National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

The Wages of Modern War

With melodrama and documentary footage, Welcome to Sarajevo produces an affecting portrait of one of this century's darkest events

BY John Prizer

January 11-17, 1998 Issue | Posted 1/11/98 at 2:00 PM

 

The genocidal ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia was one of this century's worst crimes against humanity. The primary, though not exclusive, perpetrators were Serbs who murdered Muslims and Catholic Croatians en masse. Its horrors are well dramatized by the siege of Sarajevo, which was the lengthiest in contemporary history until it ended in 1995.

The city's inhabitants were once a seemingly happy mixture of that country's three major ethnic groups. But Serb attacks destroyed this multi-cultural experiment. In Welcome to Sarajevo, one of the victims pleads to the world: “Everyone must know we're dying.” The sad truth is that most people in this country did know of the conditions of Sarajevo but did nothing until thousands of people had been slaughtered.

British director Michael Winter-bottom and screenwriter Frank Cottral Boyce have freely adapted Michael Nicholson's book, Natasha's Story, to pose the hard moral question of how each of us should respond when confronted by such events. The mix of fictional drama, re-creations, and documentary footage evokes the reality of Sarajevo under attack and the way its terrors affected a variety of participants and observers. The human element of the tragedy is vividly presented; the causes of the war and the various political strategies involved are only touched upon.

The movie opens with a joyous scene of a bride and her bridesmaids preparing for a wedding. Everything seems normal until the lights go off, which the bride's mother fixes by manually operating a makeshift generator.

As the wedding party gaily makes its way to the church, there's a burst of sniper fire, and the bride's mother is hit. Everyone scurries for cover, leaving the wounded woman alone in the street.

Out of nowhere a flock of vulture-like journalists descend to cold-bloodedly film the incident for their home stations. A British team consisting of reporter Michael Henderson (Stephen Diliane), cameraman Greg (James Naisbitt), and producer Jane Carson (Kerry Pox) shelter themselves safely on the sidelines as they do their work. A show-boating American TV personality, Flynn (Woody Harrelson), breaks away from the pack and helps the church's altar boy rescue the woman.

“That stinks,” a fellow journalist taunts Flynn. “Back home no one's heard of Sarajevo, but they've all heard of me,” Flynn replies. This mixture of heroics and cynicism sets the movie's tone as the filmmakers take us on a tour of a contemporary version of Dante's Inferno.

Henderson is the opposite of the self-promoting Flynn. The humorless, workaholic Brit considers himself the model of professionalism. He thinks Flynn has violated the journalist's code of objectivity. “We're not here to help,” he tells his colleagues. “We're here to report.”

His investigations on the front lines bring him to the Ljubica Ivezic orphanage where the ranks of parentless kids from before the war have been augmented by children who've lost their families during the fighting. At first Henderson sees it as a good story he can string out over several days. But as he intones on camera that these orphans must be evacuated before they're killed, he begins to believe his own reporting and gets emotionally involved.

Nina (Marisa Tomei), a volunteer American aid worker, organizes a convoy of orphans to be evacuated from the city to safety abroad. She persuades Henderson and his cameraman to travel with her, giving her organization highly desirable publicity and the journalists a scoop.

All the children in the caravan must have sponsors in another country. A haunted looking ten-year old, Emira (Emira Nusevic), has bonded with Henderson and feels betrayed when he's unable to bring her with him. Dropping all pretense of objectivity, the Brit agrees to smuggle the girl out with the convoy and take her to live with his wife and children in England. This gratuitous act of mercy risks his and others' lives as he breaks international law in the process.

Against all odds Henderson succeeds. But then Emira's mother, who had abandoned her as a baby, surfaces in Sarajevo and wants her back. The journalist must now return to the war zone and persuade the woman to sign papers allowing him to adopt the child.

The filmmakers carefully work against the sentimentality inherent in the premise. As Henderson's involvement with Emira deepens, the movie counterpoints the scenes of personal melodrama with realistic footage of the siege. Its images capture both the absurdity and dangers of the situation.

Henderson lives in a Holiday Inn with almost no electricity and where the restaurant's waiters double as gangsters in the black market. While the Brit struggles with his conscience over whether to help Emira, he passes up the bigger and more horrifying story of Serb concentration camps which a freelancer breaks and sells to his network.

The most chilling scene takes place on the orphans' convoy where Serbian soldiers, looking like rejects from a heavy metal rock band, board the bus and almost randomly pull kids off it whom they believe are Muslim. The fear in the children's eyes contrasts with the callous, humorous banter of the Serbs.

History rarely consists of the kind of heroics found in Hollywood movies. For people like Yugoslavia's Muslims and Croats, it seems like a meatgrinder which crushes people without reason. Welcome to Sarajevo shows us how in this environment the small acts of decency which journalists like Henderson and Flynn exhibit often result from mixed motives. By such means the goodness in human nature is never extinguished despite the atrocities.

The filmmakers want to make sure the world never forgets what happened during the siege, and their work has succeeded in making a contribution to that end. The audience experiences both the horror of killing and the few brave gestures of compassion in a way that sticks in the memory for some time after.

The USCC classification of Welcome to Sarajevo is A-III: adults. The film is rated R by Motion Picture Association of America.

John Prizer, the REGISTER's Art & Culture correspondent, writes from Los Angeles.