Bosnia: the year of filming dangerously

As the journalists have departed from Sarajevo, a city that lost 10,000 people in four years of war, so the film-makers have moved in. The Bosnian capital is the backdrop to seven new movie productions; but few appear to concern themselves with the truth. Emma Daly reports
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As the real-life battle scenes of Bosnia died away, many of the journalists who followed each move in that bloody conflict drifted off in search of new targets. In their place have come the fictional chroniclers of a war that claimed 10,000 lives in Sarajevo alone. Thus, after four years of war and six months of uneasy peace, Bosnia finds itself reborn as a film set.

The process of recycling wars for the purposes of entertainment is in the best Hollywood tradition. And just as Salvador, The Killing Fields and Platoon imprinted an image of their respective wars on the popular imagination, so these new movies - and there at least seven of them in the pipeline - will be taken as visual history, as popular explanations of what really happened in the terrifying, mesmerising muddle of the Bosnian war.

There is no "objective truth", one might say, only people's stories - but even these are susceptible to being pushed and pulled, tweaked and sanitised in the cause of dramatic credibility, as the journalist Michael Nicholson is discovering. Sarajevo, a pounds 5m Anglo-American production, began shooting on the streets of the city this week. It is based on Natasha's Story, a book in which the ITN reporter described the collapse of his journalistic defences, built up over a 30-year career in war zones, when confronted by Natasha, a nine-year-old Bosnian girl living in an orphanage. He smuggled her to Britain and adopted her, with, he says, the consent of her mother - many children in Bosnian institutions are not orphans but abandoned or merely lost. The film, however, lops 20 years off Nicholson's age and, he says, introduces a tear-jerking scene in which Natasha's mother begs to keep her child. The film-makers need to inject sex appeal and extract the maximum hankie-factor. Nicholson believes, however, that their meddling will detract from his story.

Nicholson's book was hyper-critical of the Bosnian Serbs, who were, after all, besieging cities and burning the countryside in their campaign for "self-determination". But Sarajevo will be free of such bias, according to its producer Graham Broadbent, who was quoted as saying that: "Political labels mean nothing." Unfortunately, in Bosnia political labels have tended to mean life or death.

Mr Broadbent is keen to portray Sarajevo as "an anti-war film" which is fine - certainly, my experience of reporting the war in Sarajevo was pretty off-putting. Mr Broadbent will have no truck with politics: "The aim at the end of the day is to make a piece which is not political, but which is an anti-war story," he said by telephone from Sarajevo. "We're aware of the nationalities involved but beyond that it's really a story about people being killed going about their everyday lives ... it doesn't really matter who pulled the triggers.''

This is not a view that many Sarajevans are likely to leap forward to endorse. Senada Kreso, who is on sabbatical from a job at the Foreign Ministry, is unimpressed by the script for Sarajevo. "It's not about Bosnia, it's a story about Nicholson,'' she said. "The war is just the milieu. I think that Bosnians should be making films about the war here - I would like to see a Serb film about it, I would like Bosnians to use the horror, their own experiences to this because that would be authentic.''

Foreign films, she feels, offer little even to a foreign audience. "I don't think they would learn anything they don't already know ... Sarajevo doesn't reveal anything of the real complexities or the real horror of the story. In fact, I've seen television reports that are more powerful.''

She is also concerned by the speed with which the movie-makers have jumped in. "We need some historical perspective; this experience should ripen and shape up in our minds. We are still confused, we still wake up with disbelief that all this happened."

Other Sarajevans, though, seem sanguine about the movie invasion. "It's nothing special, it always happens,'' says Meco, a young architect. "This is an excellent location, a combination of sweet and sour - a little bit of bloodshed, sprinkled with the fame of a dying city, plus personal drama stitched in. They are starting with dramas now, but soon I'm expecting low-budget LA action flicks.''

Sarajevo is not the first Bosnia war movie, nor is it even the first to be made post-war. That distinction goes to a local affair: The Perfect Circle by the Sarajevan director Ademir Kenovic, funded by French and Dutch production companies. Mr Kenovic, who lived in Sarajevo throughout the siege, began shooting a few weeks after the signing of the Dayton peace plan, which brought 60,000 Nato troops and a permanent ceasefire to Bosnia. His crew leafleted Sarajevan neighbourhoods warning people not to worry about any explosions they might hear, though the pall of black smoke from his set that hung over the city centre caused momentary panic.

The Perfect Circle, which should reach the screen this autumn, looks as if it will stand in the best European art-house tradition: the story of a poet unable to write because of the war, who meets a pair of brothers, one a mute, who have lost their family and home. As befits a film made by Sarajevans, whose attitude to the war appeared to be "you've got to laugh", The Perfect Circle has, an assistant to Kenovic says, funny moments: "The poet tries to hang himself several times but keeps being saved.''

Ironically, few of the new films will actually benefit any Bosnians, for while much of the city looks like an extended film-set of the post- apocalyptic sort (that's excluding many apartment blocks built in Communist brutal), most of the actual filming will be done abroad - insurance premiums for Bosnia are too expensive and film-makers need government permission to shoot, which is not granted easily. Macedonia, the former Yugoslav republic that has cannily avoided war despite the hostility of all four neighbours, is one beneficiary of the Balkan movie boom, Croatia another.

Still, some scenes require an authentic flavour, and location scouts were out this spring on behalf of a Spanish film based on the novel Territorio Comanche by Arturo Perez-Reverte, a tale of journalists in the Croatian war which has been transplanted to Bosnia.

Bosnia's war can be handy as a selling-point, but in Ulysses' Gaze, a lengthy art-house flick starring Harvey Keitel as a director searching for the earliest film shot in the Balkans (another true story), it figured primarily as a metaphor for Harvey's angst.

And next year it will feature as the blank page upon which US military technology shall be writ large and victorious. No, not in a depiction of the Nato bombing campaign that finally forced the Serbs to the negotiating table, but something far closer to the American heart: the rescue of Scott O'Grady, Grade A Hero and F-16 pilot shot down by the Serbs in 1995. The screenplay is based on two books: Return with Honor, O'Grady's account of the five days he spent drinking rainwater, eating insects and avoiding Serbs, and Good To Go, the story of his rescue, by Mary Pat Kelly.

The producer, Steven Stabler of MPCA (Motion Picture Corporation of America), expects to spend $15m or so and hopes for Chris O'Donnell or Christian Slater in the starring role. He is clear about the story's direction. "It's a true American hero story,'' he said. "It's not really the story of Bosnia.''

It is not entirely clear, however, if it will even be the real story of O'Grady, who, according to Nato pilots, did everything wrong. First, he circled above Serb air defences for so long that they were able to lock on and shoot him down; once on the ground, he ignored standard rescue procedures, ensuring his ordeal lasted far longer than necessary. But the man who wept on his return home and described the "religious vision" he experienced provided the only feel-good factor at a time of Western disasters in Bosnia. As President Clinton said at the time, his story would make "a very great movie".

And after heroes come the children. Universal Studios holds the rights to Zlata's Diary, which was begun in September 1991 by Zlata Filipovic, who was 10 at the time. She kept her diary through the first two years of war, and it was chosen for publication by Unicef. Zlata became an immediate celebrity, and was able to leave Sarajevo with her family that Christmas. She has been compared to Anne Frank, though her book is believed by some to have been touched up, to have had political passages added to liven up a naturally childish text. "This is an utterly apolitical book,'' her British editor said in 1994. "It is humanitarian. She takes great care not to be of service to either side.''

We can allow Zlata, a child, to tell her story free of context. And it is probably not an issue for the O'Grady movie, nor for Slow Dissolve (a thriller about the murder of a journalist in Bosnia). But how can it be completely ignored by Sarajevo, a film that Mr Broadbent says, wants to take its audience "through a war that they maybe never really understood'', using television footage of the bread-queue massacre (Sarajevans killed by shelling in May 1992), the fall of Vukovar (to Serbs in Croatia), "images we have all seen around the world and largely ignored on our television sets''?

Perhaps "truth" does not matter - after all, it's only a movie. But Schindler's List taught people a lot about the Holocaust. Anyone watching the spate of forthcoming entertainment from Bosnia is advised to view with a sceptical eye.


l This week principal photography began in Sarajevo on the Channel 4/Miramax venture Sarajevo, directed by Michael Winterbottom. The film, which stars the stage actor Stephen Dillane, Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei and Kerry Fox, is based on the book Natasha's Story by ITN journalist Michael Nicholson, which chronicles his adoption of a nine-year-old Bosnian girl.

l Universal is reportedly adapting the war diaries of Bosnian teenager Zlata Filipovic for the cinema. Zlata, who began the diaries in 1991 when she was 10, won worldwide celebrity when they were published by the International Centre for Peace in 1993, and was offered a contract by a Paris publisher. In spite of suspicions that the diaries had been touched up by adult hands, film rights were promptly sold to Hollywood.

l The American pilot Scott O'Grady, who survived for six days on a diet of insects and rainwater after being shot down in Bosnia, may have the story of his rescue committed to celluloid. Tom Cruise's production company reportedly expressed an interest in the project last year, but rights to O'Grady's memoirs, Return With Honour, are now held by the Motion Picture Corporation of America. If made, the film will probably be distributed in North America by Paramount. First choices to play O'Grady would be Christian Slater (above left) or Chris O'Donnell (above right).

l Harvey Keitel, fresh from Ulysses' Gaze, is co-producing and starring in director Lina Wertmuller's forthcoming An Interesting State, playing an Italian-American priest working in Bosnia. The project is in pre-production at Italian International Films, and is scheduled to begin shooting in the spring of next year.

l Avnet-Kerner Productions are developing a film of the novel Slow Dissolve, the story of the murder of a journalist in Bosnia and the political conspiracy that is uncovered in the search for the killer. No director is attached, but Caravan Pictures, part of the Disney organisation, is interested in distributing it.

l The Sarajevan director Ademir Kenovic began shooting The Perfect Circle, backed by French and Dutch producers, only a few weeks after the signing of the Dayton peace agreement. The story of a poet unable to write because of the war, apparently adhering strongly to the European art-house tradition, it should reach British screens in the autumn.