Dream palaces: Mark Cousins on Sarajevo’s Obala cinema and watching films in a war zone

The director and film critic remembers an underground venue during the Bosnian war. 

Mark Cousins

Credit: Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

I was 29 in 1995. I’d travelled to Sarajevo during its siege (in which more than 13,000 people were killed) on a military plane. I’d cut my finger on the plane, so my hand was bandaged, and my heart was beating hard.

I was walking – fast – through the streets of Sarajevo. It was pitch dark, because of power cuts and the fear that lights would attract sniper fire. I walked with my hand in front of me in order that I wouldn’t bump into someone or something. I could see the rim of the hills around the city from which the bombardments took place. There were holes in the pavement, caused by the shelling, which locals called ‘rosebuds’ – how cinematic.

Mark Cousins

Mark Cousins

I got to a door and saw posters of Tony Curtis, the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s cover star that year. I was head of programming at the festival and we’d been asked to bring a bunch of films to Sarajevo, in defiance of the siege. I went down steep stairs, walked in front of an audience and heard myself say, “I think this is the most beautiful cinema I’ve ever seen.”

It wasn’t. It had fold-up chairs and a cheap video projector, and it smelled musty because it was underground. No red velvet curtains here. No stucco like I’d seen when I visited Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles a few years earlier. Nothing palatial or extravagant.

Except that the idea of Obala Art Centar cinema was extravagant. As I came from Belfast, I knew a little about war, and how tidal is its swash and backwash. The siege in Sarajevo wasn’t so tidal. It was full-on, most of the time, yet an hour earlier I’d seen old ladies, military, ambassadors, young activists, NGOs, Obala’s gang of idealists, and others from all walks of life show up to see a film – one of several that I’d brought from Scotland.

The young activists at Obala had advised me not to bring Hollywood-style action or war movies – their kitsch violence would sound a wrong note in a real war. Instead, as I recall, I brought quite serious films by Ken Loach and others. I wondered whether I should have brought lighter fare as respite, as escapism, but it turned out that the audience was happy to see thoughtful cinema. They felt enriched by it. And also, it was cinema – bigger than life and luminous. As we watched we felt that we were in winter looking at summer.

Food was scarce there – I remember my shock at getting one small dumpling for dinner – but Obala addressed another hunger. That tiny cinema, that hortus conclusus, wasn’t just the icing on the cake of war life. It was the cake.

As I made my faltering speech, as I said we were pleased to bring a bit of entertainment to Sarajevo, I remember hearing another voice inside which said, “This is changing you.” It took a while to realise how. It took time for it to click that this makeshift cinema was, in a way, all cinemas, in that it was a shelter from the storm, a harbour.

I often think of those screenings in that underground cinema – which were part of a process that led to the Sarajevo Film Festival, which celebrated its 24th edition this year – when I’m sitting in a cinema, waiting for a movie to start. They taught me that, especially when life is playing you like a violin, sometimes against your will, you want to be played in other ways, by films. Obala played me. All cinemas play me.

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