds of discussions in the future.”

Two documentaries by American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer also screened as part of the program: “The Act of Killing,” about individuals who participated in mass killings in Indonesia in the 1960s, and “The Look of Silence,” which likewise revolves around the Indonesian genocide of the period. Oppenheimer also conducted a masterclass in Sarajevo.

Following the festival, the initiative screens Dealing with the Past’s films in various cities across the former Yugoslavia where the conflicts took place. Last year, the works were shown in the Croatian cities of Zagreb and Split; the Serbian capital of Belgrade; Bijeljina in the Republic of Srpska, the Serb region of Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro.

“This is something we are very proud of and we are now actually trying to discuss with schools to also have some of these films in their curriculum,” project manager Maša Marković said. “We have a nice critical distance to the events. It’s still painful, but it’s painful with enough of a time distance that you can also relate to the other stories, not just your own.”

Marković attributes the move towards greater openness and discussion to Srdan Golubovic’s award-winning 2013 Serbian drama “Circles,” about the reverberations of a tragic event in the lives of five people who are dealing with the past.

“That was one of the biggest films on this topic, and it kind of initiated these discussions,” she said.

Zuber, who won Sarajevo’s Human Rights Award in 2010 for his documentary “Mila Seeking Senida” – about a child who went missing in 1992 after Serbian military forces occupied a Bosnian town – said it was important to address the issues brought up by the Balkan wars, in which about 100,000 people are believed to have died.

“You have to deal with your past,” Zuber said. “This is a great effort by the Sarajevo Film Festival and a great contribution to reconciliation. Sometimes it’s just a word, reconciliation, but we need it.”

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