The documentary “Kiss the Future”, which had its premiere at the Berlinale on Sunday, is about a 1997 concert by the Irish supergroup U2, but unlike most rock-band films, this one comes with shots of buildings with shattered windows, burnt-out cars and people running for cover from sniper fire.
That’s because the concert took place in Sarajevo, which in 1992 came under attack, and was besieged for almost four years, by Serb-led armed forces trying to ethnically cleanse the Bosnian capital of Moslems and make it part of a new Serbian republic. The film’s final half hour or so is devoted to the concert U2 played, after the siege was lifted, for some 45,000 people in Sarajevo’s main stadium.
It was a moment of catharsis for the city’s residents, to see the first big band to play there since the siege and hear lead singer Bono shout out: “Viva Sarajevo! F— the past, kiss the future! Viva Sarajevo!”
But the bulk of the film is about what life was like in a city where almost 15,000 lives were lost during a savage military operation that was the worst conflict in Europe since World War Two — until now.
The fact that the siege of Sarajevo would be eclipsed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine took the filmmakers by surprise.
“We started making a movie about the end of the last war in Europe but then war in Europe broke out,” director Nenad Cicin-Sain said during a panel discussion on Sunday. “We started making the film before the Ukraine invasion, never imagining that this could happen in modern time.”
The film captures the electric atmosphere in the stadium, which had to be extensively repaired. Although Bono lost his voice well before the concert was over, the audience knew the songs and sang along for him.
But the film pays equal if not more attention to what happened well before the concert, to one of the great, multi-creed capitals of Europe, when Serb nationalists, led by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who was later tried at The Hague for war crimes, tried to seize it.
Overnight a city where Moslems, Serbian Orthodox Christians, Jews, Roman Catholics and some Protestants had lived together, and intermarried, for centuries was turned into a war zone. A month after surrounding Sarajevo in April of 1992, the Serb-led forces blockaded the city and residents were not allowed to go in or out.
Aid convoys and journalists were among the few to venture there, and once inside they had to run the gauntlet of the city’s infamous “Sniper Alley” where sharp shooters perched in surrounding buildings picked off people on whim.
One of the aid workers who took the risk was American Bill Carter, who went in with an aid convoy and stayed on. Carter was impressed by the resilience of the city’s residents, and amazed to find that besieged Sarajevo had a disco and punk-rock club culture. The clubs were literally underground, because that was the only place that was safe at night. People would take huge chances to get there, with one of the club denizens recalling that a soundman was shot dead on the way.
One of the bands Sarajevo’s clubbers admired was U2 whose songs channeled the emotions arising from another deadly conflict, the one between Protestant Unionists and mostly Roman Catholic Irish republicans during the Northern Ireland “Troubles”.
Carter thought it would lift peoples’ spirits if U2 could somehow connect with the city. Using a fax with an official Sarajevo letterhead sent to U2’s manager, Carter made a start when Bono gave him an interview that aired on Sarajevo television.
But the connection got into high gear when U2 started featuring live, Zoom-like broadcasts from Sarajevo to capital cities during the band’s European tour. With their images projected onto giant screens, people trapped in Sarajevo would send messages of love and greetings to fiances and friends elsewhere in Europe. Audiences cheered — until the night when a participant in one of the broadcasts said the appearances were doing little to improve the lives of the people living under the siege.
Bono says in the film that after that concert, he stopped the Sarajevo broadcasts because they had “started to look like a reality show, using people’s anguish” as entertainment.
It was not until after NATO warplanes bombed Serbian forces in August and September of 1995, forcing them to end the siege in early 1996, that U2 and its huge truckloads of gear could venture into Sarajevo a year later.
Vesna Zaimovic, a Sarajevo journalist whose marriage to political artist Zenad Zaimovic is shown in the film as a rare moment of communal joy in wartime, credits the concert with helping Sarajevo to heal from its wounds.
“The historical process will continue in protecting Bosnia and Sarajevo as a multicultural example for the world,” she said. “What has happened now (in Ukraine) are just winds from east and west and from everywhere but I think that (it) will survive and Sarajevo will survive and all of those mosques, churches and synagogues are proof.”
By Michael Roddy