Evil men, great TV
Michael Winterbottom talks about war with Ray Pride
Bombs burst in air, into Holiday Inns, next door to orphanages. Neighbors grow distant, fire at old friends across the way. Saravejo in the former Yugoslavia, 1992, described by the U.N. as "the fourteenth most dangerous place on earth." A small, cosmopolitan city, remembered by most as the site of the 1982 winter Olympics, riven by centuries-old conflicts no one outside the battles can truly decipher. Journalists die, too, in this war, more dead than in any other modern conflict. Michael Winterbottom's "Welcome to Sarajevo" traces life during wartime for a handful of U.S. and British reporters, including Henderson (Stephen Dillane), with a wife and children back in England, and Flynn (Woody Harrelson), a cocky American newsman who always manages to insert himself into the story.
Working from a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Winterbottom creates a mosaic of observers who know how to dodge bullets and hit deadlines. The whole world is watching; at least until the commercial break. Henderson keeps to the old rules of newsgathering at first, tacitly agreeing with the young reporter who chides Flynn, "We're not here to help, we're here to report!" (Harrelson is at his smirky best when he drawls, "Back home, no one's heard of Sarajevo, but they've all heard of me.") But Henderson's about to cross the line as well, once he sees the shelled Ljubica Ivezic orphanage, packed with the war's damaged innocents. Making an offhand promise to help 10-year-old Emira (wide-eyed Sarajevan survivor Emira Nusevic), Henderson sets himself up to make choices he never thought he would have to make.
Winterbottom maintains a cool, intelligent surface throughout, even with the inclusion of bursts of video from the war. Oliver Stone's "Salvador" is the gonzo edition of tales about the morality of journalistic distance; Winterbottom's more detached movie does something even more daring. "Welcome to Sarajevo" does not climax with the gut-warming a-child-is-saved moment.
"Welcome to Sarajevo" abjures the modern jargon of "the conflict" or "the peace process" and instead measures degrees of involvement and responsibility -- individual choice, personal morality. "Big guns, little children, evil men, great television," says one character. But with a simmering intelligence, a discerning eye, restless focus and an unerring sense of how to place the camera as an eavesdropper, Winterbottom's work is never less than compelling. Shot in Sarajevo in early 1996 as the Bosnian cease-fire began, "Welcome to Sarajevo" has a rare bravura, a work of passion that is also scrupulously thought out, both as fiction and as filmmaking.
"Sarajevo is a relatively compact city," the Oxford-trained Winterbottom says, "In five hours you can go through the whole city and see where all the aspects of the war happened. We had a screenplay ready when we first visited. We had a sense of what the story needed, and we used the city according to the demands of the story."
An earlier version of the script came to the director as a potential assignment just before he began shooting "Jude." "My first experience of Sarajevo was through TV," he says. "Nowadays, it's the way most of us first experience anything besides our immediate situation, through journalism." That perspective shaped the film. "Given the story, the hundred hours or so of material that had accumulated in seven and a half years, it seemed much more sensible to use it, to try to shift from what was obviously fictional, obviously actors, and what was clearly documentary."
The bursts of documentary give the film both a propulsive quality and keep the story rooted in the randomness of sudden violence. "I don't think we re-created anything shocking visually," Winterbottom says. "Anything that sticks in your mind is probably real. The Bosnian TV footage of the bread line massacre [that is a key scene in the movie] is seven minutes long, just the cameraman wandering around that street. The more you watch it the worse it feels. It's a cumulative thing. You could change a little bit of the video documentary material, then put it next to a scene, and even if the scene stays the same, it works in a different way. The balance of emotions would shift whenever you added the footage."
But was there a concern about using tragedy to elevate fiction? "If you're trying to make a film partly about what was happening in Sarajevo, you have to show it somehow," he says. "Our feeling was that wherever we could, we should just show it. It was more effective, more honest just to show it. In terms of, say, a foot being blown off, it seems to me that there's not really a question of, 'is it explicit or not,' but how do you feel when you see it? If you want people to be thinking about how horrific it was, you have to somehow show that. In terms of sentimentality, we were very conscious of it. That's not to say that makes it easy. To be aware of the problem is not to resolve the problem. I think it's a legitimate emotion to be moved by children being shelled, to be happy for children who are safe. But how to achieve them in the context of a fictional film, the feelings you would have if you were there? It's a combination of many things, some you get right, some you get wrong. But I don't think that means you shouldn't try to do it, even at the danger of exploiting them."
Winterbottom wanted to retain the complexity of the story of the real-life journalist, Michael Nicholson, who adopted a Bosnian child, yet retain the sense that these were only a handful of scenes from many, many lives lived in Sarajevo during the war. "It is a story filled with contradictions. To save one girl does not somehow redeem the whole situation, but equally, you can't say it's unimportant to save one person." That's the great strength of Winterbottom's film: on first viewing, Henderson seems to make choices with all the discernment of a fool. But on a second look, he seems cognizant of that whisper of a moment when the good, if foolish-seeming impulse must take precedence over reason and experience. That is, the choice between good and evil. Right and wrong.
"Welcome to Sarajevo" opens Friday.
Copyright 1998 New City Communications, Inc.