On a crisp morning in Sarajevo, the filmmaker Danis Tanovic breezed through the front door of Delikatesna Radnja wearing designer sunglasses and a newsboy cap. There are something like 1,300 cafes in Sarajevo, each embodying a unique ambience and clientele — Zlatna Ribica (“the Goldfish”) has a speakeasy aesthetic and serves a famed it’s an alcoholic coffee -- should we include?

Mexican coffee; Kino Bosna is a converted movie theater known for its live music, rakija (a local fruit brandy) and unabashed seediness. The Delikatesna Radnja, with floor-to-ceiling windows that face the Miljacka River and the mountains beyond, caters to the theater and film crowd. Tanovic, who directed “No Man’s Land,” winner of the 2002 Oscar for best foreign language film, is something of a celebrity here. While the waiter prepared macchiatos for us, Tanovic chatted up customers at nearby tables. With his heavy eyelids and tendency to speak out of the side of his mouth, he resembled a younger, stockier Robert DeNiro. He seemed to know everyone in the room.

“No Man’s Land,” a troubling and brilliant parody about the absurdity of the war that ripped the former Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s, opened many doors for other Bosnian filmmakers. Four years after “No Man’s Land” appeared, another Sarajevan, Jasmila Zbanic, won the Golden Bear, the highest prize awarded at the Berlin Film Festival, for “Grbavica,” her film about a child conceived through rape during the war. Now the city has emerged as a center of European cinema, with an important summer festival regularly watched by Hollywood. (Morgan Freeman attended this year.) The success of its filmmakers has in turn galvanized a whole cultural movement, with Tanovic acting as pooh-bah, in which artists, actors and musicians are trying to transcend the ethnic divisions that contributed to — and have prevailed since — the war. “The best art always come from oppressive regimes,” he said. “When an artist is living in a country like this, art is the only tool available to you.”

Bosnia is not oppressive in the sense of, say, North Korea or Iran. Wandering the cobblestone streets in Bascarsija, the city’s Ottoman quarter, it’s hard to imagine that just 15 years ago Serbian snipers, tanks and artillery units were laying siege. Nowadays, Sarajevo’s restaurants, galleries, hotels and shops make it one of the most compelling capitals in Europe.

An afternoon stroll guides you through five centuries of history: the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarians, the Nazis and the Communists all left marks here. Along the narrow lanes that bunch around the 16th-century mosque of Gazi Husrev-Beg, the Ottoman warrior who once ruled Sarajevo, coppersmiths bang out plates and handled urns. Within a few hundred yards stands a Catholic church, a Serbian Orthodox church and a synagogue. “If you go to Istanbul, you can see Ottoman styles. Go to Vienna, you see Austro-Hungarian. Go to Moscow, you see Orthodox,” Nihad Kresevljakovic, the producer of Sarajevo’s annual experimental theater festival, told me. “Here you can see all of these together in miniature.”

Still, there is plenty of recent destruction on display. Facades are punctured with bullet holes, and the National Library, shelled by Serbian artillery in 1992 and left to burn for days, remains shrouded in scaffolding, awaiting renovation. Red paint, called Sarajevo’s “roses,” marks spots around town where Serbian artillery killed civilians standing in bread lines and browsing xafs stalls. At the Tunnel of Hope, a nearly-900-yard underground passage dug in 1993 by Bosnian Muslims to ferry people out and bring supplies in, there are dozens of photographs of previous visitors, including the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke and the actor Richard Gere. At the bottom of his photograph, Gere wrote: “Hopefully this tunnel will never be used again.”

Tanovic has gone one step further to help make that a reality. He returned to Sarajevo in the summer of 2007 after living abroad and founded his own political party, Nasa Stranka (“Our Party”), the following year. It promoted a platform of a post-ethnic Bosnia. The party leadership consisted of Tanovic, a theater director named Dino Mustafic and young men and women jaded with politics but willing to support a venture with Tanovic at the helm. In municipal elections held just six months after Nasa Stranka’s formation, the party won 15 percent of the vote, enough to form a short-lived ruling coalition for city government. At the presidential and parliamentary elections next month, Tanovic hopes to further the party’s gains.

“If we don’t do something, nobody will do it,” Tanovic told me, exuding, like most of the artists I met in Bosnia, a distinct black-turtlenecked cynicism and dry sense of humor. “We are the last generation who remembers life before the war.” The waiter brought our coffees, along with an ashtray the size of a Frisbee. (Paris, Rome and Istanbul may have banned smoking inside cafes, but Sarajevans hold firm to their belief in the inseparability of coffee and cigarettes.) “The younger ones don’t have any reference point,” he continued. “So we are a bridge and we have to provide the possibility for the youth to take control of their lives.”

One of the people in government who has supported younger artists is Gavrilo Grahovac, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Minister of Culture and Sport. For the past eight years he has become a patron of the arts, redirecting government funds into foundations that subsidize creative endeavors. “Every Bosnian artist who is now successful in the world was completely unknown before my foundation,” Grahovac said (an immodest claim some artists found inaccurate). “The only one from before was Danis. But ‘No Man’s Land’ just helped me convince people in government that they should finance these movies.” (Tanovic’s latest film, “Cirkus Columbia,” was underwritten in part by Grahovac’s office.)

Grahovac’s financing has also made him that rare bird: the helpful bureaucrat. Faris Arapovic, a rock drummer who, by way of introduction, declared himself “quite hardcore,” described Grahovac as “the only sane person in this government.” Others in the arts community have found his choices controversial. Nonetheless, with a stagnant economy and unemployment, by some estimates, hovering near 40 percent, his efforts have become critical.

Another recipient of Grahovac’s financing is Kresevljakovic’s annual experimental theater festival, MESS. I accompanied Kresevljakovic one day on a trip to the town of Srebrenica, where he was organizing a performance by a multiethnic troupe. Fifteen years earlier, Bosnian Serb soldiers had massacred more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica and dumped their bodies into mass graves. One of the actors in the festival, Dominik Bajoi, a 22-year-old Croat from the southern city of Mostar, shuddered at the thought of the atrocities committed in the town. It was a gray, snowy day, and we’d stopped to play some pool at the Acapulco Cafe before the show that night. “It’s creepy here,” he muttered as he chalked his pool cue.

Bajoi’s trip to Srebrenica captured one of the central differences in the way that his own generation of artists, compared with Tanovic’s, incorporate the war into their work. Whereas Tanovic and others tend to reflect on the horrors, Bajoi imagined the arts as a platform for moving on. What better way to rejoice in the redemptive power of theater than with an abstract take on “The Bald Soprano” at the site of the greatest European war crime since World War II? Pausing between pool shots, Bajoi said: “Theater in Srebrenica!?! You just don’t expect to hear those words together.”

For Tanovic to succeed at channeling this post-ethnic creative energy onto a political stage, he is going to have to assure that Bajoi and his ilk show up at the polls in October. Making movies, Tanovic confessed, might turn out to be easy compared with leading a polarized, war-torn country.

“You don’t sound overly optimistic,” I said.

“Oh, no,” he replied. “I’m an optimist. Things can always get worse.”


HOTEL Hotel Central (8 Cumurija Street; 011-387-33-561800; hotelcentral.ba; doubles from about $140) is an ideally located boutique hotel with a spa.

CAFES AND RESTAURANTS 4 Sobe Gospodje Safije (Cekalusa 61; 011-387-626-22822) offers upscale modern European cuisine. Delikatesna Radnja (Obala Kulina Bana 10; 011-387-332-08855; drfood.ba) is a hip hangout, with an excellent restaurant next door. Kino Bosna (Alipasina 19) is a nighttime spot featuring art, live music and occasional film screenings. Zlatna Ribica (Kaptol 5; 011-387-332-15369) is a cozy, less edgy place.

SIGHTS To visit the Tunnel of Hope, ask the hotel to arrange a taxi and an English-speaking guide. The Bosniak Institute (bosnjackiinstitut.ba) hosts an impressive art collection. The experimental theater festival MESS is held every October (mess.ba), and the Sarajevo Film Festival comes in late July (sff.ba).