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Emily Schrader is a student at Stanford University, interning with the Post-Conflict Research Center in Bosnia.
Filmmaker Kumjana Novakova arrived at southeastern Europe’s largest film festival last week to debut her documentary on mass rape during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. After her arrival in Sarajevo, however, a brutal act of femicide made painfully clear that gender-based violence is not relegated to the Balkan nation’s past.
After a gunman in the country’s northeast live streamed his ex-wife’s murder on Instagram on August 11, sparking protests across Bosnia, Novakova and other female directors participating in the 29th Sarajevo Film Festival (SFF) were asked to speak out on femicide.
“Patriarchy is not only sexual and gender-based violence,” the director told me. “Patriarchy is a never-ending workday for women.”
Premiering at the festival, Novakova’s film, “Silence of Reason” highlights the survivors behind the first international trial to prosecute rape as a war crime. And just one day after the screening, the tragic event forced festival organizers to suspend all programming for a national “Day of Mourning” on August 16th.
Novakova’s speaking engagements were among the events derailed by the tragedy, but little changed about her workday. She still found herself before a crowd with two other feminist directors, Aida Begić and Vanja Juranić, speaking at an impromptu panel on “Femicide in Film, Television, and New Media” — the only festival event held last Wednesday.
In a country still grappling with the legacy of “rape camps” during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, where crimes against women remain both widespread and widely ignored, the panelists said that female filmmakers cannot be asked to solve systemic violence on their own.
As the international community condemned the recent femicide, some say inaction on gender-based violence may threaten Bosnia’s ongoing bid for European Union membership. Enforcement of laws on gender equality — including the Istanbul Convention on gender-based violence — remain among the 14 key priorities outlined for Bosnia to move forward on its path to accession.
Juranić, a Croatian filmmaker who directed “Only When I Laugh” — a film about a woman trapped within the patriarchy — also noted that it should not take sudden tragedy for these conversations to be elevated at cultural events.
While “film can initiate change within an individual,” she said, “it is only through continually discussing and unpacking cultural violence that we can create change.”
Founded in 1995, amid a devastating four-year siege of the capital city, the SFF quickly became a symbol of cultural resilience under oppressive circumstances. And among the 235 films showcased at this year’s eight-day event, hosted in a country where every other woman over the age of 14 has experienced some form of violence, several films interrogated the patriarchal conditions at the root of it all.
While thousands simultaneously protested across Bosnia to demand authorities take action against gender-based violence — carrying banners reading “Silence is approval” and “We will not live in fear” — Novakova reminded those in attendance that any activist platform provided by the festival must be contextualized within a longer-term feminist movement.
“Art can scream about an issue all it wants,” she said. “But the real responsibility lies in the hands of the authorities.”
And from the streets of Sarajevo to Gradačac — where thousands attended the funeral of the victim, 38-year-old Nizama Hećimović — protesters didn’t simply express outrage at the crime. They demanded an end to what Juranić described as a culture that blames female victims while enabling male perpetrators.
In this specific case, Hećimović had requested a restraining order against her ex-husband Nermin Sulejmanovic, a bodybuilder with a criminal record. Her plea was denied on August 7 by local authorities, and by August 11, it was too late. Sulejmanovic began his livestream — which was viewed by over 12,000 people — saying that viewers “will see what a live murder looks like.” He then shot Hećimović, killed two others and wounded three more before committing suicide. In the wake of massive public pressure, Bosnian authorities are now investigating several police officers, as well as the judge who declined Hećimović’s plea for protection.
At the panel, Novakova said that 10 years ago, a women-led forum at the SFF would have been “near impossible.” Still, she underscored that that buzz surrounding the festival’s temporary closure shouldn’t “detour” attention from government responsibility in a nation where femicide still lacks recognition as a criminal offense.
“This is a country which, after all the atrocities of the war, remains patriarchal at its core,” she said. “But I have the feeling that we are slowly creating a crack in the paradigm.”
However, Novakova also noted that the deluge of violence can get exhausting at times. And in Sarajevo last week, feminist filmmakers didn’t have the luxury of distancing themselves from the headlines.