"Welcome to the 14th worst place on earth," Michael Henderson, the
British journalist covering the siege in Sarajevo, tells Nina, a
recently arrived children's aid worker. Since the new head of the UN
peacekeeping force gave that ranking to Sarajevo, the foreign
journalists have begun to mock his comments. Flynn, the American
journalist on the scene at the time of the infamous quote, demanded to
know if Sarajevo was going up or down in the rankings.
In WELCOME TO SARAJEVO, director Michael Winterbottom bravely
tackles a war most filmmakers have shunned. Winterbottom's last film,
JUDE, made my list of the top 10 movies of last year, so I looked
forward to his latest. It is hard to be critical of a film so bursting
with good intentions, but I thought the film's style only served to
obfuscate an important subject. I predict that most people who see the
picture will rate it highly, and I posit that most of those ratings
will actually be out of respect for the valiant people of Sarajevo and
not for the film itself although I suspect that few viewers will admit
The movie's fatal flaw can be summed up in one word -- editing. I
cannot remember a film so destroyed by the splicing of its film stock.
Editor Trevor Waite, who did a fine job in JUDE, tries a TV newscast
approach in WELCOME TO SARAJEVO. The movie is rife with little
fragments all pasted together. Combine this with Frank Cottrell
Boyce's incoherent and confusing script of Michael Nicholson's book
"Natasha's Story," and the result is chaos. To further aggravate the
situation, Daf Hobson's cinematography relishes scenes shot in almost
total darkness. Although this makes some sense given the lack of
electricity in Sarajevo, he carries this to extremes and even has one
sequence set in England equally and unnecessarily dark.
The first third of the film has little to say other that war is
hell, which is not exactly a revelation. Finally, towards the middle
the film's main message begins to emerge. Using stock footage of world
leaders, the story argues that the world should have somehow gotten the
kids out of the war zone in Bosnia. This is one of many potentially
valid points that this film of frequently indecipherable images has
trouble making effectively. (Although the gory war carnage may look
real, it was all recreated. Since the film is presented in such a way
that it looks like genuine video clips, viewers could rightly claim to
have been deceived.)
Stephen Dillane, whose last film, TWO IF BY SEA, made my worst
movie of the year list last year, gives a wooden performance in the
staring role of Michael. Most of the movie is devoted to a string of
short clips about the war, but, when they cut back to the storyline,
Michael is in most of the scenes. His acting in the film consists of
small variations on a highly concerned look.
In contrast, Woody Harrelson plays the canonical wisecracking
American named Flynn. He and Marisa Tomei, playing Nina, seem to have
signed on to do the film in order to show solidarity with the cause.
Lending their names will probably double the film's prospective
audience. And since the movie covers important subjects, albeit not
very well, this noble act on their part should be acknowledged.
The movie is told from the perspective of the journalists. Their
typical day has them in the hotel dining room having breakfast when
someone comes through shouting about a fresh mortar attack. Grabbing
cameras, they all head for the front, which in a civil war is
Bound by a code of ethics that says they cannot help and they must
only observe in anguish, some break the rules. After Flynn risks his
life to pull a wounded woman out of harm's way, his coworkers are
nonplused. "I suppose he was just trying to help," reflects one
reporter. But Michael corrects this notion. "We're not here to help,"
he says, explaining their inverted Hippocratic oath. "We're just here
Most of the last two-thirds of the story is devoted to an heroic
act of Michael's. Once he realizes he could get someone out of the war
zone, he does. He arranges for a 9-year-old girl named Emira (Emira
Nusevic) to be evacuated and to come and live with his family back in
England. On the way out she meets various partisans, but the extremely
confusing story will leave you wondering who is who, and what are they
are and why?
Never has a fictional movie made me so wish it had been a
documentary instead. With a documentary they could have provided the
much needed context and, hopefully, would have had enough respect for
their material to stay with scenes rather than constantly flitting.
In 1986 we stayed at the now infamous Holiday Inn in Sarajevo,
which was then one of the most luxurious hotels in that chain.
Providing the headquarters for the journalists during the war as well
as a bombing target, it became a symbol of the war. As I watched the
film, I was saddened by thoughts of the nice people we met then,
knowing that many of them must be dead by now. All of this
notwithstanding, WELCOME TO SARAJEVO is a frustrating and tedious film
to watch and does at best a mediocre job of telling their story.
WELCOME TO SARAJEVO now runs 1:41, but we were told that the final
cut will have about ten minutes trimmed. The movie is rated R for
brutal images, war atrocities, profanity, and a brief male nude scene.
Some of the movie is in Bosnian with English subtitles. The film would
be appropriate for teenagers only if they are quite mature and not
prone to nightmares.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes