Welcome to Sarajevo opens with a happy family blithely preparing for a wedding as a cheery pop song plays on the soundtrack. While I picked up my phone and began dialing my travel agent to book a trip to Bosnia, the family hit the streets, where the mother promptly received a midriff full of lead. I put down the phone.
A few scenes later, some reporters at a hotel bar are making a toast when a bomb explodes and rattles the walls. No one is injured, but by now I had taken the phone off the hook and hid it in the closet. Winterbottom ensures that the film is relentlessly grim and depressing, though he's careful to eschew the melodramatic. Nearly every peaceful scene of dialogue is followed or interrupted by some act of violence, and every time the characters are static, which is rare, the camera moves wildly around them. After all, war never has a moment of peace; it never stops.
Michael, played by Stephen Dillane in an extraordinary performance, is an English war-correspondent for ITN, stationed in Sarajevo during the civil war of the early 1990’s. After covering a forgotten front-line orphanage every day for a week, and having his stories bumped from the lead because the Duke & Duchess of York are having marital troubles, he takes it upon himself to try to help the kids.
Any movie about saving orphaned infants from a war-ravaged country is bound to end up inherently manipulative, but Winterbottom and Boyce aren’t exactly aiming for subtlety. The “Sarajevo” of the film is convincingly rendered as a nightmarish hellscape, a city where potentially deadly sniper-fire is as ubiquitous as broken faces and dilapidated buildings. Despite the film’s blatant artificiality, it possesses a visceral verisimilitude, thanks at least in part to the ceaseless violence, juxtaposed video footage, and affecting supporting performances by native Yugoslavians.
A pop music soundtrack serves as an ironic counterpoint to the on-screen violence, as well as point-out the relative and nearly insulting complacency of the West. Unlike many similar films, more than a fair share of the proceedings pays attention to the plight of the oppressed, not merely using it as a backdrop for one white Westerner’s personal growth. While specifically about Sarajevo, the filmmakers have also fashioned a broad anti-war movie that should stir connections in the contemporary viewer’s mind to other modern human rights crises, from Rwanda and Darfur to even present-day Baghdad. Ostensibly, however, it is an accessible film more about people than politics; it’s another movie about a time when we did nothing and someone else did something.
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce