«We really try to make every premiere a special event.»

When the first Sarajevo Film Festival took place in October 1995, the near end of the war was not yet in sight. Elma Tataragić has been part of the festival committee since the very beginning. She shared with us her memories of the festival's start in Sarajevo under siege and her thoughts on Austrian filmmaking, to which 29th SFF has dedicated a focus program.
The SARAJEVO FILM FESTIVAL was founded in 1995. Do you remember the very first edition of the festival? How did it evolve, become bigger and eventually the leading festival in the region?
I remember the beginning of the festival very well, I was working for the Obala Art Centar (the name of our roof organisation), even before I finished high-school. Obala was one of the most active art institutions in Sarajevo during the war. They organized various exhibitions of Bosnian artists in Sarajevo and also abroad. In early 1993 they started the war cinema Apollo – the only place in war-torn Sarajevo where you could watch films. It was next to the cult-bar, also called Obala. Everything is Obala in Sarajevo. Obala, meaning riverside was located at the Miljacka riverside. If I was lucky enough, I would go and watch some films for one cigarette or two – tickets were paid in cigarettes, the most valuable currency in war-time Sarajevo. When I gave English lessons to kids, I was paid in cigarettes: half of them I would give to my father who was a heavy smoker, half of them I would keep for myself so I could satisfy my own needs. I went to cinema and afterwards to the bar where great concerts with alternative music were happening. It was definitely the place where I saw myself, where I wanted to be. As they needed a person who spoke English, I joined the Obala Arts Centar and after a few months the programming team of the film department. We organized film programs such as the review of the Edinburgh FF with Mark Cousins, the director of the festival joining us; we also had the review of French cinema and Swiss Cinema which brought us in touch with the Locarno FF and Marco Müller. He came to Sarajevo and … he got stuck in Sarajevo. During one of these conversations together with Mirsad Purivatra, Izeta Građević and a lot of people who are still connected with the festival, he asked us, why we didn’t start our own film festival? Our answer was – “Of course, we’d love to, but how?” It was still war. And so, decision was made and Edinburgh and Locarno were crucial for our first edition of the festival. The very first SFF did not take place in summer as it does now. It started on October 27, 1995, just a month before the Dayton Agreements were signed and a few months after the genocide in Srebrenica. It was not easy to take the responsibility for gathering 200 or 300 people in one space given the danger of a shell or a bombing, that’s why we postponed the festival. On the other hand, we were aware that whenever we organized a cultural event, people would risk their lives to come and it showed us that we were doing something important for the city. We managed to open this first Summer Sarajevo FF (which later was renamed into SFF) in late October and this first festival was opened with snowfall.
What was this first program like?
It was the first time for years that we showed films on 35 mm. Until then, films were smuggled into the city on Beta or VHS. We showed about 40 films. Interestingly, the guidelines of this first edition were giving roots to what the festival is today, almost 30 years after we’ve established it. One was the promotion of local cinema, the second point was the promotion of regional art and cinema. Leos Carax came to Sarajevo and presented the three films he had accomplished so far, this was the beginning of our Tribute Program, which this year will be dedicated to Jessica Hausner. We showed Alfonso Cuarón’s first film, he was not yet a Hollywood star and came to Sarajevo to present A Little Princess. That was the first screening for children in Sarajevo under siege and we have maintained the children’s section as an important part of the festival. And we showed some films coming from the region at a time, when we were at war with Serbia, with Croatia, and the country we had all grown up in was torn apart.  It was a statement to show the films coming from those countries. We had guests from Croatia, Milcho Manchevski from North Macedonia. This first Festival turned out to be a very cool festival with guests who had risked their lives to come to Sarajevo to show their films and also with an audience, risking their life every day by coming and seeing the films.
How did the festival evolve?
Every festival needs some time to find its profile and its edge. During the war you don’t think very much about the future. You do what you can do. 1996, the first year of peace, was a crucial year for profiling the festival. We wanted to allow as many people as possible to enjoy the films without feeling at risk. We were very much inspired by the Locarno Piazza Grande, and we also wanted a big open-air cinema. Two of our team were lucky to get out of Sarajevo in 1995 to travel in order to prepare the festival. I spent July and August in Edinburgh and Locarno and came back in early September. Piazza Grande in Locarno was a shock for us. When you have spent four years in a basement or in rooms without windows, and you’re sitting under the sky to watch a film on a huge screen, you experience what freedom was. Behind the Obala Arts Centar there was a big school yard which was used to enter Obala during the war. As the main entrance couldn’t be used, Sarajevo citizens made a hole into the wall in order to enter into Obala’s bar, stage and cinema. We decided to create an open-air cinema for 3,000 people which became the face of the SFF.
1998 was another crucial year. In our fourth festival year we realized that our own cinema was dead. During the war, a lot of documentary films were made – the only logical form of expression as everything was being destroyed. After the war, everybody realized that for a proper cinema funds were needed. An impossible thing to get in Bosnia at a time when the whole country was being reconstructed; too many other things money had to be given to, so many people who needed help. In 1998, the festival managed to fund and produce five short films by Bosnian filmmakers. This attracted a lot of attention from both the local film industry and from abroad. We decided that Sarajevo could become a very good place for the promotion of regional cinema. For filmmakers from Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Ex-Yugoslavia it was difficult to travel to big festivals. We all needed visas and it was not easy to get them. And once you were in Cannes, if you had the money to do so, you were lost. We saw a window of opportunity. People could come to Sarajevo and wanted to do so, since Sarajevo had become a symbol of hope after the siege and the war. We had gained international interest and big stars were already coming to Sarajevo. But we wanted to do something for the region. One of the first countries that embraced our idea was Austria. Very early Austria became an important co-production partner for films coming from Bosnia and other parts from ex-Yugoslavia and the Balkan region.
As for the film selection we made a very low key program, called the Regional Program, in a small cinema with 200 seats. We showed the films at 6 pm, nothing fancy, but there was a lot of interest. People who were not travelling as much then, were coming from all around the world to see a new film from Bulgaria or Romania. The next landmark in the history of the SFF came in 2003 where we decided to make two important things:
One was to move the regional program into the competition program, put it to a beautiful venue – the National Theater, roll out the red carpet, show the films at prime time so that they became the focus of the festival. Secondly, 2003 was the first year of CineLink, our industry platform and professional hub for the region. 2003 was the year that formed the face of the festival as it is today. This year we’re already celebrating 21 years of CineLink with a focus on Austria. Of course, the festival has become much more elaborate and we’re also preparing the 21st edition of the competition program which today is divided into five sections including feature films, documentary films, short films, student films plus the In Focus-program which is the showcase of the most important and successful regional films in the past year.
What exactly means Regional Competition?
In 2003, we decided to dedicate our competition only to the regional films. What “region” meant in 2003 changed a lot over the years and is still changing. A festival must be open to what is going on around you. At the beginning, we had films from ex-Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania. Little by little we included Hungary, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and we opened the competition to Austria in 2007, a couple of years later, we also included the Caucasian countries Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and last year Ukraine. Today we’re representing a region of 21 countries. In parallel to the competition, we also expanded the countries covered by CineLink. The competition and the CineLink industry days are strongly connected.
How did your own responsibilities evolve since the beginning of SFF?
I am now in charge of the competition program for fiction films, meaning the feature film and the short film selection, I’m in the committee for the student selection; In Focus and the Bosnian film selection are also under my responsibility. And I’m also in the selection for the CineLink coproduction market.
What are the challenges one has to face as the curator of this regional competition program?
The biggest challenge is to keep in touch and to see all these films. To give you an example: until 2019 I used to see 150/160 films for the competition, this year I had 200 films. The production is growing as is the quality. It’s not only a question of time to see all those films, it’s also a question of what we wish to show and promote within our competition given the quantity of high-quality films. As a young festival we have always been oriented towards young cinema. We wanted to become a platform for new films, new generations. It doesn’t mean that someone over 40 cannot make a “new” film with a new energy. On the other hand, we now have long-term connections. Working with a limited region is an intimate situation. After working for more than twenty years for 21 countries you basically know everybody. You have relationships, you have authors you have followed from their first student films. So, you also have obligations towards them since you try to follow their career. That leads to the question how to show new cinema when you’ve already wrapped 20 competition programs and a lot of people coming back to you. Basically, we select outstanding films or films with a vision. We are a selection committee of three members who watch and discuss the films and who face these questions. During the selection process it’s actually very difficult to invite the first and to decide on the last film. In the past years it showed us that eight or nine films is a very good number to handle. We really try to make every premiere a special event, in particular for the competition films. We want the media to be there, we want the whole team to enjoy the premiere and if the film doesn’t have a sales agent, we try to help them get one before the festival. We also consider the visibility of the film after the festival, and we always ask ourselves how we can help the films we have selected.
There’s a longstanding connection between the SFF and the Austrian filmmaking. Our database counts appr. 40 Austrian feature films (not mentioning the documentaries)
What were the first films/authors you discovered?
Austrian filmmakers came to Sarajevo from the moment we were showing films in different sections. At some point we established a very nice connection with the Austrian Film Commission and Martin Schweighofer. Austria is located at this border between the Balkans and the Western world with a strong historical connection to most of the countries we’re dealing with. Our filmmakers were already collaborating with Austria. 2007 was a starting point with the gala premiere of Import Export and the tribute to Ulrich Seidl. It was the first time we had a big delegation of Austrian film professionals coming to Sarajevo. In 2008 we had the first Austrian film in competition – March by Klaus Händl. The film won the Special Jury Award, an excellent start for our collaboration. Since then, in most of the years we had one or more films (including shorts or documentary films) and we also had a lot of winners. In 2011, the Heart of Sarajevo went to Breathing by Karl Markovics, the Best Actor Award to Thomas Schubert, in 2021 to Sebastian Meise with Great Freedom and again the Best Actor Award to Georg Friedrich. The Austrian presence has very much contributed to the quality of the program. Of course, we hope that it will continue. This year, we’ll have the world premiere of EUROPA and I’m very happy to welcome back Sudabeh Mortezai. The SFF is a big festival that attracts 3,000 accredited guests in total, for the feature film competition only, we have about 200/250 guests. Still, it’s an audience-based festival, even the press conferences are open to the audience. When I’m doing my selection, I have to think about the audience as well. I have to challenge them with something new, but I also have to reflect on their possible reaction.
What is it about EUROPA that makes it a competition entry this year?
EUROPA is talking about burning issues in Europe in general, but especially if you’re coming from the southeastern part of this world. It talks about things we’re faced with, about transition and post-socialist societies. Sudabeh is a very skilled and brave filmmaker. EUROPA is an Austrian film shot in Albania with professional actors and Albanian non-professional actors, in English, in German, in Albanian. The way she’s handling the story doesn’t leave us with a finished thought about capitalism or neo-liberalism. EUROPA poses an issue: How can you resist? How can you move forward? What are the options of progress? Is progress possible in today’s world? Is everything about money? It talks about the big gap between the old and new generations which is a different gap compared to the one twenty years ago and different again compared to the gap forty years ago. It talks about tradition and moving away from tradition. It’s a film with many different layers and I think the discussion on this film will be very, very vibrant. We must keep in mind that the southeastern part of Europe is a big chunk of the continent. Europe is only Europe with all its parts together. It’s interesting that an Austrian filmmaker is bringing up this topic. The division between the western and eastern part of Europe is still a reality. The core question that Sudabeh asks, is What is Europe today? What is Europe in Albania? What is Europe in Austria? How can the pluralities of ideas of Europe all turn in a common idea of Europe? It is a pressing issue. EUROPA is an activist, a very political film.
A second Austrian feature film will be in one of the fiction programs – CLUB ZERO. Its leading actress Mia Wasikovska will be the president of the competition jury. Jessica Hausner is the filmmaker you’re dedicating a tribute to. Tell us a bit about these choices?

ELMA TATARAGIĆ: Mia is an amazing actress with a very full schedule. Since she is presenting CLUB ZERO, it made perfect sense for her to come to our festival and to preside the Heart-of-Sarajevo-Jury. We’re very glad that she managed to go around her obligations to spend a whole week with us and watch the cinema coming from the region. A cinema she’s been kind of acquainted with by working with Jessica Hausner and this amazing film CLUB ZERO that we will also present. Jessica Hausner is a beautiful filmmaker, one of the most important female filmmakers in the world I’d say, who we have been following for such a long time. We have presented almost all her films previously and she has been the guest of our festival many times before, so the decision was very natural as she has, especially with her two recent films (together with Little Joe) become one of the most interesting and important filmmakers.
What are your thoughts about Austrian filmmaking in general? We’re still carrying the often quoted “feel bad-label” as a common denominator. Maybe you see something different that Austrian films have on common?
I wouldn’t choose “feel bad” as the defining term. I think, there’s a very realistic, sometimes brutal look at reality that Austrian films really share. Sometimes this brutal gaze at today’s world has some humor, sometimes it’s very rough. That’s something southeastern cinema shares with Austrian filmmaking. I think, it’s a necessary gaze, I don’t think that we can sugarcoat everything. I think this realistic gaze and the intellectual questioning of the reality – sometimes with humor, sometimes without – is very important. It doesn’t take things for granted.  It’s something we share very much with Austria, especially in cinema.
As a successful screenwriter you profoundly know filmmaking also from a different angle. Do you have a particular approach to curating as you know the process of filmmaking so well? Did the fact that you’re writing yourself change your view on the films?
I know how hard it is, to make a film. You’re giving the best you can. You know exactly why you made the film. But … it doesn’t work. Or you make a great film. It works well, but still, it doesn’t go to Cannes, neither to Berlin. And you question yourself. In that sense, for me, there’s no bad film. I answer 95% of e-mails regarding the selection on my own because I want to let the filmmakers know that we watch their films, that we think about it, that we talk about it. I want them to feel this open communication. I also have a different look at films, I see the flaws, I appreciate things in a different way and I’m also more critical. Writing myself has definitely changed my attitude towards the selection, towards the films and towards the filmmakers.
Your own films such as Snow or Stiches are stories about strong, courageous women. What’s your position in terms of gender equality regarding festival presence and even production? Has the awareness on this issue changed something?
Absolutely. The 50:50 chart started from Sarajevo. We try to talk about the gender balance. It’s not a dealbreaker if a film is not good, but we do consider this fact while making our selection. We’re lucky that the region has a lot of interesting female filmmakers. Bosnian cinema is incredibly vibrant, we have more and more important women directors than men filmmakers, it’s comparable to Georgian cinema. I think this awareness has changed our perception of films, but it also has changed the way male filmmakers are making films and writing their characters. If you have a look at Bosnian cinema: until 1992, we had only two films made by one female director and no film at all about women. We didn’t have one single leading character. Now, we even have a lot of films by male filmmakers with stories about women with female leading roles, with storytelling from a female point of view. There’s still a huge imbalance in many countries of the region and in other fields of society. In arts, female voices are becoming very strong, and they are changing the way we view films, the way we make films, the way we think about societal issues, and I think they are paving way for other women in other professions.
What are the cinematic voices you have united for the 2023 competition? What’s the sound/ the music of the selection like that you and your committee have “composed”?
It’s very diverse. We have very different films, many of them from female filmmakers, many films about women. It’s a selection that talks about the younger generation and the generation up to 40. There are some very political films, talking about burning political issues and some of them talking about identity, love, relationship. Every night, there will be something new. It’s a strong selection, that will be very appealing for our audiences and for our guests.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
June 2023