«Every documentary from this region is simply a labour of love, enthusiasm, solidarity within a film crew»

SARAJEVO FILM FESTIVAL: Modern Times Review speaks with Sarajevo Film Festival Documentary Programme programmer Rada Šešić on the documentaries in competition, Docu Rough Cut Boutique, the place of Sarajevo Film Festival among the wider festival landscape, and more.

In 1995, the Obala Art Centar initiated the Sarajevo Film Festival with the aim of helping to reconstruct civil society and retain the cosmopolitan spirit of the city.

two decades later, the Sarajevo Film Festival is the leading film festival in the region, recognized by both film professionals and the wider audience. The Sarajevo Film Festival is an international film festival with a special focus on South-East Europe, shining an international spotlight on films, talent and future projects from the region.

Ahead of the 28th edition of Sarajevo Film Festival, Modern Times Review spoke with Documentary Programme programmer and DocuRought Cut Boutique co-organizer Rada Šešić on the 22 documentaries in competition, Docu Rough Cut Boutique, the place of Sarajevo Film Festival among the wider festival landscape, and more.

Every year, we get between 200 and 250 films for selection, and each film has something interesting and valuable.

In your words, what is your approach to programming for documentary, particularly year after year? Is there a foundational criterion you seek? Is it topical? How do you approach the practice of programming?

Every year, we get between 200 and 250 films for selection, and each film has something interesting and valuable. I am sure each of these films will find their audience smaller or bigger, but they will certainly be watched. However, to be selected for the Competition, films have to be painstakingly created by the maker. I observe several aspects: from the strength of the narrative to the originality of the author’s expressiveness, professional skills, ability to communicate with an audience, and ability to stimulate and inspire. I am always interested in the author behind a film, so it is not only the What that matters but also the How: in which way has this chosen What been sculpted within the cinematic language? For example, in our region, there are so many films dealing with memories, pains, and the horror of war, from the Caucasus to the Balkans, and one could think that all has been said and told in the last 30 years. But each time when a maker finds a way to be original and has a fresh take on the same or similar topic, I am flabbergasted. For me, a documentary has to be approached as a creative form, and the personal view of the maker should be visible.

Programing for Sarajevo Film Festival is a knotty job because the makers in the region, which consists of 21 countries, from the Caucasus to Cyprus and Turkey, Greece and Albania, Malta, all the way via the Balkans to Hungary, Moldova, and starting from this year, Ukraine, get very, very modest support. Some funds give a grant for a documentary as little as two thousand euros. Luckily in some countries, national support could be much higher, but the average is 20 to 30 thousand euros. That means every documentary from this region is simply a labour of love, enthusiasm, solidarity within a film crew, etc. Being a filmmaker myself, I have the deepest respect for anyone that manages to finish a film, so to reject a film is a very delicate act.

Where does the documentary program of Sarajevo Film Festival fall within the festival’s wider themes and mission? How does one compliment the other?

I would say that in every country, a documentary program is a kind of «proposal for a door», a place that gives space to urgent narratives, provokes relevant discussions, brings awareness, shortly saying – represents the current temperature of a certain society. For our region, the territories that burst with exciting stories often told through a foreign gaze over the last 30 years, it is important to bring forward the insider’s point of view. In our region, filmmakers hardly ever go to other continents like Africa or Latin America in search of stories. They stay faithful to their own territory and their own people and tell stories that come from their personal human interests, not only as filmmakers but as citizens of that particular space. I have big respect for that. It is much more sensitive to deal with and expose a local topic about which everybody around you already has an opinion than on a far-away story that nobody has heard of and seems attractive or even shocking. In this way, I would say that our mission is to, on the one hand, bring those relevant stories to the world and, on the other, to open a door for local talents to be noticed, to get visibility and recognition, to make them indispensable for the outside world if it is interesting to know more about the region. The ideal situation would be if, for example, German television wants to produce a film on a certain topic from, let’s say, Albania or Bosnia, that they know who of the local filmmakers could bring the story, instead of sending their own crew, their own director and looking only for a local fixer or interpreter. In this way, the sustainability of documentary making as a full-time profession would also be feasible in this region. The films on regional topics that come to the Western audience would have more depth. Who could make a better film than the Macedonian directors and local DOPs in the double-nominated Academy Award film Honeyland? First of all, who would work for five to six years on the film within a ‘kitchen’ budget? Similarly, this year we present the Bulgarian film The Provincial Hospital in our competition, done by three local directors. Only locals could be so close to doctors, nurses, and patients in a small town hospital during the covid period.

To summarize, I see the Competition Program as a special space that allows us to create a certain energy in order to support strong documentaries and make sure they are visible on the world film map. Then people can decide whether they find them interesting or not, but at least they are aware that these powerful films exist.

What can you say specifically about this year’s documentary selections? Are there any screenings you particularly look forward to?

This year’s selection comes with one more new award – a very important one – Heart of Sarajevo (cash prize) for the best short documentary. This region is famous, already since the 1960-ties, for strong, often politically brave short documentaries, done often with no or very few words, with a lucid cinematic language. And this tradition is carried on by the young generation in almost all countries in East and Southeast Europe and Caucasus region. Having in mind the modest support for documentaries, the short form creates an opportunity for young makers to start soon after graduation to express themselves and become visible. At the same time, the short format gives a lot of freedom, and many directors experiment with and explore new possibilities for cinematic creations. Among others, in this selection, we bring films from low film capacity countries like Azerbaijan or Kosovo, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and very young, not yet discovered filmmakers will be highlighted.

I am curious to see how the audience will react to this fully post-covid structure. Last year, there was still a capacity limitation in cinemas. We are opening our Competiton this year with a short film from Ukraine Liturgy for anti-tank obstacles by Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, who presented in Cannes his fiction feature Pamfir and made this short film recently during the war. In this opening slot, we also present a feature-length doc from Serbia, Another Spring, done masterly with archive footage by Mladen Kovacevic, one of our Heart of Sarajevo winners. The film deals with another, almost forgotten pandemic of smallpox that was handled and stopped amazingly efficiently just in a few weeks in ex YU, a country of 22 million people.

Aside from documentary programming, you also head the festival’s documentary workshop Docu Rough Cut Boutique. Can you explain what the mission of this workshop is? How is it constructed? How does one apply to be part of next year’s workshop?

In the process of selecting films, I have noticed that the region has an abundance of exciting, relevant stories and great passionate film talents, but too little money, no support for in-depth research before shooting, or top consultancy, and generally too little care from the side of official institutions towards documentary production. This results in many mediocre films; only a few turn out to be excellent and do succeed in reaching the international scene. Therefore, I have suggested to my colleagues at the Sarajevo Festival to initiate a platform that would give a hand to the makers in the very delicate process of editing. We partnered with the excellent and experienced producer Martichka Bozhilova from Bulgaria of Balkan Documentary Center and started this big adventure: Docu Rough Cut Boutique. This year, we have our 12th edition, and to the usual number of only five projects, we added one project from Ukraine by young director Maria Stoianova. We started as one session training program but expanded over the years towards a three-session event taking place in Sofia, Budapest, and Sarajevo. At each workshop, we work with five or six eminent tutors from different backgrounds; storey editors, producers, directors, sound designers, outreach experts from various countries, different age groups, and diverse cinematic preferences. In the last couple of years, we work with a psychologist who deals with the negative effects of receiving criticism. It is crucial that directors and editors are open as much as possible to get honest critical reflections on their cuts and still be able to process the feedback in the most constructive manner. We work with an excellent sports psychologist, a lady who prepares the best athletics for the Olympics and knows how to make people stronger for the most insightful comments.

In these 12 years, we worked on amazing projects, a.o.: Sofia’s Last Ambulance by Ilian Metev; Toto and his Sisters by Alexandar Nanau; The Other Side of Everything by Mila Turajlic; City of the Sun by Rati Oneli; and Srbenka by Nebojsa Slijepcevic. All of these projects won awards at festivals like Cannes, IDFA, Visions du Réel, Berlinale, EFA etc.

One of our prerogatives is to give a chance to debut directors, new talents who won’t find easily international coproducers but who we see as masters of the future.

One of our prerogatives is to give a chance to debut directors, new talents who won’t find easily international coproducers but who we see as masters of the future.

Is there a seminal film, filmmaker, or filmography that piqued your interest in documentary as a genre?

Already as a child, I had a soft spot for documentary programs on television that would take me to exciting places and encounter intriguing people. It stimulated my imagination about the big World I fantasized about. During my formative years, I met today’s legendary director Zelimir Zilnik who served the obligatory term in the Yugoslav army in my birth town in Croatia. He gave a presentation to us, teenagers, at the local cinema club. It was inspirational and memorable. Later, I was an admirer of the Eastern European short dox form, done with almost no words, with superb photography and narrative within the so-called «language of flowers». I remember vividly the Polish film The Rat Catcher, deeply political, but on the surface, it depicts only a rat-killing tale. Or a film from 1970-ties with a political sting Facades by late Bosnian director Suad Mrkonjic, who observed poverty elegantly contrasted the arrival of politicians to a communist party congress with the backyards of people’s houses in the centre of Sarajevo.

Documentaries indeed matter. I feel that every day there is such a high temperature in society that a lot of fictional stories seem dull. One of today’s most exciting directors is the Finnish author Pirjo Honkasalo. After watching her films – I will mention just one: Three Rooms of Melancholia – I feel like being a slightly changed person. And that is the aim of the art of documentary filmmaking, I believe, to touch us, to enrich us.

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Communications Manager and Industry Editor at Modern Times Review.

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