Friday 7 Feb 2014. A sunny, spring-like morning with no hint of the eruption of anger that was about to hit the streets of Sarajevo later that evening. Groups were gathering in the square outside a grand city government building – joined by two sparse lines of riot police.
Kriterion Kino, where we are presenting Difference Screen, is just round the corner from the square. Staff were preparing for a big party with an American DJ – crates of beer were stacked on the floor – sound systems and search lights being tested in the auditorium, which doubles as a cinema.
At dusk, as we walked back towards our hotel along the riverside, we could already see smoke from a distance. The crowd outside the city hall – which housed records of births and deaths – had swelled across the square, now resembling a battlefield, strewn with bricks and glass. Smoke and flames poured from several windows and from the roof of the building. The protest is in sympathy with protests in other Bosnian cities, with more violent protests in Tuzla and elsewhere. The riot police seemed unprepared and outnumbered, only later, we were told, SWAT teams were sent in to clear the square. Sadly, Kriterion’s party didn’t happen – the police cordoned off the area and told them to stay closed.
Two students we approached gave us a commentary, then took us for a beer away from the mayhem – and we made friends. They both had traumatic stories to tell of the war and siege of the city, when they were children. Sanja still has pieces of bullet in her neck from when she was shot crossing the road. For their generation, they said, the only future was to get out of the country.
Anger and frustration at government corruption erupts in riots
Bosnia and Herzegovina seems to be grinding to a halt – aid from the EU and US has all but ended, and much of it squandered by corrupt government officials. The generally held view is that the government has wasted the last 20 years since the war, and has failed to rebuild the economy and infrastructure. Public enterprises have been privatised and asset stripped, fuelling unemployment – now at 30% – with young people hardest hit. Corruption is widespread, adding to the resentment against the authorities.
We had been relocated to the Holiday Inn, an uncompromising post modern ‘80s block with a vast, intimidating atrium supported by soaring concrete columns. But rumour had it that Holiday Inn company had pulled out some time ago – indeed the familiar big green sign seemed to be illuminated only intermittently, and the fountain outside the main entrance was bleached dry.
A short distance away stood the National Museum – a large sign announcing it was closed with two stout planks nailed in an X-shaped cross over the main entrance. Apparently a historic narrative for the nation can’t be agreed upon. Or there is no budget for it.
Saturday 8 Feb. The now blackened and forlorn looking city hall is surrounded by police tape, its windows and grand front entrance gaping dark holes, but luckily Kriterion is intact.
Kriterion Kino, modelled on a similar set up in Amsterdam, is a collective staffed by mainly young people who take it in turns behind the bar, run projection equipment and sound systems, and organise events – one of only a few venues like this in the city. This positive, energetic group at Kriterion surely are the future of this country – in contrast to the leaden weight of government kleptocrats, and impossible tripartite presidential system that was meant to be a solution to the inter-ethnic conflagration that was the Bosnian civil war. By illustration, Kriterion was promised considerable funding from the City Council to set up three years ago – but the money never showed, and now the organisation is suing the City – with legal support in gratis – to recover the funds, which it owes to a Dutch benefactor.
Kriterion Kino Sarajevo – mission statement
Bruce with Adina Kaljanac who enabled the DS programmes at Kriterion
It’s the 30th anniversary of the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, and the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which heralded the outbreak of the First World War – both of which the city seems quite indifferent to. Difference Screen is being organised in partnership with Nine Dragon Heads, an international nomadic art initiative by Korean Park Byoung-Uk who has been coming to Sarajevo for many years. We attended a Korean cultural presentation at Skanderia, a shopping and cultural complex built for the Winter Olympics, with magnificent drumming and traditional dance. But the centre’s grand square is crumbling and many shop units in the subterranean mall are empty. An exhibition of Nine Dragon Heads artists – Twist to Exist – and Korean photography exhibition were installed at Collegium Artisticum, a gallery in the complex. But the powers that be are waging a war of attrition against artists who had established studios in the complex, purportedly to build a gym, and have pushed up the rents, forcing most out.
The exhibition after-party was to be held at Jusuf Hadzifejzovic’s joyous Charlama Depot – an extraordinary repository of artworks and artifacts collected together in strange piles like a Dadaist shop display. But management had ended the lease agreement and shut off the electricity supply, so our gathering was a ‘light and dark party’ illuminated by torch light, creating a theatrical scene of shadows.
Charlama Depot party
Sunday 9 Feb. The day of our first screening, and another demonstration files through the city. People are protesting outside the courthouse close to Kriterion Kino demanding the release of protesters jailed on Friday – they want the politicians locked up, and the protesters released. But today there are no more riots, the crowd disperses, and our screening can go ahead.
Difference Screen seemed heightened and dramatised by events unfolding on the streets – and intensified by some of the films by Balkan artists we had included in the programme. We open with Shoba Seric’s film, ‘It’s all a little bit of history repeating’. The camera is trained on the bridge where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated: the flowing river gradually turns red, than returns to its normal green-brown.
Renata Poljak’s Staging Actors / Staging Beliefs unwinds the Yugoslavia story: archive film re-enacting heroic partisan battles is followed by an interview with the actor who plays one of the boy soldiers relating two opposing political narratives, two realities. You decide. This dichotomy is a common thread running through the Balkan imagination. In Breda Beban’s beautifully made film Walk of the Three Chairs the artist, aboard a barge with a band of musicians travelling down the Danube on the outskirts of Belgrade, steps precariously from chair to chair in a choreographed ritual – a study in futility and elegance as the band plays a love song which means, we learn later: ‘Who doesn’t know how to suffer, doesn’t know how to love’.
This theme of uncertainty is graphically played out in Gordana Andjelic-Galic’s wonderful film Mantra – concluding the Difference Screen programme the following night – in which the artist tries to carry an ever increasing array of flags that, in various, ways pertain to Bosnia’s national identity – along an endless road, to the strains of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national anthem. But it’s the music only, the words are yet to be agreed upon.
Ben Eastop, February 2014