Friday, July 28, 2006

Review: Welcome To Sarajevo

Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that the Bosnian War was the number one foreign news story in the early 1990s, there have only been a few major films made about the war. This could be for several reasons. One, producers felt that the American public was too warn out and sick of hearing about the war in the living rooms, and that they certainly wouldn’t shell out $15.00 to watch a dramatized version of the war. Second, perhaps producers felt that they did not know that much about the conflict, and not wanting to risk offending any person or group, decided it would be best to stay away from making a film about the war.

Whatever the reason, there had been a dearth of films. One of the few exceptions however is Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome To Sarajevo” released in 1997, this film does not play it safe, but instead delivers a highly emotional and important message.

The plotline is as follows: The movie starts out with a video montage of scenes from the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics to the tune of “To Be Young And In Love” suddenly we are transported into a Sarajevo beauty shop, where a young bride is preparing for her big day. The electricity is cut off, but the family seems rather used to having their electricity being cut off and takes it in stride. The next scene is of the family walking to the Church-suddenly, without any warning there are shots, snipers kill the mother of the bride. The killings are caught on TV by a plethora of international journalists from BBC, CNN, who stand to the side- getting their shots of the carnage.
Not able to do anything, they simply record the carnage. The one exception is Flynn (Woody Harrelson) who helps a Priest drag the dead woman’s body out of the line of fire.
And that is our introduction to Sarajevo circa 1992.
The plot follows three journalists, straight laced British journalist Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane) sarcastic and acrid American journalist, Flynn and Nina (Marisa Tomei) who serves as the love interest. Throughout the film the journalists struggle to get news of the carnage to be shown on Western television, but it is clear that people in the West are much more interested in the marital woes of the British Royal Family than the snipping deaths of men, women and children in Sarajevo.
During one of his journalistic excursions, Michael meets a group of orphans whose orphanage is located right on the front line, and as a result, has been shelled constantly. Michael becomes close to a 9 year old girl named Emira (Emira Nusevic) whom he promises to help her escape from the city. An Italian group wants to help move the children to safety, but they are only looking to help the babies; meaning 9 year old Emira will be stuck in the city. After a bit of soul searching (and conversation with his wife) Michael decides to make good on his promise to Emira and help her leave the city and takes him to England with him.

This movie contains several overlapping plots and storylines. The first one is the relationship between the three journalists. This relationship has many makings of a classic buddy film/road film, except instead of being on the road, they are in a war zone. There is the straight arrow main character, the smart and sexy girlfriend, and the sarcastic friend, whose job is to introduced some welcomed comic relief. Harrelson’s character delivers some great and even pointed one liners throughout the film (particularly his comment that if the primary victim in the war was Christian instead of Muslim, and if the primary aggressor in the war was Muslim instead of Christian, instead of the other way around, we would have intervened to stop the atrocities from occurring.) The second plot arc involves Michael sneaking Emira out of the country. The third plot line includes the Western journalists trying to convince (not too much avail) their producers to put the graphic images of the war on Western TV-to show the Americans and British the true horror of the siege. Interspersed between these plots are actual documentary footage of the war.

These documentary footage makes up the heart and soul of the film in my opinion. In fact the main plot of the film pales in comparison to the emotional impact of seeing these images. They are graphic (market shells, executions, concentration camps) heartbreaking (a shot of two dead babies-that has remained etched in my mind to this day) and political (images of the “leaders” of the Western world and international community posing for pictures, while doing nothing about the carnage in Bosnia.

Of all of the documentary footage of the film, perhaps the most famous is the montage of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” with shows pictures of wounded children in the hospital with UN observers visiting the city (in their bulletproof armored vehicles of course) making asinine statements that the siege in Sarajevo is not as bad as it seems. The montage is dripping with sarcasm, and shows the lack of moral will on behalf of the international community.

It is important to note that Winterbottom is not the first director to use this technique. Long before “Welcome To Sarajevo” there was a documentary film on the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, which showed images of police officers beating up protestors while the song “Happy Days Are Here Again” played in the background. While some might criticize the technique as being to obvious and too in your face, it is a powerful one.

Although the “Don’t Worry Be Happy” scene is the most famous of the documentary scenes, the scene that really got to me was the ending montage. The montage showed the people of Sarajevo, trying to go about living normal lives (as much as possible in a war zone) with the images of the UN leaders posing for an official group picture. More than any other image it shows the full extent of Western impotency in the face of not only Bosnia, but Rwanda and so many other crises. The conclusion is unmistakable, we (the West, the international community) have abandoned the people of Bosnia.


Yakima_Gulag said...

Welcome to Sarajevo also was one of the early appearances of Goran Visnjic, now famous as Dr. Luka on 'ER'.
He played the part of the driver and translator Risto.
I liked that film, it did not recieve favorable reviews at the time it came out, but it was over all a good film.
I hope you will have a chance to review 'No Man's Land' and 'Remake' of 'Remake' I've only seen the clip about the camp that is up on YouTube, but I own a copy of 'No Man's Land' and it's an excellent film. I reviewed it briefly in my own blog some time back.

Kirk Johnson said...

Woody Harrelson damn near steals the show in this movie. His question "What are the other 13 cities on the list, and are we moving up or down the scale?" captures his character's essence--smartass cynacism not-quite masking a strong moral outrage. It's a really great performance.

Owen said...

Have you ever seen a replay of the television documentary series "A Street under Siege", showing people living in a street in the old town of Sarajevo struggling to keep normal lives going under siege?

Every evening (between Nov 1993 and March 1994) a two-minute sequence filmed that day was transmitted out by satellite and broadcast (in UK and France, I'm not sure if it was shown anywhere else).

It was an extraordinary experience, with the glass tube in the sitting room providing (almost) real-time contact with people living in the terrible conditions of a city under artillery bombardment and sniper fire in a holiday destination in our own modern Europe.