‘We refused to believe a war was possible in the heart of Europe…Denial, as they say.’ The disembodied voice plays over a time-lapse view of Sarajevo in which dark clouds roll in over the city. Though perhaps a bit heavy-handed, the opening credits certainly set the tone for the story that’s to follow.
The Siege, a new documentary by Remy Ourdan and Patrick Chauvel, recounts the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted from 1992-1996. During these four years, 350,000 people were besieged and 11,514 citizens were killed, while journalists shuffled in and out of the city and the International Community looked on helplessly. Yet the film isn’t about the failure of the International Community or the responsibility of foreign journalists. Rather, Ourdan wanted to tell the story from the inside, with the city of Sarajevo as the main character. The questions he asked, ‘What is it to be besieged?’ and ‘What is it to resist?’ are answered through interviews, archival footage, photographs, and his own radio broadcasts. Ourdan was a journalist during the siege and developed close relationships with citizens. It’s these close relationships and insider-views that make the documentary so powerful and personal and provide a unique portrayal of life inside Sarajevo at war.
The documentary illuminates as many stages of the siege as possible, from the beginning when young men joined up to fight, to the dark winter when citizens scavenged for firewood, food, and water, to the deaths on ‘Sniper Alley’ and the body counts in the morgue. Each of these moments is attached to a face, a human story. The film doesn’t rely on numbers but rather personal, specific stories told by people who lived through it and experienced the horror firsthand. When asked why he wanted to make the film, Ourdan responded that the war ‘never leaves us…it’s over but people have their memories…it comes out even in their silence and touches you.’
Beyond the tragedy and hardship, however, The Siege also captures the spirit of everyday life, the attempts in Sarajevo to live normally or find some joy. Ourdan interviewed theatre directors and actors who staged performances and recounted stories of performing in the dark when the electricity went out and dancing with the audience at the end of a production of Hair! Art, one director argued, ‘offered a Utopia.’ Individuals who were teenagers during the war recount the parties they attended. Living a ‘normal life in abnormal circumstances,’ says one woman, is a ‘fight against psychological defeat.’ It’s the psychological element of the siege that the film explores and documents so effectively. In the face of living in a ‘modern concentration camp,’ – to borrow from one interviewee – citizens sought mentally to resist and to ‘defend civilization.’
The film cuts abruptly between these stories of tragedy and those of lightheartedness, perhaps capturing the randomness and confusion of the siege itself. For ninety minutes, the viewer is transported into the chaos of Sarajevo, cut off from all pieces of the outside world. This was a deliberate choice for Ourdan. He wanted only to use materials from inside the city, to focus on those who were under siege rather than those who perpetrated the violence. Only once does the voice of Mladic, the Serb Commander in charge of the siege, appear in the film: from a recording that was intercepted through radio channels within the city.
Perhaps most striking is that Ourdan chose to keep the interviewees anonymous. There is in fact a version of the film with the names included, but Ourdan prefers this one. When asked why, he replied that ‘the character is the multi-ethnic, mosaic Sarajevo.’ In a war fought over ethnicity, the names would tie people to a certain group (Muslim, Serb, Bosnian), and this, he felt, was not the point. Throughout the film interviewees reflect on the multi-ethnic character of the city and how the ‘poison of nationalism’ was injected from the authorities. The people of Sarajevo, one man argues, were used to tolerance, and Ourdan certainly highlights this aspect of the city. When asked if this spirit still exists in Sarajevo, both Ourdan and Chauvel agreed that people are fighting for the same values. The fight continues, added Chauvel – because inside the Dayton Accords lies another war.
Ourdan & Chauvel’s The Siege (2016) – recently awarded the Gold FIPA 2016 for best documentary – was part of the ongoing programme of events at London’s Frontline Club.