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How the Sarajevo Film Festival holds a hand out to Ukraine

John Bleasdale reports live from the Sarajevo Film Festival, which demonstrates that film can serve as gesture of international solidarity

The attentive among you will notice something weird about the fact that the Sarajevo Film Festival celebrates its 25th edition in 2022. It means that the first edition took place in 1997, a mere one year after the siege of Sarajevo was lifted. It’s even stranger to find out that the festival actually has its roots in the city while the war was ongoing and shells were falling throughout the city.

I spoke with Edin Forto, the Prime Minister of the canton of Sarajevo. During the Bosnian war, Edin was a radio journalist who was vitally interested in film and got involved in the nascent festival. A drama society theater was taken over and films were smuggled in via a tunnel that ran under the airstrip and dug by hand. Crowds would brave sniper fire and mortars to get to the theater where they would watch such varied fare as Kieslowski’s Three Colors Blue (1994),John Woo’s Hard Target (1993) and Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal (1993).Soldiers returning from the frontlines – inasmuch as frontlines existed in a war that claimed thousands of civilian lives – huddled next to civilians to watch films, hungry, starved both literally and for any kind of cultural experience. “Whenever we had electricity, we would play music and show films”, Edin said. With space limited in the tunnel and a premium on what could be smuggled in, choices of film and music were hotly argued over. No one shared Edin’s goth sensibilities that saw him arguing for The Sisters of Mercy’s Floodland CD to be added to the wishlist.

The recent news from Ukraine hit hard in Sarajevo. Photographs that shocked the world of busy streets of a European city being reduced to Stalingrad like moonscapes arrived with the immediacy of memories. Edin describes how colleagues simmered with rage and trauma during those weeks and how he himself sat in his office and wept. ‘We were all triggered,’ he says.

Festival director Jovan Marjanovic met me for a coffee outside the National Theater which will show the Ukrainian films Klondike directed by Maryna Er Gorbach and Butterfly Vision, by Maksym Nakonechnyi. In a sign of solidarity, Ukraine has been granted regional status by the festival, Jovan explains, which will allow Ukrainian filmmakers to access funds, take part in industry meetings and compete in the regional competitions. Fellowships and working opportunities have also been created for Ukrainian refugees from the film industry. It is a small but vital contribution from a European city where the bullet holes are still visible on the walls. But this is also a sign of hope.

If Sarajevo – having suffered the longest siege in modern warfare, longer than Stalingrad, Leningrad and Madrid – can emerge with a hunger for culture and cinema intact and even more vital then here’s hoping the same will happen in the not-too-distant future for Ukraine.

The 25th edition of the Sarajevo Film Festival was held from August 12th to 19th.


By John Bleasdale - 20-08-2022

By John Bleasdale - 20-08-2022

John Bleasdale is a film critic and writer based in Italy. He has published a novel entitled Blood is on the Grass and a book of short stories as well as a number of articles and features. His work ha...

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