KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic — From April 1992 to February 1996, the city of Sarajevo was besieged as part of the Bosnian War. Over the course of four horrifying years, near 14,000 people lost their lives to intense artillery bombardment, more than a third of whom were civilians. During this time, somewhat astonishingly, numerous filmmakers in Sarajevo refused to put down their cameras. Some of the resulting footage forms the basis of the documentary Facing Darkness.

Introducing the film to an audience for the very first time at the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, director Jean-Gabriel Périot stated that it is not really his as much as it is “a space to share the work of others.” Its first 25 minutes are comprised solely of clippings and rushes of five filmmakers who were living in the city at the time and creating moving images either alongside their military service or in lieu of it: Nedim Alikadić, Smail Kapetanović, Dino Mustafić, Nebojša Šerić-Shoba, and Srđan Vuletić.

The startling on-the-ground reportage comes across almost like a behind-the-scenes exposé when compared to the external newsreels televised around the world. While the video may not vary much aesthetically, it presents a surprising range of tones and styles. Action-packed sequences in which defiant soldiers race through bombed-out buildings to launch a counter-offensive are contemplative segments, as in one man’s admission of fear when he sees a prone body in the distance, “not knowing if they are alive or dead.” Some moments are surprisingly humorous, or even optimistic, given the context — for instance, a short reel follows a well-attended underground cinema that required patrons to sneak in via a back entrance to avoid sniper fire.

Still from Facing Darkness, dir. Jean-Gabriel Périot, 2023

After showcasing this material on its own terms, Facing Darkness shifts modes to become a talking head documentary for its final hour. The five filmmakers reflect on the footage and their experiences, offering insights into how — and why — they persevered. Périot is keen to remind us that the filmmaking cycle continues, often including wider scene-setting shots that encompass his small crew. He remains a peripheral figure, though, allowing the Bosnian filmmakers to be the focus, sometimes interviewing them in the locations used in their films. 

They explain how certain scenes were partly staged to create narrative structure for verité observations, or how they came across particular stories. These conversations add context to their work of 25 years ago, making the original footage all the richer. Their discussions address the power of self-determination in continuing to make films during the siege, and the lasting psychological impacts of their country’s recent history. “Everything was rebuilt,” intones one of the filmmakers near the film’s close, “except lives.” Facing Darkness is Périot’s own cinematic reconstruction, excavating this staggering footage, and heightening its impact while allowing the filmmakers’ own voices to shine through.

Ben Nicholson is a freelance critic and curator based in London. He is the editor of ALT/KINO, and his writing can be found in Sight & Sound and Notebook.

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