In 1993, a year after arriving in besieged Sarajevo, Roger Richards of Norfolk, Virginia - a filmmaker, photographer and author - stood amid hundreds of fresh graves in Lion Cemetery and made a vow to the citizens of that city that he would tell their story.
"Sarajevo Roses," a documentary-cinematic essay, was produced over a span of 24 years and tells the story through five people "who survived death and unimaginable horror, and have struggled since to rebuild their city and their lives."
According to Richards, "The stories are of ordinary people living in extraordinary time. They survived a medieval siege, the longest of the 20th century at 1,395 days. ... The war in Bosnia triggered the worst mass killings and ethnic cleansing of civilians in Europe since the Holocaust in World War II."
In a director's statement, Richards proclaimed, "This film is about the human capacity to heal and find meaning in life after experiencing great emotional trauma.. My goal is to help bridge the gap between the war and its aftermath, and show how its impact has felt even by generations that were as yet unborn."
The world premiere of the film was last December in Brussels, Belgium, at the European Parliament. And the screening of "Sarajevo Roses" at the College of William & Mary is the start of a U.S. academic tour.
I asked Richards why he chose William & Mary as the site of the U.S. premiere.
"I chose W&M because of their Bosnia Project that connects W&M students with Bosnian students and teachers, and promotes intercultural exchange. I have been in contact with the college for several years now, and when I was invited to bring the film to W&M I readily agreed."
He explained that the documentary is mainly about grace and human resilience in face of terrible acts of cruelty. But the film is also about how civilization is a fragile thing.
"Our modern society is built on interpersonal relationships and tolerance of others who might be different. Whether the difference is political, racial or ethnicity, we chose to live and grow together," he said. "Once those bonds begin to fray, or break, all it takes is someone in political leadership willing to exploit it for their own power. That's what happened in Yugoslavia."
Richards hopes that his film will prompt genuine political conversation and personal reflection on why our world seems to be in so much conflict right now.
"In the USA, I want the film to connect audiences to the fact that we are not much different than people in other parts of the world, and that at heart we mainly all want the same thing: peace and a chance to provide for our families," he said.
I asked Richards which documentary filmmaker has been his role model. He apparently set a high bar for himself.
"I studied with the legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, and what he taught me helped this film come to life, especially during the roughest moments," he said. "The film 'Shoah' by Claude Lanzmann, about the Holocaust, is an epic that has affected me and solidified my conviction to do my best to produce a film that hopefully stand the test of time. I am also appreciative of the work of many other directors, and not only the documentary genre: Tarkovsky and Malick for their mysticism and poetic sense; Chris Marker for cinematic and intellectual deftness; Eastwood for disciplined, workman-like style with exceptional storytelling, and I could go on."
During the four-year siege of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, hundreds of thousands of artillery, mortar and tank shells were fired into the city, and as each exploded, it left a crater resembling a flower. Citizens called them "Sarajevo roses."
Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.