War Casts Large Shadow On Sarajevo Film Screens

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 24, 2007

SARAJEVO, Bosnia -- The sweltering Youth Theater was so tightly packed that stairways were seized for seats. On stage, director Aldin Arnautovic introduced his short documentary "Fantasy," about a local group of war veterans using hypnosis to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Let's assume there are 500 people in the theater," he said, estimating conservatively. "If all of us had been in Sarajevo during the siege, 100 would be afflicted."

A brief silence was broken by murmurs and nervous laughter that suggested the scenario had hit a bit close to home.

The Sarajevo Film Festival, one of Europe's youngest and most accessible celebrations of cinema, began in 1995, months before the Dayton Peace Accords ended 3 1/2 years of ethnic war in Bosnia. By contrast, the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival got underway five years after the German surrender in 1945.

While this year's edition, which ends Saturday, has included name-brand foreign features such as "The Simpsons" and a token appearance by Michael Moore, the focus has been regional productions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the turbulence here and in neighboring countries throughout the 1990s, about a third of the offerings touched on war.

Tickets were easily available even in the minutes before the start of most screenings, a stark contrast to the VIP-only nature of similar events in places like Cannes. About 100,000 spectators attended screenings in small auditoriums and open-air courtyards.

War movies at a film festival hardly qualify as uncommon. But set against the backdrop of a recently ravaged -- though largely rebuilt -- city where nearly every green space is cluttered with tidy white graves and the tallest buildings still bear peepholes gouged by snipers, their impact was magnified.

Sarajevo was the cultural capital of the former Yugoslavia, with a vibrant music and cinematic community. But Bosnian Serb forces leveled much of the city in a three-year siege that killed more than 12,000 people, mostly civilians.

After an inevitable hiatus, the local film scene has rebounded, largely through war movies that have received international acclaim. "No Man's Land," which follows three soldiers stuck in trenches between armies in the Bosnian war, won the 2001 Oscar for best foreign language film, and "Grbavica," about systematic rape by Serbian soldiers, took the top prize last year at Berlin.

Still, some Sarajevo film buffs say too much attention is lavished on conflict at a festival that also includes plenty of local offerings that have nothing to do with war.

"War movies are more respected than other films, and that's a shame," said Goran Valka, a spiky-haired aspiring director and Sarajevo native who took in more than 25 screenings this week. "I want to make an American-style horror movie and show it here, but we don't make movies like that yet. You can't get funding if it isn't about the war. So it ends up basically war everywhere."

One feature film generating much attention was "The Living and the Dead," a joint Bosnian-Croatian production that alternated between scenes of the Bosnian countryside circa 1943 (World War II), and 50 years later (the more recent conflict). In each thread, a small band of soldiers walked through a picturesque but lifeless winter landscape, perpetrating and suffering horrible violence.

Arnautovic's 48-minute window on the recovery process of men badly marred by combat was another highlight, interposing war footage with veterans recounting their struggles since. One fighter, whose right arm lurches with a jarring tremor, describes unconsciously trying to "slaughter" his wife while he slept. "We slept apart for four years after that," he said.

Another laments to the camera that all he wants is the gratitude he was denied after the fighting ended and he was left haunted and unemployed. He received a small measure of that when the lights came on and the cast, seated in the back, stood for raucous applause.

A day later, the Youth Theater was packed again for a documentary called "Interrogation," filmed in what looked like a dank bomb shelter. Bosnian director Namik Kabil questioned about a dozen Sarajevo residents about life in the city cut off from the outside world during the siege, as food and fuel supplies dwindled.

"The presence of the war is so striking in Bosnia, even in this so-called peaceful time, even though everyone denies that," he said in an interview. "I wanted to capture that."

In the film, he asks brusquely, from behind the camera, whether residents really need to focus so intently on the war.

"Yes, we do," replies a middle-age woman in the film. "Even though people who come here from the outside say it is the only theme here, 10 years after, it's war, war, war."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company