From 1992 to 1996, Sarajevo was under siege, attacked daily by shells or snipers. A tunnel dug by local citizens was one of the only ways to sneak supplies into the city.
Among the items smuggled in: films and theater posters. And while many were trying to leave the city, in through the Sarajevo Tunnel came actors, directors and filmmakers and what in 1995 would become the Sarajevo Film Festival.
These festivals continued during wartime to be a beacon of normalcy and hope for peace, said Ron Hawkins, cultural and educational attachГ© for the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Now they represent ways in which this multiethnic country, struggling with its diversity, can bring people together to share experiences.
War and conflict are tough for everyday life, "but also very inspiring for arts, especially for filmmaking," said Elma Tataragić, who as a teenager during the siege got involved with Obala, a major arts center, helping with art exhibitions and film events.
Film is one of the strongest ways of communicating different kinds of ideas," Tataragić said. Those working in the center's film department developed this crazy idea to organize a film festival, Tataragić said. There were no regularly operating movie theaters at the time.
We thought films would bring comfort to you for at least one and a half hours, Tataragić said. For at least this one and a half hours, you're forgetting about your own troubles, and our troubles were enormous.
In October 1995, the Sarajevo Film Festival was born and has been an annual event ever since. That first year, 45 films were shown and about 20 filmmakers came in through the tunnel to participate in the event. It was important to show these filmmakers, and the world, that war is not about two sides fighting, that there are also people in between trying to live their normal life, she said.
Theaters were packed for these screenings, including the showing of a children's movie, an incredible, emotional screening, Tataragić said, because for many of the children, it was the first time they had ever been in a theater.
Today, Tataragić is a programmer for the festival and selects the featured films. The annual August event attracts tourists and filmmakers alike. It is recognized as one of the premier film festivals in Europe, highly respected among international film associations. The most recent festival brought 1,800 people accredited with the film industry and sold 100,000 admission tickets. In eight days, it screened 240 films from 35 countries.
Despite the international attention the festival now gets, it remains true to its roots, aiming to provide programs for the people of Sarajevo, Tataragić said, adding that the festival has become an important part of the city's cultural life. Just as it did the first year, the festival continues to screen films for children and now also has a film competition for teenagers. One of its premier programs is a series of screenings of films from Bosnia-Herzegovina. This year, it showed 54 local films.
Among the most popular screenings are those held in the Open Air Cinema, an outdoor theater. For four years [the citizens of Sarajevo] were trapped in basements it was dangerous to be out, Tataragić said. Introducing the open-air screenings in 1996 after the siege ended, the festival organizers thought, Wouldn't it be great to let 3,000 people every night sit under stars and watch film and feel free?
THEATER SERVES AS CULTURAL RESISTANCE
Another popular annual event in Sarajevo is the MESS International Theater Festival, which marks its 49th year as the festival runs from October 16 to October 26. MESS stands for male eksperimentalne scene, or, in English, small experimental stage, and since its beginning the event has welcomed theater troupes from around the world.
The siege made holding a traditional festival difficult, but MESS organizers continued to host productions. Actors performed in hospitals and orphanages. MESS invited international professors, scientists and performers to give lectures and present exhibitions. One event was hosted in the yard of Nihad Kresevljakovic, who today is the executive producer of the festival. Neighbors passing by on their way to get water would see what was going on and join. It was a very human aspect of that period, Kresevljakovic said.
MESS found support from international actors and directors. American author Susan Sontag came in 1993 to stage Waiting for Godot. Actress Vanessa Redgrave joined local actors on stage in 1994. When these celebrities came into the city, many snuck in posters and other promotional material with them. Their support helped MESS become known in the international media as an organizer of a cultural resistance, Kresevljakovic said.
The years of siege brought the most exciting theater events ever, Kresevljakovic said, adding that theaters were full at a time when people were risking their lives just to be in the audience. The point of watching the performances is to become part of the drama, he said. The only moments of my life that I managed to be really part of the drama, because drama was very realistic, was at that time.
MESS again began hosting its regular festival in 1997 and today is recognized as one of the most important theater events in South Eastern Europe, Kresevljakovic said. This year's event will include 26 performances and bring 500 artists, actors, directors, theater critics and others together.
The war still shapes MESS's work. The festival runs a cultural program called Memory Module that seeks to explore the connections between art and conflict, not just in Bosnia-Herzegovina but in places like Darfur. We are really trying to raise the consciousness of the people, that their own tragedy should [teach them] to be more compassionate with other peoples' tragedies, Kresevljakovic said.
International support for MESS continues to be strong. Thirteen of the performances in this year's festival are from international troupes.
International organizations like the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo have been supporters of both MESS and the Sarajevo Film Festival. The embassy assists with promotional efforts by MESS and has been a supporter of the film festival's program on Bosnian films. It also is a supporter of the Sarajevo Talent Campus, a six-day training program that introduces young filmmakers to some of the world's most talented film professionals.