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May 1997

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[The Guardian - 9 May 1997]

Welcome To Sarajevo is tipped to triumph at Cannes. But does it deserve to? Ed Vulliamy, who covered the war in Bosnia, asks whether film-makers can ever understand what it was like.

Being there

A British film tonight begins a tightrope walk towards winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes - a film called Welcome To Sarajevo. The prize is all the more glamorous because this year is the 50th Cannes beanfeast. Welcome to Sarajevo is tipped to win.

The film walks the highwire without a safety net. On the one hand, it could be the movie that finally draws proper and overdue public attention to the carnage in a European capital just down the road from Venice, and to the West's diabolical acceptance of that slaughter. On the other hand, Welcome To Sarajevo could succeed chiefly as an opportunist cash-in on the misery and suffering of the Sarajevans by the tourists of the film industry and their bank managers. The film raises a hundred questions about art and war.

One the one hand: Welcome To Sarajevo is nothing if not technically accomplished. For anyone who spent time in that defiant but accursed city, the film traumatically recreates the sensations of what it was like to walk, sprint and drive its terrifying streets. It's all there, at a cognoscenti screening in cinema seven, Warner Leicester Square, on the morning after election night with ice cream. In glorious Dolby: the unpredictability and sheer volume of mortar, shell and gunfire that can come at you from anywhere at any time; life that is never out of range. It's the feeling that Death is stalking you so closely that you get used to him - though never to the shelling ("used to shelling" - that was bullshit, a myth).

And there on the big screen were the corpses of those who hadn't made it, and the screaming faces of innocent children scared out of their wits by the ugly, impenitent sounds of destruction. I know all this from real life; and it was weird to re-live it in Leicester Square.

And then there's the overall message of the film: that this "siege" - which became prolonged torture - of a civilised city and its infant innocents by a pack of heavily armed Serbian barbarians was preventable. That the west allowed this to happen; the butchery and mutilation were OK so far as the strutting diplomats were concerned. This film is unequivocal on the shameful and shaming theme of the diplomatic appeasers' barbarism, juxtaposing their dismissive lines with the bloody scenes that left them impotent and unstirred.

But on the other hand: This plea for Sarajevo - coming comfortably after the event - is made by a team of people who had begun working on their script, casting, "scene-building", financing and rights-buying during the bloody onset of the siege in spring 1992. And yet not one of them even set foot in Sarajevo until the nightmare was over.

The cinematic reconnaissance team first entered the city within days of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995, after the firing had ceased. Thousands of aid workers and truck drivers, hundreds of journalists and TV crews, soldiers, charity volunteers, peaceniks, Joan Baez and Susan Sontag·they all came during the siege to find out, first-hand, what this municipal torture chamber felt like. But not the makers of - let alone the investors in - Welcome To Sarajevo, who plan to tell it like it was, at a cinema near you.

The producer, Graham Broadbent, explains: "We were doing the script during the war. We were very close to what was going on·But it was not possible to go there." The film programme reads: "While (Frank) Cotterell Boyce wrote, the siege waged on, effectively cutting off Sarajevo from the outside world." True, but disingenuous: the outside world was not cut off from Sarajevo.

The film was shot in post-war Sarajevo, nevertheless - and Broadbent's reflections on finally arriving in the city are endearing: "There it was - the Holiday Inn. Sniper Alley. All those places, for real. Whatever job one was doing, there was a feeling as one went to bed: 'I can't believe where I am. Did all this really happen?'" Yes sir, it did.

Then there is the plot. For reasons that are perfectly fair, the movie needs a good storyline. And for this film, Broadbent chose the tale of venerable ITN reporter Michael Nicholson, who was so moved by the foul violence against Sarajevo's orphan children that he adopted one, Natasha. The result was a safe child and a book: Natasha's Story, which ran to a second edition after Nicholson found out she was not an orphan after all, and had a mother - necessitating a return to Sarajevo in order to secure her future in England.

Writing about Welcome to Sarajevo is a complicated affair; since the PR operation surrounding it wants two bites at the cherry: one now, and another when the movie is released in Europe in October and in the US a month later. A few days ago, there was a blanket embargo - which is why Nicholson has been told he cannot speak until autumn. But Mike is a gentleman, and sneaks in a reaction: "It was traumatic for me to be reliving not just Sarajevo but also the whole process of taking Natasha out. I could never in all my years try to be objective about this; it moved me - and still moves me - enormously".

Of the man who plays him, Stephen Dillane, Nicholson says jovially: "He's played me to perfection. Bad-tempered and un-cooperative - things he must have heard from so-called friends of mine." Nicholson, who was not a Sarajevo regular, was paid close to £100,000 in return for free cinematic rein with his decision to cross the journalistic line and save a child. I came to know many brave mothers who breast-fed their new-born babies in cellars while the thud of shells defiled their little lives from above, scaring them senseless. Almost any one of those women would have exchanged their motherhood for a safe passage out for the child.

The odd thing is that one of the story's main ingredients was immediately removed: Nicholson is old enough to have been a television veteran of Vietnam, and yet even that tribulation did not affect him so much as the pity of Sarajevo during a brief visit. In the film, this context would have been impossible, for "Michael Henderson" is a young and handsome man.

Producer Broadbent is refreshingly open. "That's my job. Find a story in the newspaper and make it into a film. I read about Michael Nicholson and it seemed a good way into the subject·Frank (Cotterell Boyce) said he was not just interested in Nicholson but in a city under siege, seen through Western eyes. This is not an attempt to make the Bosnian film about Sarajevo - that's up to the Bosnians."

Broadbent and director Michael Winterbottom secured the commitment of a transatlantic partnership: Channel 4 in the UK and Miramax in the United States - billed as an "independent" at Hollywood but in fact a subsidiary of Disney. The movie cost £9.5 million. In Sarajevo terms, the figure is meaningless. But the jeer "Hollywood comes to Sarajevo" that greeted the crew was unfair. In its flavour, texture and dialogue, this is a serious British film. By and large, it is savoury rather than Hollywood-sweet. What it does miss, however, is the dignified defiance of Sarajevo as caught, say, in the photographs of Tom Stoddart, currently on show at the Festival Hall in London. Women bracing themselves for the run across Sniper Alley in their make-up and pressed white blouses; the premium that living without water and food, and under gunfire, puts on outward appearances. To capture such intricacies of life under siege, you would need to have been there, like Stoddart - and unlike these guys.

But the focus of the film, as Broadbent says, is the "Western eyes" - the hacks. There is a bumptiousness that the movie captures well. Also the bizarre relationship with the fixers, whom we paid to share our curiosity and fear, and befriended. The alcohol is about right. But there are some petty perversions. The discovery of the Serbian concentration camps is packaged into a gratuitous cameo. The heroic Henderson has a panting sidekick, the bimbette Annie McGee. Annie says that she has found a story that will make the Sarajevo siege "look like fucking Jane Austen". "I never fucked Jane Austin," broods Henderson, distracted by his orphanages. This leaves the kitten-ish Annie free to join up with "Flynn", a Bullishmillswigging American and Henderson's competitor-cum-friend, to uncover the horrific camps at Omarska and Trnopolje.

The vacuous Annie is presumably meant to be Penny Marshall, in real life a tough, experienced and rigorous journalist, who revealed (and effectively closed down) Omarska through sheer determination, and at moderate risk to her own life (I was with her that day, so I should know). Her original and remarkable footage is used in Welcome To Sarajevo, and if I were Penny I would not look forward to the big-screen version of my work that day. Her arrival at the Trnopolje camp is shown in silence at first, which is very effective.

Above all, there is Henderson's "crossing the line" from passive coverage of the war to his participation in the adoption of the child. We didn't all adopt children, but anyone with any sense of humanity and decency crossed the line from bogus neutrality to what Martin Bell calls "the journalism of attachment".

If this film has a saving grace, it is Stephen Dillane's role as Henderson. Not because of his acting, but because of his feelings off-camera about the whole project. Dillane confesses himself to have "reeled back in horror" when approached to star in a film about Sarajevo, haunted by "the idea of Hollywood re-making everything in its own image, and its lack of humility".

Dillane may never have gone into this war, but he has thought it through: "I wanted if possible to distance all this from Nicholson. No disrespect to him. I haven't even read his book. This is not about Nicholson; it's about war.

"We'll be criticised for refusing to be neutral - but so what? What happened there cannot be ducked away from," says Dillane. After all the apathy, appeasement, obfuscation and denial of what happened in Bosnia, this is refreshing stuff. If the film is accused of bias, it will only be by stuffed shirts at the Foreign Office, Serbs or the lunatics on the ultra-left who call us at the Guardian and ITN liars for insisting that there were Serbian concentration camps.

But Dillane wasn't there. He just stars in a movie about people who were. He says: "I was at first, and I continue to be, uneasy about the whole idea." But: "You can be virginal about these things, which is an attractive attitude because it is the most pure. But it is also reclusive and fails to communicate. Maybe it is exploitation; but that's the nature of the world. Drinking this cup of teas is exploiting someone somewhere".

This film raises not just the question of neutrality, but this: which films can or cannot be respectfully made about what subjects, when, and by whom? To say that "Hollywood" should not touch the recent history of acute suffering would rule out, for a start, Schindler's List.

It's a hard line to draw. Vietnam is obviously OK: endless films, and handsome fortunes harvested. Dunblane would presumably be beyond the pale. How close is too close? How far is far enough? Where do art and show business end, and exploitation begin?

Graham Broadbent is confident: "Vietnam was irrelevant to my generation. Dunblane was a freak incident. But Bosnia was the first war in our lifetime in Europe - and we failed to act. Someone was going to make a film about it".

Broadbent understandably takes heart from the fact that Bosnians he worked with in Sarajevo were pleased the film was being made, and that the Bosnian ministry of culture is impressed with the piece. But one of the sad things about Bosnia was how eternally grateful people were for so little - every sign of interest, every dashed promise, every catchpenny gesture from a politician that played hard with hopes and fears on the ground.

The disappointing truth is that at least part of this debate boils down to money. Like so many conversations in Sarajevo itself, it starts off loftily - about truth and the duty to inform - and boils down to the one subject: who is making money out of what?

Let's deal with the motes in our own eyes first. Like the movies, news is business, and Sarajevo was news. The commercial requirements of newspapers and television found Sarajevo worth investing in. We journalists also made money, as individuals, by covering the siege and the wider war. I was paid an annual salary by the Guardian of £35,000, rising to some £37,000 for being there. I gave some of this money away, say two per cent, but not over-much. I made a point of donating all my prize money - about £1,400 - to charity projects in Bosnia, and gave the fee for a film to a family who could make better use of it than me. Hardly a Mike Nicholson commitment, or a record that gets one through the eye of a needle into paradise.

Money was a strange thing in Sarajevo. For Sarajevans, it bought the most important things: false papers, cigarettes, cosmetics. There is an astute scene in the film when a roughish lad boasts how money (and Coca-Cola) can now buy him a girl who always refused him. For us, money bought the means of working. I would pay my fixer $100 a day to drive around in his Peugeot, translate and be shot at - which was five times what his wife earned in a month. Soldiers at the front, meanwhile, earned three packets of cigarettes a month.

"I don't deny it: I did this for money," admits Stephen Dillane with his usual candour. It's quite hard to work out the pecking order: who is making the most money out of all this?

Bottom of the pile are the bereaved, the wretched diaspora and the deportees of ethnic cleansing, of course. They have had everything taken away from them. Above them are the Sarajevans rather than those "cleansed" from the villages. Then there are the war profiteers and the apparatchiks. Among the foreigners, there are the UN soldiers and the hacks - fairly low down the list, with a few exceptions. Above them are the layers of UN officials and diplomats who did their damnedest to betray Sarajevo, with a few laudable exceptions. At the apex are people like Douglas Hurd and his sidekick Pauline Neville-Jones, who moved abruptly from the FCO to Natwest Markets and a lucrative deal with President Milosevic in Belgrade.

Who knows on which rung of the revenue ladder the makers of Welcome To Sarajevo (and, more importantly, its investors) will end up as a result of their physically low-risk, thematically high-risk enterprise. Not as rich as Douglas Hurd, one suspects, but a few notches above most of the hacks in whose risked lives they say they are so interested.

Nevertheless, one has an awful vision of a stilettoed, tuxedoed throng gathered around some tacky pool in Los Angeles waxing lyrical about the scene in which "Jane" the ITN producer breaks down over the trusty driver's cadaver. The American publicity is already getting into a "hero rescues kid" gear - nothing to do with what Wilfred Owen called "war and the pity of war". And as for the orgy of luvvies on the French Riviera tonight, gorging on canapés and shedding crocodile tears for the infants whose lives were smashed to pieces long ago - in the days when it was "not possible" (what bollocks) to go to Sarajevo. Or when it was all "too complicated" on television·

What the hell was so confusing or complicated about concentration camps or kids being blown to bits by mortar bombs? What was the problem about whose "side" to be on: the children or the bombers? What's so novel about the fact that the West could have stopped all this - and more - with less than 48 hours of light bombing carefully targetting the drunken thugs who were doing it? We shoved all this stuff into the face of homo-supposedly-sapiens as it was happening in 1992 - not on some balmy Mediterranean night in Cannes six years later.

As memories, the kind of scene that Welcome To Sarajevo recreates haunt most of us like unquiet waves that swell behind our shoulders. And it takes a lot less than Dolby sound to bring them crashing ashore. I'll never forget the seven-year-old girl who died with a shiver while I was holding her by the shoulder. And I can't stop thinking about the Serbian sniper, unseen, who picked up his rifle, followed her head through his telescopic sights and fired as she ran across her garden from the mortar his friends had aimed at the house.

These guys made a decent film - that's their job. Credit where it's due. I hope this film does well, because I want people to know what Sarajevo was like, them having apparently missed it on the news for six years. But what does Sarajevo get out of it all? Broadbent confirms that this film is aimed at the folks in West Sussex and downstate Illinois. If their film bombs, it will go down as another honest attempt to ring the alarum, in a comatose world, on a brutal and barbaric slaughter of the innocent - in your lifetime while you did nothing. If it booms - and none of the cash trickles back to Sarajevo - then it stands to be lambasted as a shameless piece of opportunism by people who stayed on the sidelines until the coast was clear.

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