Welcome to Sarajevo

Director Michael Winterbottom's "Welcome to Sarajevo" is a rancid and self-righteous film that reflects the pro-interventionist outlook of the "laptop bombardiers." During the civil war in former Yugoslavia, this group, which included such notables as NY Times editorialist Anthony Lewis and cultural critic Susan Sontag, advocated NATO bombing of the Bosnian Serbs. In their moral calculus, the Muslims stood for European Jewry in the late 1930s, while the Serbs were the moral and political equivalent of Hitler's executioners.

Frank Boyce bases his screenplay on British journalist Michael Nicolson's "Natasha's Story," an account of his attempt to adopt a Bosnian child. He seeks to spirit her out of Sarajevo to England where he can provide a pleasant life for her in his comfortable home. This story is supposed to lift our spirits and make us believe that there is one good human being left on earth. Stephen Dillane plays the saintly British journalist, whom we encounter in opening scenes as a prototypical cynical Western television reporter trying to come up with lurid footage of urban battle casualties. The reporters in Sarajevo send back footage like this to their studios each day. Their job is to provide the sort of visceral shock on the evening world report that stories about tenement fires and auto crashes provide for local news coverage. Woody Harrelson plays Flynn, a star American journalist who has a daredevil attitude toward street fighting. As long as there is gripping footage to be shot, the hard-drinking Flynn will dodge bullets and be there first. Now that the film has established cynical, risk-taking, hard-drinking reporters as the central male characters, one wonders where it can drift next in an ocean of clich=E9.

The answer to this question is Nina (Marisa Tomei), the head of an orphanage, and Emira (Emira Nusevic), the fetching young orphan girl he decides to rescue from the hell of Sarajevo. Nina is everything that the reporters are not: idealistic, selfless and pure. Which is to say that she is as lacking in complexity as they are. Emira reminds one of the sort of children who used to pop up in Hollywood war movies in the 1950s. These adorable Italian or Korean war orphans are adopted by some grizzled, war-weary American infantry company after begging for a chocolate bar. Aldo Ray would play the Sergeant while Dana Andrews would be cast as the Lieutenant. The children, according to formula, are never German or Japanese. That would not be marketable.

The Bosnian Serbs, according to the formula of 1950's war movies, are Terminators put on earth to kill innocent people. God only knows why. They are ruthless killing machines whom any reasonable, humane person would like to see destroyed by a NATO bomb. The film version of the British journalist at one point confesses to a Bosnian Muslim that he feels shame over the failure of his government to bomb the Serbs into oblivion.

To prove how inhuman the Serbs are, the film includes a horrifying scene. A bus carrying the orphaned children out of Sarajevo into the safety of Italy is stopped at gun-point by ranting Serb soldiers. They board the bus and take Muslim babies with them, presumably to be barbecued and eaten later. It is astonishing that "Welcome to Sarajevo" puts forward the notion that the Serb army would exterminate innocent children in this manner. The real crime of "ethnic cleansing" was beastly enough, but it was designed to carve out pieces of Bosnian territory in order to exclude one ethnic group or another, not exterminate them. While the Serbs were certainly more aggressive than the Muslims, both sides took part in the blood-letting.

A much more powerful scene would have dramatized how Muslim and Serbian villagers, who lived peacefully for generations, came to the boiling point and eventually decided to destroy each other. This was not the agenda of the film-makers who were more interested in a good-versus-evil scenario rather than the complexities of the Yugoslavia tragedy. The production notes indicate how little the film's creators understood about Yugoslavian history. It blames the war on "rivalries between the Serbian, Croatian and Muslim communities in the region" that "go back centuries."

Catherine Samary observes in "Yugoslavia Dismembered" (Monthly Review, 1995) that peace between various ethnic groups was possible when there was economic well-being:

"The periods of Yugoslavia's or Bosnia-Herzegovina's greatest cohesion corresponded to the times when the populations concerned experienced real gains in living standards and rights. It was by contrast threats to those gains during the 1980s--not interethnic hatred--that gave rise to Yugoslavia's fragmentation. The socioeconomic and political crisis of the 1980s was in this respect a turning point."

The author of "Natasha's Story" and the director and screenwriter of "Welcome to Sarajevo" are not interested in this history of real human beings. All of Bosnia is simply a backdrop for the narcissistic display of the British journalist who wants to prove to the world that he is better than everybody. In a scene that reveals his inability to empathize with the people of Yugoslavia, he confronts the mother of the child he seeks to adopt. She is a cigarette-smoking, slatternly woman who nobody in their right mind would want to put in custody of a child. She has one final phone conversation with her daughter, who is safe and happy in England, and the two fail to communicate. Her daughter says that she never wants to come back to Sarajevo again.

This spells victory for the British journalist, who was anxious that the mother would regain custody of the child. He is everything that the unfortunate Yugoslavians are not. He is clean, tobacco-free and sensible. They, on the other hand, are violent, self-destructive and irrational chain-smokers. Why can't everybody get a proper public school education like the protagonist and learn proper, civilized values. This is the rankest sort of hypocrisy. It was the United States, England and other European powers that brought down poor Yugoslavia, awash in debt in the 1980s, just as they are bringing down Thailand and Malaysia today.

Someday there might be a film about the tragic civil war in former Yugoslavia that will probe the causes of the horrible destruction of life and property. It certainly can't come from writers and directors who are cocksure of their "civilizing" mandate. Fortunately, NATO bombers never got involved in the civil war. If they did, it is entirely possible that the war would have spilled beyond the borders of Yugoslavia and involved the former Soviet Union in the fighting. As "Welcome to Sarajevo" appears several years after the conclusion of the war, it lacks the propaganda power to spark intensified fighting. As politics, it is retrograde. As film, it is cliché. This is a movie to avoid.