Welcome to Sarajevo

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce

With Stephen Dillane, Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, and Emira Nusevic.

By Matt Roth

Weaving historical events into a fictional narrative always involves a major pitfall: important events risk becoming a hazy backdrop to the cliched struggles of boring characters. An archetypal example is the 1981 film Reds, which constantly distracts the viewer from the Russian Revolution with such issues as the color of Warren Beatty’s urine or, ickier still, his on-again, off-again love affair with Diane Keaton. (By comparison, Eisenstein’s portrayal of October 1917–a tapestry of drawn-out committee meetings interwoven with scenes of peasants carousing in aristocrats’ wine cellars, until called to their senses by zealous Bolsheviks–is riveting stuff.) After three hours of characters we “care about,” Reds makes us yearn for straight documentary.

Like Reds, the newly released Welcome to Sarajevo is based on real characters, depicted in Michael Nicholson’s book Natasha’s Story. The movie is nearly current, however, taking place in 1992. It keeps the gag quotient lower than Reds but has a similar effect: more urgent in its desire to make us care about the events it depicts, it nonetheless reduces the war in Bosnia to mere scenery for the hackneyed journey of a world-weary journalist from cynicism to caring activism.

British television journalist Henderson (Stephen Dillane), at first detached from the siege of Sarajevo, dutifully pursues sensationalistic gore until his soul is touched by the glimpse of an altar boy screaming in an alley, an image that becomes his moral lodestar. Though his producers urge him to find something more newsy, Henderson becomes obsessed with reporting on an orphanage threatened by shelling, using his spots to advocate the immediate evacuation of Sarajevo’s children. Ultimately he journeys out of Bosnia with a UN-protected orphan-rescue convoy; to get one orphan a place on the bus, he goes so far as to fraudulently claim that she is to visit him in London. The rest of the movie follows them out of Bosnia–and Henderson back to Sarajevo when his orphan’s real mother comes out of the woodwork.

Director Michael Winterbottom’s strategy is clear: to set up an identification figure and make his emotional journey our own, so that by the end we’re ready, in our own small, nonliteral way, to adopt a war orphan too. It’s an unfortunate approach, however, not only diverting attention from characters with more interesting identities, such as the mafia-connected bellhop, but also from any real understanding of what’s going on politically during the siege.

We get the gist of the war in snippets: Sarajevan office workers trot down the streets to avoid sniping, a mother-of-the-bride is mowed down in the street, skeletal Muslims languish in nearby internment camps, villagers are massacred, intellectuals burn treasured books to keep warm. But nothing coheres. In a vague way the Serbs are the villains, but we have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing. The Sarajevans simply cope with the siege as with a force of nature.

The filmmakers approach political theory only obliquely, through Henderson’s sparring with flamboyant American reporter Flynn (Woody Harrelson), an egomaniacal but perhaps noble type who may laugh to keep from crying. The subject of their bantering, fittingly enough, is national rivalry–Flynn quips about the queen being useless or about the Beatles being the only good thing to come out of Britain since the American colonies, while Henderson responds that the Beatles were from Liverpool, not England, etc. Their attacks and counterattacks form a civilized, sublimated parallel to the ethnic warfare being waged in earnest outside their Holiday Inn. It’s a clever touch but isn’t a lot to go on when you’re trying to understand why the Serbs are suddenly acting like animals.

The movie’s apparent lack of interest in the Serbs’ motivation renders ambiguous its one insistent political point: that the West should have done more. The cards are stacked against UN stuffed shirts, who repeatedly disguise their lack of courage with bureaucratic double-talk–exposed for what it is, of course, by Flynn’s caustic jibes. Aside from evacuating orphans, however, it’s unclear what exactly the UN or NATO should have done. Should they have evacuated the entire city, thereby ceding it to the Serbs, or should they have lifted the arms embargo? Should they have used military force against the Serbs or simply been more effective as neutral mediators? Is the siege of Sarajevo even the right moment for the West to have done the right thing? Perhaps it should have done less to encourage the breakup of Yugoslavia in the first place. Welcome to Sarajevo passes over these oft-debated questions in silence.

The movie is clearly going for our hearts, not our heads. This choice not only means the film is vague on what policies to advocate, it also introduces an ugly strain of competition: aware that the supply of heartfelt, politically potent Western sympathy is limited, the filmmakers jockey to get as much of it for the Bosnians as possible–at one point Henderson describes Sarajevo as the “most dangerous place on earth.” When a UN official explains to the press corps that there are at least 13 other places in the world worse off than the besieged Sarajevo, Flynn sardonically asks what those 13 places are and whether Sarajevo is moving up or down in the ranking. The UN flack is nonplussed, of course, though one can readily imagine him answering Rwanda, Chechnya, Cambodia, Somalia, Iraq, Turkish Kurdestan, Guatemala, East Timor. The list could go on, and yet the movie invites us to scoff at the idea that anyone had it worse than the Bosnians.

In fact, all the war-hardened journalists in the movie do care more about the Bosnians than about anyone else they’ve ever covered. The reason is less than clear, however: Henderson himself, a poker-faced, BBC-voiced cipher, explains to his surprised wife that he rescued (and will later adopt) an orphan simply because he saw no reason not to. Any rationale for caring more about the Bosnians than about other afflicted groups emerges less in the film’s explicit narrative than in its visual subtext: the Sarajevans of the movie are, by Western standards, simply really, really good-looking people; it’s no accident that they keep up their spirits with a “Miss Besieged Sarajevo” pageant. Risto, who drives Henderson’s van and has a barely sketched relationship with Henderson’s female producer, is strikingly handsome, with soulful eyes and a jet black mop of hair tinged with gray. His circle of artistic friends is similarly appealing: one cellist in particular has the mysterious allure of a young Klaus Kinski. And the orphan babies–well, they’re just adorable.

Emira, the ten-year-old girl Henderson ends up taking home, is lovely–bright, spirited, and not overly starved. Though calloused by wartime deprivation and lifelong orphanhood (she smokes cigarettes), she exhibits becoming female instincts, obsessively caring for one of the infant orphans. And of course she’s white: though we’re carefully shown that Henderson has two children already, he’s very much a stand-in for child-coveting adoptive parents.

One begins to see why this movie isn’t set in Rwanda.

But as much as Welcome to Sarajevo makes you want its photogenic victims to get through their ordeal in one piece, its reliance on stock literary devices gradually undermines the sympathy it so assiduously nurtures. The second half of the movie, far from welcoming you into the besieged city, centers on a Dantean flight from it. A contrast is established between infernal Bosnia and paradisiacal England: Henderson’s London is so Edenic it seems to consist entirely of sunny gardens and quiet plush interiors. The Hendersons are constantly shown in or around fluffy, inviting beds, a visual contrast to the dirty mattresses barricading the windows of Sarajevo apartments. Eventually Sarajevo loses its historical specificity to become a symbol of the turpitude of urban, postlapsarian civilization.

Since every lost Eden must have its Eve, the movie’s final scenes introduce the inevitable bad, weak, selfish mother. Emira’s birth mom, who relinquished her daughter to the orphanage and has long been thought dead, suddenly turns up and wants to bring Emira back into the war zone. After many scenes demonstrating just how unwholesome a place the city is–black marketeers bully Henderson, and even the charming Risto has killed a man–we finally see the mother relinquish her claim when Emira tells her by phone in no uncertain terms (and initially only in English) that London is now her home. The rebuff gives Henderson, and seemingly the filmmakers as well, grim satisfaction.

Ultimately Welcome to Sarajevo sends a mixed message: the Bosnians deserve our sympathy, yet their original sin–symbolized by the abandonment of Emira–happened years before the war ever broke out. The siege begins to seem less a calamity than divine judgment, from which we hope the very attractive Sarajevans will emerge wiser and better. We’re simultaneously asked to care about them and granted dispensation for not giving a damn.

This is strange, because at a recent benefit showing of the film, director Winterbottom seemed an unflagging and sincere advocate for the Sarajevans. He filmed on location, using many local actors, technicians, and consultants, and was won over by this lovely, civilized, modern, indomitable city. There were a good number of Bosnians in the audience, most of whom commented favorably on the film. When their questions were occasionally critical–Why a story about an English reporter? Why not a documentary? Why the kaleidoscopic, vague depiction of Chetnik war crimes? Why Woody Harrelson?–Winterbottom gave variations on the same answer: he was aiming for a mass Western audience, and his main concern was simply to get people to take notice, to care. This meant he had to emphasize the human story, not get too political, and, yes, jump at Woody’s offer to costar.

Even more than the Western literary tradition, steeped in Conrad, Milton, Dante, and the Bible, the ideology of filmmaking is what ultimately explains Winterbottom’s portrayal of Sarajevo as simply a place of the damned, a position that lets us off the hook entirely. Narratives that take the human-interest approach and center on individuals always valorize personal, direct, unself-conscious action–and always implicitly derogate indirect, bureaucratic action. As it turns out, however, the opportunities for most of us to take pure, direct action–to look into the eyes of a child and determine to save her–are extremely limited.

Even if someone did drop everything to go to Bosnia tomorrow to, I don’t know, nurse war casualties, no one can be in all of the world’s trouble spots at once. So it’s either take highly indirect action through vast, impersonal bureaucracies or take no action at all. Our unromantic reliance on such vast bureaucracies is what makes democracy important–and rigorous policy debates, much more than teary-eyed tales of individual heroics, vital. By advocating an unrealistic course of action, Welcome to Sarajevo ultimately reconciles us to doing nothing at all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Welcome to Sarajevo film still.