"Welcome to Sarajevo"

Charles Taylor reviews 'Welcome to Sarajevo' directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Stephen Dillane, Woody Harrelson and Kerry Fox


Charles Taylor
November 27, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

"WE'RE NOT HERE to help. We're here to report." Simple, even crude, but completely to the point -- that line of dialogue sums up Michael Winterbottom's "Welcome to Sarajevo." Following a group of British and American journalists covering the siege of Sarajevo, Winterbottom ("Jude," "Butterfly Kiss") exposes the inherent conflict between their vow of journalistic objectivity and their inability as human beings to distance themselves from the bloodshed that surrounds them.

The movie's screenplay, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, was inspired by the story of British foreign correspondent Michael Nicholson, who adopted a young girl from Sarajevo (recounted in Nicholson's book "Natasha's Story"). I don't expect that its basis in fact will prevent the film from suffering the same sort of op-ed attacks from the press that Roger Spottiswoode's 1982 "Under Fire" did. In "Welcome to Sarajevo," a British journalist named Henderson (Stephen Dillane) meets a 9-year-old girl at an orphanage near the front lines and arranges to smuggle her out of Sarajevo to London, where she will live with him and his family. Journalists who assume concerned, sober tones when they speak about the necessity of remaining neutral are likely to say that Henderson's actions cross the line dividing reporting from advocacy, and they're right. What they'll miss, and what Winterbottom and Boyce zero in on, is the absurdity of pretending neutrality in a war zone.

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"Welcome to Sarajevo" doesn't explore that absurdity with the art that "Under Fire" did. Winterbottom's film is openly a polemic. Messy and visceral, with an articulate, pointed anger that's recognizably British, "Welcome to Sarajevo" hits with an impact that's not diminished by the fact that Sarajevo's uneasy peace has held. Opening with newsreel footage (I assume; it's not always clear) of the fall of Vukovar, the credit sequence cuts abruptly to shots of Sarajevo, spruced up for the 1984 Winter Olympics. On the soundtrack, we hear Van Morrison's "The Way Young Lovers Do," the leaps and growls in his voice embodying endless possibility and unpredictable beauty, both of which seem foreclosed in the besieged Sarajevo we're soon hurled into. "Welcome to Sarajevo" (a bitterly ironic title) is far from perfect, but it is raw and alive in a way that nothing else I've seen so far this year can match.

You could argue that Winterbottom's methods aren't always fair, but what's accurate rarely is. In her review of Costa-Gavras' 1969 political melodrama "Z," Pauline Kael wrote, "The techniques of melodrama are not those of art, but if we accept them when they're used on trivial, fabricated stories ... merely to excite us, how can we reject them when the filmmakers attempt to use them to expose social evils and dramatize political issues?" Can a filmmaker tackle political material if he eschews fairness and "art"? The answer, I think, is yes, as long as he works with scrupulousness and intelligence.

Winterbottom's aims here aren't those of an artist. But there are other valid ways to make movies. He wants to make the misery of Sarajevo seep into your bones and make you outraged at the Western officials who allowed the genocide to occur. It's a measure of how upside-down this situation is that, of all the politicians we see in newsreel footage, the one who makes the most sense is Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, who says that with Sarajevo it's impossible to claim, as some did in 1945, that we didn't know what was going on. And, of course, one reason that's an impossible claim is journalists.

When the film's journalists descend on a market in the aftermath of a mortar attack, pointing their cameras at the dead and wounded, the question Winterbottom is asking about the propriety of filming people who are in shock and vulnerable may seem obvious, but that doesn't mean it's a silly question. It's further complicated by the underlying irony that the reporters' detachment is what allows these images to be transmitted to the rest of the world, and perhaps provoke the outrage that will bring change.

For all the certainty of his film's anger, Winterbottom presents sequences that defy easy resolution. He's smart enough to know that war doesn't present chances for moral purity. In one scene, the American journalist Flynn (terrifically played by Woody Harrelson with just the right touch of gonzo irreverence) walks into the midst of sniper fire to aid a priest trying to drag a woman's body out of the street. Flynn's cameraman captures it, and it becomes the centerpiece of his report. Later, the young British reporter Annie (Emily Lloyd, showing a newfound discipline) accuses Flynn of showing off. She's not wrong, but that doesn't lessen Flynn's bravery. The American relief worker Nina (Marisa Tomei, who has never seemed more likable or more genuine), who's arranging passage out of Sarajevo for the kids at that front-line orphanage, tries to tempt Henderson to come along by telling him it'll be a great story. They're both aware that she's using him, but this is a world of quid pro quo. Everyone is angling to get what suits their purposes: relief workers trying to get the press to publicize what's happening; producers greeting their reporters with "What did you get?" as they return from filming some new atrocity; black marketeers making money off the Westerners covering the siege.

Nothing is harder to sort out here than the plight of the children. During Henderson's trips to the orphanage, he promises to help a young Bosnian girl named Emira (played by Emira Nusevic, a girl from Sarajevo who was 5 when the war began, and who watches the world through dark eyes that have seen everything and still seem capable of hurt). It's a promise she holds him to, though it means he must subvert the Bosnian government, which has decreed that evacuation equals collaboration with the enemy. (The government sees it as serving the Serbs' stated aim of racial cleansing.) Henderson gets Nina to agree to let him use her transport of orphans as a cover for taking Emira to England. This sequence, the most wrenching in the movie, ties your guts in knots and breaks your heart. It doesn't take any special talent to get you to react to material like this. The talent comes in knowing where to draw the line, and Winterbottom does. He recognizes this sequence is affecting enough without pushing the audience to react.

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Despite the movie's criticism of the press, journalists are the closest thing to heroes in "Welcome to Sarajevo." The cynical, tough-talking heroes and heroines of '30s and '40s movies taught us to trust characters who cut through the bull. After the adrenalin jag of getting their story has worn off, the journalists here sit around their darkened hotel lobby, endlessly drinking and smoking, like barflies or coffeehouse habituis reluctant to call it a night. At other times they're like a hipper, ragtag version of the newsmen in "His Girl Friday." When Flynn badgers a U.N. official to name the 14 places on earth the man claims are more in need of immediate aid than Sarajevo, he's in a great tradition of movie wise guys.

It's fitting that a movie that plays like a dispatch from a war zone should capture so much of the texture of a city under siege. Winterbottom gets the chaos, the makeshift quality of life continuing in a city where something as trivial as crossing the street or driving a few blocks can mean taking your life in your hands. There are other details that stick in your mind, subtle ones, like a group of guys pooling their clothes so that their buddy Risto (Goran Visnjic), who's applying for a job as Henderson's driver, will look presentable; and later their awestruck faces when he returns with three eggs given to him by Flynn. Winterbottom also pulls off broader satirical scenes, like a beauty contest for Miss Besieged Sarajevo, where one swimsuited contestant strikes a cheesecake pose with a machine gun while the band churns out "Eve of Destruction."

Some of Winterbottom's use of news footage, and the way he blends it with filmed footage, makes me a bit queasy. You can only see so many shots of corpses before you stop reacting. It's horrible enough to see, on the television news, the bodies of two babies killed in an attack; magnified on the movie screen, the sight becomes almost invasive. Still, some of what this director does with news film reminds you that agitprop can be very witty. The juxtaposition of Western figures (like John Major) making speeches on Sarajevo with the lamebrain anthem "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is obvious, but the effrontery that fuels the moment redeems it. Scorn may be the only appropriate response to the spectacle of those officials who refused to intervene, visiting Sarajevo with the luxuries of bodyguards and flak jackets. And the rude directness of plain speech may be the only appropriate response to officials who invoked the centuries-old nature of the Balkans racial divide as an excuse for allowing genocide to proceed apace.

None of this answers the questions "Welcome to Sarajevo" raises about how far filmmakers (or novelists and playwrights) should go in abandoning the techniques of art in order to address a political evil. And while I'd agree with the comment often made by people in the arts that culture is never a luxury, I'd add that you can't really assess the value of any art unless you are willing to admit that, in some circumstances, culture seems irrelevant. Those times are not always apparent. Susan Sontag showed very real courage journeying to Sarajevo during the siege in order to stage theater. But her bravery stemmed from a conviction that something had to be done to save people's spirit when nothing was being done to save their flesh. For its 100 minutes, "Welcome to Sarajevo" makes the question of art beside the point. The holiday movie season could hardly have gotten off to a more bracing start.

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Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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