A forum about the state of cinema in south-eastern Europe, held at last week’s Sarajevo Film Festival, reflected a diverse industry struggling to support its exploding talent base.

The vast region of south-eastern Europe came under scrutiny last week at the Sarajevo Film Festival when the festival and Screen International held a three-day forum (August 16-18) on the state of cinema in the region.

“Sarajevo and other events such as the Sofia Meetings and Belgrade’s B2B could be the neutral platforms the region needs to buil a “common market” both in co-production and distribution”

The event - designed to promote coherent policy and regional unity and raise issues over funding and digitisation - was particularly significant in light of the high quality of films in the festival this year, including Police, Adjective(Romania), Eastern Plays (Bulgaria), Dogtooth (Greece), Ordinary People (Serbia), Slovenian Girl (Slovenia) and Men On The Bridge (Turkey).

South-eastern Europe consists of 13 territories with a combined population of 163 million. But the countries are wildly divergent in terms of infrastructure, cinema-going habits and production volume. Some are members of MEDIA and Eurimages, others are not.

So on the one hand there’s Turkey, with its popular local films taking 60% market share from a population of 77 million. Then there’s Slovenia, whose local films take only 4.3% market share but from a population of just 2 million.

The forum brought the local industry’s key players together with keynote speeches from Eurimages’ Roberto Olla, Arts Alliance Media’s Howard Kiedaisch and the Irish Film Board’s Simon Perry, financing case studies of films in the competition and wide-ranging discussions.

The meeting took the first steps in bringing the region together, especially in the cash-strapped nations of former Yugoslavia. Miroljub Vuckovic, director of the Serbian Film Centre, announced on day three that a private meeting between the film fund heads of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece, held as a result of the forum, had led to a decision to share an umbrella pavilion space at Cannes next year.

While that may appear a cost-saving initiative, its importance as the start of co-operation between formerly hostile countries cannot be underestimated. And the festival’s head of industry, Jovan Marjanovic, unveiled plans for a digital screen network throughout non-MEDIA members Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Turkey which will be part-backed by Eurimages funding. Marjanovic, who represents Bosnia in Eurimages, is chairing the working group with Olla which is designed to provide one-third financing towards the digitisation of 25 arthouse screens in the region.

The exhibitors would need to find one third of the funds themselves and raise the remaining third from local public sources.

Working towards a unified market in this way can clearly benefit a region which has fallen far behind other western European markets for obvious reasons. Certainly a step towards digitisation, even before many of the countries are multiplexed, will give a cheaper platform for local films struggling for market share when they clearly have an audience.

Sarajevo and other events such as the Sofia Meetings and Belgrade’s B2B could be the neutral platforms the region needs to build a ‘common market’ both in co-production and distribution.

Sarajevo, with its CineLink and Talent Campus strands is already acting as a regional hub for new projects and talent.

In his final day keynote, Simon Perry sounded a warning that in an economic crisis, culture is the first thing to go. Indeed the Irish Film Board is operating under the threat of extinction if a plan to close down Ireland’s Ministry of Culture is approved. “Public money should always intervene to make sure that diversity of culture is maintained,” he said.

It was a particularly relevant rallying cry in a region still recovering from war, not to mention navigating the economic crisis. Yet despite that, it is witnessing an explosion of new and exciting film-makers that are bringing international attention to south-eastern Europe. Audiences can and must be built for their work, the forum concluded, and the industry sustained.