For an industry struggling to regain its footing after the disruptions of the pandemic year, amid ongoing fears surrounding the lethal Delta variant and uncertainty about the months ahead, few sights this summer will be as welcome to festival regulars as the buzzy terrace of Sarajevo’s Hotel Europe, the de facto hub of industry events during the Sarajevo Film Festival.
Having survived two World Wars and the shelling that devastated much of the city in the 1990s, the historic hotel is a fitting symbol of the grit and resilience that have propelled the Bosnian fest forward for more than 25 years. From its humble and improbable beginnings, the Sarajevo Film Festival has steadily grown into the leading film and TV industry event in the region.
The return of physical screenings and in-person events to the Bosnian capital is a hopeful augur of whatever new normal post-pandemic life might bring, just weeks after thousands of film-lovers flocked to the Croisette and days after thousands more returned to Locarno’s Piazza Grande.
“We are blessed to be able to go back to do what we like doing, and to have our audience back,” says the festival’s long-time industry head Jovan Marjanović, who recently became co-director alongside founder and director Mirsad Purivatra. “It’s going to be the biggest event in the city since 2019. It’s a big reason for celebration, and to getting back to normal and…rebuilding the social fabric that was a little bit lost throughout the pandemic.”
Since its inception, the Sarajevo Film Festival has been an integral part of that social fabric. Founded by a group of film lovers amid a near four-year siege during the Bosnian War, the festival was launched as much as a show of defiance as an effort to preserve – and revive – the cultural life of the cosmopolitan city.
After pushing forward with plans to host a slimmed-down physical festival last year, the organizers were finally forced to concede to a rising number of coronavirus cases in Bosnia and shift to a fully online edition. This year’s event, which runs Aug. 13-20, will include both physical screenings for audiences in Sarajevo, as well as a hybrid edition of the CineLink Industry Days program, the leading industry confab in Southeastern Europe.
Forty-eight films this year will compete for Heart of Sarajevo awards, with 18 of those having world premieres. The festival opens with the world premiere of “Not So Friendly Neighborhood Affair,” from Oscar-winning director Danis Tanović (“No Man’s Land”), which will screen alongside “Letters From the Ends of the World,” an omnibus from the Bistrik 7 film collective of graduates from Béla Tarr’s Film Factory in Sarajevo. It wraps Aug. 20 with the world premiere of Zoran Lisinac and Dragan Bjelogrlić’s “Toma,” a biopic about the Serbian singer Toma Zdravković.
For many of the festival’s long-time attendees, particularly from the Balkan region, this year’s edition will be something like a “homecoming,” says Marjanović, adding: “We’re very excited to be back with our audience. We want people back in the cinemas. We want to be back with them.” Tanović – a Bosnian native – describes his “long-lasting love relationship” with the Sarajevo fest, saying: “I am probably the happiest director in the world today as my film will screen there for the opening night.”
While this year’s festival will in some ways feel like a return to its roots, it will also offer an opportunity to assess “how things are changing and where we are going as a business, as an industry, as a culture,” says Marjanović, amid not only the widespread upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but the ongoing disruption posed by streaming services and existential questions about the role of film festivals in the future of cinema.
One notable shift brought on by the pandemic has been the adoption of virtual platforms to facilitate the CineLink industry program, whose influential Co-Production Market – which has launched films such as László Nemes’ Academy Award winner “Son of Saul,” Adina Pintilie’s Golden Bear winner “Touch Me Not,” and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Oscar nominee “Honeyland” – will present 10 new projects from the region currently in development.
“We’ve been working with our selection of projects for some two months prior to the festival, and we’ll continue working with them until the end of September,” says Marjanović. “Instead of having everything squeezed within the four or five days of the festival and the markets, we use the online platforms to create a schedule that can fit more people. So I think the reach of the CineLink Industry Days platform is wider.” That shift, he adds, “is something that the pandemic, and the use of digital technologies…has changed for good.”
Another change to this year’s program is the increased emphasis on dramatic series, which Marjanović describes as “a growing part of our activities, and a growing part of the market as well – especially in the region.” In addition to CineLink Drama, the six-year-old co-financing forum that presents six high-end drama series in development from Southeastern Europe, the festival has introduced the Heart of Sarajevo TV Awards to highlight the best of the region’s TV production. The Avant Premiere program, meanwhile, will launch five of the buzziest Balkan TV series to both local audiences and international buyers, in an effort to “get the attention of the audience in our region before they hit the screens [later this year], but also to try and open up new markets for them abroad,” says Marjanović.
Sarajevo is hardly the first film festival to boost the profile of dramatic series in its programming and industry strand, but the added emphasis reflects a consistent willingness “to help understand the needs of the industry in the entire region, and also help shape the future of the industry,” Marjanović says. That extends to the festival’s support of emerging filmmakers through educational programs, talent labs and networking platforms that allow them to interact with other filmmakers and decision-makers from across Europe. “We’re really here for the filmmakers from the region from their very beginnings to when they’ve become internationally recognized authors.”
One notable example of that progression is Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, who won the Camera d’Or this year in Cannes for her first feature “Murina,” and who Marjanović describes as “a child of the festival,” after her debut short “Into the Blue” won the award for Best Short Film in Sarajevo in 2017. “I am proud of the way Sarajevo and I grew together,” says Kusijanović, an alumna of the Sarajevo Talent Lab and the Sarajevo City of Film program, as well as a former jury member. “It is here I have met people who later became the closest confidants and crucial players in my career.”
“It’s a great pleasure to have these kinds of success stories,” says Marjanović, crediting the festival’s “360-degrees strategy” with both nurturing young talent and offering rising filmmakers a showcase for their work. “I think the festival is well-placed to react as well as shape the future of the business,” he adds. “We can only see what the future will bring; we cannot foretell it. But…we try to have a setup that can react, and not only react but can also act and lead.”