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.

sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

    £6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

    £12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor