Welcome to Sarajevo
Director(s): Michael Winterbottom
Writer(s): Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cast: Stephen Dillane, Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Kerry Fox and Emily Lloyd
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)Nov 26, 1997 - Wide
Director Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo, based on true stories from the international press corps, gives the audience a vivid glimpse into the religious and ethnic battles that laid siege to the city of Sarajevo.
Following the exploits of a group of journalists, some new to war, some covering their 14th, Welcome to Sarajevo shows how the inhumane events of the war touches the reporters and pushes them to do more than just sending pictures home.
Our tour of duty is led by British correspondent Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane), a veteran of many wars, and his news team – cameraman Greg (James Nesbitt), producer Jane (Kerry Fox), and their Sarajevan driver, Risto (Goran Visnjic). The footage of suffering and the loss of life and dignity are interspersed with the one-upmanship and camaraderie present in the generator-lit hotel where the journalists huddle nightly for drinks and discussion.
Much attention is cast upon an American journalist, Flynn (Woody Harrelson), who is flashier than most and likes to star in his reports. Flynn contends that his acts, like risking sniper-fire to help a shot civilian, only help to let the American public show interest in the war. As he points out: “Back home no one’s heard of Sarajevo, but they’ve all heard of me.”
Even the British press face the same battles with the public. At one point the team thinks it has gripping footage of a mortar attack on a civilian bread line, but are horrified to hear their story was bumped out of the lead-off by Andrew and Fergie’s separation.
During a routine news hunt, Henderson comes across an orphanage subjected to daily artillery attacks. His campaign to have the children moved off the front-line becomes an obsession, and a promise made to a child (Emira Nusevic), triggers his personal involvement in the war. He wants to steer the events, not just report them.
Welcome to Sarajevo is an early contender for an Oscar® and the Academy should give Stephen Dillane a nod for Best Actor as well. The British stage and television star’s performance as Michael Henderson is remarkably unmannered and pure. With its use of recreations and file footage, you can almost get lulled into thinking you’re watching a documentary, and it’s only the inclusion of Hollywood types like Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei that snaps the viewer back to the fact that this is a feature film.
Woody Harrelson is very good as the flashy Flynn. He portrays the charisma and arrogance of a big network news star well, but is also able to show the depth of his characterization in some touching scenes with a Sarajevan family.
Marisa Tomei puts in a good few days of work, but her screen time is not enough for her to really stretch herself. This is not to detract from her work. This is not a starring vehicle for her, or Harrelson for that matter, and their appearance in this film is, as Woody put it, a chance “…to work with Michael [Witherspoon] who I think is just a brilliant director and secondly, I thought it might be a really worthwhile education, to find out what happened in Bosnia.”
Director Witherspoon gets great performances from all of his cast and the look of the film catches the grey, gritty despair of the people and their city. He wanted to shoot some of the scenes outside Sarajevo to avoid revisiting painful memories for its citizens , but he instead found them wanting to recreate some of the incidents so that the world would know what happened.
One of the things that makes this film so powerful is the fact that it mostly takes place in a city. The mostly Vietnam-era films we’ve seen recently are in lush, thick jungles, whereas the snipers in this film lay hidden in apartment complexes. Upon returning to my apartment after the Toronto Film Festival screening I reflected on the fact that had I been in Sarajevo, any of the windows around me could have hidden an attacker. A rather chilling thought.
Welcome to Sarajevo is well-acted, well-directed, and well-intentioned. It’s a must see.