The fourth annual Sarajevo Film Festival kicked off on August 21 at its largest venue, a 2,500-seat open-air theater, with a screening of Armageddon. Sitting in the cool air of the summer evening among the enthusiastic capacity crowd, a few first-time visitors to Sarajevo felt uneasy watching major urban centers obliterated onscreen in a city still pockmarked with bullet holes and mortar blasts. Later, the opening-night party – a fully catered affair with techno DJ – was held in the burned-out shell of the main post office.

While such postwar incongruities can be unsettling for the outsider, they're signs that three years after the end of the brutal Serbian siege, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina has, to a certain extent, gotten on with living. It's a point echoed in the image on this year's festival poster. A sunny, serene shot of a woman lying in the grass, it speaks of Sarajevans' return to their public spaces, the cafes, parks and boulevards that were once hunting grounds for snipers.

Since its inception, the festival has played a part in this transition to relative normalcy. During the siege, festival director Mirsad Purivatra projected smuggled videos in a weekly 100-seat “war cinema,” and the first official festival in 1995 prompted the end of Sarajevo's curfew. This year, the 10-day event featured 98 films from 19 countries and drew 47,000 people to theaters large and small all over town. Filmmakers, journalists and festival staff, fueled by alternate doses of Turkish coffee and plum brandy, often found themselves staying up and talking until dawn.

At an informal filmmakers' dinner hosted by Purivatra, a dozen directors – including jury member Alfonso Cuaron, the fest's biggest international name – discussed the day's films and the surprising quality of Bosnia-Herzegovina wine. In the restaurant just around the corner from the gutted National Library (now dressed in scaffolding for repairs), the meal came in waves: stuffed onions, crispy cheese pies, marinated peppers, lamb and fresh fruit. After dinner, Purivatra suggested a field trip to the hills above the city, promising that the group would be back in time for the screening of Danish director Lars Von Trier's The Idiots.

It was slow going as the three cars, supplied by festival sponsor Renault, made their way up and out of town. Though a pain for drivers on a schedule, it was precisely the narrowness of these streets that kept Serbian tanks from rolling into Sarajevo. After a stretch of elevated road that had all the familiarity of Mulholland Drive, everyone piled out at a lover's point to soak in the view of the sparkling city below. “Everywhere there is light, that was Bosnian,” said Purivatra. “Everywhere there is dark, that was Serb.”

His comment was startling and ominous, and not just because of the immensity of the blackness that surrounds Sarajevo at night. There was also, one sensed, much frustration in Purivatra's voice, the frustration of someone who has spent his life working for the arts in an egalitarian, multicultural city who now finds himself forced by politics to speak in such stark, black-and-white terms. In many ways, this year's festival was an attempt to move further toward recovery by reintroducing a more diverse and fluid cultural exchange.

In the past, festival programmers devoted much of their energy simply to catching up. Because Sarajevo's population was cut off from the world for so long, it was imperative to bring in the films it had missed. “We had so many debts to the Sarajevo audience,” said programmer Faruk Loncarevic. “At the first festival we had to show Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs no matter what, because no one had had a chance to watch them. The third festival we had to show the war films made about Sarajevo – Welcome to Sarajevo, Comanche Territory and Perfect Circle. Now we don't have any more debts.”

That is in part, according to Purivatra, because Hollywood studios and European distributors are beginning to release films in Bosnia again. Through a special arrangement with Buena Vista International, this year's populist open-air and children's programs were dominated by Disney product: Armageddon, The Horse Whisperer, Scream 2, Good Will Hunting and Mulan. A goodwill gesture, per a visiting Buena Vista representative, it also smacked of a calculated corporate effort to re-establish brand-name awareness. All of the Disney films in the open-air program will reach local theaters in the coming months.

On the independent front, the main program was a provocative mix of international films just starting to make the festival rounds. Some highlights were French director Gaspar Noe's Seul Contre Tous, a bleak, interior portrait of an unemployed butcher's descent into madness and violence, and Jia Zhang Ke's spare and melancholic Xiao Wu, a Chinese film made outside official channels about a pickpocket who falls for a dance-hall girl.

Organizers also turned their attentions to throwing light on regional and local productions with two new programs. Because resources for filmmaking run from scarce to nonexistent in this fledgling country, the festival was especially trumpeting its “Made in Bosnia” series, which featured eight recently completed short films produced through its new production fund. “These are the independents of the independents,” Loncarevic said. To put these works in context, several rarely seen prewar treasures were also shown, among them Ivica Matic's A Woman With Landscape (1975), Emir Kusturica's When Father Was Away on Business (1985) and Bato Cengic's Little Soldiers (1967).

The “In & Out” program featured first and second features by directors from such countries as Slovenia, Croatia, Albania and Hungary. While many of the films received lukewarm critical receptions – with the exception of Buttoners, by Czech director Petr Zelenka – the series was a source of much controversy because it featured the first Serbian films to be publicly screened in Sarajevo since the start of the war.

There are times when warming up a crowd with a little humor is, at best, ill-advised – a lesson learned by Ljubisa Samardzic, who produced and stars in Gorcin Stojanovic's The Hornet, a love story wrapped in a police thriller set in the province of Kosovo. The screening of this Serbian production started late as bags were searched and bodies were scanned with a metal detector at the door. Tension, then, was high when Samardzic opened his remarks with a joke about how no one would recognize him in the film because of his recent hair cut. “Have you recognized Sarajevo?” came an angry shout from the audience. Samardzic began back-peddling rapidly. Later, an embarrassed Stojanovic, who has made two films with Samardzic, chastised his producer for what he labeled a cavalier attitude and declared that they most likely will not be working together again. The next day, Sarajevo's legendary daily newspaper Oslobodenje attacked Stojanovic for his portrayal of Albanians as violent drug dealers.

For Stojanovic, a native Sarajevan living in Belgrade, the experience soured him on the festival. “This is a country that suffered real war and real horrors, so some sort of intolerance is normal,” said the director, who makes no political claims for his film. “But if it's too early for movies from across the border, they shouldn't have called me in the first place.”

Things went more smoothly for the unnofficial premiere of Srdan Dragojevic's The Wounds, a hotly anticipated film because many Bosnians consider his Pretty Village, Pretty Flame pro-Serbian propaganda. Despite the screening's 3 a.m. start time, there was standing room only in the 250-seat theater. Set in Belgrade during the war, The Wounds plays mayhem and corruption for grotesque laughs, but also presents a damning look at how nationalist policies destroyed the social fabric of Yugoslavia. It was a message the audience seemed ready to hear.

“It's very important that this film played in Sarajevo,” Loncarevic said after the screening. “We've fought so much to prove that this wasn't a civil war. It was a pure fascist aggression, and no one believed us. This film shows that this nation caught a disease called fascism. Now we're fighting a different war, and I think all of the filmmakers – I hope 90 percent of the filmmakers – are on the same side.”

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