There was a time, during the siege of Sarajevo, when the members of the foreign press would amuse ourselves - we were confined to the basement restaurant so we were easily entertained - by casting our alter-egos in "Sarajevo - The Movie".
We knew the film would come to pass soon enough, and sadly, we also knew that it would cover us, not them. After all, what Western film producer would tackle the story of Bosnia, which is filled with a lot of foreigners who speak a bizarre language and Byzantine political ways when he could make a user-friendly, hack-pack-on-the-warpath flick instead?
So, following the time-honoured format of Salvador, Under Fire and The Killing Fields, Welcome to Sarajevo opens in Britain next week. The film, made by Channel Four Films and Miramax, has an attractive mix of bankable box-office (Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei), non-American talent (Stephen Dillane, Kerry Fox) and unknown Yugos (Goran Visnjic and Emira Nusevic).
This film purports more than most to tell it like it was: the director,Michael Winterbottom (who visited Sarajevo during the siege), uses several minutes of news footage woven in to the scenes of devastation and death.
The street scenes were shot in the city six months after the peace deal was signed and before too much reconstruction had begun.
But the film remains a pale imitation of reality - perhaps because it is based on a book written by a television correspondent who spent very little time in Sarajevo.
Michael Nicholson, the veteran ITN reporter, was sent to the city in July 1992, three months into the siege. Despite having covered many wars, the brutality of the Yugoslav conflict shocked Nicholson; after a few days in Sarajevo, he made a momentous decision, recorded in his diary. "I shall take a child out of Sarajevo when I leave. Check orphanage about little girl Natasha!"
So began the adventure that Nicholson recorded in a book, Natasha's Story, and then in a film script sold for pounds 100,000 . Many Western journalists helped Bosnians to escape from Sarajevo, but Nicholson was the only one to write a book about it.
Perhaps it is unfair to chastise the movie - certainly its producer, Graham Broadbent, has already berated me for criticising the film's shallowness. As he said, it would take a lengthy documentary to explain the war and those of us who lived it are absolutely not the targeted audience. That is no doubt why it drew only polite applause when shown in Sarajevo last summer.
But surely fiction, and especially film, could be better deployed to portray the pity of war, the madness, the money made and lost, the camaraderie, the best of times and the worst.
Nicholson says the film is glamorised but captures the essence of the press corps - but then he wasn't part of it in Sarajevo for long. Martin Bell, who did spend several months in Sarajevo reporting for the BBC, said the film "is full of over-simplification, to the point of falsification".
There were moments of truth in the film, but I found that most of them touched upon the Bosnian characters, not the reporters. This, I suppose, is because Winterbottom took the trouble to interrogate at length at least one of the Bosnian television fixers working during the war.
I found Risto, the Sarajevan hired to drive and translate for the ITN crew, to be the most plausible character in the film. The scenes that really took me back to the siege were those in which Risto takes three eggs back to his friends, who stand around, eyes glazed with desire, as another character creates a small, perfect, omelette. And that in which an American reporter, fed up with the relentless thunder of artillery, screams out at the gunners "Get a real job!" as a shell falls near by.
Yes, we did sit around the hideous, canary-yellow Holiday Inn at night swapping stories and drinking disgusting, but expensive, wine; we also spent a lot of time and energy trying to find out what was going on, trying to tell the stories that we saw and heard each day. We did not, if we were at all intelligent, march down the middle of a street targeted by a sniper in order to help move a body. That would be pointless and dangerous in real life; in Hollywood, it is courage under fire, shorthand intended to establish that the character is reckless but brave.
The vast majority of the reporters who witnessed the siege, which was only a part of the war, much of which was played out beyond our gaze, in the Bosnian countryside, were profoundly affected by the war. So indeed were the reporters in South Africa and Cambodia, Central America and Rwanda and everywhere that the human soul is exposed in all its wonder and cruelty.
We tried at the very least to carry parcels and money in to people trapped in Sarajevo, and letters out. But we were not blind to the ambiguities and paradoxes, to the many shades of grey.
In the film, there is only an occasional flash of the black humour that made life bearable, and none of the anguish that made life so painful. It was not so much the blood, the flesh, the brains lying on the pavement that hurt but the interviews with grieving parents or widows or orphans. There are scenes of the fear but not of the incredible high that comes once you feel you are out of imminent danger.
There is absolutely no context at all to the film, no sense of who is fighting nor why. There is one scene in which a cartoon Serb seizes some children - not because he plans to kill them but because he wants to raise them in an ethnically pure environment, untainted by Muslim or Croat touch.
There are massacres and disembowelled villagers but not much about the suave, well-dressed politicians who orchestrated the carnage (even as they shook hands at the peace talks invoked by Western leaders unwilling to act forcefully). Perhaps that is why this film has reportedly gone down so well with Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who helped broker the Dayton settlement, and with his boss, Bill Clinton, who did so little for so long.
But then, the heroes of the Sarajevan siege were never politicians: they were the housewives and doctors and grave-diggers who struggled to do their work, to feed their families, to help others. And, sometimes, the gangsters who defended the city and profited from the war.
I hope that Welcome to Sarajevo is a huge success. I want people to see it. Judging by the reactions of a preview audience made up of magazine critics, it will come as something of a shock to many in Britain that people actually died painfully, at random.
I am sorry that the film is simplistic and sentimental - but perhaps this fiction will move people, will anger them. This movie could be seen every night, on your own television, for four years.
Perhaps the reality will only come home to us when we see it on the big screen.
Opens Friday 21 NovReuse content