4 Film & TV: Videos a Go-Go (Metro Pulse . 07-20-98)

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Metro Pulse Videos a Go-Go

The Baffling Balkans.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JULY 20, 1998:  In college, one of my friends spent a semester in Cairo. When he came back, he had a lot of stories about amorous Egyptian cabbies and guides who snuck him into off-limits mummy tombs (he brought back some dusty mummy wrap). He also told me about his roommate, an exchange student from Yugoslavia. "He said that place is like seven different countries crammed into one," my friend said. "There's gonna be a civil war."

The rest is history, albeit not very well understood history. It's no surprise Hollywood has stayed well away from the confusing Balkan conflict, since Americans feel either helpless or bored when confronted with it. Welcome to Sarajevo (R, 1998) tries to redress that recalcitrance. It's actually a British film, but the calculated casting of Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei in supporting roles is aimed at U.S. audiences. (Not that it helped much—the movie did nothing at the box office.) It's a "message" movie, as you'd expect, and the message is pretty straightforward—the rest of the world knew what was going on in Bosnia, and they let it happen anyway. Director Michael Winterbottom makes liberal use of actual news footage to drive the war home—long shots of people bleeding in the streets and mortars zinging through the night. On that level, the movie is effective. The actual plot is a little less convincing, even though it's based on a true story: an English TV reporter is drawn personally into the conflict when an orphaned girl latches onto him and begs him to take her home. The biggest flaw, however, is the film's tone. It seethes with righteous anger at international indifference but seems unable to suggest what anybody could or should have done differently—which was, of course, the whole problem.

Two films made by natives of the former Yugoslavia run into the same brick wall, to an extent. Before the Rain (NR, 1995) and Vukovar (R, 1994) are cries for sanity amid the chaos, although they take very different approaches. Before the Rain is the better film, an elliptical story in three overlapping sections that charts the way cycles of hatred and division repeat themselves. Shocking in some parts, surreal in others, it's a graceful lament, even if it prefers to keep the issues a little abstract. Vukovar, a Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy about a Serb married to a Croat, is more specific but also fuzzier. Director Boro Draskovic is himself part Croat and part Serb, and he opts for a "Why can't we get along?" tone that simplifies the war's roots (and dramatically underplays Serbian aggression). Still, its heart is in the right place and the devastation of a city and a whole way of life is sharply rendered.

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