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Welcome to Sarajevo

All-Reviews.com 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



Reviewer Roundup
1.  Harvey Karten review follows ---
2.  Steve Rhodes read the review ---

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

There are many ways for a film maker to deal with political events on the international scene. In "The Long Way Home," Mark Jonathan Harris contributed quite a revealing job using the documentary style to portray the plight of Jewish refugees following World War II. In "Peacemakers," Mimi Leder exploits Hollywood technology to fashion a story of a violent struggle between terrorists (the bad guys) and U.S. authorities (good guys). Costa-Gavras, himself an ideologue, treats revolutionaries as freedom fighters and right-wing governments as terrorists, as he does so forcefully in his most celebrated film, "Z." And in the January 1998 Miramax release "Four Days in September," Bruno Barreto involves us without taking sides in a fictionalized drama of the kidnapping of the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil by anti-government revolutionaries.

Michael Winterbottom, whose directorial credits include films as diverse as "Butterfly Kiss" (about serial killers) and "Jude," (based on the Thomas Hardy novel), takes still another tack with "Welcome to Sarajevo." Basing his film on real events much like Costa-Gavras and Harris, Winterbottom employs Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay about the fighting in Sarajevo during the early 1990s, highlighting the tragedy of war by focusing on the plight of children orphaned by the combat. Training his camera principally on British journalist Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane) who covering the war, he uses a semi-documentary style to unfold a fictionalized drama as seen through Henderson's eyes.

Henderson is seen interacting with his colleagues, particularly the cynical American reporter Flynn (Woody Harrelson), who expresses his misanthropy with rhetorical questions to Henderson such as, "Your queen...I know she's the richest woman in the world, but enlighten me: what does she do?" He shares with his English buddy a disgust for the scant attention which the media afford to Bosnia, particularly when he notes that the lead story in one evening's papers deals with the separation or divorce problems of Andrew and Fergie, the Duke and Duchess of York.

Filmed on location by cinematographer Daf Hobson, Winterbottom shows us the bombed-out buildings of a city once considered among the world's prettiest, a place of parks and outdoor cafes, now reduced in many areas to rubble by fighting among ethnic factions--the Croats, the Serbs and the Muslims. "Welcome to Sarajevo" opens with black-and-white scenes of hit-and-run warfare, the rooftop snipers acting as though they were rehearsing from Jules Feiffer's prescient play "Little Murders"--at one time considered an absurdist comedy of people firing on the neighbors for no apparent reason. Though "Little Murders" gains irony by taking place in the politically stable U.S., the subtext of "Welcome to Sarajevo" is that the bloodletting is occurring in a "civilized" European city, its fighters seemingly bent on self-destruction in the name of ethnic cleansing. The human drama of the movie comes from an act of compassion: Henderson, a tough, hard-drinking Pete Hamill type who loves to banter with his American buddy about the relative merits of the UK and the U.S., is moved to an act of compassion. When the city's unhappy orphans are being evacuated to other areas of Europe such as Italy and England, he takes steps to adopt an orphanage favorite, Emira (Emira Nusevic), though such a step is illegal because Emira is already about eleven years old.

Winterbottom cleverly shows the mixture of altruism and vanity in the deeds of these two journalists. Flynn does risk his life to save a civilian who is shot by a sniper, but he is also propelled by his interest in getting recognition among his readers. As he tells Henderson, "Back home nobody's heard of Sarajevo, but they've all heard of me." For his part Henderson hopes his country will afford him a solid chunk of TV time since he is focusing sentimental stories culled from one of the city's orphanages. When social worker Nina (Marisa Tomei) sets up a busload of infants to be evacuated from Sarajevo, Henderson put into motion his plan to take Emira with him to his family in England.

Given the relative lack of interest by Americans in the Bosnian war--which ended at least temporarily in December 1995--"Welcome to Sarajevo" makes an important addition to the year's motion picture output. Dramatizations can capture the attention of millions of people far better than newsreels and talking heads programs. But somehow Winterbottom has distanced us from his material. We do not really get to know Emira, nor do we learn much about Henderson to explain his motivations. Too much of the early part of the film is taken up with a loosely structured series of scenes created to provide us with the texture of this strange confrontation. The idle chit- chat and serious drinking and smoking of the journalists is by now prosaic: we are all familiar with this stereotypical perception of the grizzled people in the profession of war correspondent.

Since we do not get to know much about the child, her mother's eventual and all-too-sudden willingness to allow the girl to stay with her new guardians in the UK does not have the impact it should.

Still, "Welcome to Sarajevo" does provide us with the feel of the place, with the strange impulses of its combat units, particular the Serbian officers who pull infants of their ethnic group off the bus which is carrying them to safety: they insist that these kids be allowed to grow up in the "Greater Serbia" which they are creating by driving out the Muslim population.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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