The festival director talks about industry expansion amidst budget cuts.

Since its inception in 1995, the Sarajevo Film Festival has developed into the most important festival in South East Europe and one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most recognizable cultural events. Now in its nineteenth year, the public funding for the festival has been cut in the range of 20%-50%. But simultaneously Bosnia has become a member of the MEDIA Programme (the process was finalized in July) and SFF was the first to benefit, receiving €50,000 for the festival and €120,000 for the co-production market CineLink, the crucial segment of its industry section. This amount helped bring the overall budget to its normal annual amount of €1.3m.   

SFF director Mirsad Purivatra tells ScreenDaily how the festival manages to expand its industry section and keep up the quality and attendance in the new circumstances.

Can you elaborate on how exactly the funding cuts affect the festival?

It’s not going to be visible for the audience and visitors this year as our ambition is to maintain the level we’re at, and keep improving. But behind the scenes, we have a situation that is not sustainable in the long term. It’s not just the fact that less public support is available in Bosnia and that the private sector is cutting down on marketing spending. First of all, most our public funding is renewed on an annual basis, so we have to fundraise from scratch every year, which creates extra costs for bridging, and a lot of uncertainty. Then there’s a lack of infrastructure for big cultural events in Sarajevo, so we have to spend a lot more on building festival cinemas and other venues than other comparable festivals do. And a paradox we’re facing is that the more successful we get, the more difficulties we actually have being competitive in our local market. During the festival the city is booming and visitors from near and far fill up all the hotels, but for us it’s very hard to pay advances or compete when demand is this high.

The positive news when it comes to finding more sustainable funding is, of course, Bosnia’s entry into the MEDIA Programme which really could make a difference, not the least for our industry section. Up until now we haven’t had much funding specifically for the industry side, but we’ve made it happen anyway by doing as much as possible with the money raised from our general sponsors for the more audience-oriented parts of the festival. But now with sponsorship money generally being reduced, this is no longer an option. So the MEDIA Programme is of crucial importance, and this is the first time the Sarajevo Film Festival actually has access to funds specifically designed for industry services, such as our co-production market. If we have been able to create the industry section we have today without the funds similar markets in Europe have had access too, just imagine what we could do with MEDIA on board.

The region Sarajevo covers in its programme and industry projects is spreading. This year you are including films and projects from Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. What is the reason and aim of this move and is there an intention to go even wider in future? 

The Competition and Focus programmes will stay centered on South East Europe and the Caucasus region, but the industry section might include new regions in the future. It’s all about where developing film industries like ours appear. The immediate reason for the present expansion was the interest from these parts of the world to participate, as the international industry presence in Sarajevo is growing and they need more market access points. But this expansion also really was a natural thing, given the fact that we all are developing film industries and already tied together in many ways through professional partnerships. They are on similar journeys as we are, so sharing experiences and supporting each other is of enormous value.

Also, the industry section has been growing year after year — after CineLink you introduced Regional Forum and recently DOCU Rough Cut Boutique, Minimarket, Operation Kino… How are you keeping it under control so that all these strands remain fully functional and effective?

Actually, we this year even introduced a new initiative, the Industry Terrace. But I think the story behind it shows how we do manage to keep our programme under control and never lose track of the bigger picture - which is trying to have a 360 degrees approach to the industry, catering for everyone from young film-makers to the most experienced ones. Every strand should feed the other so that they operate as a whole by almost a centrifugal force.

The Industry Terrace is a meeting place intended to increase business opportunities for film rights, service productions and equipment. But when creating this, we also did a major restructuring of our Regional Forum, which is now much more focused on hot debate issues while the content which was previously part of the Forum has been moved to the Terrace and to its focus on business. So that’s how we work, by constantly adapting and fine-tuning our programme, according to which needs we see in the industry. It’s all about being flexible and realizing that as with many other things in this business, it is always very much a process of trial and error. Another factor which is also of great importance here is the fact that we have a very skilled and experienced team that’s been with us for a long time and really knows the industry.

The current situation with institutions in the territories of the former Yugoslavia is varying from country to country, and it appears at the moment that only Croatia and the Croatian Audiovisual Centre (HAVC) are functioning properly. What is SFF’s role in such a complicated situation?

As every year, we are trying to create a platform where the industry can meet and join efforts to take on all the big issues and challenges. Looking back, we’re proud to say that some major regional initiatives have had their starting point in Sarajevo, like the South-East Pavilion in Cannes. As for the current situation,  it will be looked at from a variety of angles during the festival. We have to stick to the attitude that it is usually from crisis that change is made, and try to draw inspiration and knowledge from positive examples like Croatia, but also from history. Actually, the Croatian system was created on the legacy of the Yugoslav film laws from 1956 and 1978, which all these countries had more or less experience with, so there is a history we can build on which is very important. The obvious place to discuss all this is at our Regional Forum which will be attended by all the heads of national film funds in the former Yugoslavia and South East Europe for a session on how they can streamline their practices to increase co-production between these countries.

Another positive thing I’d like to mention in this context are the recent major developments in the Bosnian film industry, with a new cinema law, a major digitization scheme under way and the recent entry to the MEDIA programme. These will be in focus the first weekend of the festival. Here too, regional and international cooperation is a key to success, so we hope that our situation can be the subject of interesting discussions with our neighbours.