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Sarajevo International Film Festival Chief interview

The origins of the Sarajevo International Film Festival are now nearly almost legendary. In October 1993, with Serbs shelling the city, the festival, then directed by Haris Pasovic, screened some 170 films on VHS at locations around the war-torn city, with Sarajevans literally risking life and limb as they dodged sniper bullets and mortars to get to the showings. The festival was started up again in 1995, this time under the stewardship of Mirsad Purivatra, director of the Obala Art Centre. It’s now a very different event indeed and has warmly been described as “in the cup of Sarajevo, an atmosphere of Cannes” (by Miroljub Vuckovic, programme director for Serbia’s largest film festival, FEST). met up with Mirsad Purivatra at the 45th Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

Q: How was it possible to make that transition from a very impromtu event to a highly organized international festival?

MP: I think that from the beginning we knew what we wanted. It was very clear that we wanted to create a good film festival, according to all, let’s say, the normal European standards. Before the war, a group of people including me used to travel all around the world with a theatre company going to theatre festivals, such as Paris, Edinburgh, Toronto or New York International Summer Festival. So, it meant that we knew what a good festival looks like. During the war, we had some very contacts with the Edinburgh International Film Festival and Locarno Film Festival. And they suggested to us, let’s create a Sarajevo film festival, and we started with this idea, and we knew that we can achieve some good results, a good festival, done professionally, by taking good films and by taking as collaborators international experts. From the early beginning we had some, let’s say, good friends helping us, from Berlin, from New York. Many of them suggested how to go forward, how we could build a festival that would be not just interesting for audiences but also for professionals. And that’s how we’ve been able to go forward and get better every year.

In the last two or three years, we’ve found that for us the best concept would be to create regional film as the central focus point. Now we have a very strong regional international competition, with at least regional premieres, but many of them are world premieres. Regional producers and regional directors have accepted Sarajevo as the place they have to go, because we decided to give some attention to them, to respect them. So many of them are spending years and years shooting, and finally the film will be shown somewhere, let’s say, in the third of fourth programme at Thessaloniki. We wanted to create the special competition programme and to put them in the spotlight – to give them red carpet, to give them photo calls, to give them interviews. On the other side, we created our coproduction market so that regional producers and directors could get together. And now we can see the first results. After the war [the Yugoslav wars of seccession, 1991-1995], they are sitting together, working together, so many talented people, so many good stories.

Q: In 1992, Thessaloniki went from being a national festival to an international event and in 1994 it added its Balkan Survey sidebar. Is the festival competition for you?

MP: They have all international films in competition and regional films in a separate focus. We’re the other way round. So, no, they aren’t competition, and we have good relations with them. We’ve exchanged some ideas, and now we’re very interested in bringing Greece and Turkey into [the festival’s definition of] the region. Now, we have eight countries in the main programme – a territory covering 45 million inhabitants. This year, Hungary will be added and then in two years Greece and Turkey, and that means we will cover a population of 100 million people. And I think that’s what we need now, to break down barriers and to create a new market. At the moment, we can’t see any Greek films here in Bosnia and Greeks can’t see any Bosnian films – only at festivals. Let’s open channels; let’s see what we can do to promote good regional films. And Thessaloniki is our natural partner in improving this situation.

Q: So, will you actually see, say, Serbian distributors come to the festival and look for Croatian films they can show back in Serbia?

MP: Absolutely. Sarajevo is now a central place for producers, distributors, cinema owners… TV stations are also coming along. Because in one place you can see everything, not just produced films but films that are going to be produced.

Q: How easy has been to get the money together to fund the festival?

MP: To be sure, the Bosnian economy is very poor, very weak still. The festival works very well with partners and sponsors. The government covers 35% of the total budget, which is approximately EUR 800,000 and I think in the next few years we will go over EUR 1,000,000. The plan is that one third will be covered by the government, the rest by partners, sponsors, different funds and box office receipts, because we are very happy that we have almost 100,000 admissions at the festival.

Q: Why do your sponsors get back from their involvement? Is it just philanthropy?

MP: It’s the biggest cultural event not only in Bosnia but in the whole region. For sure, on the one side companies want to build their image, to be the partner with the biggest programme. But on the other side, some companies – Coca Cola, Heineken, Stella Artois for example – are interested in selling their products because with 100,000 spectators, the party atmosphere and the very hot summer weather you can sell a lot of drinks. We are very happy that we’ve lost almost no sponsors. In fact, there is some competition to be a sponsor, because all our partnerships are exclusive. After seven years of a partnership with Renault, Volkswagen won the fight and we now have a three-year contract with them.

Q: You mentioned admissions. Isn’t the reason these are so high that the theatrical distribution sector is so weak in Bosnia. Would it not be more fruitful to spend your efforts rebuilding normal exhibition networks?

MP: It’s a question of time, I think. Slovenia has already rebuilt its network; Croatia is doing quite good; Bosnia, not so well; Serbia, so-so. But I think we are faced with a big problem of piracy, a big problem of [competition from] cable TV stations, but I think everywhere in the world there are some problems with what’s going on in cinema. Even in Britain, there are problems regarding in piracy over the internet. Bosnia is very poor and so is full of piracy. Hopefully, one day we will stop it and we will have normal cinema distribution.

Q: How influential is in establishing Bosnia’s international reputation as a whole?

MP: I spoke with some government ministers and I asked them if you are going to make some sort of analysis of press coverage, tell me is there any positive image of Bosnia presented in the major magazines or TV stations. For sure, there is only one – the Sarajevo film festival. Everyone really, including BBC, CNN, Euronews or whatever, are reporting that the festival is a successful project. The festival has showed that Sarajevo can be the centre of the region. Today, we have I don’t know how many thousands of tourists coming for the festival. We have a positive image everywhere. It’s something we need.

Q: Does the government have aspirations to make Sarajevo a centre in other fields?

MP: Absolutely. It’s a very active discussion: if the festival can be a centre for the film industry, why can’t we be some kind of Brussels of the region. Why not put all the regional institutions in Sarajevo? Why can’t we attract sports events and other activities? Everyone is happy to come to Sarajevo, Croatian people, Serbian people, Macedonian people. We have a good reputation of a charming city with warm hospitality, and we can successfully use that. Hopefully, others will follow our example.

Q: Sarajevo was something of a poster child for the victims of the war. Would the festival be possible without that image?

MP: Frankly speaking, in the beginning it was natural that we played this card. But if in the beginning we had 80 or 90% of people come out sympathy for the city, now it is the other way round: 90% are coming to see the real festival and just 10% out of sympathy.

Andrew James Horton, Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and contributor


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