Croatian Director Juraj Lerotic’s Debut ‘Safe Place’ Wins at Resurgent Sarajevo Film Festival

Croatian writer-director Juraj Lerotić’s “Safe Place,” an emotional story of a family reeling in the wake of a suicide attempt, took the top prize at the Sarajevo Film Festival, which wrapped a record-setting 2022 edition in the Bosnian capital on Friday night.

The Heart of Sarajevo Award for best feature film was given by a jury headed by Austrian filmmaker Sebastian Meise (“The Great Freedom”), which included French filmmaker Lucile Hadžihalilović (“Earwig”), Croatian writer-director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović (“Murina”), Serbian actor Milan Marić (“Dovlatov”) and Israeli producer and consultant Katriel Schory.

“Safe Place” plays on Lerotić’s own pained family history, with the Croatian multihyphenate taking on the lead role in his deeply personal story — a performance that also earned him the award for best actor in Sarajevo.

Fresh off a triumphant world premiere in Locarno, where the film won three awards including best first feature, “Safe Place” was described by Variety’s Guy Lodge as a “supremely poised and moving first feature” and a “shattering” debut, “with a long trail of further festival bookings surely ahead.”

Ukrainian director Maryina Er Gorbach was named best director for “Klondike,” which portrays the brutal realities of the war unfolding in Ukraine’s Donbass region through the lens of a pregnant farmstead owner whose life and home fall apart. The film was described by Lodge as an “uncompromising, formally remarkable” feature after it won Er Gorbach best director honors in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at Sundance.

Luxembourg’s Vicky Krieps was named best actress to continue her winning run as the star of Marie Kreutzer’s “Corsage,” in which her performance as the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who tours Europe to escape life at court, won her the best performance prize in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section.

The ceremony at Sarajevo’s National Theater unfolded beneath overcast skies that threatened to turn the festival’s closing night, and the world premiere of Pjer Žalica “May Labour Day” in open-air cinemas around the city, into a wash-out. But unlike an opening night that was marred by rain, forcing audiences at Ruben Östlund’s “Triangle of Audience” to scramble for cover and festival organizers to switch to an indoor venue, the storm clouds held off.

It was a fitting valedictory for Sarajevo’s 28th edition, which after two scaled-down pandemic events returned to form this year and averted major crises, though Honorary Heart of Sajarevo Award winner Paul Schrader was scrapped from the program at the last minute, with the U.S. writer-director bowing out due to illness.

Audiences returned to the cinemas in force, with festival director Jovan Marjanović telling Variety before the closing ceremony that turn-out topped 2019’s record-breaking event. “It was palpable that people wanted to go back into cinemas and come together,” he said. “That was the idea of this edition: to have everyone back, to have people who started traveling again come and meet in person, to have our audiences back. The cinemas were at full capacity.” After two years of lockdowns and travel restrictions, he added, “there was a lot of new energy in the air.”

It was an emotional night for the winners including the cast and crew of “Klondike,” many of whom traveled from Ukraine to take part in the festival. After expanding its geographical footprint this year to include the war-torn country, Sarajevo presented a strong slate of Ukrainian films across its various strands, as well as a retrospective dedicated to master documentarian Sergei Loznitsa. A panel of Ukrainian filmmakers gave a talk during the CineLink Industry Days sessions about the short- and long-term consequences of the Russian war on the local film industry, while the festival also launched a residency program in collaboration with the Ukrainian Institute for two projects from Ukrainian filmmakers, offering them a chance to live and work in Sarajevo under the mentorship of Bosnian and international industry veterans.

Marjanović, who served as former head of industry and co-director before festival founder Mirsad Purivatra stepped down earlier this year, said that such initiatives seemed obvious in a country that suffered from a devastating conflict three decades ago, and where the Ukraine war “hits so close to home.”

“It was important to open the doors to Ukrainian filmmakers. It was important to try and give them an opportunity we would have liked to been given in the ’90s, when we were in a similar situation,” he said, adding that the Russian invasion “triggered memories” for many Bosnians. “I think we have this understanding to help on a human level, and on a professional level.”

In other awards handed out on Friday night, the prize for best documentary film went to “Museum of the Revolution,” the feature debut of U.S.-based, Serbian director Srđan Keča. Set in Belgrade in the 1960s, amid plans to build a grand museum as a tribute to Socialist Yugoslavia, the film had its world premiere in the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam’s Luminous strand.

The prize for best documentary short went to “We,…Composition,” from Kosovo’s Visar Jusufi, while the Human Rights Award went to Croatian director Vedrana Pribačić’s “Bigger Than Trauma.” A special jury award was given to “Fragile Memory,” from Ukraine’s Igor Ivanko, and a special jury mention went to Croatia’s Ante Zlatko Stolica for “Babajanja.”

The Heart of Sarajevo Award for best short film went to “Amok,” by Hungarian director Balázs Turai, with a special jury mention going to Austria’s Valentin Stejskal for “5PM Seaside.” The award for best student short film went to Croatian directing duo Josip Lukić and Klara Šovagović for “It’s Not Cold for Mosquitoes.”

Finally, the Special Award for Promoting Gender Equality went to “Aftersun,” the buzzy directorial debut from Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells that had its world premiere as part of Cannes’ Critics’ Week section.

On Thursday night, the Sarajevo Film Festival’s industry arm handed out its awards, with Greek director Thanasis Neofotistos’ debut, “The Boy With the Light Blue Eyes,” winning the Eurimages Co-Development Award, which comes with a prize of €20,000 ($20,100), and Marysia Nikitiuk taking the Eurimages Special Co-Development Award for “Cherry Blossoms.”

Over in Work in Progress, Bulgarian filmmaker Stephan Komandarev took home the TRT Award, with a prize of €25,000 ($25,100), for “Blaga’s Lessons,” while the Post Republic Award, with an in-kind prize of €40,000 ($40,200), went to Selman Nacar’s “Hesitation Wound.” In the Docu Rough Cut Boutique Awards, Gergő Somogyvári won the Avanpost Award, with an in-kind prize in the amount of €20,000 ($20,100), for “Fairy Garden.”

The full list of CineLink Industry Days Award winners can be found here.

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