SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The 15th Sarajevo Film Festival kicks off Wednesday evening, bringing such Hollywood celebrities as Gillian Anderson and Mickey Rourke to an event born in a sandbag-protected basement during the Bosnian war.
The Balkan region's most important film event now draws more than 100,000 people each year, a long way from its humble beginnings in a city roamed by snipers and blasted by mortar shells.
This year's festival includes 232 films from 53 countries to be screened over nine days. It opens with "Tales from the Golden Age" a film by five Romanian directors, including Cristian Mungiu, whose abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
The film is made up five short stories dealing with the late communist period in Romania under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.
The festival will welcome regional and international stars including "X-Files" actress Anderson, and Rourke, whose comeback film "The Wrestler," for which he received an Oscar nomination, will be screened closing night, August 20.
The festival started in 1994 in a besieged Sarajevo, as its founders tried to offer citizens some sense of normal life. Residents braved mortar shells raining on the city to gathered in a downtown basement and watched Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," sometimes unsure whether the sounds of shooting came from the soundtrack or battles outside.
The next year, filmmakers shipped boxes of videotapes to Sarajevo along with food deliveries. Now, thousands from the region flock to Sarajevo every year to spend nine days watching movies in ten locations, and nights partying at concerts and other after-screening events.
Promoted in part by the festival, Bosnia is experiencing a film boom, despite its poverty. The country's filmmaker have won prestigious awards, including a foreign-film Oscar for Danis Tanovic's "No Man's Land" in 2002 and the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear for Jasmila Zbanic's "Grbavica" in 2006.