For many of the visitors who descended on the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, packing their day planners with meetings at the Gropius Bau and red-carpet premieres at the Berlinale Palast, there was a surreal sense of business as usual. But with coronavirus already ravaging Italy—and soon to be sweeping across the rest of Europe—Sarajevo Film Festival director Mirsad Purivatra knew that he and his team had little time to spare.
“We started immediately to think what to do with our festival,” Purivatra told Variety on the eve of Sarajevo’s 26th edition, which runs Aug. 14-21. Even though the festival’s opening night was still months away, “we had [in mind] the worst-case scenario that it could be a bad situation with the numbers of COVID-19” cases in Bosnia.
As spring turned to summer, Purivatra and his colleagues were confident that a scaled-down version of the physical festival could still be held in the Bosnian capital, with open-air venues being marshaled into service and social-distancing protocols enacted. But those plans were scrapped just days before opening night, with the festival topper making the difficult decision to move all movie screenings and industry events to a recently launched VOD platform.
Purivatra has no regrets about the move. “We were very disappointed, but on the other side, we are here to follow instructions, and this is the priority number one—to [protect] the health of our citizens, our guests,” he said.
Despite the setback and the frantic, last-minute preparations, the Sarajevo Film Festival has put together a robust program of screenings, workshops, presentations, panel discussions and industry events, starting with opening night film “Focus, Grandma,” by director and Sarajevo native Pjer Žalica, who opened the festival with “Fuse” in 2003 and “Days and Hours” in 2004.
Among the highlights of the CineLink Industry Days program will be the influential CineLink Co-Production Market, one of the leading platforms for projects from Southeast Europe and the wider region. Pitching sessions will be held from Aug. 15-19 for the 16 films searching for international partners. Pitches for CineLink Drama, a co-financing forum presenting five high-end drama series from the region, will be available online for the duration of the festival.
The Variety Streaming Room will present the 2020 Sarajevo Film Festival’s Masterclass series Aug. 17-21, featuring intimate hour-long conversations with award-winning international filmmakers and actors. Featured speakers include Michel Hazanavicius, director (“The Artist,” “The Search”) and jury president; actor Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist,” “The Search”); writer, director and producer Michel Franco (“Chronic,” “Las Hijas de Abril”); filmmaker, writer and producer Rithy Panh (“The Missing Picture,” “Graves Without a Name”); and actor Mads Mikkelsen (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Dr. Strange”).
Eight films will be competing for the Heart of Sarajevo, with competition programmer Elma Tataragić noting that this year’s selection underscores the festival’s traditional role as a launching pad for directors from the region.
“We have always nurtured young and up-coming filmmakers, and this year’s selection is definitively in line with our aims and goals as a film festival,” said Tataragić. The selection includes first features from six directors, as well as the second film from Kosovo-born director Visar Morina (“Exile”), and the third feature from Switzerland’s Andrea Štaka (“Mare”).
Tataragić sees a common thread in films that “represent and follow the tradition of East and South European cinema, which is somehow always connected to common people and their everyday burdens and problems.”
The titles rounding out the competition are “Andromeda Galaxy,” from Kosovo’s More Raça; “Mavzer,” by Turkish helmer Fatih Özcan; “Otto the Barbarian,” by Romanian director Ruxandra Ghițescu; “The Island Within,” from Azerbaijan’s Ru Hasanov; “All the Pretty Little Horses,” by Greek director Michalis Konstantatos, which world premiered in Shanghai; and “Digger,” from Greece’s Georgis Grigorakis, which had its world premiere in Berlin.
“All the films are fresh, unpredictable and exciting with strong point of views and cinematic approach,” said Tataragić. “They all are from different perspectives speaking to the times we live in in a particularly fresh and interesting way, even when we do not necessarily agree with them. They all are opening a dialogue, which is maybe the most important thing today.”
The pandemic has forced many filmmakers to reassess their festival strategies, weighing the potential benefits of a prestigious fest’s imprimatur against the possible downside of an online premiere. Yet Purivatra was heartened that more than 40 feature, documentary, and short films will launch on Sarajevo’s VOD platform, including Žalica’s “Focus, Grandma”; “You Will Remember Me,” directed by Canada’s Eric Tessier; and “Small Town Wisconsin,” the latest feature from Niels Mueller (“The Assassination of Richard Nixon”). The American helmer told Purivatra that he had such fond memories of the festival that he wanted to offer his film’s world premiere as a “gift to Sarajevo.”
Despite the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic, this year’s edition of the Sarajevo Film Festival is but a reminder that the inaugural fest was held a quarter of a century ago, when the city was in the midst of a four-year siege. The streets of Sarajevo will be quieter than usual this summer, but Purivatra remains convinced that the next edition will offer yet another testament to the festival’s defiant roots. “I’m quite sure the atmosphere and the spirit cannot be destroyed.”