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Saturday, 30 July 2011

Sarajevo - Final Day

Yesterday I awarded the CICAE Prize to BREATHING, an Austrian film by first time director Karl Markovics (better known as an actor from COUNTERFEITERS). It's a beautifully engaging film, full of emotions but lacking any sentimentality or cliche. Austere and rigorous in its realisation, it's also surprisingly funny. The story of a 19 year old struggling to reintegrate into society while serving time in a juvenile detention center, it stood out far above all the other films in the competition.

The only other film that was considered for the prize was AMNESTY, an Albanian film which was solid throughout but let itself down with a melodramatic ending and a jarring harmonica score.

All the films in competition were interesting, but if there was one common complaint it was that the stories and scripts were seriously undercooked. Slovenian drama THE TRIP and Croatian drama SPOTS suffered from an amateur style which hampered the best efforts of its young cast. BROKEN MUSSELS, a Turkish attempt at neo-realism, benefited from likable child actors and great locations but lacked real dramatic drive and was clumsy at times. WASTED YOUTH was a PARANOID PARK style Greek feature which featured some fantastic skating footage in Athens but like many of the others, concluded with a over the top ending which made no sense. Finally LOVERBOY was a well-crafted Romanian drama which failed to ignite me emotionally but looked great, and AVE, a very slow Bulgarian film which featured Bruno S's final performance.

My Balkan experience has been fantastic - I've seen some beautiful places, met some wonderful people and spent time with some of my favorite friends. Thanks to Tanja in Pula and to the Sarajevo Film Festival for hosting us. Back to work now.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Sarajevo Day 7

Yesterday was my first day without my fellow Jury members and without any 'homework' cinema to watch, so I scheduled myself for two films I'd been looking forward to seeing for a while, THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD, which Rob Beames saw in Berlin and really liked, and the Dardenne Brothers' THE KID WITH A BIKE, which premiered at Cannes.

THE KID WITH A BIKE was typical of the Dardennes' in that it focused on an underprivileged kid, this time a young boy who's been abandoned by his dad in an orphanage and fostered by a kind hairdresser. A simple, straightforward plot that is executed flawlessly and dramatically. Incredible moving and with unbelievable performances, particularly from the lead.

THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD is directed by Joshua Marston, an American filmmaker, but set in rural Albania, against a backdrop of blood feuds based on centuries-old traditions. The two young leads are non professional actors who give fresh, realistic performances and the story is unusual enough and interesting that you are constantly engaged. Solid all around.

I also went on a 'Mahala' tour of the city, which focused on tightly-knit neighborhood in Sarajevo, usually around a mosque, synagogue, orthodox or catholic church. This really highlighted the incredible multicultural nature of this city, which has embraced people from all faiths and ethnicity for centuries, ages before the modern metropolitan melting pots of today.

Tonight we hand over our awards and tomorrow I'll be able to discuss freely the competition programme.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Sarajevo Day 6

Yesterday we didn't watch anything other than competition films as we had to decide on our winner, which we did in a hotel conference room. It didn't take long, as we were all convinced of the quality of our winner, which is to be announced tomorrow at the awards ceremony.

The whole Sarajevo experience has been amazing and slightly surreal, hanging out at parties with Wim Wenders, breakfast with Bela Tarr, red carpet walks with Michael Fassbender and taxi rides with Ari Folman, the head of the Jury (pictured). The festival has really high profile guests and films while also being small city festival (Sarajevo only has 500,000 inhabitants) so you don't get such a 'VIP' feel as in other festivals.

My jury colleagues Francesco and Ruta departed today but I have the award-giving responsibility for Friday, so I'll stay on and watch a few more films and explore the city.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Sarajevo Day 5

It was with great anticipation that we entered the Open Air Screening last night to see Nanni Moretti's latest, HABEMUS PAPA (WE HAVE A POPE), and despite some really poor projection quality (focus and out of rack), the film was hilarious and all 2000 people in attendance were laughing in unison. Unexpectedly, Nanni Moretti himself showed up at the end of the screening for an awkward self-Q&A. He was clearly upset by the poor presentation and seemed baffled that no one was interviewing him on stage.

Earlier we saw French animation A CAT IN PARIS, which, despite a poor DVD presentation, no English subtitles, and Bosnian subtitles that didn't work half the time, at least had beautiful animation.

In the morning we saw two more competition films, BROKEN MUSSELS from Turkey and BREATHING, an Austrian film. Today we see the final two films, LOVERBOY and WASTED YOUTH, and then decide the winner. Prizes are awarded on Friday.

This is my final day with my fellow jurors Francesco and Ruta as they depart early tomorrow morning and I am left alone to hand out the awards. I hope the sun stays out.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Sarajevo Day 4

Yesterday we saw another competition film, PLACES, from Croatia. And then we went to the Cinema City multiplex for a screening of the fascinating documentary CINEMA KOMUNIST, the story of the state-funded film industry from the creation of Yugoslavia in 1941 until its fall in 1991. It's an incredible documentary, which details the close personal involvement of the Yugoslavian leader Tito in the film industry, and serves as an in-depth look at life in his time.

It was an early night then as Festival exhaustion caught up with us and we recharged our batteries. Today, four films: two competition features (BREATHING, BROKEN MUSSELS), animation from France CAT IN PARIS and Nanni Moretti's WE HAVE A POPE.

Bigger updates tomorrow!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Sarajevo, Day 3

"There are three things we're known for: killing Franz Ferdinand, the Winter Olympics of '84, and the siege' said our guide, Mohammed, as we set off on a tour of the tunnel built during the war in order to smuggle weapons into the city. Although Sarajevo is now a bustling metropolis, with a world-class film festival, the spectre of the war is on every street, with the scars visible on almost every wall and sidewalk.

From 1992 till 1996 the city was under siege, and 11,000 people were killed from the snipers, shelling and bombing from the Serbian forces. While the complex politics of that conflict still escape me, it was clearly a humanitarian disaster right in the heart of Europe. The Festival started in the middle of that siege, both as defiant gesture and effort to regain normality, and has grown ever since. That gives this film festival a special quality not found elsewhere.

Before we set off on that tour we experienced MELANCHOLIA, Von Trier's latest provocation. The cinema we saw it in was so full, there were dozens of people sitting on the floor and the aisles. Enough to make any health-and-safety conscious cinema manager shudder. But it certainly added a certain 'gig' like atmosphere to the screening. The opening doesn't disappoint - a combination of spectacular cinematography and special effects combined with classic Von Trier family dynamics. But the ambitious storyline and science fiction elements come off the rails in the second half and I was left cold in the end. It seems Von Trier doesn't take his storytelling seriously, and really doesn't have a lot of respect for the audience. Comparisons to TREE OF LIFE are certain to emerge.

We also saw, as part of the competition, AMNESTY, an Albanian feature which, again, I shan't review as I need to judge it. Today, apart from my obligatory competition homework, I'll be watching documentary CINEMA KOMUNISTO, about the Yugoslavian film industry.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Sarajevo, Day 2

Yesterday was a film-filled day, as we caught up with our competition programme homework and saw two of the eight we have to judge. First off was THE TRIP, a Slovenian debut about three high school friends who reunite for a trip to the seaside. Then we saw AVE, from Bulgaria, another first feature.I won't really review the competition films here as we have to award a prize and it just wouldn't be right.

In the strictly fun category we saw Argentinian film LAS ACACIAS, from first time director (a lot of those here) Pablo Giorgelli, and I can tell you what I think about it: it's fantastic. A small, gentle two-hander that takes place almost entirely in the cabin of a truck, it features a very endearing baby and top notch performances from the leads.

We also popped into the KRITERION cinema, which is an offshoot of its namesake in Amsterdam, a wonderful, student-run venue that is a source of much of the most talented Dutch distributors and exhibitors. We had dinner with the other Juries, the Festival Director and Bela Tarr, who is presenting Turin Horse here.

Sarajevo is a city pulsating with a raw energy that you can feel everywhere, from the hard partying on the streets to the wee hours, to the men playing life-sized chess in the square and shouting like it was football, to the fresh memory of the siege with bullet holes in almost every building. A very special place.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Goodbye Pula, Hello Sarajevo

Yesterday we arrived in Sarajevo after three very relaxing nights in Pula, Croatia, where my friend Tanja Milicic runs the fantastic PULA FILM FESTIVAL, which provided us with the unique experience of seeing the latest HARRY POTTER film under the stars in a Roman Arena with about 8,000 people. But it was a strictly pleasure, not business trip, and the serious work begins in Sarajevo, where my friends Francesco, Ruta an I are the CICAE Jury members for the SARAJEVO FILM FESTIVAL.

CICAE, faithful readers will recall, is the international network of arthouse cinemas to which the Dukes belongs and who organised the Venice training I attended in 2009. Our job is to give the award to a film that will then be promoted by the network, and help its chances of reaching more cinemas. We're the 'junior' jury if you like, and live below the main festival jury, which is headed by filmmkaer Ari Folman (WALTZ WITH BASHIR).

After an 11 hour train journey from Zagreb, we rolled in just in time for opening night film, Aki Kaurismaki's LE HAVRE. The film was essential Kaurismaki, with his unique way of staging performances and delivering deadpan laughs while saying a lot about the human condition, and immigration politics too. We were then whisked to the opening night party, where we brushed with Wim Wenders (in town for a 3D panel discussion) and the American ambassador (?).

More posts to follow as the days go - on top of the competition films, I am really looking forward to seeing Von Trier's MELANCHOLIA, Tarr's TURIN HORSE, Moretti's WE HAVE A POPE and other surprises I am sure we'll encounter.

Sunday, 10 July 2011


Terrence Malick is a director whose work I anticipate the way some people anticipate having children or getting married. It's a huge event for me, and because they come so infrequently, it makes it even more exciting when they finally arrive. THE TREE OF LIFE has now finally opened after much wrangling about its release date (ICON were originally meant to be the distributors, before they breached their contract, some say on purpose, and then Fox picked it up), and I have now seen it twice.

It's already my favorite film of the year, one that affected me emotionally above all and then hit me on many technical and 'film geek' levels too. It's an incredible experience, a transcendental, ambitious, epic masterpiece that deserves to be seen on the big screen. I understand it's not for everyone. But if you get it, it'll devastate you.

Rob Beames and I recorded a podcast about it (his opinion on the film is a lot less enthusiastic than mine) and we were joined by ocassional guest Craig Munro, who sits somewhere in between our opinions. You can subscribe and listen on iTunes here.