“BRIDGES OF SARAJEVO”: CANNES REVIEW

Boyd van Hoeij, www.hollywoodreporter.com, 23.05.2014

This omnibus film about the Bosnian capital contains short films directed by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Cristi Puiu, Sergei Loznitsa, Ursula Meier and local director Aida Begic.

CANNES — The Bosnian capital is seen through 13 personal prisms in the omnibus film Bridges of Sarajevo, which includes contributions from a good dozen of directors, ranging from Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa to Jean-Luc Godard and Ursula Meier, both from Switzerland, to Italians Leonardo Di Costanzo and Vincenzo Marra and local talent Aida Begic.

The artistic direction of this ambitious but hugely uneven project was handled by Jean-Michel Frodon, the former Cahiers du cinema critic who now teaches in Paris, at St. Andrews and at the Film Factory in Sarajevo. Bridges of Sarajevo will be screened as part of the Sarajevo: Heart of Europe celebration in June, which is part of the centenary commemorations of WWI, and will be released in France July 2. It had its world premiere as a Special Screening at the Cannes Film Festival and should make a modest tour of the festival circuit before segueing to small-screen formats, with VOD potentially offering viewers the possibility to check out only the segments of their choice.

The film opens with My Dear Night (Liebe Nacht), from Bulgarian director Kamen Kalev (Eastern Plays), which immediately plunges viewers into the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914, which would kick off the Great War. In his German-language contribution, Kalev has chosen a point-of-view close to the Archduke himself, who nobly if rather naively — in hindsight — states: “My destiny is my responsibility.”

It’s a logical starting point for this series of shorts that look at Sarajevo over the past 100 or so years, with the second short, Our Shadows’ Will, from Serbian director Vladimir Perisic (Ordinary People), looking at some of the reasons behind the assassination, though Perisic opts for a semi-experimental way to broach the subject, showing young, contemporary actors in a studio, reading texts from the assassins or the circles in which they moved, though they are not directly synched to the audio of the voice-over, which creates a distancing effect. It’s a somewhat opaque approach but still a courageous choice from Perisic, given the fact that it was perhaps somewhat conveniently assumed by Austrian authorities that the Kingdom of Serbia was behind the assassination (and thus offered a valid reason for a war), a fact still heatedly debated in the Balkans today.

Continuing chronologically, Costanzo looks at Italian soldiers on the ground during WWI, in which almost 6 million Italian soldiers fought, in his The Outpost (L’avamposto),an intimate look at a couple of soldiers who are sent out to kill a sniper, with one of them deserting. It’s a pretty straightforward historical piece of drama, like the opening short, and both are nicely produced but still somewhat musty and lacking in urgency or drama, despite all the gunfire.

Things jump to the present in the German-language Princip, Text, from German actress-director Angela Schanelec (Places in Cities), which connects with Perisic’s film in that sense that here too, texts about the assassination are read, though there’s an element of translation at work here as well, though it’s never really clear what the short is trying to say. Also looking back at history is Christmas Eve from Romanian director Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu), whose short looks at an elderly Romanian couple in bed, discussing an old history book that might have predicted some events. Puiu, shooting with an immobile camera in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, lets some of his trademark black humor do most of the heaving lifting here.

Jean-Luc Godard is no stranger to the subject of Sarajevo, having tackled the most recent Balkan conflict as early as 1993, in his Je vous salue, Sarajevo, and his omnibus entry, The Bridge of Sighs (Le Pont des soupirs), is a typical collage work that combines many influences into a cacophonous whole that’s finally too short to be able to delve into anything at length, substituting semi-provoking statements for developed ideas.

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s Reflections ranks, together with the closing short, Quiet Mujo from Swiss director Ursula Meier, as the best the omnibus has to offer. Loznitsa, who’s recently made such fiction features as My Joy and In the Fog, here returning to his documentary roots for a short that’s extremely simple and elegant in its execution, as it shows photographs of soldiers during the wars that would lead to the breakup of Yugoslavia, superimposed on shots of the sunny streets of Sarajevo, effectively inviting the audience to contemplate what these men fought for but also what was destroyed or got suspended for the long duration of the war.

Something similar happens in Album, the entry from local director Aida Begic (Snow), in which a voice-over recounting very specific memories of the war are combined with images, almost all of the in black and white, that are artfully edited together but don’t always directly relate with what’s being discussed. What emerges most clearly from her segment is the sense that, in wartime, people start to focus on very specific things that they try to cling to in order to not go crazy, such as the woman who remembers which foods — dewormed rice, dried beans — where available for how many months on end, or the wife whose biggest regret of the war was the moment she had to burn her fine red shoes in the fire because there was nothing left to burn.

Zan’s Journey (El viatge de Zan), from Catalan director Marc Recha (August Days), and The Bridge (Il Ponte) from Italian filmmaker Vincenzo Marra (The Session Is Open, The Trial Begins) both look at exiled Bosnians in Catalonia and Rome, respectively, with Recha’s more impressionistic film turning on the fate of the books of the Sarajevo Library, while Marra’s film, without a doubt the most straightforward of the bunch, is about a man who settled with his wife in Italy and who doesn’t dare to go back even for his father’s funeral because of what people might think of the fact that he dared to leave Sarajevo when it most needed him.

Children play an important role in three shorts directed by women: Little Boy, from French actress-director (and sister of Maiwenn) Isild Le Besco; Sarah and her Mother, from Portuguese filmmaker Teresa Villaverde (Trance) and Meier’s closing short, Quiet Mujo. Le Besco sticks close to the point-of-view of the title character, the offspring of a Muslim father and Serbian mother, who lives with his grandma and takes care of lots of cats and dogs around the city. It’s a cute segment with slightly darker undercurrents, as is Sarah, whose mother marked the books she read during the war (books seem to have represented something else many characters tried to hold onto during the conflict, a testament to the power of fiction).

Finally, Quiet Mujo looks at the title character, a boy whose soccer ball ends up on the cemetery next to the field where he’s practicing and who there comes into contact with a visiting mourner. At once poetic, powerful and almost documentary-like in the ordinariness of its premise and the naturalness of its execution, Mujo packs a serious wallop while suggesting volumes about how long-ago wars continue to influence the present of some.

Technically, the film’s often gorgeous to look at, as some of the world’s finest cinematographers, including Agnes Godard, Luca Bigazzi, Oleg Mutu and Rui Pocas each shot a segment. Very short animated sequences, by François Schuiten and Luis da Matta Almeida, ineffectively try to instill a sense of coherency and continuity between each of the very different shorts.