Sarajevo’s Film Festival Brought us Magically Alive

By Emela Burdzovic

Sarajevo Film Festival building. | Photo by Engel Serón/Flickr

I have a friend called Prle (OK, it is a nickname), one of those enthusiasts who started the Sarajevo Film Festival during the war. He who was the first to tell me: “You need water, some food and a place to sleep to survive. If you add film to this list — you will live”.

That was a guiding principle for those marvelous people who organized movie screenings, improvised a cinema and finally a film festival during the longest siege in modern history.

These were the people who went abroad via unimaginable transits to bring VHS instead of food or clothes in the city; who took five liters of gas from the hospital full of wounded to make a projector work, who moved mountains to make us feel human again.

It might seems crazy to outsiders, but only those who felt like dead men walking can understand how alive we all felt during these screenings.

When I think about those years from this distance it doesn’t seem normal to me either. But those days were not normal. For all of us Sarajevans, the film festival was almost like a last wish comes true; a window into the world which was disconnected and had forgotten about us. It was an opportunity to meet others, see who else had survived and to pretend the war was not happening. It was a festival of life. The festival helped us to live and show to the whole world we had chosen life over death. It proved the magnificent dignity and spirit of people from my Sarajevo.

I was 15 and at that time had no idea what they had to go through to give us this shot of life. As well as having no idea the festival would become the most influential film festival in the region, a polygon for the movie industry and probably the most significant Bosnian brand. It was truly courageous to run away from home, walk across the city towards the downtown for a movie screening because there was always the risk of getting killed by a bomb. But we just did not care.

Years later I was lucky to meet Miro, festival director Prle, Elma, Mujke, Izi and I discovered the whole story behind the Sarajevo Film Festival. It was the most amazing story I have ever heard in my life. The world did not completely forget about us. One Alfonso Cuaron decided to risk his own life and to personally bring 35 mm in surrounded Sarajevo. Isn’t this possible only in movies? No. It was possible in the city of movies, too, the city of angels that brought us the Festival.

Twenty-two years on many things have changed. The war ended. We have cinema screenings all year long, an a fancy, modern multiplex. The city is open. Films travel via DHL in a day or two. Guests come from all over the world. Prle gained some weight. But one thing never changed. The Sarajevo Film Festival is still the rare thing that makes us feel alive, the magic which makes us a part of the world. I hope it never stops.

Originally published at on August 5, 2016.

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