TELEVISION / Poetic licence to kill

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THE distinction between handing someone enough rope for them to hang themselves and supplying them with the raw material for a safety net is never an easy one to judge. Paul Pawlikowski's fascinating film for Bookmark (BBC 2) has already taken some hostile fire for throwing 'a mantle of respectability' over its subject, Dr Radovan Karadzic, described on screen here as a Poet and Psychiatrist, but known to many Serbs as a 'man of steel', and to many citizens of Sarajevo as the chief architect of their misery. The BBC added the television equivalent of a nervous cough to the beginning of the film, with a preamble which explained that the peasant tradition of epic verse 'has helped to fuel the horrific conflict in what was once Yugoslavia'.

That wasn't much help, frankly. Most viewers will have known what they thought of the conflict already; it was the contrasting claims to moral rectitude that will have had them puzzled, and if you came to this film cold you would probably have concluded that the Serbs were the underdogs of the current conflict, bravely fighting back after centuries of 'Turkish' oppression, resolute in the face of ignorant disapproval, stalwart defenders of faith and culture. This is undoubtedly how the Serbs see themselves; so you could argue, if you were in defensive mood, that the film had the merit of informing audiences more fully about the conflict. You might also add that a camera can't film what isn't there, and that to understand the emotions of the warriors is to understand the war. But none of these defences are very solid: a similar case could be made for Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, another documentary which is truthful in the sense that it accurately reflects a state of mind, deceitful in that it excludes all contradiction.

It should be added fairly quickly that this wasn't another Triumph of the Will. At least I don't think it was. I wouldn't hazard a trouser- button myself on the issue of whether Pawlikowski is an ally or an observer, because the film was too cautiously balanced on the edge of iconography to tell. There was certainly no doubting the symbolic power of the early scenes here, a cocktail of pastoral nostalgia and modern firepower. Bathed in the golden light of evening, a group of soldiers lie around a mortar emplacement looking up at a beautiful girl on a chestnut horse; a soldier picks up a scythe in a cornfield while a young child looks on; the armed bodyguard walking behind Karadzic stoops to gently place a straying lamb back into its field; a puppy plays around the feet of the leader as he talks to his headquarters on the radio. But is all this a dispassionate evocation of the sentimental patriotism of the Serbian fighters (expressed in the sort of folk music which would make you convert to Islam) or is it an act of persuasion?

There were moments at which the film-maker seemed to take a step backwards: when Karadzic explained that the encirclement of Sarajevo was a defensive manoeuvre; when a sympathetic Russian writer gleefully took a turn at the machine-gun, letting rip at the town below; when the soldiers sang 'Oh beautiful Turkish daughter / Our priests will soon baptise you', applying the language of the 14th century to the siege of Sarajevo. But you had to supply your own reservations. Not one scene would have made the most violent Serb patriot even momentarily uncomfortable.

Pawlikowski is a remarkable film-maker - watching, the mind kept freeze-framing, anxious to stare a little longer at images which had the compressed power of a still photograph: the slow squeaking traverse of a gun barrel above the city, a close-cropped image of a mass baptism, a soldier perched precariously on an inverted wine bottle, Karadzic's mother sceptically examining the new banknotes. But that degree of skill requires a commensurate responsibility. Even if you give Pawlikowski the benefit of the doubt, you might question his judgement. There are times when ambiguity isn't enough.