The Sarajevo Film Festival returns to its live, famously vibrant format this week after last year’s shift online due to the pandemic.
“It was a necessary but pragmatic decision that we’ve learned a lot from,” says Mirsad Purivatra who has been the director of southeast Europe’s biggest film event since founding the festival in 1995. “A lot of things can be done online, especially parts of the industry and training, but our goal is to bring films and audiences back to cinemas, and connect them with filmmakers and actors, people who really need this contact and exchange of opinions.”
Although the vaccine rollout in Bosnia and Herzegovina was slow in the spring, the current figures are encouraging, and the festival team is expecting further easing of safety measures.
SFF’s 27th edition runs from August 13-20 and opens on August 13 with the world premiere of Not So Friendly Neighbourhood Affair by Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanovic. The low-budget feature was shot in March and April and supported by the festival’s Sarajevo City of Film scheme in collaboration with the Turkish public broadcaster TRT.
The comedy, in which two businessmen from the same Sarajevo neighbourhood become unlikely rivals as the city attempts to recover from the pandemic, will screen at several locations including the festival’s flagship 3,000-seat open air cinema, which will be reduced to 70% capacity due to Covid measures.
“We believe this sends a strong message from the festival,” says Purivatra. “We want filmmakers, talent and crews to work. We want movies to be made and for audiences to see them the way they should be seen – in cinemas.”
This advocacy for the cinema experience is why the festival has increased the number of its open-air locations to six, with a new site established in front of Sarajevo’s iconic City Hall – a striking backdrop to the venue that will help bring back the seating capacity of the festival close to its usual figures.
Another new venue is the recently opened eight-screen Cineplexx in the central neighbourhood of Marijin Dvor, where the Holiday Inn hotel, the festival’s biggest hospitality hub, is located. The multiplex’s large, well-aired screening rooms will also help the team implement necessary safety measures.
The ticketing and Covid pass system is similar to what happened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Audiences will be required to obtain a QR code based on proof of vaccination, a negative test secured in the past 48 hours or a certificate proving that they have recovered, which should be shown at the entrance to the cinema. There will be several rapid test sites around town, masks will be required in closed cinemas, and recommended at open air ones, with their capacities varying from 30% for smaller auditoriums to 70% for the biggest venues.
“Sarajevo Film Festival has always been an engine that drives the film industry in the region,” says Purivatra. “One of the biggest issues that we have to tackle is the return of audiences to cinemas, how to make up for this year-and-a-half of the pandemic and the huge influence of streaming platforms.
“The other serious issue is production: it has suffered a major blow. Fewer films have been made, with lower budgets and smaller ambitions, but this is why we are happy that the TV industry is booming.”
Rise of TV series
The last five years has seen the production of high-end TV series increase dramatically in the region of the former Yugoslavia, boosted by SFF’s CineLink Drama platform, which was launched in 2016.
This year, for the first time, the festival has introduced a TV series competition and invited more than 400 industry professionals from the region to vote for the best drama series, comedy, series creators, actress, actor and rising star. The winners will each receive the festival’s coveted award, the Heart of Sarajevo.
“These 420 people have been active participants at CineLink over the past 20 years,” says Jovan Marjanović, the festival’s head of industry and now a co-director of the festival along with Purivatra. “We are in a unique position to have a good overview of the market, now a truly regional market within the countries of the former Yugoslavia which largely share the same language, but also historical and cultural ties.
“This is the industry that keeps talent and crews occupied throughout the year, and it keeps growing. We see that the increase in quantity is accompanied by a rise in quality, and we see the potential for this content to break out of the borders of the region.”
The festival’s Avantpremieres Series programme will screen first episodes of five new high-end series, and the whole seasons will be available on the festival’s online platform for potential international buyers and streaming services to peruse.
All five come from Serbia, the largest of the individual markets, whose productions are popular throughout the region. But there is a new player that is sure to up the game: Bosnian communications provider BH Telecom, which has its own streaming platform and will invest €9m ($10.6m) over the next three years in production. Acclaimed filmmakers such as Tanović and Jasmila Žbanić, whose Quo Vadis, Aida? was Oscar-nominated, are already attached to series projects by BH Telecom.
“We will use the media and public attention that SFF attracts to promote the new shows which are maybe not that visible, like the excellent Slovenian series The Lake, which so far hasn’t been available to viewers in Bosnia, Croatia or Serbia,” says Marjanović. “This way, we are closing the circle for drama content: development through CineLink Drama, visibility through Avantpremieres Series programme, and evaluation through the awards, as well as our new initiative for forming of a regional TV academy.”
Modelled after the Television Academy, which awards the Emmys, the academy will be a guild association gathering professionals from the countries of the former Yugoslavia.
“This is just the initial idea and we will see what exact form it will take, but it will provide credibility and significance to people in the business, and help them reflect on their own work and their role, as well the conditions in which they are working, hopefully with a chance to improve them,” adds Marjanović.
Bold female voices
However, the backbone of the festival remains the competition programme, and Purivatra says this edition will place even more focus on regional content, especially with travel restrictions in place.
“We invited all the filmmakers with films at the festival, but we knew we had to be realistic,” says Purivatra. “The response has been fantastic, and some 85% of films in the competition programmes will be represented by their directors, cast and crew at the festival.”
In the Feature Competition, eight out of 10 films are directed by women, and out of those seven are feature debuts, including Camera d’Or winner Murina by Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović; Directors’ Fortnight entry The Hill Where Lionesses Roar by Luana Bajrami; Berlinale entries Celts by Milica Tomović and Moon, 66 Questions by Jacqueline Lentzou; Rotterdam titles Looking for Venera by Norika Sefa and Bebia, À Mon Seul Désir by Juja Dobrachkous; and Cristina Grosan’s Things Worth Weeping For, which receives its world premiere at Sarajevo.
Un Certain Regard entries Women Do Cry by Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova and Great Freedom by Sebastian Meise, plus the world premiere of Dušan Kasalica’s The Elegy of Laurel, complete the line-up.
“We have a wonderful new generation of women directors,” says Purivatra. “We’ve always promoted young female filmmakers, with films by Maja Miloš, Ena Sendijarević and Hana Jušić winning awards in recent years, but we are clearly at a watershed moment where we have new, bold voices who are increasingly getting a chance to make films. These are much more daring and piercing points of views than what the male gaze offers.”
In addition to in-person screenings, SFF will again host films on its online platform, which proved popular last year when opening film, Pjer Žalica’s Focus, Grandma, was seen in 46 countries around the world. Availability of films will vary, with around 80% accessible to audiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina; around 50% to audiences in the former Yugoslavia; and several local films available worldwide.
Hybrid industry platform
One aspect of the festival that will be truly hybrid is its industry platform, the CineLink Industry Days. Some of the participants will be present in Sarajevo, but most of the business will be done online.
“Industry Days has probably learned the most from last year’s experience,” says Marjanović. “Our experience has been mostly positive and has become the basis of our new approach, which is now extended and even more tailor-made than ever before.”
While in pre-pandemic times, most of the work on the projects was focused on an intensive five-day period during the festival with a few preparatory workshops, the industry team has now had the chance to work with project teams and experts on a longer-term basis in the lead-up to the festival, through several online events, which will also continue with follow-ups in September.
“This way, the workshops were more varied and we were able to focus more on specific needs of the projects,” Marjanović explains.
“In the past, we would not have been able to invite one expert to come and work on one segment of one project, and now were able to connect the project teams with more people who were able to help them with more aspects of the development. This has resulted in a better preparation for the co-production market, and stronger market materials, which now include a video of the pitch and a lot more visual content on the project page.”
The line-up includes new projects from established filmmakers such as Aida Begić, Gentian Koçi, Tinatin Kajrishvili, Paul Negoescu, Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth, and Ehab Tarabieh.
“We had a higher number of submissions for works in progress than ever before, and some of them arrived basically straight from the set,” says Marjanović. “This is probably because people rushed to shoot as vaccination rolled out and Covid restrictions eased over the spring and summer.”
While the pitching and the market will take place online – and Marjanović believes this is a template that most festivals will retain, even when international travel fully returns – several industry guests will be present in Sarajevo and able to reconnect.
“We will focus on direct contacts, networking and spending quality time together, which is something that can’t be replicated online and something that is indispensable for a quality collaboration,” he adds. “When we are all in one place physically, we want to focus on each other and this is what Sarajevo Film Festival and CineLink Industry Days will provide to its guests and participants.”