Georg Zeller on Sarajevo Film Festival

I had come to Sarajevo with the idea to discover this city apart from memories of war and violence in order to honour the city’s life and present instead of concentrating on its  grim past. I soon discovered this idea to be very naive. In a place where parks are cemeteries and schools bear plates with the names of their dead pupils on the still granade-sprinkled walls, how could one deal with the past by just forgetting it?

The wonderful Sarajevo Film Festival, an important referring point for the Balkan region and beyond, seems to point at the elaboration of this dark heritage in its entire selection of films. „Dealing with the past“ is thus the perfectly fitting title not only for a section within the festival of already existing documentaries as well as projects still to be done.

It even fits with the red-carpet screenings I have been able to watch during the week, where the question whether it is possible to forgive and how, is a sort of red thread. With Aki Kaurismäki’s  „The other side of hope“ as festival opener, signs were given that

the hope lies in the change of ourselves dusty habits towards a new humanity, which may improve not only the lives of those arriving in search for a future, but also our owns.

Fatih Akin’s “In the fade“ instead, proposes a grim solution for his protagonist, who doesn’t succeed to achieve state punishment for the neo-nazi couple who has murdered her husband and son. „If my husband was at my place, he would have smashed their heads“ is the sense of the leading idea of a film which doesn’t reach the deepness of Akin’s earlier works, a pity as it is based on real facts of contemporary Germany.

The Bosnian-Croatian-Slovenian-German co-production „Men don’t cry“ (Photo) is a very courageous attempt to put the post-war situation in the Balkans into a well-written screenplay: a group of men from the former enemy states Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia has accepted the paid-for invitation to a sort of psychological reconciliation meeting held by a Slovenian NGO. Obviously there are strong words, a lot of alcohol and violence and even burning cars and bloody fights before some little sign of mutual confidence shows up, when the apparently strongest and most exasperate men in the group leave some of their protective shields behind. It is not easy to imagine a similar situation in the real world, but still it recounts a parable of what may be the way to make people with deep inner wounds live again close to each other.

Special guest Joshua Oppenheimer offers a similar vision during his exhaustive masterclass on „The Act of Killing“ and „The Look of Silence“, when a woman in the audience tells about the supposed existance of a „gene of evil“. Oppenheimer replies that he discovered during the shooting of his two films, that violence may start from small violent acts, which then request a following bigger act in order to justify the former one within the violent person’s inner psychology. According to him the „trick“ to overcome their boasting and the genocide offender’s lies to themselves, was to remind them they were humans by sending the protagonist Adi (the brother of one of their many victims in „The Look of silence“) as an optometrist curing their eyesight.

A different approach to a similar issue is Danish Lars Feldballe-Petersen’s „The Unforgiven“ within the same festival section „Dealing with the past“. It obviously cannot reach Oppenheimer’s multi-faceted and deep-layered masterpieces,  but nevertheless is very worth watching. Bosnian muslim soldier Esad has committed multiple war crimes during his two months of serving as a guard in a prison for Serbian war prisoners. After his own arrest and ten years of prison, Esad is not able to find a way back into life and feels the need to apologize and ask forgivness to who has been between his victims. The scenes of the actual encounters with the few victims who accept to meet their perpetrator, unfortunately have a very staged look and atmosphere, and someone in the audience says he doesn’t believe Esad’s will to truely apologize. On the other hand, it is rare to hear a war criminal saying that there is no kind of excuse to what he did and that no one had forced him to do so. 

I found it particularly interesting to observe my own prejudices and inner cries for help, when during the screening I tried to put in order my own vision of good and evil, of victims and perpetrators.

The Sarajevo Film Festival and the invited filmmakers show us some impressive idea of how to deal with the past and how to approach the future of this region, and, by the way, it may be good ideas for other regions of the world, too.

Georg Zeller is a filmmaker based in Bolzano/Italy.

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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