In his 1993 book Sarajevo: A War Journal, the Bosnian journalist Zlatko Dizdarevic reported about an eleven-year-old child who was waiting in line for water when snipers killed his mother and father: "After the shooting, this boy started to fetch and pour water over the bodies of his dead parents. He didn't want to stop even when his sister, seriously wounded, told him: 'Stop, Berin, stop, they're dead.'" The strongest sections of Michael Winterbottom's new film, Welcome to Sarajevo, have that kind of wounded, wounding poignancy. Winterbottom has created a fiction film about the siege of Sarajevo that bristles with the raw, unnerving textures of a battlefield documentary.
The newly orphaned boy carrying water caused Dizdarevic to ask, "What's with this water that we, curiously robotic and near exhaustion, have been carrying in buckets for months?" In a similar vein, Winterbottom portrays gnarly reflexes and habits that persist in part as an ironic comment on themselves. In Welcome to Sarajevo, the Sarajevans struggle to keep living "normally," even though all the routines and sacraments of life, from a bread queue to a wedding, can be fatal. The director cunningly combines staged confrontations with stock news footage of the atrocity-ridden Yugoslavian civil war. The results keep jolting viewers out of their complacency. There's no safe zone in this movie; the hotel base for the international journalists runs on emergency power and rattles with ricocheting gunfire.
It's astonishing how much feeling Winterbottom pours into the movie considering the sketchiness of the characters and plot. The project started when the producers bought the rights to British journalist Michael Nicholson's Natasha's Story, an autobiographical book about his adoption of a young Bosnian girl. Director Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce chose to rename Nicholson -- he's Michael Henderson here -- and make him one of several TV reporters covering the civil war, each with a different level of compassion and commitment.
Henderson (played by Stephen Dillane) is a cautious, civilized bloke who begins as a neutral observer. His antithesis is a showboat Yank reporter named Flynn (Woody Harrelson), who doesn't hesitate to tend the wounded and violate the journalistic code of objectivity. In a pleasant surprise, Flynn the TV news star turns out to be genuinely committed to getting the word out about Bosnia. Next to Flynn, Henderson seems particularly passive. When he saves a child, you wonder if it comes merely from his desire to do something heroic, like Flynn.
For a while we're willing to accept the film as a makeshift mosaic. The moviemakers glue together bits and pieces of Flynn and Henderson and a fledgling freelancer (Emily Lloyd), of Henderson's cameraman (James Nesbitt) and producer (Kerry Fox) and Sarajevan driver (Goran Visnjic). But when the film concentrates exclusively on Henderson's efforts to rescue a waif named Emira (Emira Nusevic), it loses more intensity than it gains. Emira's face has a haunting furtiveness -- too bad you have to take her relationship with Henderson on faith. Winterbottom and Boyce come up with a foster-fatherhood of moral and political convenience. The phone conversation in which Henderson tells his wife that he's bringing back a Bosnian girl is wonderfully suggestive; you intuit a marriage based on shared understanding. Unfortunately the ensuing glimpses of the Hendersons' home life with Emira in England are underfelt, even generic. And when Emira's mother surfaces in Sarajevo and Henderson returns to see her, the sequence drifts into anticlimax. Winterbottom is telling us that no simple happy ending could be possible for either Emira or Sarajevo. But he winds up with a flat coda and, for the audience, one or two puzzlements. For example, we're startled to learn that Henderson's chipper producer had an affair with his handsome driver. How were we supposed to have known? It's laudable to subsume fictional characters in the portrayal of an urban vortex, lamentable to allow them to go down the drain.
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The film is told from the Bosnian point of view but doesn't analyze the roots of the Serbians' (and Bosnian Serbs') "ethnic cleansing." And its regrettable way of commenting on the inadequacy of the world's response is to play Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" over scenes of European and U.S. politicians and diplomats. Elsewhere the use of American and European rock music is apt and touching.
But the film overflows with indelible images of a siege that turns everyone -- even idealists -- into members of armed camps; if its story doesn't stick to your ribs, its several atmospheres stick to your lungs. Winterbottom persuasively conjures the bohemian bonhomie of the Sarajevan driver's friends, the bourgeois warmth and pride of a baker whose son is in a concentration camp, and the incongruous bravery of swimsuit beauties competing for the title of Miss Besieged Sarajevo.
Because of this multihued emotional fabric, Welcome to Sarajevo has character even if it lacks characters; the people speaking the lines gain authority from their surroundings. When the Sarajevan driver joins the fighting, he's not a hackneyed figure of lost innocence; rather he conveys the sadness that Dizdarevic described in his war journal: "That's what this war is, nothing but a long goodbye. You say goodbye to your illusions and your past, your dreams, your habits, hopes and projects, all things great and small, and the places inseparable from days gone by. You even say goodbye to the simple things that make up a life." Welcome to Sarajevo, at its best, resembles the Solidarity movies of Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (notably 1977's Man of Marble): It bears eloquent witness to history.
Welcome to Sarajevo.
Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on Natasha's Story, by Michael Nicholson. Starring Stephen Dillane, Woody Harrelson, Emira Nusevic, Kerry Fox, Goran Visnjic, and Emily Lloyd.