SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — The ticket office has sandbags stacked against the windows to stop snipers' bullets. The makeshift theater is in the basement of an apartment building 300 yards from the front line. The films themselves are low-quality video copies with garbled soundtracks.
Welcome to the Locarno Film Festival in Sarajevo. For 11 days at the end of January, 16 films from 11 countries were shown at the Obala Arts Center in Sarajevo. A mini version of the well-known festival held in Locarno, Switzerland, every year, residents say the Sarajevo festival, and the large and diverse audience it attracts, are both triumphant and tragic.
In a stylishly decorated, smoke-filled lobby with American rap music thumping in the background, young art students dressed in black stand next to middle-aged men in bland, communist-era clothes. Teenagers flirt and huddle in groups while older couples talk about their friends and families.
''In the past, I had no inclination to see these kinds of films,'' says Haris Osmangac, a Sarajevo dentist who says he has seen two documentaries and four feature films at the festival. ''It's helps me in a lot of ways especially at the moment with the war situation.''
Dr. Osmangac was leaving ''Hello, Georgia,'' a French documentary about the former Soviet republic. The festival includes fictional films, documentaries, and abstract non-narrative films from Iran, Senegal, China, and other countries. The topics range from Iranian war refugees to Canada's northern lights to Palermo prostitutes.
''We would like to present to you the best from the film festivals you cannot visit,'' reads a statement from the organizers. ''Despite the fact that we are all together in the biggest concentration camp in the world, we want to present artistic achievements in film.''
Elma Hadziredzepovic, one of the festival's organizers, says at least 500 people attended the festival, sometimes jamming the makeshift basement theater featuring a 12-by-10-foot screen, a lone space heater, and folding chairs and benches that seat about 40.
''Young and old come,'' she says. ''Everyone wants something else to think about.''
Several festivalgoers and Ms. Hadziredzepovic said the most popular film at the festival was ''Babylon: Fear Is Man's Best Friend.'' A film by Italian director Guido Chiesa, the movie is about a married Italian woman who has a brief affair in America and then returns home. The complications begin when the American comes to visit her in Italy for his vacation.
Another favorite has been ''Joe and Marie,'' a film by Swiss director Tania Stocklin about two teenagers who meet by chance on the docks of the Italian city of Turin, fall in love, and then decide to move to Africa.
Ivica Pinjuh, a bearded film and literature professor dressed in a beret, says people attend the festival to break the sense of isolation they feel after being trapped in the six-by-two-mile Bosnian-government controlled parts of the city for almost three years.
''Everybody comes,'' he says. ''You have film freaks, you have my students, and you have people who just want to see what's been happening in the world.''
There are a handful of commercial theaters that operate intermittently in Sarajevo. ''The Pelican Brief'' and ''A Perfect World'' have been playing in the city this winter, but festivalgoers said Locarno, one of a handful of festivals held since the siege began, offers something more.
Sana Djabo, a social worker and 40-year Sarajevo resident, says she has seen five films, several with her father. Still walking with a cane, she had seven bones fractured when a wall collapsed on her after a shell hit her apartment in May 1992.
''We all love it because it's so interesting,'' she says. ''I always like to see documentaries. It's some kind of food for the [mental] area of human life.''