Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Balkan Holocaust

By Rick Barton

MAY 18, 1998: 

FILM: Welcome to Sarajevo

STARRING: Stephen Dillane

DIRECTOR: Michael Winterbottom

It's not hard to see why Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo has done so poorly at the box office. The picture was made by a British director with an unknown British star. It includes Americans Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei, but their roles are too marginal to bring their fans out in any great numbers. And it looks at a faraway civil war with confusing sides and no particular American interests at stake. George Bush no doubt told the most important truth at the beginning of the Gulf War when he said that fight was over oil. But the former Yugoslavia doesn't have oil or much of anything else we might covet. It just has people, young and old, dark and light, Muslim and Christian, Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian. Just people dying at the hands of monsters with guns. Just people we don't know. Few of us want nearly so much sad reality as this picture has to offer. But all that granted, this is a picture we ought to see. It is exceedingly well made, and it will most certainly blast away any notion that what's going on in Bosnia has nothing to do with us.

Set in 1992 and 1993, Welcome to Sarajevo tells the story of Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane) and a group of journalists covering the civil war in Bosnia. The picture has an edgy feel, and its fragmented start is like the war itself, jarring and unclear. We don't always know what we're looking at or what we're hearing; that's Winterbottom's way of evoking the war's chaos. At first, Henderson tries to cover the war from an emotional distance. But pretty soon, he finds himself taking sides, not so much political as moral. The bad guys are clearly the Bosnian Serbs, who put the city of Sarajevo under siege and shell its buildings indiscriminately. But not everyone inside the city is a good guy. Some are black marketeers, some are gangsters, some are snipers who rain terror from the rooftops. So the side Henderson takes is with the victims, those inside who are just trying to survive, most notably the children, many of them orphaned, all of them clearly innocent.

Henderson shapes his news stories as a plea for help from Western powers sitting on the sideline as a beautiful city is reduced to rubble. He photographs huge, empty cargo planes flying out of the war zone and asks why they aren't loaded with children desperate for sanctuary. Finally, he joins a relief effort led by an inexperienced American named Nina (Tomei) whose goal is to evacuate children who have relatives abroad. The Bosnian government, an unseen and perhaps underdeveloped villain, opposes a wider evacuation because such an event would be interpreted as a defeat. Here's where Henderson definitively crosses the line from observer to participant. He arranges a seat on the evacuation bus for a young girl named Emira (Emira Nusevic). Emira has no relatives abroad, but if Henderson can get her to England, he plans to adopt her.

The closing passage in Welcome to Sarajevo is inadequately justified as Henderson searches for and finally locates the mother who abandoned Emira when she was a baby. We haven't a clue as to why he bothers, though his efforts do afford her an opportunity for redemption. And we can only conclude that Harrelson's flashy Flynn character was included in hopes of gaining the film a wider distribution in the United States. Certainly, Flynn's character is never satisfactorily integrated into the picture's action.

Western journalist Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane, left) becomes personally involved in the Bosnian civil war in Welcome to Sarajevo.
But those are minor complaints about a film with so much intelligence and so much heart. The picture offers an especially clear-eyed view of the practice of international journalism. Wars have a way of wearing you out, and the foreign correspondents in Bosnia are a jaded lot. In an early scene where the pack swoops in to cover the carnage of a mortar hit on a bread line, the journalists swarm like vultures over the twisted, mangled bodies of the dead. Back home, the bloodshed isn't enough for network news producers. In England, the dying in Sarajevo is bumped off the air for extended coverage of the marital separation of the Duke and Duchess of York.

And Welcome to Sarajevo captures the horrors of urban war as well as any picture I recall. For the residents of a clean, once-prosperous metropolis that from a distance might be Denver or Vancouver, death has become commonplace, deprivation an omnipresent reality. An educated young man named Risto (Goran Visnjic) is delighted to land a job as a driver for Henderson's news team. And in one painful scene, after being given three fresh eggs by Flynn, Risto shares them with friends, four hungry men hovering around a single plate for a taste of the omelette they've prepared. Later, scenes shot at a Serbian prison camp show captives as gaunt and vacant-eyed as those that haunt us from photographs of Auschwitz.

Before it collapsed into civil war, Sarajevo was a model of cosmopolitan, inter-ethnic harmony. The city was home to Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians. Critically, Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (working from Michael Nicholson's nonfiction book Natasha's Story) infrequently identify the ethnicity or religion of the people its depicts as victims. And that's on purpose, of course. Not all Bosnian Serbs marched to the renegade leadership of Radovan Karadzic, who forthrightly endorsed the practice of "ethnic cleansing," a euphemism for genocide. So Karadzic's mortar attacks killed Serbs as well as Muslims and Croats. Karadzic considered all in Sarajevo the enemy and sought to destroy the city entirely. His villainy was such that his mortars routinely targeted the city's hospitals and orphanages. Children of all three ethnic groups died together in the latter. Near the end of the film, a cadre of Karadzic's soldiers intercepts Nina's evacuation bus, seizes her passenger manifest and uses it to identify the ethnicity of the children aboard. Some they allow to go on their way; others they carry off with them. And we don't know whether they've taken Muslim children to murder or Serbian children to inculcate with their own hatred and blood lust. That's a scene, like the whole of this distressing film, that will stay with the viewer for a very long time.

Puzzle Box

FILM: The Spanish Prisoner

STARRING: Steve Martin, Campbell Scott

DIRECTOR: David Mamet

David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner takes its name from the confidence game in which the mark is asked for money to get a rich relative out of prison in Spain. Once free, the prisoner will reward the mark 10-fold. But there is no Spanish prisoner, and the mark never sees his money again. We know that Mamet likes such scams. We've seen him examine them previously in his films House of Games and Homicide and in his screenplays for movies like The Edge. In Mamet's screenplay for Wag the Dog, Robert DeNiro is trying to work a con on the whole country. The stakes are a lot smaller in his current work.

Campbell Scott (left) is a dope being played like a fiddle by those around him, including new 'friend' Steve Martin.

The Spanish Prisoner is the story of Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), a research and development employee at a nameless company making a nameless product. Joe's work has just resulted in a significant breakthrough, and the process he has developed is poised to make the company's management team and all its stockholders indecently rich. Joe just wonders what his cut will be, but the company president, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazarra), is awfully evasive about talking to Joe about an appropriate bonus. Joe wants to be a good employee and well thought of, but he doesn't want to be taken advantage of. And he knows darned well that the market value of his process is astronomical. So he listens when his rich new friend, Jimmy Bell (Steve Martin), suggests that he take some legal advice about the nature of his obligations to the company and issues concerning ownership of the process. And therein lies a pack of trouble.

A significant problem with The Spanish Prisoner is that it requires Joe to be such a dope that we lose patience with him. He meets Jimmy when he's taking pictures on a Caribbean beach and Jimmy approaches to offer $1,000 for his cheap plastic camera. Anybody else would be thoroughly spooked, but Joe gives the camera away and chats Jimmy up when their paths cross a short time later, subsequently agreeing to take a present for Jimmy's sister back to New York. Mamet eliminates that moment in contemporary airport protocol where an airline official asks if Joe has been given any package wrapped by a stranger. But throughout, as he pinballs ever more certainly into the hands of those who would abuse him, he always makes the wrong choices. Unlike most movie characters who suffer from too much, Joe lacks a normal component of paranoia.

Still, though we know Joe is being had, we don't know how, by whom and to what extent. And thereby Mamet keeps us exquisitely entertained. The script plays nice tricks on us, infusing us with all the paranoia Joe lacks. We see enemies everywhere, even where they aren't. There's nothing to the present for Jimmy's sister, for instance. We're sure Jimmy's duped Joe into smuggling dope or maybe trade or state secrets, surely something. But no, it's just an old book about a tennis player. Nothing an all. A red herring. Until we realize that the package wasn't a red herring after all exactly. It was a device, a sleight of hand, a magician's trick of getting us to look in the wrong place. But boy, do we keep watching. And we don't see it coming even when it's right in front of us.

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