Film: Reality shot to pieces

the big picture

Welcome to Sarajevo (15)

Directed by Michael

Winterbottom

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones