Facing Darkness


In his latest forensic documentary, French director Jean-Gabriel Périot digs into the rich archive of amateur film footage shot in war-torn Sarajevo.

Weighing up the political and psychological impact of amateur film-making during the siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern warfare, French director Jean-Gabriel Périot’s documentary Facing Darkness is one of the more sobering world premieres to screen at Karlovy Vary film festival this last week. Seeking to prevent a democratically mandated break-up of the former Yugoslavia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Serbian troops surrounded and blockaded the Bosnian capital from April 1992 to February 1996, targeting the city with indiscriminate shelling and sniper fire. The siege claimed 13,952 lives, including 5,434 civilians, though the Serbs ultimately failed in their genocidal ethnic cleansing campaign.

As in Périot’s previous films, notably Our Defeats (2019), this formally precise documentary is methodically structured as a dialogue between past and present, archive footage and recent interview material. Seeing these vintage clips of bombed-out apartment blocks and defiant Bosnian citizens today, comparisons with Russia’s current war crimes in Ukraine are hard to avoid, though the director does not overplay these parallels. Facing Darkness has a lot to say about both the ethics and aesthetics of filming war: not exactly a fun topic but this is an instructive and fresh take on grimly familiar events, made with intelligence and integrity. Further festival interest is assured, with a potential audience spanning academics to amateur historians to casual documentary fans.

Périot divides Facing Darkness into two sections. The first is a compilation of archive video footage shot during the siege by student film-makers Nedim Alikadić, Smail Kapetanovic, Dino Mustafić, Nebojša Šerić-Shoba and Srdan Vuletić. All were in their early twenties at the time. The look of these clips is shaky and scratchy while the stylistic choices range from serious citizen journalism, including fleeting but graphic footage of massacres and mangled bodies, to more left-field fare like home movies of boozy parties in nuclear bunkers and even attempts at absurdist comedy. Périot presents this material without commentary or context, a raw time capsule from the bloody final decade of the 20th century.

In its longer second half, Facing Darkness tracks down the former student film-makers who shot these clips, three decades later. While some confess they took up video journalism to avoid direct military action, others ended up willingly fighting on the frontline. Several went on become professional directors. A few still appear deeply traumatised.

Patient and precise, Périot interrogates their memories of the siege, and their motives for filming it. “Sometimes a camera is a better weapon then a gun,” Mustafić recalls. Another points out that public parks were once used as makeshift graveyards for children killed in Serbian attacks. A new generation of children now play there, oblivious to these ghoulish echoes. “How could people do that to each other?” Mustafić ponders. “I’ve been trying to answer that question for 30 years.”

Périot is particularly interested in the decision points where survival mode ends and creative film-making choices begin. With calm rigour, he explores how victorious battle sequences were partially faked, adding extra staged footage for propaganda purposes. As corpses in the streets of Sarajevo became a commonplace sigh, one director recalls stumbling upon mangled bodies from a shelling attack, calmly and professionally filming them, only to erase the footage in disgust afterwards. A sunny sequence featuring smiling young soldiers is achingly poignant, as many would die on the frontline just days later.

The film’s most prickly contemporary interview takes place close to Sarajevo airport, where hundreds of citizens were killed by snipers as they attempted to flee the siege for safer ground. Meanwhile, as Šeric-Shoba complains bitterly, UN peacekeepers obstructed them and Western European leaders watched nonchalantly from afar, blissfully unaware that “fascism would eventually come to their doorstep, 30 years later.”

At this point, implicit parallels with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine become explicit. The Balkan wars were one of the earliest aftershocks of the Soviet empire’s collapse, which still reverberates today. The tragic events captured on scratchy video in Facing Darkness played out half a lifetime ago, but they are also happening again right now in another corner of Europe, this time with a million cameras watching.


Stephen Dalton
The Film Verdict
July 8th, 2023