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Festival In Focus: Sarajevo Film Festival’s New Director Jovan Marjanovic Talks “Full Spectrum” Of 28th Edition & Why Extending Lineup To Include Ukrainian Titles Was Essential

Jovan Marjanović has been with the Sarajevo Film Festival for more than two decades and while he is what he describes as “a true child of the festival” this year marks the first edition where he’ll sit as director of the much-loved Balkan event, taking the reins from founder and long-time director Mirsad Purivatra.

“We owe Mirsad so much, but he’s very much still involved – there was no avoiding that,” quips Marjanović of the much-loved Purivatra, who has recently launched boutique Croatian event Ponta Lopud Film Festival. “He’s a remarkable leader and we will all miss him as our leader. I hope I’ve learned enough from him to continue where he stopped.”

With the Sarajevo Film Festival, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s a unique comradery within those who work at the festival. Founded in 1995 during a near four-year siege on the city, few industry events can speak to the same unique cultural resilience that this relatively young festival can. Formed out of a desire to rebuild a city and art sector that was ravaged during the Bosnian War (the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare), the Sarajevo Film Festival has successfully shaped itself into the Balkan region’s biggest industry film and TV event with top-notch programming, a strong industry segment, educational and networking platforms.

This year will see the festival return in full force after Covid restrictions marred the previous two editions (it was an online only event in 2020 and a Covid-restricted version last year). For the 28th edition, a total of 51 films will compete for the fest’s coveted Heart of Sarajevo awards across four competition sections: feature films, documentary, short and student film.

The selection includes 20 world premieres, eight international premieres, one European premiere, 21 regional premieres and one Bosnia & Herzegovina premiere. Ruben Östlund’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness, on which Marjanović and Purivatra are associate producers, will open the festival on August 12.

Sarajevo Film Festival

“Ruben Östlund has been a friend of the festival for a long time,” says Marjanović. “It turned out that our partners TRT Balkan were looking to extend their partnership into producing films and we made an ambitious lineup of titles that we wanted to get involved with and Ruben’s was really among the first on the list. It was great to be able to bring one partner to a project from a filmmaker that we have been working with for a while after we presented The Square four years ago.”

Meanwhile, Bosnian helmer Pjer Žalica’s black comedy May Labor Day has been set as the closing night film. It will be the world premiere for the local title which Marjanović says “local audiences will definitely run to see.”

So far, this year’s event looks set to usurp attendance for previous editions. When the festival began its online ticket sales on August 1, it reported a record number of sales on the first day.

“It’s definitely looking bigger than the last two years and it’s good to go back to having full capacity with no restrictions,” says Marjanović. “It’s most important to have our audience back and to have guests from all over Europe and, of course, the region back.”

The festival has largely kept quiet about certain but pivotal changes to its staff structure – most notably Marjanović’s promotion to festival director and former CineLink Manager Maša Marković’s promotion to head of industry –, preferring instead to focus on curating the best regional lineup in its program as well as keeping a solid and relevant local flavor to its industry program CineLink Industry Days.

“The transitions have been very organic,” remarks Marjanović, who notes that the programming team has remained the same. “We’ve been focusing on making sure we remain a meeting place for industry professionals on site rather than online and we’ve seen that people still want to meet. This is a very network-driven business and networking is very much at the heart of the event itself.”

This year, in a bid to show its long-term solidarity with Ukraine, the festival has extended its entire lineup to include Ukrainian titles – a first for the regional festival. It will see Ukrainian titles such as Marta Smerechynska’s documentary Diary of a Bride of Christ and Pamfir helmer Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s Liturgy of Anti-Tank Obstacles included in the program. The inclusion of Ukrainian titles is not just a one-off: the festival has vowed to include the country for all future additions and has been working tirelessly to set up residencies, create jobs and set placements for Ukrainian filmmakers.

“We wanted to do something very specific and concrete with our colleagues in Ukraine so we decided the best thing we could do was to enlarge our focus region to include Ukraine,” says Marjanović. “It is now with everything we do, and Ukrainian titles can feature in our competition program and beyond.”

He adds, “This is very important to us because we understand what Ukraine is going through very well as we went through it in the 1990s. These are not just gestures – these are set in stone.”

The competition lineup includes a raft of titles born out of the Balkan region in some way including Cannes entry Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, Aida Begić’s A Ballad, Dominik Mencej’s Riders and Ukrainian-Turkish production Klondike.

Sarajevo will also be awarding a host of Honorary Heart of Sarajevo awards to a slew of well-known international industry names such as U.S. director and screenwriter Paul Schrader, who will present a special screening of his latest title The Card Counter and Jesse Eisenberg, who will unveil his directorial debut When You Finish Saving the World. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen and Ukrainian helmer Sergei Loznitsa will also be honored at the festival with Mikkelsen screening his film The Hunt and a retrospective of Loznitsa’s work being played throughout the festival.

“We’ve wanted to invite and honor Sergei for some time, and we’re thrilled that this is the year we can do a retrospective of his work,” says Marjanović. “I’m sure his films will speak a lot to our audience, and they will all be happy to discover some of the lessons from his titles.”

Additionally, Sarajevo will continue its push into the television sphere by hosting its second annual TV awards during the event with 17 series from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Slovenia represented across the nominees. This year, award categories have expanded to include drama series and comedy and winners will be lauded with a Heart of Sarajevo award.

In its Avant Premiere Series strand, which sits within CineLink, the first two episodes of a variety of regional dramas which are all seeking international distribution, will be screened. Danis Tanović’s latest series The Hollow (Kotlina) will be one of the premieres at the event.

The festival is also offering up a special pre-festival screening on the eve of the event with a special work-in-progress screening of a new documentary film about former Sarajevo mayor Emerik Blum from Quo Vadis, Aida? director Jasmila Žbanić. The experimental, free-of-charge screening, which will take place on August 11 at the fest’s Coca-Cola Open Air Cinema, will see Žbanić and Debolokada Production invite the Bosnian audience to help complete the film in their search for stories, photographs and stories about Blum.

“We’ve got the full spectrum of the most well-known names in cinema, all doing different things across different mediums,” says Marjanović. “It’s quite exciting to have this variety of local product.”

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