It was February 1993 in Sarajevo and the bombs had been falling for 10 months. The city, the capital of the newly-independent nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was surrounded and under siege by Bosnian Serbs forces. The assault — shelling by artillery and tanks, snipers picking off soldiers and civilians — would continue for another three years. 1,425 days in total. The longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.
By early 1993, Elma Tataragić had had enough of the war. Elma was 16 years old and lived on the outskirts of the city — “near the airport, so it was like being in a siege inside the siege, for a long time I couldn’t leave the house, walk on my street.” She’d adjusted, mostly, to Sarajevo’s new “normal abnormal” reality — collecting rainwater to do the cooking, using a bike generator to watch TV — but she longed for an escape. An escape from the war. If only for a couple of hours.
“I was young and I wanted to live normally, to be young, to have fun,” she remembers. “And that’s when I heard of the Apollo War Cinema. I knew I had to go.”
The Cinema Apollo was in the basement of the Sarajevo Academy of Performing Arts, a culture center in downtown Sarajevo. In the midst of the siege, the cinema reopened and began screening films in defiance of the “normal abnormal” reality.
“My parents begged me not to go, my father literally got down on his knees and begged me, but I didn’t listen, I got on my bike and rode to the Obala, to the Apollo,” says Tataragić. “It was dangerous, I rode past snipers’ nests, but I didn’t care. I was so excited. I put on my best clothes. I still remember wearing my white sneakers. They were new and they pinched. I didn’t care.”
Cash was scarce during the siege, so smokes had become the unofficial currency of the city. “I was teaching English to little kids at the time and their parents would pay me in cigarettes,” says Tataragić. “Half I’d give my father, the other half were for me.” Admission to the Apollo cost one cigarette.
Screenings were packed. Due to the cuts in electricity to the city, the theater used generators to power the projector, and picked its program from VHS tapes donated by friends or smuggled in from the outside world. It was an eclectic selection.
“The first film I watched there was Bodyguard, the Whitney Houston film,” Tataragić remembers. “Then it would be a week of French New Wave. I didn’t care. I just wanted to see a film. For two hours to disappear into another world, run away from all these horrible things happening around us on a daily basis.”
The film fans kept coming and, as the word got out, the international film community started providing the Cinema Apollo wartime theater with a steady supply of new movies. Festivals like Edinburgh and Locarno helped out with titles from their line-ups and retrospectives. The underground cinema ran, without interruption, from February 1993 to December 1995, when, still during the siege, it transformed to become the Sarajevo Film Festival. Tataragić heard they were looking for someone who spoke good English. She applied. Got the job. And has never looked back. 30 years later, she’s still there, now head of the festival’s competition selection.
“It was one of the most incredible, life-changing moments,” she says. “Of course the war was transformative but that was something that just happened to me. Deciding to go to the Cinema Apollo, deciding to join the festival, that was the first time I took control. I remember sitting in that basement, between the stage and the bar, surrounded by actors, directors, writers. I was in heaven.”
Thirty years on, the Sarajevo Film Festival is remembering its roots in that basement. For its 2023 edition, the festival will screen a special program of movies that unspooled on VHS in the Cinema Apollo. Movies like David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct and Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise. Remember to bring your cigarettes.