On opening night of the 14th Annual Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival (BHFF) in New York City, about a dozen hesitant hands out of 200 went up when Zlata Filipović asked the audience who didn’t have roots in the Balkans.
This year’s four-evening-long, 13-film festival, which is sure to be one of New York’s most intimate, celebrated its largest total attendance to date and marked a welcome moment of catharsis for the Bosnian diaspora and broader community of former Yugoslavia. Films confronting the difficult legacy of the Yugoslav wars featured prominently in the program, but there were traces of comedy, wonder, hope and even a little teenage rebellion.
“We like to see what we get,” said BHFF Co-Founder and Director Damir Pozderac. “We try to analyze what filmmakers want to work on, what kind of stories they want to tackle. And a lot of times they want to tackle a story that is war related because there’s a need for it.”
The changing nature of the Bosnian war film was discussed during a special panel discussion on April 12, and a recurring theme of Q&A sessions held with directors and producers throughout the festival. Instead of overtly revisiting the crimes of the 1990s or competing for which narrative of the war should be told, though the latter is guaranteed to remain a potent one, the main question of many films on offer at BHFF 2017 was how to live now.
Aleksandar Bošković, a professor of post-Yugoslav cinema and literature at Columbia University, summarized the position of individuals in the Balkans today and those living abroad alike.
“How are we going to deal with what happened to us?”
Two narrative features that made a case for confronting the past rather than repressing it, each in a distinct style, were “My Aunt in Sarajevo” from director Goran Kapetanović and “A Good Wife,” the directorial debut of acclaimed Serbian actress Mirjana Karanović.
In “My Aunt in Sarajevo”, 18-year-old Anja, who was born and raised in Sweden, cajoles her father into visiting Sarajevo after 23 years abroad. Zlatan had no intention of ever returning and resolves not to reveal anything about his past life in the city until a chance encounter with an old friend and complications with the care of his elderly aunt set him on a different course. In Anja, those of us unfamiliar with Sarajevo are provided a vessel through which to discover the city, a partner in tailing Zlatan through its winding, steep streets. The exploration is aided by brilliant cinematography and moving acting performances, particularly by Milan Dragišić in the lead role of Zlatan and Sadžida Šetić as Radmila, the aunt’s caretaker.
Kapetanović said he was motivated in part to make the film for his own two daughters. “It’s going to affect my children, my grandchildren,” he said of the war. “My Aunt in Sarajevo” was a way to show them the city as he remembered it, as well as its lasting wounds, instead of telling them “the fairy tale story.”
Karanović stars in the more somber “A Good Wife,” in addition to directing. She plays Milena, a Serbian woman confronted by the dual discovery of her husband’s past involvement in war crimes and a lump in her breast. Buoyed by the intimacy of Milena’s health scare, the couple’s sex scenes and tense relationships among both family and friends, the duration of the film feels intensely private, almost as if the viewer shouldn’t be watching. The lipstick smudging on wine glasses is too close; the cigarette smoke is so thick it seeps into your clothes.
“This woman is a metaphor for my whole country,” Karanović said of her character after the film’s packed screening. “She’s a good person. She’s decent. But she’s passive.”
Of Serbia, Karanović spoke critically several times throughout the festival. She reflected on being considered a traitor, and insisted that her criticism stems from a deep love for Serbia.
“So many things we think if we don’t talk [about], it’ll somehow disappear,” she said. “To be free of the past – that’s what I want for my country.”
Karanović won BHFF’s awards for both best acting performance and narrative feature on Saturday night.
Two other standout features were “Nika,” a Slovenian film co-written and directed by Slobodan Maksimović, and “Death in Sarajevo,” the latest from Oscar-winning director Danis Tanović. The closing night screening of “Death in Sarajevo” filled the 479-seat-capacity of the SVA Theatre’s largest screening space and, predictably, claimed the audience choice award.
“Nika,” while it didn’t take home a trophy, was a refreshing and surprising addition to BHFF that highlighted a subject that no other film in the festival touched: go-kart racing. The title character, a teenager played by Ylenia Mahnič in her first on-screen role, is determined to defy her mother’s order to stop racing. With idiosyncratic editing and comedy, “Nika” is worth watching on its own merit, but for some, may be particularly welcome following the heavier films from the BHFF 2017 program.
Pozderac, the director, said this year’s record attendance “could be a breakthrough” for BHFF, despite perennial opposition to screening more war films.
“You’re always going to have people saying ‘I don’t want to see movies’ because they’re all difficult and they evoke maybe some memories that are hard for them to revisit,” he said.
“But there are also people who believe that in order to get over those traumas, over those issues, over those thoughts and experiences, [the best way] is to actually approach them head on – and to see them on the screen.”
Cover photo: BHFF volunteer Farrah Musakadić hands out a ticket on Friday, April 14, at the SVA Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Credit: Kyle S. Mackie.