Welcome To Sarajevo Directed by Michael Winterbottom
The title of this unusual film from British director Michael Winterbottom encapsulates all the excruciating irony of the situation it portrays. The title phrase is glimpsed spray-painted on walls throughout the ravaged city, a grim reminder of the harmony, prosperity and world-wide attention Sarajevo enjoyed as host of the 1984 Winter Olympics.
In the 1990's attention was once again focused on Sarajevo in a completely different way. In the first major feature film about the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Winterbottom explores the cliche that access to information makes us more connected to events and more responsible. Using the true story of an English reporter assigned to Sarajevo as a vehicle, he involves us in a nightmare world where running for your life is a commonplace of everyday existence.
Journalist Michael Henderson, played by Stephen Dillane, finds himself increasingly emotionally involved in the conflict he is covering. As one of a cadre of reporters assigned to the city, he can't help but identify with the "casualties" of the "war" he is witnessing. They are not soldiers - consenting adults fighting (on both sides!) for the supposed honor and integrity of their homeland. They are ordinary people, the inhabitants of this beautiful and refined city, unable to escape, trapped and targeted in a terrorist scenario that defies rational understanding, pawns in a national and international game of power and prestige.
Henderson becomes involved with an impromptu orphanage, set up to deal with the thousands of children whose parents were part of the nearly half million civilians killed or missing during the conflict. His attention becomes focused on a nine-year-old girl, Emira (Emira Nusevic) who has spent six years in the facility. Eventually he manages to get her out of Sarajevo and takes her in as part of his own family in England.
But the story of Henderson and Emira is only back-ground for the real story here, which is the story of our own history, how it was presented to us, how we responded to it, and what those perceptions and responses meant to the people trapped in the middle of it.
Using a broad cast of characters - many of them actual Sarajevans -Winterbottom, who also wrote the screenplay, gives us entree to the painful reality behind the sixty-second film-clips we saw on the television news, the scholarly discussions of Yugoslavian history we read in the papers or watched on the talk shows.
He shows us the children, mothers, fathers, babies, who were, as always, the real losers in this war. Interspersed with new dramatic film is film and video footage shot during the siege of Sarajevo by the crew of Saga Film, a local film company which was part of the production of the movie. Winterbottom intercuts archival footage with his own shots, and segues from hand-held video to film to show us the contrast between what we saw on TV and what was really happening.This skillful and sometimes dizzying technique has its desired effect of engaging us to watch more closely at the precise moment where our televised alter-ego delicately turned away.
The agonies of the Sarajevans are never presented as a object of pity, however. Their triumphs, like the legendary cello recital to save Sarajevo, held without incident in the open air, in full view of potential snipers in the surrounding hills, are also recounted. Their suffering and their spirit are neither patronized nor romanticized. They are simply recounted, incidentally, matter-of-factly, as they actually occurred.
The pronouncements of the pundits however, are an endless source of bitter fun. At one point the United Nations Secretary-General is shown explaining to reporters why the UN can't do more to protect the population. "We have twelve other places in the world that are worse than this." Boutros-Ghali unctuously coos. Flynn, a bumptious US reporter played by Woody Harrelson, responds "Would you mind naming them?"Throughout the film, characters then refer to Sarajevo as "the thirteenth worst place on earth."
The calculated posturing and the diplomatic double-speak of Radovan Karadzic, John Major, Bill Clinton and other "world leaders," who appear in news footage, are contrasted effectively with the intensity and passion of those whose lives are so profoundly affected by their words.
More than a simple "anti-war" movie, Welcome to Sarajevo is a "pro-humanity" movie. It seeks to debunk the concept of solving political differences through force of arms, to humanize the statistics that are so coldly characterized as "the costs of war." But it never descends to political polemic. It simply show us what we have done - points out how we have all, by our actions or our lack of action, contributed to the outcome, and allows us time to consider whether we ought to have made a different choice, whether we will make a different choice next time.
Meanwhile, we are presented with unforgettable images of those whose lives are forever affected by those choices, from the joyful mother-of-the-bride, shot to death by a sniper on the way to her daughter's wedding in a sunny Sarajevo street, to the six-year-old whose parents are both killed in a mortar attack; from the teen-age girl who recounts how her father and brothers were rounded up and executed, to the Sarajevo baker, openly weeping over the polaroid photo of his missing son, emaciated but alive, in a concentration camp.
Winterbottom is a young film-maker, with only two previous releases in the US, who shows us what the resurgence in British film-making is all about. This film is technically sophisticated, but never lets technical tricks substitute for dramatic development. His choices of actors, including US box-office attractions Harrelson and Marisa Tomei (who has a small but very effective role as a feisty NGO representative risking her life to bring some of the orphans out of Bosnia) are well calculated to draw interest from a segment of the market that might otherwise easily ignore this film (as they mostly ignored the Bosnian conflict in the first place).
He draws wonderfully simple, un-dramatic performances from all his troupe, that have all the more force for their restraint. He often uses children to deliver some of the most horrifying details, their un-schooled delivery lending their accounts the ring of authenticity. He keeps the focus of the story mobile, so that, although we follow Emira and Henderson, they don't swamp the story with their personal issues.
What we see unfolding around them, where they are sometimes in the center and sometimes in the distant background, is the real subject here, and Winterbottom's technique delivers it with an immediacy and honesty from which a more engaging personal narrative could only distract.
With intimate assistance from a Sarajevan cast and crew - many members of the indigenous Saga Film company, that stayed in Sarajevo throughout the siege to document it in hopes of one day telling the story of their city's people - Winterbottom has produced a picture that breaks new ground. With intelligence, compassion and technical skill he offers us an honest, often painful consideration of our recent history that moves beyond the "docu-drama" or the conventions of "war films," to confront us with an opportunity to look at ourselves, perhaps to change.
That's my take on it. What's yours?