SARAJEVO (Reuters) - The Sarajevo Film Festival (SFF) opened late Friday honoring jailed Iranian film director Jafar Panahi whose directorial debut launched the first SFF 17 years ago in an act of defiance against the 1992-95 war.
The SFF was founded close to the end of a 43-month siege of the city by the Bosnian Serb forces, and has grown into the largest film gathering in the Balkans.
"The first festival was opened with Panahi's White Balloon under extremely difficult conditions but with incredible enthusiasm and a dream of freedom," said festival director Mirsad Purivatra.
"This amazing artist continues to remind us of the importance of freedom and artistic creativity, which is exactly what created the Sarajevo Film Festival in 1995," he said presenting a special Heart of Sarajevo Award to Panahi.
Panahi was arrested last year and accused of making a film without permission and inciting opposition protests after the 2009 Iranian election. He was jailed in December for six years and banned for 20 years from filmmaking, writing or any other form of artistic work.
Winner of many international awards and a supporter of Iranian opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi in the disputed presidential vote, Panahi was also banned from traveling abroad for 20 years. The film community strongly condemned his conviction.
"For the last six months I have been waiting for the final sentence to be delivered, and this limbo status is no better than being in jail," Panahi said in a letter to SFF organizers as he awaits the verdict of a court appeal.
"For a filmmaker, when filmmaking is made impossible, living under any given condition is imprisonment," he said and expressed a hope that he would be able to attend SFF once again.
The SFF acts as a major showcase for East European films. This year it will show more than 200 movies during the nine-day event.
Nine feature films from the region, spreading from Austria in the West to Turkey in the East, of which SFF helped produce three, will compete for the 25,000 euro ($36,060) Heart of Sarajevo Award.
Every year SFF hosts about 100,000 film fans, many from neighboring countries and hoteliers and tourism officials say that nearly all accommodation was booked up.
The most famous guests this year will be German film director Wim Wenders, British actress Charlotte Rampling and Hollywood star Michael Fassbender.
Editing by Matthew Jones