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Welcome to Sarajevo Movie Review: Welcome to Sarajevo

Starring: Stephen Dillane, Woody Harrelson
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Rated: R
RunTime: 101 Minutes
Release Date: November 1997
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Marisa Tomei, Emira Nusevic, Kerry Fox, Emily Lloyd, Goran Visnjic

Review by Steve Rhodes
No Rating Supplied

"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 it.

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 everywhere.

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 to report."

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

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