5 Film Festivals in Southeastern Europe

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In the dog days of summer, lots of tourists visiting the Balkan Peninsula in Southeastern Europe are doing like the locals do and flocking to the stunning seaside—whether they’re after gourmet delights in Croatia, lounging in Montenegro, or soaking up rays in Albania. But those in the know return from their holidays for a heavy dose of culture and catwalks.

The biggest Balkan film festival is undoubtedly the Sarajevo Film Festival, which began in 1995 when Sarajevo was suffering under the longest siege in modern history. From an initial audience of 15,000 that difficult year to 100,000 now, SFF has grown to be one of the largest festivals in Europe. Yearly, Sarajevo goes from being a relaxed capital city to becoming a hotbed for stars and gawkers. Cafes and bars are open around the clock and the cinema-hungry Sarajevans file into the open-air theaters around the city.

This year the event, from August 14-22, will host Benicio del Toro, Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who will win festival awards, and many other directors and actors.

Photo by Handout/Getty

The festival always maintains a balance between showing fantastic international films and maintaining a strong presence for local and regional works. Tigers by Bosnia’s acclaimed director Danis Tanovic, will have a showing alongside A Perfect Day, Del Toro’s new movie about international aid workers in a war zone.

Outside of the cinemas, Sarajevo’s streets are pulsing with the energy the festival brings—and with all the charm the city and its citizens are famous for. Between screenings, stroll around the Old Town, drink Bosnian coffee and dine on the city’s most famous fast food: cevapi, delicious sausages served with pita bread, or just enjoy a glass of wine at some of the cafes along the Miljacka River.

The week before, August 8-16, a smaller and less glitzy event, Dokufest, focuses on documentary film. This festival is as cozy and quirky as Kosovo, Europe’s youngest nation—both in terms of independence and population (half of the country’s residents are under the age of 25).

Nestled in the Ottoman town of Prizren—less than an hour from Kosovo’s capital Prishtina—young and hip Balkan residents converge to watch films and one another. By day there are cajtores, or teahouses, to sit and sip tea for hours and prepare for another night at the DokuNights stage, which brings bands and DJs from the region and across Europe to party all night.

Photo by Katarina, CC-BY

The past year saw tens of thousands of Kosovars leaving the country (where one third of the population still lives on less than 1 euro per day) so the theme this year is focused on films and events about migration.

You certainly won’t want to leave the festival though, because with its screening theaters set up on the Bistrica River or on the walls of the city’s medieval fortress.

If you want something a bit more heady, the DokuTech stage hosts designers, tech geeks and start-up gurus to share experiences and promote a culture of innovation—from discussing filming porn with a GoogleGlass to co-founding the downloading site The Pirate Bay.

If you go, be prepared that many of the hotels will be booked, but the festival staff can help arrange houses. Or you can rent a tent at the DokuCamp for just a few euros.

Along the northern Adriatic coast on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula, check out the P.S. Pula Festival from August 22-28, which shows the best films from the Pula Film Festival. Rather than Pula’s Roman amphitheater, the setting for the July film festival, these screenings take place in the Venetian Kaštel fortress.

Balkan film buffs get a little break before the Tirana International Film Festival, which runs from October 28 until November 5. Tirana is a great place to visit in the fall. The apartment blocks have been splashed with paint and designed by Edi Rama, an artist who was formerly mayor and now serves as prime minister. Tirana may be one of the fastest changing capitals in Europe, as it has moved quickly from a completely closed society, through a phase of wild west-style construction, which is now being modernized. It still has a bit of an Ottoman flare but the wide streets of a planned Italian city.

Photo by Sakis Mitrolidis/Getty

You can move straight along to the Thessaloniki International Film Festival to get some more culture in Greece’s second city. Given all that’s happened in Greece with the crisis in the past few years, there will be some exciting films in the Greek-focused section. The Festival, which takes place from November 6-15, also has a strong regional film selection, with films from the Balkans and further afield screened at the landmark Olympion Theater, near the sea and across from the city’s iconic White Tower. Don’t leave before finding out who will take home the “Golden Alexander.”

Lead image by Katarina, CC-BY

Valerie Hopkins is a journalist based in Prishtina, Kosovo.