New Sarajevo Film Festival director Jovan Marjanović is promising “a vintage edition” for the 28th SFF.

“We had a great opening film — Triangle of Sadness by Ruben Östlund — and we have a great closing film — May Labour Day by the Bosnian director Pjer Žalica, who’s one of the most beloved local filmmakers — so it’s going to be an emotional end to the festival,” says Marjanović who took over from Mirsad Purivatra, the festival’s original founder who started the festival in 1995 during the siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War.

Marjanović joined the SFF team in 1999, straight after high school, and started the top job after two years running the festival’s industry section and two years serving as SFF co-director alongside Purivatra. From the start, the SFF staked out its claim to be the premier festival for cinema from Southeastern Europe.

“In the beginning we only had a small number of projects from the Balkans which were presented to potential co-producers from Europe and from this really grew a complete ecosystem,” notes Marjanović.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Marjanović on the opening day of the 28th Sarajevo Film Festival to talk about his history with the SFF, how the festival has become a key player for the local industry and why, after the start of the war, it added Ukrainian cinema to its regional remit.

It’s fair to say that you grew up with the Sarajevo Film Festival: you joined the team straight out of high school. How much has the festival changed since then and what were the biggest challenges over the years?

I’ve been with the festival for a long time, and I was involved with the industry part of the festival. The first thing we did, over 20 years ago, was start the co-production market. I’m talking about CineLink. In the beginning, we only had a small number of projects from the Balkans, which were presented to potential co-producers from Europe. From this really grew a complete ecosystem. The co-production market later grew to a conference and then a full-fledged market, really. Years later we added the Talents program, and these three initiatives became the pillars of the festival and our way to support the film industry in this part of Southeast Europe.
What is it that differentiates the festival from other regional and Southeast European film festivals?

Sarajevo Film Festival is an international film festival, but it’s dedicated to cinema from Southeast Europe. It’s a wide region spreading from Austria all the way to Turkey and now including Ukraine as well, a lot of smaller countries with different languages and fragmented markets. The Sarajevo Film Festival is one of the bigger film festivals in Europe today. It’s been running for 28 years now, and it’s found its place on the European map, and I would also say the global map of film festivals. You won’t find this many films and projects from Southeast Europe at any other film festival in the world.
It’s the first year that Ukraine has joined the family of Southeast European countries that the Sarajevo Film Festival is focused on

To be honest, I think we should have done this some years ago because Ukraine was looking for partners. We did it now after the war started because we felt we needed to do something concrete rather than political, and we believe that the festival platform is the best way to do it: to include our Ukrainian colleagues and friends into our Southeast European circle.

Do you support the ban on Russian filmmakers that some other festivals introduced after the start of the war?

Russia is not part of the region we focus on, so it’s not a political question for us. We would never program any propaganda films from the Russian regime or anything like that. This was the case before, and it’s the same after the war started. I don’t support not showing films, good films, only because directors or filmmakers are Russians. I don’t think that makes sense. We have a short film this year by Russian filmmakers Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev. It’s called Haulout and addresses environmental issues. The filmmakers live in the U.K. It’s a U.K.-Russian co-production.
What are the highlights of the 28th SFF?

It promises to be a vintage edition of the Sarajevo Film Festival. We had a great opening film in the Triangle of Sadness by Ruben Östlund, which proved to be an event of its own. We also have a great closing film [May Labor Day] by a local film director, Pjer Žalica, who’s one of the most beloved local filmmakers, so it’s going to be an emotional end to the festival. We have an amazing lineup of master classes this year by Ruben Östlund, Sergey Loznitsa, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Winterbottom, Ari Folman and Jasmila Žbanić. 
You’re a producer on Triangle of Sadness. What was your involvement in the film, and isn’t there a conflict of interest in programming your own movie to open your own festival?

It’s a fantastic film, it won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and a perfect title to open the festival with. My involvement, our involvement, is minimal; we are associate producers on the film. What we did is we brought in one of our partners, the TRT, the Turkish public broadcaster, into the project as co-producer. We have been working with the TRT for the past five years, and this partnership actually resulted in three films, which were entirely produced in Sarajevo under the banner of Sarajevo, the city of film. The three films include one from Slovenia (Good Day’s Work by Martin Turk) and two from Bosnia and Herzegovina (Focus, Grandma by Pjer Žalica and Friendly Neighbored Affair by Danis Tanović). All these films were fully financed by the TRT and produced by us here in Sarajevo. The first two opened the festival in the past two years. Of course, these films are always screened out of competition. So I don’t see any conflict of interest. As a platform dedicated to supporting films and filmmakers from Southeast Europe, the festival has been programming films that it has produced since the very beginning. Also, Ruben has been a friend of the festival since his early career; we have shown all of his films in the past.

Where do you see SFF in the near future?

I would say that our key goals are the same: To cater to our audiences and to establish new ones, introducing them to the best of international cinema. We aim to remain the platform for the development of film production and TV series production in our region. The way to achieve this goal depends on the many different elements: How the market is developing, how the audiences are changing, the funding situation etc. I’m sure that in the next five or 10 years this will change, but the goals will remain the same even as the way to achieve these goals changes all the time.

Our focus on TV series is definitely going to grow. It’s a growing market, and many filmmakers are biting into it. More and more companies are investing in TV production, including companies in our region, which wasn’t the case before in these numbers. Now all of a sudden you have companies that have the capital to invest in TV content. It’s a game changer. We recognized this trend some seven or eight years ago, and today we are fully supporting TV production, showcasing new TV shows every year. We have also started the regional academy with 400 members strong at the moment, which vote for the best TV series from the region.
How is the region emerging from COVID?

The box office has obviously plunged during COVID-19, it’s on the rise again, but still not back to the figures before the pandemic. There are signs of recovery all over the region — what happened is that the telecom operators stepped in with their new VOD platforms. Netflix, Amazon and other global streamers were quite slow getting into Southeast European markets and left some space for the local telecom operators to grow and invest in the local productions.
What role can the Sarajevo festival play in the region’s bounce back and transition to digital distribution?

Many regional festivals have launched VOD platforms or other initiatives to provide an outlet for the sort of international arthouse films they support, but that find it increasingly difficult to get released in the marketplace.

Film festivals have been obviously hit by the pandemic as well, including Sarajevo Film Festival, but we organized ourselves and turned to the online activities. The fact that we can run a sort of boutique VOD platform is an interesting addition to the traditional film festival concept, and this new digital structure is giving us a chance to reach wider audiences across the world, especially locals working and living abroad. We are not talking about big numbers here, but for example Pjer Žalica’s Focus, Grandma sold 18,000 tickets online across the world on the first day alone. That’s definitely a good sign, and we’ll have to see what the future will bring.

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