Report: Sarajevo Film Festival 2023

SARAJEVO FF: Modern Times Review wraps up the 2023 Sarajevo Film Festival with our report on its doc selections, CineLink Industry Days, and more.

A week has passed since the closing of the 29th Sarajevo Film Festival. Modern Times Review was there again, focusing on its industrial core: the CineLink Industry Days. From August 11 to 18, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina transformed into a city that never sleeps, traking over diverse venues, from cinemas to restaurants on the mountainside, and drawing guests from around the globe.

The Sarajevo Film Festival is up there with the A-listers of the continental landscape, albeit with less rigidity than its far western brethren. It has a tenor that is both an elite and a non-conformist affair, which suits me and Modern Times Review just fine. This was my third year, and I’ve grown more familiar with its practices and host city. Compared to my initial visit in a pandemic-impacted 2021, the 2023 edition was now an official throwback to the days prior to the plague – packed cinemas, open air and indoors, clubs and restaurants with lines around the block, DJs banging out windows, and surprising cultural nooks everywhere you turn, resulting in diversity amongst the richest in Europe. One of these nooks, the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts hosted the impactful photography exhibition «The First Wartime Cinema Apollo,» which essentially kicked off my experience for the week to come.

Easy Rider Dennis Hopper
Easy Rider, a film by Dennis Hopper

Narrative selections

Sarajevo’s kinetic energy was inaugurated on 11 August, as luminary Scottish documentarian Mark Cousins was bestowed the inaugural 2023 Heart of Sarajevo Award. Cousins, whose relationship with the city goes back well into its wartimes, also inspired this year’s special screenings at the Obala Art Centar, where classic VHS tapes screened during the 90s siege played the no-frills venue once again. Of these films, including Falling Down, Thelma & Louise, and Basic Instinct, the American classic Easy Rider immediately drew me. It had been some years since I last viewed Dennis Hopper’s road trip through the contradictions of Americana. I could not help but consider it one of the most influential films ever made. Surely at the apex of American cinema. With over a decade of detachment from my own American experience, my current reading of Easy Rider was far beyond an adolescent infatuation with «wow, they actually did real drugs.» Its contradictions, hopelessness, and the ever-present power of ignorance (that vital American characteristic – as represented in one of the country’s most despicable representations of «exceptionalism» – no, not Zero Dark Thirty – rather, Forrest Gump) – seemed so clear and astute, my appreciation for this film grew to the astronomic. Of the other fiction films screened, my personal favourite was Wim Wender’s minimalistic ode to the little things, Perfect Days.

Chronicle Martin Kollar
Chronicle, a film by Martin Kollar

The pitch sessions

Of course, Easy Rider is (mostly) fiction, and we are there for the documentaries. So what of the festival’s non-fiction offerings? Here, I tried to get around to more than just screenings of its lengthy documentary competition. The CineLink Industry Days supplied a couple of days of documentary industry-related events, discussions, panels, and pitches, which included the Ji.hlava IDFF Docu Talents From the East Pitch and the Sarajevo FF/Balkan Documentary Center’s Docu Rough Cut Boutique. In attending both of these last year, and with several films from each in the competition programme, both retained their talent in curating quality, interesting, and engaging films of topical diversity.

From Docu Talents From the East, eight projects were presented at various stages in their production. Each was strong, with certain thematic aspects more personally appealing than others. In the end, it was the observational essay on irretrievably disappearing realities, Chronicle (dir. Martin Kollar), that interested me the most. The film was co-awarded with the coveted Docu Talent Award, sharing the honour with Ukrainian production A Picture to Remember (dir. Olga Chernykh). Romania’s observational An Almost Perfect Family (dir. Tudor Platon) was then bestowed with the Distribution Award.

At the Docu Rough Cut Boutique, projects featured were generally in the later stages of production, each providing lengthy clips and presentations. With this style, fewer projects were featured – five in total. Of these, three received awards. Adelina: Symphony of Longing and Estrangement (dir. Rati Tsiteladze; Georgia) received both the Avanpost and HBO Max Awards; Your Life Without Me (dir. Anna Rubi; Hungary/Sweden) received the Cat&Docs and East Silver Caravan Awards; Pavilion 6 (dir. Goran Dević; Croatia) received the AJB DOC and DOK Leipzing Preview Awards. However, despite the three awarded films, it was Alice On&Off (dir. Isabela von Tent; Romania) that maintained my interest. Perhaps due to its somewhat unsympathetic protagonist and its PTSD-inducing lifestyle choices, Alice On&Off felt like the most prescient social commentary of the session. How does one love if never taught how, is its central question. The answer is found in underage pregnancy, a decades-wide age gap, intravenous drug use, webcam masturbation, and more staples of a 21st-century young person’s reality for making ends meet.

It has a tenor that is both an elite and a non-conformist affair

The problem with impact

In addition to the pitch sessions, the CineLink Industry Days and its organiser, Maša Marković, also presented two panel discussions pertaining to the field of documentary. The first, «Shaping Change: Unleashing the Transformative Power of Impact Producing and Outreach in Documentary Filmmaking,» moderated by Noise Film&TV’s Mirjam Wiekenkamp and featuring Rory Thost (Participant; USA), Amy Shepherd (Think-Film Impact Production; UK), and Kristie Marchese (Kinema; USA) was, unfortunately, a conversation surrounding (in my opinion) a problematic documentary sub-industry. Perhaps a topic for a more expansive editorial, in my experience, I cannot help but notice the monopolisation of «Impact Production» in the far, far West (festival appearances held almost exclusively by companies in the USA and UK). This, in itself, is not problematic. However, the inherent Western definitions of «impact» that emerge, as we well as the lens through which its campaigns are run, veer toward the most problematic elements of the creative/cultural industry. Commendable was Wiekenkamp’s attempts to steer things outside of its USA/UK-centric lens (the films mentioned, filmmakers involved, and, in many cases, ultra regional focus), vocabulary («if your film is not intrinsically compelling and watchable, it is very, very difficult for you to do anything with it»), and underlying moral grandstanding, but the overall conversation was a clear example of the pervasively reinforced Activist Industrial Complex. This means very few tangible solutions, lots of money spent on the campaigns (often by those from underrepresented or marginalised communities), and even more white Westerners determining and defining others’ hard work through easily quantifiable metrics, ultimately taking centre stage themselves. I’m sorry, but utilising predatory financial institutions like Wells Fargo Bank (as proudly proclaimed by Shephard) – an institution whose ethical status of the recent past scored as low as the illustriously corrupt Trump Organization on the Axios Harris business reputation poll, forcing an active lip service «rehabilitation» campaign – just doesn’t align with the supposed ethics of documentary. The genre does not belong within the ostensibility of corporate reputation reinforcement. Neither does not featuring a single representative from the films discussed; Neither does it have a tangible relationship with the region in which they are speaking; Neither does the blatant neoliberalism of, to name but one example, Participant’s utilization of the country’s corporate greenwashing «B Corps» status – self-described as a «company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems». Right, the private sector has the answer(s) to the very environmental and financial devastations their very existence has created. Am I missing something in the world of Impact production? Is this sub-industry in existence anywhere outside Western Europe and North America?  To be continued…

Next was the far more admirable «Decoding the Documentary Industry: What Decision Makers are looking for?» Aside from the uncomfortable classism of the term «Decision Maker,» this conversation was significantly more diverse and much farther reaching. It featured representatives from the Central Europe region (Moderator, IDFA’s Marina Burić). It utilised the differences in the European and North American perspectives via TIFF and Hot Docs’ Lauren Clark and Heather Haynes, respectively. Further panellists were BBC’s Lucie Kon, Deckert Distribution’s Tommaso Priante, and Fremantle’s Mandy Chang (the only panellist to express her disdain for the «Decision Maker» term). Over one hour, the panel managed to cover much ground and, most importantly, address Burić’s pointed questions specifically around regional lens and experiences. These panellists having engaged with it in a much more direct way than the previous panel. Overall, having representatives from festivals, TV, traditional distribution, and more presented a much broader perspective on the «current trends» and ethical considerations each panellist looks for. It was a subjective conversation but substantive in its intent nonetheless.

The Silence of Reason, a film by Kumjana Novakova
The Silence of Reason, a film by Kumjana Novakova

The docs

As for the films, Modern Times Review was able to watch several, with just about all our reviews now published. The overall consensus of a programme rich in micro observations and macro consequences found The Silence of Reason as a favourite. On the film, Lauren Wissot exasperatingly proclaims how it reminds us that «the banality of evil never ceases to amaze». Unfortunately, fellow abuse-survivor film A Day, 365 Hours did not fare as well critically, having ventured into the problematic territory of toxic positivity, with Wissott describing it as, «while these women’s stories are undeniably heartfelt and incredibly inspiring, that can-do spirit too often masks the gritty, life-threatening nuts and bolts of actually extricating oneself from abuse.» Further films of note included MakeDox Artistic Director Petra Seliškar’s Body, a film Melita Zajc notes with «In a world where most people simply indulge in cherishing pure existence and mere appearances, this film is a precious and timely reminder that existence itself is not enough. It is a film about the need to make the best of it, the need to contribute to the people around us and the world to the best of our efforts. Zajc also wrote on the well-travelled Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels (dir. Mila Turajlić), describing it as «a document about how our present has been hacked by the past.» Then was Self Portrait Along the Borderline (dir. Anna Dziapshipa), which Nick Holdsworth views as «a short journey into memory and meaning.» Personally, my favourite competition film was Gergő Somogyvári’s Fairy Garden, a co-production between Hungary, Romania, and Croatia. The film was also a 2022 Docu Rough Cut Boutique selection and, like Alice On&Off, was an evident view into the world of the oft-marginalised (in this case, trans sex workers) and in one of the continent’s most oppressive nations at that. Non-competition documentaries across programmes included the IDFA-winning Apolonia, Apolonia, the CPH:DOX premiered Songs of the Earth (dir. Margreth Olin), and the frequently applauded We Will Not Fade Away (dir. Alisa Kovalenko), which Sevara Pan has described as «an achingly tender film about growing up and a moving contemplation on life itself.»

As the 2023 Sarajevo Film Festival folded into the annals of the year, it solidified its indispensable position within Europe’s increasingly congested—yet paradoxically fragmenting—festival landscape. It holds a unique position, a result of curation and circumstance, which allows it to operate above the over-educated certainty, streaming-focused mass production, and financial inequality of many such affairs. It is progressive without being insufferably «woke». It is organised without being anal. It is focused on informing the public rather than stacking name recognition; most importantly, it offers a welcoming and open environment. There is no dealing with the somebody vs. nobody binary of other such «prestigious» events. Of course, some of the most expert-led curations around make this all possible with the documentary competition and Docu Rough Cut Boutique’s Rada Šešić always worthy of praise.

All in all, it was an interesting and entertaining week. Though affected by the horrific, Instagram-streamed femicide that yielded a national day of mourning (ultimately causing the festival’s expansion into the 19th), Sarajevo remained itself through and through. And, in this day and age, sometimes that is the freshest breath of air there is.

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