Welcome to Sarajevo (United Kingdom/United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Considering the wealth of material provided by the recent tragedy in Bosnia, it's surprising that Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo is the first major Western motion picture to take place in the war-torn country. It's possible to argue that the reason for this is that English-speaking directors are intimidated by the sheer scope and complexity of the conflict, and they somehow feel that any attempt on their part to chronicle even an aspect of the war would be inadequate. More likely, however, it's a pragmatic realization -- films about this particular subject are anathema to the public, and, because of that, they are likely to result in an anemic performance at the box-office.

There are many possibilities why movie-goers would react negatively to a film about Bosnia, but the most likely reason has its roots in the way the media covered the conflict. During the early 1990s, we were bombarded by images from the war on a daily basis. All the networks had reporters on the front lines, and, as a result, every nightly newscast featured images of bodies, soundbytes of world leaders condemning the attempted genocide, and pictures of bombed-out cities and villages. But, to keep viewers from turning to another channel, it was all sanitized. There was no sense of true horror; this was half a world away. It didn't seem real, and the television coverage was edited in a manner designed to keep our repugnance at bay. Consequently, the public became apathetic about the Bosnian war, and, after a while, began to tune it out. Yet, on some level, everyone recognized that something genuinely terrible was transpiring; we just didn't want to understand the depth of it. So a movie that challenges us by revealing truths about this conflict threatens our comfort level in a way that Schindler's List (about events that happened 50 years ago) never did. We don't want to know; it's too unpleasant and disquieting.

Welcome to Sarajevo isn't just the story of an outsider's perspective of the conflict; it's a compelling examination of the role the media played in reporting and shaping the average person's views of the war. And, while there's nothing revolutionary or extraordinary about the dramatic narrative, the subtext gives Winterbottom's movie its force. As a tale focused upon the horrors of war, Welcome to Sarajevo doesn't cover any new ground, but as an autopsy of what the conflict meant to a worldwide television audience, this is new and disturbing material. Oddly enough, the film has as much in common with Gus Van Sant's attack on television news, To Die For, as it does with pictures like Vukovar and Pretty Village, Pretty Flame.

Unlike those two films and numerous others that show the Bosnian war from an insider's viewpoint, Welcome to Sarajevo makes its main character a British TV news reporter. The movie does not delve deeply into the reasons for the conflict, nor does it burden viewers with lengthy discourses on the centuries-old racial and religious strife. Instead, we are presented with a shocking snapshot of how things were during several months in late 1992 and early 1993. We witness the bodies, the carnage, and, most chillingly, concentration camp images that echo those seen in post-World War 2 photographs.

The British newsman at the center of Welcome to Sarajevo is Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane), whose character is based on a real-life individual (just as the movie's script was developed from the non-fictional account, "Natasha's Story"). He's a veteran war reporter stationed in Sarajevo along with his cameraman, Gregg (James Nesbitt), and his producer, Jane (Kerry Fox). Other reporters include the cynical American Jordan Flynn (Woody Harrelson) and a freelancer named Annie (Emily Lloyd), who is young and driven. For his part, Michael is growing disenchanted with his network's coverage of the news, and this leads to his involvement in an ongoing story about a front-line orphanage. What begins as a series of reports turns into a crusade, with Michael imperiling both his career and his life to get one 9-year old girl, Emira (Emira Nusevic), out of the country at a time when the official policy is "no evacuation." Welcome to Sarajevo charts Michael's progress from dispassionate watcher to activist.

Throughout the film, we are given glimpses of the way the journalists on the scene report the news, and what becomes of their stories. One particularly graphic massacre is bumped from the top of the hour in favor of an item about the separation of the Duke and Duchess of York. Michael's producer, Jane, warns him that his crusade about the orphanage may be falling on deaf ears. It's all about ratings. Information is less important than entertainment, and it's difficult to make such a grotesque, twisted war, where sniper fire kills innocent bystanders, entertaining. By using a combination of real archived video, faux video filmed specifically for this movie, and normal 35 mm footage, Winterbottom creates a kaleidoscope of juxtaposed images. We're never sure what's true and what isn't -- whether a video of writhing, bloody bodies is genuine or a realistic recreation. This technique further illustrates how blurred the line has become between authentic, hard news and its controlled, entertainment-controlled counterpart.

In previous films like Go Now and Jude, Winterbottom has shown a keen understanding of character and an unwillingness to toy with an audience's emotions through overt manipulation, and both of these characteristics are evident in Welcome to Sarajevo. The main characters of Michael, Emira, and Flynn are all well-defined and strongly portrayed. Stephen Dillane is entirely believable as the lead, and Woody Harrelson, who is slowly developing into an effective dramatic performer, fleshes out Flynn. Young Emira Nusevic is heartbreaking in her pivotal role. There are also several noteworthy supporting players, including Goran Visnjic as a citizen of Sarajevo who works as Michael's driver and Marisa Tomei as an idealistic "do-gooder."

Welcome to Sarajevo debuted at 1997's Cannes Film Festival, where it received numerous plaudits but no awards. This impeccably-crafted movie is a daring and powerful piece of work, not only for its willingness to film an unpopular subject, but for the unique perspective it offers, and it stands proudly alongside Winterbottom's other films. Hopefully, neither the title nor the subject matter will deter viewers from experiencing this memorable motion picture.

Welcome to Sarajevo (United Kingdom/United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1997-11-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In English and Bosnian with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1