The peaceful, lovely city of Sarajevo swarmed with people enjoying life at cafés and parks – in contrast to the physical signs of the war; grenade holes and burned out buildings. It was hard to imagine that a war had been waged in these same streets not long ago. The experiences of war and the traumas it has left in people were the subject of several films in the regional documentary program that comprised 16 docs.

One of the films that deal with the memories, images and consequences of the war is Images From the Corner by Jasmila Žbanić. The filmmaker was 17 when the war started and the film is a personal investigation of what happened to the director’s friend Bilja who lost an arm when she was wounded by a grenade in the war. A French photographer took pictures of Bilja lying in the street suffering but didn’t help her. The picture later won a prize at the World Press Photo. Bilja sought out the French photographer who defended himself by saying that he was only doing his job.

Žbanić does not expose the famous photo of Bilja in the film, because, as she explains in the film, it would be voyeuristic and make Bilja suffer a second time. The director chooses instead to let her own camera rest on the street corner where Bilja was hit and film it for as many minutes as it would have taken the photographer to empty two rolls of film, adding the sound of a shooting reflex camera to the scene.

Emotionally strong and cinematically refreshing, the film is as much a comment on the ethics that drive people working with images as it is a depiction of the filmmaker’s personal journey to psychologically replace “war pictures” with new ones without the heavy significance of suffering. Žbanić repudiates the “ethics created by men” as she puts it, which is more voyeurism than filmmaking. “By doing these films I hope to be able to make my little contribution, so that these things are not forgotten”, she explains.

Abandoned Eden by Albanian filmmaker Eno Milkani is a 20-minute short film about the emigration issue. There is no dialogue, only pictures. The original idea was to shoot a short fiction film. At the time, the story was much more realistic and concrete, but the director soon realized that the dialogue wasn’t working. “With pictures alone, you are able to tell the story, and that is the aim of the film,” Milkani says.

Albanian villages are depopulated when young people move to the cities or to Greece to find work. Poetic images and dramatization are used to describe the life of the villages where the only people left are the elderly. As a metaphor of this evolution and life cycle, a baby is baptized in the village, and the old people perform traditional rituals. But when the child is suddenly “taken away” everything dissolves, even the wool of the sweater the old women have knitted for the baby unravels.

The director had the old people in the village act out the story, as well as a young couple and their child, and the film was made for EUR 53,000, sponsored by the National Film Board of Albania. It was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm and postproduction was made in Italy because there are no laboratories available in Albania. The result is very slick and professional.

Another short documentary from Bosnia-Herzegovina won for its simple and direct approach. The film depicts the strong friendship of two blind boys, Robert and Halid. Robert went blind after an accidental mine explosion; Halid can see only shades but is able to walk without help. The filmmaker captures the tenderness and respect between these two charming guys (who were present at the screening, by the way) in wonderfully intimate and funny moments and through the energy and drive of the film’s editing. I See You My Friend is the first documentary produced by the young filmmaker Ćazim Dervišević and his company XY Films.

Alphabet of Hope by Stephan Komandarev

In Alphabet of Hope, from Bulgaria, the filmmaker Stephan Komandarev meets families of ethnic minorities living in the remote border area shared by Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, which has more or less been abandoned in destitution. Many of the inhabitants of Turkish background fled to Turkey after the “Bulgarisation” campaign launched in the 1980’s against the nearly 800,000 ethnic Turks who were forced to adopt Bulgarian names. Only one school is left; a multiethnic microcosm of Bulgarian, Turkish and Roma children who travel more than 100 km every day in a bus to go to school.

The film takes a classic approach and focuses on two families – one Christian, one Muslim and their children – adopting a slow pace and lingering images that express the slow pace of development in this region.

Marja Dzidzeva’s “thriller”, The Tony Mandza List tells the story of 18-year-old Tony Manza who escapes from prison and starts to kill people from what is believed to be a list. We are taken into the drama of Tony’s escape, running through the streets, panting in re-enacted scenes, spiced with stills of the crime scenes and the sound of press photographers’ shooting cameras. The film is structured as an investigation of what happened and why and is built up around the staged scenes with Toni’s own voice-over interspersed with interviews with the police and his mother. The film tries to build up suspense and only partly succeeds, however, because there is no clear answer as to why Tony has turned into a murderer. Everybody agrees that Tony should have been given psychological help instead of imprisonment. With a father who beat him and an unsupportive social system, he ends up in a vicious circle of crime.

The dramatised form corresponds to the idea expressed by Tony that what he has done is like a film, and that it is hard for everyone, including Tony, to take responsibility for his actions.

The jury of the Human Rights Award, gave special mention to Pretty Diana by Boris Mitić. A “pretty Diana” looks like a Mad Max engine. It is in fact the result of a Citroën that has been transformed.

In a straightforward manner, the film is a look at the everyday life and struggle of Roma refugees in a suburb of Belgrade and told with humour and energy. Living in poverty, Romas are forced to be inventive, and there is little they cannot use or recycle. Iron and cardboard are collected and resold (the cardboard is wetted so as to weigh more when sold by the kilo), batteries are used as power generators and the modified Citroëns bring a bit of wealth and pride into the life of these – often illiterate – people.

La Strada, a 29-minute short film uses beautiful visuals to portray the atmosphere and life of the multicultural main street of Vodjana, a small town in Istria between Slovenia and Italy. As there is no recurring narrative, scenes and sounds express the rhythm and atmosphere of this colourful place.

The Croatian film Imported Crows by Goran Devićby won the Human Rights Award. “A charming, easy and humorous documentary with a ‘Killer’ edge,” as described in the catalogue. I regret not having seen it, but judging by its enthusiastic reception and from what I heard, it deserved the prize.

The most popular doc of the regional program was Lucky Kid by Croatian writer and filmmaker (earlier political journalist with his own TV show) Igor Mirkovic and producer Rajko Grlic. At the end of the screening in the sold-out National Theatre, the crowd gave the film a standing ovation and the excitement was reminiscent of a rock concert. Music was indeed the subject of this entertaining film that recalls the new wave scene in Zagreb and Belgrade in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The film is seen from a fan’s point of view and is also the filmmaker’s personal quest (or a pre-40 existential crisis) for understanding what has influenced and shaped his personality.

“I didn’t like the idea of being director and actor at the same time, but I decided that this story should not be told through the rock musicians but through their fans. Because it’s a film about the influence of rock’n roll, not about the relations among the band members,” says Mirkovic.

He seeks out rock band members from that time, now middle-aged men. The memories of his musical ‘education’ are linked to political events such as the 25-year anniversary of Tito’s rule and death and the worker’s strike in Poland, and the rich material is interwoven with the music of bands like Azra, Bijelo dugme, Elektricni orgazam, Pankrti, Patrola, frequently bringing the audience’s excitement to climactic heights.

“People tell me the film is a political film as well, which was really not my idea. I wanted to get rid of politics, but apparently I’m not able to do it. Maybe I spent too long in politics,” the director admits.

Based on the video excerpts from concerts, the archive material and all the music, the costs for rights would have been astronomically high had it not been for the willingness of the musicians to let the filmmakers use this material for free. It is not unusual in Eastern Europe for films to be made on very limited budgets. This is possible because of the strong commitment from the filmmakers and the people involved in a film project to make things happen, and that commitment is evident in the final result. The Sarajevo festival is a venue for filmmakers who have something to say and who make themselves heard in spite of tight budgets.

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