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Film: Reality shot to pieces

the big picture
Welcome to Sarajevo (15)

Directed by Michael


The escalation of the mortality rate during war time is a gift to the writer who needs to arrive suddenly at a scene of horror or tragedy without cluttering up the action with logic.

It could be that the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce felt a touch embarrassed about the carte blanche that was suddenly in his possession as he began hammering out Welcome to Sarajevo. He rarely exploits the war-writer's prerogative to bump off insignificant characters willy-nilly, although when a bus full of infant evacuees on their way out of Bosnia is halted by Serbian Chetniks, the children that are claimed feel as much hostages to our expectations as to the soldiers who snatch them out of the mouth of freedom. Would we really have been satisfied if that bus had made it to safety without a single human sacrifice?

Boyce keeps the carnage generalised, and the director Michael Winterbottom responds by conjuring up a sense of ubiquitous pain, a conveyor belt of death and grief in which each tragedy must be processed as swiftly as possible in order to remove the mourners from danger.

It is perhaps the kind of desperation at the briskness of life during war time that leads the film to turn away from this pattern of random violence in favour of a more intimate story of a television journalist's attempt to smuggle a young orphan home with him to London.

As that strand comes into focus, Welcome to Sarajevo seems to smooth itself out, and you can get to miss the initial abrasiveness that Winterbottom creates by splicing together conflicting styles, mixing slow motion with freeze frames, kinetic handheld camera work and grainy video images magnified to the point of distortion.

Early on, it is clear that Winterbottom has been wearing out his copy of The Battle of Algiers, attempting the same cross-fertilisation between documentary and fiction. These fusions are more problematic.

Welcome to Sarajevo also combines news excerpts with reconstructions, which makes explicit the jump from images of genuine suffering to shots of child actors looking glum beneath their painted on bruises. In Schindler's List, everything was faked, so if you were distressed at the artifice, your anguish at least had a consistent focus. It's more complicated in Welcome to Sarajevo because the real documentary footage appears to have been included in order to give the stamp of authentication to the dramatised scenes - as if the fictional will somehow become factual by association. When you're manipulating images that are tweezered out of real lives, you had better be certain that the thirst for drama isn't being quenched at the cost of ethical sobriety.

But I'd still prefer this sort of provocative risk-taking to the rather simplistic drama that assumes control of the film halfway through. Boyce has based this central section of his screenplay on the book Natasha's Story, in which the ITN journalist Michael Nicholson recalls the story of his own mission to rescue an orphan from Sarajevo.

Nicholson has been changed to Henderson, and is played by Stephen Dillane, whose coolness works to the film's advantage; no amount of danger or emotion can loosen the resolve of his magnificent stiff upper lip, but the stillness in his features suggests its own kind of chaos, distressing and barely buried.

There is some crudity in the details of the remaining characters - the American reporter (Woody Harrelson) wears shades indoors and eats raw eggs, so we know he's whacko, while an opportunistic freelancer (Emily Lloyd) keeps scrounging rides in the ITN van, like a teenager who needs a lift to the disco. But I liked this roughness, this on the hoof shorthand - it fits very well with the film's early scenes, where the camera just seems to dart off to wherever the action is.

There's an unsettling calm in the way Winterbottom stages a street execution, where five men are roped together and shot one by one, which suggests that he may have it in him to make something as abstract and unsparing as Alan Clarke's 1989 film Elephant, which comprised a series of decontextualised Northern Irish killings. While it would be commercially suicidal for a movie which was banking on making a profit to adopt such an approach, you can't help feeling that Welcome to Sarajevo grows less loyal to reality, and to its subject matter, the more it strives to be human. Where it might have explored the specific intricacies of its chosen war, the film instead plugs into a vague sense of loss, epitomised by its recurring image of a solitary child padding away from the camera, growing small and sad as it melts into the distance.