SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Romanian film director Florin Serban was overwhelmed after showing his debut film this week to 2,000 spectators at the Sarajevo film festival, where he had shopped around his script as an unknown three years before.
"It was a dream to see my movie on this screen," he said.
His film "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle," a drama about a teenager's desperate bid to escape from prison, won the runner-up Jury Prize and the Alfred Bauer Prize for cinematic innovation at the Berlin film festival earlier this year.
The low-budget film by a first-time director on a gloomy topic with unknown actors struggled for funding until the Sarajevo Cinelink industry market granted seed money to start filming.
Cinelink hands out between 1.5 to 3 million euros ($4 million) a year, which is donated from national film funds from countries such as France, Germany and Bosnia. Festival officials hope to raise the grant money to 10 million euros in the coming years.
"Before shooting we could not find a partner. We returned to Cinelink and found a co-producer," Serban said. "After the shooting, we were left with no money but came back to Cinelink and won a post-production award that pushed us forward."
The Sarajevo festival, launched 16 years ago as an act of defiance at the end of the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serb forces, has become a major showcase for East European films.
It has also turned into the largest marketplace for regional industry insiders, with the Cinelink market a hive of networking and deals for those interested in southeastern Europe.
Film festival director Mirsad Purivatra, who started Cinelink, said each year more producers and representatives of European film funds visited the market.
"Everyone is searching for a good story, everyone is searching for new directors, and there is no doubt that this region is rich in talent," he said.
Jim Stark, an independent American producer who has worked with authors such as Jim Jarmush in his 30-year career, came to the Cinelink for the second year to present a film he is co-writing and co-producing with a Hungarian director.
"This is the place that anybody who wants to put together a film that has elements from the Balkans or from the south of Europe should seriously think of coming to," Stark said.
Drawing financiers for films competing for scarce funding in a poor region is a challenge and an accomplishment.
Regional films nearly all have budgets of up to two million euros on average but even so, films from Turkey, Romania and Bosnia have won prestigious awards at major European film festivals such as Cannes and Berlin.
"We make films with very low budgets, while in Western countries they have five-times higher budgets," said Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu, who won the Berlin festival's Golden Bear this year for his film "Honey."
He developed the script for Honey at Cinelink in 2008 and found co-producers.
In recent years, Western European money has proved essential to aiding Cinelink projects. In the future, Kaplanoglu hopes Balkan governments will create and support a regional fund in Sarajevo to support the first films of young film-makers.
"In this way, we could make the films that would not necessarily need to include Western producers, and perhaps we could make international sales companies that would sell and take the money back for regional production," he said.
Editing by Adam Tanner