The Sarajevo Derby: The Documentary

By Dr Joel Rookwood

My latest documentary is based in Bosnia and Herzegovina, on one of the most atmospheric football derbies in Europe, contested in one of the most absorbing cities on the continent. The Sarajevo Derby is a film at least as much about the city, its history of conflict, and my journey to it, as it is the football rivalry it professes to centre on. It barely even shows a ball being kicked. This is a football film that is not really about football.


After visiting every country in Europe I produced a subjective list of the continent’s greatest cities – positioning Sarajevo in seventh place. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also currently ranked seventh in another more objective list – that of the least visited countries in Europe (‘beaten’ to first place by micro states such as San Marino and Liechtenstein). Bosnia’s tourism industry is developing, but at a quicker rate than its infrastructure. Budget airlines for instance have not yet embraced the former war-torn country in the way that neighbouring Croatia has experienced.

The film was shot in April 2016, a month in which I watched four incredibly diverse derbies on consecutive weekends, in Barcelona, Algiers, Copenhagen and Sarajevo. I spent just 77 hours on the trip to the Balkans – visiting three countries in three days. What I captured is inevitably a snapshot of people and place, which in a land of such complexities seems a risky undertaking.


When National Geographic commission a photographer to capture the essence of an event or scene, they are often sent for a prolonged period in order to become immersed in the culture they are tasked with representing. As Robert Draper eloquently argues, “by wrestling a precious particle of the world from time and space and holding it absolutely still, a great photograph can explode the totality of our world, such that we never see it quite the same again.” He also depicts the importance of the hunger for the unknown and the courage to be ignorant, which resonates with what often inspires my videography: risking accusations of ignorance in the pursuit of helping others better understand the complexities of people in splintered, marginal or remote environments. As an outsider, ignorance might prove an inevitable thread and threat to any artistic, journalistic or scholarly representation produced after just three days on location. This is magnified by this particular context, which Lara Nettelfield describes as “uniquely complicated.”


My somewhat diverse Balkan expeditions have however been spread across the peninsula, staged at various intervals since the turn of the century. These experiences not only inform this film, but are intricately interwoven into the fabric of my perspective – positioning, focusing and tinting the lens through which I see Bosnia and its neighbours. The journey began when I first entered Liverpool’s STA Travel the day I left school in 1999, where I picked up an inter-railing brochure. The cities mapped on the pages and the lines between them offered a labyrinth of routes through enticing places I had previously known only from the perspective of others. The colour coded maps which split the continent into zones offered up relatively accessible and affordable travel. Inter-railing in sections, I embarked on four trans-European train trips before completing my first university degree. Not all parts of the continent were made accessible through this form of rail travel however. I wondered how Morocco was included on the map but most of what was Yugoslavia remained off limits – excluded blocks of peripheral grey, devoid of detail.


Accessing much of the Balkan region involved more creative means and reasons for travel – new grounds for crossing new ground. I began with the softest possible introduction to the former Yugoslavia, entering Slovenia from Italy, before heading for the Croatian capital. Ten years earlier a televised football riot at a match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in Zagreb triggered the breakup of Yugoslavia. Dinamo captain Zvonimir Boban was a central figure, who won the World Youth Championship with Yugoslavia in 1987, and went on to lift league and European titles with AC Milan before helping newly independent Croatia secure third place at the 1998 World Cup.

As violence erupted between opposing supporters during the visit of Red Star in 1990, Boban kicked a policeman, symbolising the resistance to the perceived Serb-centricity in Yugoslavia and the growing socio-political unrest in the region. It was a moment that instantly became etched in memory, an act since commemorated by a famous mural. The following year Red Star were crowned European Champions, as representatives of a strong Yugoslav league in which many domestic fixtures effectively served as international battles in the minds of the people. The Maksimir Stadium Riot proved a prelude to war. As communism collapsed, Yugoslavia disintegrated, with various entities declaring independence, leading to complex and often prolonged ethno-religious wars during the 1990s. Some football hooligan firms formed paramilitary groups who engaged in armed conflict and perpetrated various war crimes. Yugoslavia, football and conflict became inextricably linked.


I returned to Slovenia in 2002 to watch Liverpool contest a hooligan-infested UEFA Cup fixture in Ljubljana. The following season I drove from Budapest to Bulgaria for a similar European tie against Levski Sofia, travelling the length of what was Serbia and Montenegro and passing some significant locations from the Yugoslav Wars in the process. It was on my first visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004 however where the region really left a lasting impression. Sarajevo was under siege for almost four years during the 1990s, the longest siege of any capital city in the history of modern conflict. The country and its capital became virtuously synonymous with death, destruction and displacement. Working on a collaborative NGO project, we led a cross-border, multi-ethnic football programme aimed at facilitating peace building processes amongst young people whose parents had died either side of the divide during the conflict.


As U2 spy planes flew reconnaissance missions to Bosnia during the protracted war, the Irish rock band of the same name attempted to refocus the world’s attention, and that of a fatigued media, on the plight of the victims of conflict. U2 performed a post-war concert in Sarajevo in 1997, after transmitting programmes from the war-torn Bosnian capital via satellite link on the European leg of their Zoo TV concert tour in 1993. My documentary includes two covers of Miss Sarajevo, which lead singer Bono once signalled out as his favourite U2 song. He dedicated it to the people of the city, which he described as “the most beautiful city; sophisticated, complex and multicultural.” Landing in Sarajevo in 2004 with that song ringing in my ears, what struck me first was the beauty of the mountainous landscape. Yet it was a runway on which over 800 people had been killed a decade earlier; before the UN took control of the airport, under which the Bosnians then dug a tunnel enabling the transport of people and supplies, which fundamentally altered the siege of Sarajevo and the outcome of the war.


We visited the small enclave of Srebrenica, which nine years earlier was the site of the worst crimes committed on European soil since 1945. More than 8,000 Bosniaks were murdered in a series of executions and massacres in July 1995, a genocide committed in and around the first UN Safe Area, intended as a humanitarian corridor to protect civilians. We were locked in a dark factory warehouse which had housed the UN base before peacekeepers abandoned the town and its people, as a short but harrowing film of the genocide was shown on a large screen. Across the road Bosniak body parts were simultaneously being buried from a recently exhumed mass grave, a practice that continues to this day. A pattern of concentration camps, mass rape and ethnic cleansing spread throughout Bosnia during the war. Driving through the decimated streets of Srebrenica was the most eerie experience imaginable. It felt more like a film set than a functioning town; The Bosnians who survived wore war on their faces.


In 2008 I travelled overland from the Macedonian capital of Skopje to Pristina, three weeks after Kosovo declared itself a ‘new born’ country, independent from Serbia. A heavy UN presence remained, as did evidence of the conflict with Serb forces. Initially, few international partners supported the Kosovan declaration of autonomy, although 111 of the 193 UN member states have since recognised Kosovo’s sovereignty, and FIFA membership was awarded in May 2016.


In 2012 I visited various regions of Montenegro and other significant war-time locations, notably Dubrovnik on the Croatian coast and the Herzegovinian city of Mostar. During the siege of Mostar from 1992, thousands were killed and many more were displaced as the ethnic composition of the region altered considerably. The city’s 16th-century Ottoman Stari Most (Old Bridge) was destroyed during the conflict, but the now reconstructed bridge is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, around which shelled buildings remain adjacent to war graves. Market stalls sell spent bullet casings refashioned as engraved pens, at best a representation of the metonymic adage, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, and at worst an insensitive manifestation of dark tourism. At the entrance to the bridge warnings are carved in stone: “Don’t forget.”


Collectively these experiences helped shape my understanding of the region, and informed preparations for a film. The visit to Bosnia and the Sarajevo Derby in 2016 was planned in stages over an extensive period. Timing, opportunities, gatekeepers and guides all played significant roles. The final decision to film a documentary however – which was shot almost entirely on an iPhone 5s – was not actually made until the week before arriving in Bosnia. Sarajevo is difficult to access directly, and the cheapest and most interesting routes to the city are usually via neighbouring countries, particularly Croatia. After landing in Osijek in north-eastern Croatia, I headed overland along with my accomplice turned cameraman Declan Tanner, who also filmed my CONIFA documentary The other World Cup: Football across borders the following month. We travelled first to Erdut on the Serbian frontier, which had been the site of a massacre in 1992, and the training base for some football hooligan paramilitaries. After a two-kilometre walk across no-man’s-land and over the River Danube we crossed the Serbian border, where the primary alphabet on road signs shifted from Latin to Cyrillic, reflecting the emerging linguistic distinctions between ethnic groups. Returning to Croatian territory, we headed to Vukovar, the site of the largest massacre of the Croatian War of Independence, which until Srebrenica was the worst collective war crime in Europe since the Third Reich. Signs of war damage and civilian casualties remain evident from the city’s bullet-strewn walls and war cemeteries.


Just as I had done twelve years earlier whilst working for an NGO, we headed south and crossed the Bosnian border at Orašje, the site of a battle during the Bosnian conflict in May 1995. Travelling through the mountains, and stopping at the occasional football ground along the way, we reached Tuzla – where a civilian massacre occurred in the same month – before arriving in Sarajevo. In a land saturated with battle, massacre and genocide sites, as well as war graves and memorials, it would be difficult to travel through Bosnia without at least some consciousness of the conflict. After getting lost on the journey south a roadside map caught my attention, which actually displayed charted land mines still buried in the surrounding area.


The hurricane of violence which blew through this corner of Europe produced hundreds of thousands of casualties. Efforts to locate and exhume the estimated 40,000 missing people from the western Balkan wars continue; a painstaking process of unearthing and identifying putrefactive material representing millions of body parts, the consequence of savage pogroms. In some cases the contents of mass graves have been disinterred and reinterred into secondary and even tertiary burial pits to hide the evidence, or relocated near sites of armed confrontations to frame massacre victims as combat casualties. The search for bodies continues, in pursuit of truth, justice and the primary urge to bury and ritualise the remains of loved ones. With widespread and ongoing excavations of what Ed Vulliamy refers to as “Bosnia’s unquiet dead” any visit to this region is drenched in poignancy.


After arriving in Sarajevo, we visited various locations from the 1984 Winter Olympics, including the bobsleigh track, the graffitied remains of which tourists are free to walk upon. We then met up with Skender, a Bosnian who runs war tours of the city. A private tour became a four-hour interview, in which he offered fascinating insight into the conflict and his own experiences of growing up in the war. I was conscious that the football documentary I had set out to create had changed in the process of production. During editing I split the film into three unequal sections, with footage relating to the Bosnian conflict sandwiched between that of the journey to Sarajevo and the city’s football rivalry.


The derby section of the film owed much to Shaun Duffy, a fellow Scouser and author of Football is life, a veteran observer of some of the greatest (as opposed to most glamorous) derbies on the continent, on which his book is based. He dedicates a chapter to the Gradski derby between FK Željezničar and FK Sarajevo, and an image of the Željo support adorns the front cover. He introduced me via social media to key members of one of the club’s fan groups, The Maniacs. The access I was subsequently afforded would not have been possible without Shaun serving as a gatekeeper. Two of his contacts, Adnan and Stripy, were invaluable hosts and guides to the derby. Adnan, who has been an invaluable source of information, does not feature on the film unfortunately, but Stripy certainly does. We were unannounced outsiders attempting to infiltrate the Maniacs’ pre-match derby routine, yet any initial suspicions worn on Željo faces were soon allayed by Stripy. This hugely prominent, imposing yet friendly figure took time in between a vast array of conversations and phone calls, to offer frank and funny answers to direct questions, and ensured our protection throughout the day. We were accepted and respected by association.


We marched with 6,000 vociferous Željezničar fans to the Olympic Stadium and home of city rivals FK Sarajevo. It was the most atmospheric and memorable march to a ground I have ever encountered. To discover what happened in the spectacle that followed you will have to watch the film. Being offered a passport to the inner sanctum of one of Europe’s greatest derbies was a privilege, and the three-day visit to Bosnia provided such a concentrated exposure to the region, and particularly the city of Sarajevo, that it took me eleven months to turn the 140 minutes of footage into a 45-minute film. Gratitude abounds for all those who helped make it possible.




The Sarajevo Derby: The trailer

The Sarajevo Derby – Trailer from joel rookwood on Vimeo.

The Sarajevo Derby: Full film

The Sarajevo Derby from joel rookwood on Vimeo.

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