Public and personal faces of war intertwine in ‘Sarajevo’


In 1991, Yugoslavia, a multi-ethnic nation that remained one throughout the Cold War, began to disintegrate. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence and, shortly thereafter, were forced to defend their new freedom against Serbian armies intent on preserving a Yugoslav state historically beneficial to their group.

Following the example of their northern neighbors, the most multi-ethnic and divided of the Yugoslav provinces, Bosnia, declared its independence in 1992. What followed was a brutal war fought in both rural and urban Bosnia between ethnic Muslims, Croats and Serbs.

Explaining this war with its many contradictions and developments is difficult; portraying it on film less than 10 years after it happened is even more complex. In “Welcome to Sarajevo,” English director Michael Winterbottom brings to the screen a vivid, troubling account of the Bosnian war that reveals more than any textbook or teacher could.

The film centers on a small group of foreign reporters (mostly British and American) who are thrown into Bosnia to cover a war that few people at home care about. Bosnian Muslims fighting Bosnian Serbs on the streets of Sarajevo hardly catches anyone’s fancy in the peaceful and prosperous West. Nevertheless, these reporters are sent there to do a job, and do a job they will.Much of the action follows English television reporter Michael Henderson (Stephane Dillane) as he tries to report on and cope with the brutal images of war in front of him every day. While many of the other reporters are able to drown their fear and anxiety in alcohol, cigarettes and late-night chat sessions, Henderson is different. The West’s ignorance and inaction enrage him, and he makes it his goal to challenge that.It is in this smaller story within the larger war story that the film excels. Using a mixture of real and fictional footage, Winterbottom draws a stark contrast between the official line taken by England, the United States and NATO, and the more personal approach of a man on the ground in Bosnia.

We see footage of President Bush, President Clinton and U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali sidestepping and spinning the war in Bosnia as none of the West’s business. Juxtaposed with that we see Henderson, a man terribly affected by the brutality he sees, who presses ahead nonetheless, making the evacuation of an endangered children’s orphanage his ultimate goal.

The second half of the movie follows Henderson more closely as he smuggles a young Bosnian Muslim girl out of Sarajevo, adopts her in England and later struggles to keep her from being sent back to her war-torn homeland.It is not the details of this story that are necessarily important, nor how well the script follows the true story it seeks to tell. It is the separation of personal and political within such wars that the film brings out most successfully.

The reality on the ground is rarely reflected by the jargon in political and bureaucratic circles. While innocent people suffer, bureaucrats and politicians talk about sovereignty, risk and human-rights violations. This helps no one; Henderson and his courageous, if sometimes crazed, acts of kindness help some Bosnians live a better life.One of Henderson’s friends is an American television reporter, Flynn (Woody Harrelson), who represents the whole range of reactions to war in Western circles. On the outside, he’s cocky, brash and aloof. He acts as though nothing about the war offends or bothers him; he’s there to do a job and be praised for it. His exterior appearance is much the same as the U.S. and its allies. They can’t show emotion or care for innocent Bosnians because that would compromise their integrity and destroy their professionalism.

However, as the film proceeds, we see a different side of Flynn, a more personal, introspective side. This is a man who hates the brutality he sees in front of him, much like Henderson, and responds to that with small acts of kindness and a hidden determination to cover the war correctly.

From afar, Flynn is the type of person who wouldn’t understand or care about the war in Bosnia. However, his job brings him in direct contact with refugees, orphans, amputees and other victims of a hateful and mindless battle; now he understands.

The West’s inaction and eventual failure to stop widespread killing and genocide in Bosnia is accepted today as a foreign policy error supported by two successive American administrations. The issue is how to avoid this again. Textbooks and teachers can only get us so far; they can tell of the violence and abuse, but they can’t make us see and believe it.

A film like “Welcome to Sarajevo” brings that terrible reality to our living rooms, and while it’s difficult to watch at times, it’s also important. Seeing is believing.

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