SARAJEVO -- References to mass graves tend to strike a raw nerve in Bosnia, where the remains of 17,000 victims of the country's 1992-95 war have been unearthed.
But this week at Sarajevo's 16th annual film festival, another country's mass graves were being discussed after viewing Iraqi director Mohamed al-Daradji's film "Son of Babylon."
The film explores the plight of a Kurdish woman as she searches for her missing son just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her search leads her on a gruesome journey through the mass graves of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Every year tens of thousands of people stream into Sarajevo to watch films, attend parties, and line up outside the red carpet in the hopes of glimpsing a famous movie star or director. This year Morgan Freeman is headlining the event and will be present for the screening of "Invictus," a film about South Africa's Nelson Mandela, at the festival finale on July 31.
Oscar-winning Bosnian film director Danis Tanovic's new film "Cirkus Columbia," a tragicomedy set in Sarajevo just before the siege of the city began in 1992, had its world premiere at the festival opening on July 23.
But this being Sarajevo, somber themes of war, remembrance, and reconciliation are omnipresent and have a specific resonance.
Daradji says he made "Son Of Babylon," which stars nonprofessional actors -- many of whom experienced war atrocities in their real lives -- as an expression of the challenges facing Iraq as well as his personal hopes for stability in the country.
The film also explores the difficulty of political reconciliation in a country that has experienced decades of dictatorship and war.
One of the film's characters, a man called Musa, asks for forgiveness for committing war crimes while serving as a soldier in the old regime. The film's treatment of the character is sympathetic, which Daradji said did not go over well with the Iraqi public when the film was shown there.
He defends the character, saying people like him must be both confronted and forgiven if Iraq is to move forward. "I did not have this character in the film until 2008. Because, personally, I think I was full of revenge, full of anger about what happened in Iraq," Daradji says.
"So I didn't feel that maybe this...can do something for me personally until I came to 2008 and I felt after the sectarian violence that happened in 2006 and 2007, I felt that revenge cannot sort out the problem of Iraq." New Source Of Dialogue
Political reconciliation remains a challenge in Bosnia and much of former Yugoslavia more than a decade after the wars that ravaged the region in the 1990s.
Sabrina Begovic, a young Bosnian filmmaker, says one of the most important contributions of the Sarajevo Film Festival is that it brings artists from the region in dialogue with one another.
Films coming from the region nowadays, she says, are addressing "some really hard" issues related to the recent past.
She praises the film “Mila Seeking Senida,” a documentary by the Croatian director Robert Tomic Zuber. The film chronicles the life of Mila Janokovic, a Bosnian girl who went missing in May 1992 when Serbian military forces took over her hometown. Begovic says the film is an example of how a film can combat the nationalism still plaguing the region.
"In that story, if Bosniaks made the film, it would be like 'Oh, those Bosniaks, they took everything from their side.' And if Serbs made their story, made their film, it would be, 'Oh those Serbs, they are telling their story and glorifying themselves,'" Begovic says.
"The only way was for someone from Croatia to made a story about those two sides. You know, that's a kind of connection, and that's happening from year to year."
Nikola Ljuca, a 24-year-old Serbian director who is seen as a rising talent in his country, says that despite continued tensions between Belgrade and Sarajevo, he feels comfortable in the Bosnian capital and sympathizes with what the city went through during the war.
"You come to Sarajevo for the first time, you get a bit shocked: you see a city full of women and so little men, and stuff like that. So it reminds you of what really happened. But at the same time, they're the most little-ego people you can imagine, very open hearts, very, I don't know. I just love being here," Ljuca says.
Nina Zivanovic, who visited the festival from Belgrade, called the event a platform for future collaboration, education, and artistic growth in the Balkans.
"Now it's really different than it was I don't know, three, five or more years ago. Because now people are, in a way, they are trying. When they once go to one of those countries, then they meet people there, and then they realize how stupid all this nationalism is," Zivanovic says.