The well-documented birth of the Sarajevo Film Festival during the four-year siege of the city remains a remarkable narrative 19 years on.

The city of Sarajevo is full of jaw-dropping stories, perhaps none more so than how the festival was born during the four-year siege of the city between 1992-1995.

Despite enduring the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, which led to the destruction of large swathes of the city and the deaths of an estimated 11,00 people, a group of dedicated cinephiles, spurred on by public appetite for human interaction, inaugurated a festival which has gone on to become one of the largest in Europe.

While most industry know the story well or will at least have heard the outline, as long as there is one person alive who isn’t aware of the narrative, it will always bear retelling.

Festival director Mirsad Purivatra sat down with Screen to remind us how the Sarajevo Film Festival was born.

“It was such a painful break”, he explains. “One minute you are travelling the world as a successful theatre company, the next minute you have no food, electricity, gas and you are spending your time in your cellar to avoid bombs and snipers.”

The theatre troupe Purivatra refers to is Obala, which prior to the war had spent years touring the world, with engagements including Edinburgh, London’s Almeida theatre and the ICA.

“After 3-4 months of the war, we realised we couldn’t survive as we were. Even if you were lucky enough to survive physically, you couldn’t survive mentally. Culture is part of life. During the day we might be able to read a little but that was all. Unless you had a generator, there was virtually no electricity, so no phones, TV, radio and certainly no cinema. People were going crazy locked up in their homes all day.”

“We wanted to take people’s minds off the constant fear and depression so we invited some local visual artists to make installations in an area protected from sniper fire. It was in a passage under a destroyed house.

“We quickly realised that a lot of people were stopping by to see what the artists were doing, even those who would never normally go to a gallery. The people needed culture. More than that, they were starved of being around other people.

“Between us, we decided to try and show some films. We gathered an old projector and a small collection of classics on VHS – Hitchcock, Bunuel, whatever we could find.

“But we were still lacking electricity. We struck up a friendship with a local Canadian officer from the United Nations. We asked if he could find us a generator and gasoline. Ten days later he and a general brought us the generator and 50 litres of gasoline, despite one litre costing 50 euros at the time. We could start.

“We initially planned to do a Friday or Saturday screening at six because the curfew was at 10. We thought we could do a two-week run. But word of mouth about the screenings spread through the city and it became clear that the people’s desire for the screenings came from more than just their appreciation for film - it was the necessity to meet other people, to talk to other people, to hear what was going on. The screenings became so popular that people were risking their lives to come. We ran them almost every day. 

“Soon after that the international press caught on and people started to come. Marco Mueller came from Locarno and brought films with him. Mark Cousins brought films from Edinburgh. Phil Alden Robinson brought Hollywood films. Most were able to get special humanitarian passes which allowed them to fly to the local airport and enter the city by car. Marco Mueller exited the city through the tunnel [the population built a narrow 800m tunnel connecting the city to the outside world] as there was heavy bombing at the time. All those people shared our situation for a time – the lack of food, the lack of electricity, the lack of normal life.

“After speaking to them we decided that retrospectives weren’t enough and that we wanted to create our own festival, which would be in the open air. After spending all our time in the cellars we wanted to celebrate friendship, openness, and we wanted it to be in the summer.

“The first edition of the festival was planned for June 95 but the fighting was too heavy and we had to postpone it until October. The risks were huge but we made it work despite the shelling during the festival. Thankfully no-one was injured.

“The first festival was a big success. We had to use mostly VHS recordings but we wanted seven 35mm prints as well. We managed to get them here via planes, humanitarian aid and even through the tunnel. In the first year, Leo Carax [who returned to the festival for the first time this year], Alfonso Cuaron and Milcho Manchevski came to the festival.

“You can’t imagine the hunger to meet people from outside the city. We had been in a prison. We talked with them for hours and hours.”

37 films from 15 countries screened to an audience of around 15,000 people during the first edition. This year, the festival hosts more than 200 films from 59 countries and close to 100,000 people.

Sometimes film is so much more than entertainment. Cinema can become a communal activity capable of uniting people in the most difficult of circumstances. It can be a reminder of the best human traits as well as the worst.

And what of a feature version of Purivatra’s history lesson? There’s little the film world likes more than a silver screen update of a remarkable true story. Or a film about cinema itself. 

One festival veteran told me she thought the events were still too fresh for a narrative film. A documentary, perhaps, she said.

But it’s not the first time Purivatra has been asked about a feature. 

“A film version? Could be, could be,” he says. “Many people have asked the same. Maybe one day.”

Andreas Wiseman is chief reporter for Screen International
Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasWiseman