How Sarajevo Remains the Top Talent Incubator in the Balkan Region

It’s a welcome sight for any longtime visitors returning to Sarajevo, the white-jacketed waiters circling the terrace of the majestic, Austro-Hungarian-built Hotel Europe as film and TV industry professionals parse scripts and close deals amid the espresso-fueled chatter. Around them a haze of cigarette smoke hovers like the mist that settles each morning over the green hills that ring this scenic Bosnian city.

Each summer hundreds of industry guests from around the globe descend on the historic, 140-year-old Hotel Europe, which survived two World Wars and the shelling that razed Sarajevo in the 1990s and serves as the de facto hub of industry events during the Sarajevo Film Festival. Twenty years after its launch in a city still emerging from the rubble of a brutal, four-year siege, CineLink Industry Days has grown into the leading film and TV industry event in the Balkan region — a success story as improbable as the resilience of the hotel and the rebirth of Sarajevo itself.

Maša Marković, who took over as the festival’s head of industry last year, says the event has become a crucial pipeline for emerging talents in the region, describing it as a “generator” for “young, upcoming generations” of filmmakers who often cut their teeth in Sarajevo’s development labs before later walking the festival’s red carpet to premiere their first films.

To achieve that goal, CineLink Industry Days has broadened its activities beyond the annual year-round event held during the Sarajevo Film Festival. The CineLink Co-Production Market, one of the leading co-production and co-financing platforms in the region, hosts an online workshop in June to help participants prepare for their Sarajevo pitches. Script doctors consult with participants of the CineLink Drama TV forum in the run-up to the August event.

Then there’s the Ponta Lopud Festival, held each summer on a small island off the coast of Croatia, where Sarajevo festival founder Mirsad Purivatra two years ago established a creative hub that brings together emerging filmmakers from the region with heavyweights of world cinema, such as Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Joel Coen two-time Cannes Palme d’Or winner Ruben Östlund.

Collectively, these activities have ensured that CineLink remains “a platform that really fosters and nurtures young emerging professionals all across the [value] chain,” says Marković. “This really allows us to…cater to the needs of the projects throughout the year.”

To gauge the success of the festival’s industry platform, she says to look no further than the quantity and quality of titles it’s helped launch, such as László Nemes’ Academy Award winner “Son of Saul,” Adina Pintilie’s Golden Bear winner “Touch Me Not” and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s Oscar nominee “Honeyland.”

Eleven films celebrating world or regional premieres at this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival are alumni of its various industry strands; participants at last year’s works-in-progress event included last month’s Karlovy Vary winner “Blaga’s Lessons” (pictured, top), by Stephan Komandarev; Tribeca international narrative competition selection “The Future,” by Noam Kaplan; and a trio of films set to premiere at next month’s Venice Film Festival, including Horizons selections “Hesitation Wound,” by Selman Nacar, and “Dormitory,” by Nehir Tuna, as well as Venice Days title “Backstage,” by Afef Ben Mahmoud and Khalil Benkirane.

Marković credits the “curational approach” behind the event’s selection process, ensuring that “the eyes of decisionmakers” are focused not on the high volume of projects — just 11 were selected for this year’s co-production market — but on the quality of those that have made the cut. The “driving force” of CineLink Industry Days remains its ability to discover and nurture emerging talents and present them to the industry guests who make the trip to the Bosnian capital each summer.

Sarajevo Film Festival

Upwards of 1,000 accredited industry guests will arrive in Sarajevo this week, with roughly 150 foreign producers, funders, sales agents and festival reps from more than 40 countries on hand for the festival’s long-running co-pro market. Executives from Mubi and Fremantle are among the high-profile participants expected to attend, along with reps from festivals including Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto and SXSW.

After recording a 20% spike in first-time attendees last year, Marković expects a similar bump this week — not only among foreign executives looking to discover new talent, but among filmmakers from across the Balkans and the wider region hoping to tap into the professional network that has grown around the annual event.

That’s partly by design, she says, pointing to the launch last year of the CineLink Producers’ Lab, a networking and training program for 12 early-career producers from the region. “We really foster newcomers to come, not only from the decision-maker side, but absolutely, in the first place, we also need to be a home for the people that are developing the content,” she says.

Recent years have seen a “big shift” in the local market, says Marković, driven in part by a boom in television production. It’s hardly a coincidence that Bosnia’s most celebrated filmmakers — Oscar winner Danis Tanović (“No Man’s Land”) and nominee Jasmila Žbanić (“Quo Vadis, Aida?”) — are both bowing new series this year, with the former unveiling the dramedy “Frust” as part of Sarajevo’s Avant Premiere Series strand and the latter debuting her drama series “I Know Your Soul” Out of Competition at the Venice Film Festival.

“I Know Your Soul,” from Oscar nominee Jasmila Žbanić, premieres at the Venice Film Festival.
Courtesy of Deblokada for BH Content Lab

Once again, the Sarajevo Film Festival was ahead of the curve, launching a dedicated drama strand seven years ago. “People were really surprised with our logic to start doing a development workshop for drama series in the region when there was no money for TV series at all,” says Marković. CineLink Drama, however, anticipated the need for local creatives to develop a new skill set to adapt to the burgeoning medium.

“We knew that we had great talents, but these talents would need, once the money comes — and we knew the money would come — they needed to know what the new craft is,” she continues. “That’s the reason that drama is central [in Sarajevo]. This is the demand of the market. This is something that people need to understand — what are the changes and what are the challenges.”

Marković nevertheless sees a gradual decline in the number of series being produced in a regional market that’s not quite developed enough to sustain a glut of content. She predicts that the growing number of high-end TV productions, however, will carry over into the world of film, where she expects budgets and production values to rise.

Festival director Jovan Marjanović agrees. “The local markets in the Balkans have grown, both for theatrical releases and TV and VOD,” he says. “This will result in more talent. People have had more experience, and they were able to test things with the series. I think this will translate into more audacious films.”

He adds: “I think there’s a big repositioning in the market, and everybody is thinking about what they’re doing. I think we’ll probably see more bigger films for the local markets produced.”

The Sarajevo Film Festival runs Aug. 11 – 18.

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