Lisa Schwarzbaum
September 21, 2001 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Haris Bilalovic, a young journalist with spiky hair, a hoop earring, and an anchorman’s smile, was bursting with questions, undistracted by the throbbing cafe tumult of chatter, cigarette smoke, and techno beat: ”The Blair Witch Project—that was really good, right? How does American Pie 2 compare with the original?” He leans into his tape recorder. ”Tell me,” he says, ”what do you, a movie critic from America, think of the audiences here in Sarajevo?”

This movie critic from America thinks the audiences in Sarajevo are an inspiration to blockbuster-bored Americans everywhere. This New Yorker, who recently returned from the seventh annual Sarajevo Film Festival, taught a seminar in critical writing with four American and European colleagues in a pilot program for Balkan students and beginning journalists. And she can’t recommend a trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in August highly enough as an antidote to Summer Movie Dreck Fatigue. In the historic, bruised, cosmopolitan Balkan capital, where red splash marks on the pavement—called Sarajevo roses—mark the sites of fatal mortar explosions during the city’s 1992-95 Serbian-Croatian war, even claptrap like Pearl Harbor takes on new depth of field: Life is truly normal only when people feel safe enough to critique, defend, and analyze art and popular culture.

And skewer Pearl Harbor, too. The hope is that these 18 students, ages 16-29, may one day plug the ”brain drain” that emptied Sarajevo of academics, artists, and journalists among the tens of thousands who emigrated during the war. Because they’re already enlivening café society with their wide-ranging movie interests. The festival was launched in 1995, during the bleakest days of the war, when audiences dodged sniper fire for admission. Now, six years later, the nine-day event included big-studio stuff (Shrek), festival-circuit cinephile selections (The Circle), varied regional films, and a Stephen Frears tribute (including Liam, due here Sept. 21).

For a hometown bang of pride, Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic’s persuasive antiwar drama No Man’s Land (due here in November) opened the festival in the 2,500-seat open-air cinema. And then the sky erupted with fireworks, the sound indistinguishable from gunshots. Children cried; adults cowered. Nearly all stayed. As bits of ash fell, the people of Sarajevo tilted their faces upward, listening to percussive pop-pop-pops—of spectacle. Of normal life.

My students are emissaries of normal life too. Before Night Falls and Nicole Kidman have never felt so precious as they do at the Sarajevo Film Festival, where, round an average midnight at the hopping Meeting Point Café—the fest’s thronged social hub—waiters navigate the crush, hoisting trays of cheap beer and removing ashtrays spilling with the butts of a thousand cigarettes.

I tip back an espresso and recognize popular local actor-comedian and No Man’s Land star Branko Djuric—part De Niro, part Belzer—lounging in an open, non-De Niro way. Then I make my way to the bank of Internet computers at the rear of the joint, hungry for e-mail. Gordan Duhacek, the student sitting next to me, is, I see, hungry for news of the world too: He’s engrossed in IMDb.com, the website bible for movie lovers.

Welcome to Sarajevo, which feels, amazingly, like home.

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