The 11th Sarajevo Film Festival (Aug 19-27)kicks off today with a film line-up and guest list that suggests it has becomethe most important festival in South East Europe.

With 162 films, four world premieres and five regionalpremieres and 100 foreign press representatives, Sarajevo in now an essentialplace to be for film makers, audiences and journalists from the region (seelink to story below for full competition line-up.)

It has certainly come a long way since the civil warin the former Yugoslavia, which affected Sarejevo more than any other city inthe region.

Its background is rooted in the war itself. During thewar, a group of enthusiasts met at the city's Obala Art Center - including thecurrent festival director Mirsad Purivatra - and managed to establish a'War Cinema' festival in co-operation with the Locarno and Edinburghfestivals.

At the time, Sarajevo was isolated from the outside world. Atfirst, the event did not impress politicians, but artists from across the worldwere moved to take part.

Whenthe war was stopped by the UN and NATO forces in 1996, the authorities began torecognise the cultural potential of the Festival as a possible catalyst forregional reintegration. The EU's official film bodies and foundations such asthe European Film Academy and Eurimages began to increasingly invest in theevent.

The15,000 viewers who attended at the very beginning have now grown to more than100,000.

TheFestival has also become a platform for the promotion of important initiatives,such as the formation of national film funds in the region like the CineLink, aco-production market, launched jointly by Sarajevo Film Festival, RotterdamFilm Festival and Hubert Bals Fund. CineLink's main goal is to join upscreenplay writers and directors in the region with producers and investorsfrom around the world. Set up two years ago, the first result of CineLink -Bosnian director Nedzad Begovic's TotallyPersonal - premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

Thisyear's Competition Programme, selected from 70 offered features from theregion, include 11 films which will compete for the Best FeatureFilm Award of Euros 25,000. For the first time, the Festival will have a ShortFilm Official Competition. 10 shorts - four world premieres, four internationaland two regional premieres - will compete for the Best Short Film award whichwill bring the winner Euros 3,000.

Among the 162 films to be screened at the Festival, the audiences willhave the chance to choose from arthouse fare such as Ilya Khrzhanovski's Four, MirandaJuly's Me And You And Everyone WeKnow , Amat Escalante's Sangre or Benjamin Heisenberg's Sleeper; festival favourites Jim Jarmusch's BrokenFlowers, Christi Puiu's Death Of Mr.Lazarescu, Wong Kar Wai's 2046,Thomas Clay's The Great Ecstasy Of RobertCarmichael, Carlos Reygadas' BattleIn Heaven and Alexandar Sokurov's TheSun; but also mainstream films like Brad Silberling's Lemony Snicket's Series Of Unfortunate Events, Frank Nissen's Pooh's Heffalump Movie, Eric Darnell's Madagascar and Angela Robinson's Herbie: Fully Loaded. The programme alsoincludes 30 short films and 22 documentaries.

Thisyear's guest list is as dazzling as it gets in this part of Europe: theFestival will host a Tribute to Alexander Payne who will also act as thepresident of the jury for the Short Film Competition and Emily Watson will bethere to represent the Katrin Cartlidge Foundation. Peter Mullan is coming backwith On A Clear Day and ImeldaStaunton will support the Festival's old friend Mike Leigh's Vera Drake. Brad Silberling and CarlosReygadas are coming with their latest films, as well as Terry George andactress Sophie Okenado with Hotel Rwanda,Daniel Craig with Layer Cake, NielsMueller with The Assassination Of RichardNixon, Michael Radford with TheMerchant Of Venice, Claude Lelouche with Le Courage D' Aimer and Peter Forgacs with this year's Tribeca'swinning documentary El Perro Negro:Stories From The Spanish Civil War.Besides film makers and actors, representatives of Cannes, Venice andTribeca film festivals will also attend.