Bosnian cinema: The traumas on screen

Bosnian cinema has struggled to survive years of conflict. But as a new festival in London shows, its directors are still reliving the battles. Alice Jones reports
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The Independent Culture

With just over 100 features to its name in more than a century of film-making, Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot lay claim to a particularly prolific cinematic tradition. What it lacks in quantity, though, it more than makes up for in quality.

Since Danis Tanovic won the Best Foreign Film Oscar and the Palme d'Or for No Man's Land in 2002, Bosnian film-makers have scooped a steady stream of international awards. Last week Jasmila Zbanic's Esma's Secret, winner of the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival, won the AFI Grand Jury International Award. As the Bosnian Institute opens its third season of films in London, it seems that Bosnian cinema is thriving at home and on the international stage.

Bosnian cinema experienced its first boom in the 1960s with a "Black Wave" of film-makers who debunked the Communist regime. Since then, its history has been dominated by the 1992-1995 conflict. In the 1980s Emir Kusturica became Sarajevo's most celebrated film export, the only director other than Francis Ford Coppola to win the Palme d'Or twice. Now he is lost to Bosnian cinema, shunned by his people for the apparently pro-Serbian stance of his 1995 film Underground.

In the 1990s when the bloody conflict forced feature-film production to shut down, film-making survived in documentary form. Tanovic, a student when war was declared, shot more than 300 hours of footage. "I never planned to make documentaries but when the war broke out I realised that nobody was filming what was going on. I felt that history was happening in front of my eyes."

Four months after the last gun was fired in 1995, shooting began on Bosnia's first post-war feature, Ademir Kenovic's Perfect Circle. In the same year the first Sarajevo film Festival was held. "It was a siege town with no electricity, no gas but the hunger for films was amazing," recalls Mirsad Purivatra, director of the festival, which attracted 15,000 viewers to its debut programme of 37 films. This year it attracted 100,000 visitors to 170 films.

While the Oscar triumph of No Man's Land persuaded the Ministry of Culture to set up the Cinematography Fund of Sarajevo in 2002, in a country still rebuilding its infrastructure and where unemployment runs at 45 per cent, good films still risk being ruined by low budgets. "It's kind of absurd to make films in Bosnia. We don't have a single 35mm camera, we don't have film laboratories, many professionals have left the country, most of the cinemas are destroyed," Zbanic tells me. "We get some money from the federal film fund, some money from Bosnian television and sponsors, but it is 30 per cent of the budget, max. We have to go for European co-productions."

The London programme consists of films made in the last two years. Particularly remarkable is Rajko Grlic's Border Post, the first co-production involving all the ex-Yugoslavia republics, which harks back to a harmonious past with its tale of a unit of the multi-ethnic Yugoslav People's Army posted at the Albanian border in 1987.

Ahmed Imamovic came under fire for his pioneering treatment of homosexuality in Go West, being accused of belittling the war by muddying issues of nationality with sexuality. His film follows the fortunes of a gay couple, Milan, a Serb, and Kenan, a Muslim, who plan to escape to the Netherlands at the outbreak of war. As the Serb militia turn their violent attentions towards Muslims, Milan dresses Kenan as his wife to avoid suspicion. The film is a mixture of social comment, melodrama and humour.

Esma's Secret, on the other hand, is a lyrical love letter to the women of Sarajevo as they rebuild their lives. The aftermath of a war in which 20,000 women were raped is brought into focus by the tale of a mother who must tell her 12-year-old daughter that she was conceived as a result of her being raped. In contrast to her personal tragedy is the sexualised atmosphere of a city on its way to rehabilitation.

"Europe is still making films about the Second World War so we have at least 60 more years to go," says Zbanic. "Bosnian cinema has to deal with belonging to a region in transition; it has to deal with a post-war world where genocide is not punished and war criminals are still free; it has to deal with a society that feels itself European but is not welcomed in the EU. So there are other wars we have which are not so obvious but they still put humans in conflict."

Other directors have found inspiration outside Bosnia. Tanovic currently lives in Paris, where his latest film, Hell, is set. As the second of a trilogy conceived by Krzysztof Kieslowski, and starring Emmanuelle Béart, it marks Tanovic's move into the European mainstream.

"I feel very European. But I am Bosnian and I'll never be anything else," he tells me. "We'll never speak of a film industry in Bosnia - for God's sake we have three million people and half of the country doesn't speak to the other half. But there is a lot of talent. Of course, it's easier in many senses to make movies in Western Europe but on the other hand I think you need to have something to say if you want to make a movie. As much as you can have money in Europe, living in a society that is wealthy and doesn't have many problems is not the best place for the artist."

New Bosnian Cinema 2006, Riverside Studios, London W6 (020-8237 1111;, to 3 December; 'Esma's Secret' opens on 15 December