In his 1993 book Sarajevo: A War Journal, the Bosnian journalist Zlatko Dizdarevic reported on an 11-year-old who was waiting in line for water when snipers killed his mother and father: "After the shooting, this boy started to fetch and pour water over the bodies of his dead parents. He didn't want to stop even when his sister, seriously wounded, told him: 'Stop, Berin, stop, they're dead.' " The strongest sections of Michael Winterbottom's new film, Welcome to Sarajevo, have that kind of wounded, wounding poignancy. Winterbottom has never before done such potent work; he's created a fiction film about the siege of Sarajevo that bristles with the raw, unnerving textures of a battlefield documentary.
The newly orphaned boy carrying water caused Dizdarevic to ask, "What's with this water that we, curiously robotic and near exhaustion, have been carrying in buckets for months?" In a similar vein, Winterbottom portrays gnarly reflexes and habits that persist in part as an ironic comment on themselves. In Welcome to Sarajevo, the Sarajevans struggle to keep living "normally," even though all the staples and sacraments of life, from a bread queue to a wedding, can be fatal. The director cunningly combines staged confrontations with stock news footage of the atrocity-ridden Yugoslavian civil war. The results keep jolting viewers out of their complacency. There's no safe zone in this movie; the hotel base for the international journalists runs on emergency power and rattles with ricocheting gunfire.
It's astonishing how much feeling Winterbottom pours into the movie, considering the sketchiness of the characters and plot. The project started when the producers bought the rights to British journalist Michael Nicholson's Natasha's Story, an autobiographical book about Nicholson's adoption of a young Bosnian girl. Director Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce chose to rename Nicholson and make "Michael Henderson" one of many TV reporters with varying styles of compassion and commitment. They wanted to create a broader canvas for their Balkan Guernica; they also may have wished to avoid any automatic appeal to the sentiments. In any case, the outcome is a film whose frame is stronger than its spine.
Henderson (played by Stephen Dillane) is a cautious, civilized bloke who begins as a neutral observer. His antithesis is a showboat Yank reporter named Flynn (Woody Harrelson), who doesn't hesitate to tend the wounded and violate the code of journalistic objectivity. In a pleasant surprise, Flynn the TV news star turns out to be genuinely committed to getting the word out about Bosnia. But in his light Henderson seems even more recessive. When he saves a child, you wonder if it comes from his desire to do something heroic, like Flynn.
For a while, we're willing to accept the film as a makeshift mosaic. The moviemakers glue together bits and pieces of Flynn and Henderson and a fledgling free-lancer (Emily Lloyd), of Henderson's cameraman (James Nesbitt) and producer (Kerry Fox) and Sarajevan driver (Goran Visnjic). But when the movie focuses exclusively on Henderson's efforts to rescue a waif named Emira (Emira Nusevic), it loses more intensity than it gains. Emira's face has a haunting furtiveness -- too bad you have to take their relationship on face value. The moviemakers come up with a foster-fatherhood of moral and political convenience. The phone conversation in which Henderson tells his wife that he's bringing a Bosnian girl back with him is wonderfully suggestive; you intuit a marriage based on shared understanding. Unfortunately, the ensuing glimpses of the Hendersons' home life with Emira in England are underfelt, even generic. And when Emira's mother surfaces in Sarajevo and Henderson returns to see her, the sequence drifts into anticlimax. Winterbottom is telling us that no simple happy ending could be possible either for Emira or Sarajevo. But he winds up with a flat coda and, for the audience, one or two more puzzlements. For example, we're startled to learn Henderson's chipper producer had an affair with his handsome driver. How were we supposed to know? It's laudable to subsume fictional characters into the portrayal of an urban vortex, lamentable to allow them to go down the drain.
The film is told from the Bosnian point of view, but doesn't analyze the roots of the Serbians' (and Bosnian Serbs') "ethnic cleansing." And its unfortunate way of commenting on the inadequacy of the world's response is to play Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" over scenes of European and U.S. politicians and diplomats. (Elsewhere, the use of American and European rock is apt and touching, recalling the way the Bosnian girl diarist of Zlata's Diary moved from a catalog of MTV-watching to a chronicle of everyday explosions and killings.)
But the film overflows with indelible images of a siege that turns idealists, too, into members of armed camps; if its story doesn't stick to your ribs, its several atmospheres stick to your lungs. Winterbottom persuasively conjures the bohemian bonhomie of the Sarajevan driver's friends, the bourgeois warmth and pride of a baker whose son lies in a concentration camp, the incongruous bravery of swimsuit beauties competing for the title of "Miss Besieged Sarajevo." Because of this multihued emotional fabric, Welcome to Sarajevo has character even if it lacks characters; the people speaking the lines gain authority from their surroundings. When the Sarajevan driver joins the fighting, he's not a hackneyed figure of lost innocence; he conveys the sadness that Dizdarevic described in his war journal: "That's what this war is, nothing but a long goodbye. You say goodbye to your illusions and your past, your dreams, your habits, hopes and projects, all things great and small, and the places inseparable from days gone by. You even say goodbye to the simple things that make up a life." Welcome to Sarajevo, at its best, resembles the Solidarity movies of Andrzej Wajda (Man of Marble): It bears eloquent witness to history.