Sarajevo film a gritty wallow in the horrors of war
By JOHN McKAY
TORONTO -- Welcome to Sarajevo arrives at the Toronto International Film Festival fresh from a screening at, of all places, the Sarajevo film festival.
"We were all tense beforehand," says British stage actor Stephen Dillane, the film's star. "We were quite concerned that they would think we had done a reasonable job. They seemed to like it."
Dillane says the film played on an outdoor screen to an audience of about 2,500 and their acceptance of it helped validate the project.
He plays a fictional version of real-life TV war correspondent Michael Nicholson who, while on assignment in besieged Sarajevo in 1992, found his journalistic objectivity slipping away. He ended up smuggling an orphan girl out of the country and eventually adopted her back in England.
But Dillane says the film has failed if the main concern of the audience is worrying about whether they get safely past the Serbian lines to freedom. That, he agrees, would be a melodramatic Hollywood approach.
"I wouldn't have done the film if it had been like that. I think it would have been obscene. That's not what war is about."
As directed by Michael Winterbottom, Welcome to Sarajevo boldly mixes newsreel footage, documentary techniques and traditional cinema styles to paint a brutally authentic picture of the mindless horror of the siege. In a re-enactment of an infamous marketplace massacre, many of the bit players are local citizens who had endured the real thing.
Viewers have their noses rubbed in matter-of-fact, Schindler's List-style brutality as Serb snipers randomly pick off innocent civilians. Each scene, deliberately grainy and underlit, is infused with dread and tension with the realization that gunfire can rain down at any second on people who daily play what is described as the city's favorite game: Is There a God?
Dillane also insists the film is not designed to make people feel guilty, although it is an obvious reaction for many.
"It's more about the simple acknowledgement of the pain," he says. "What the film I hope is trying to get you to do is go underneath that and just try and feel what it feels like to be in that situation."
Woody Harrelson as an American TV reporter and Marisa Tomei as a well-meaning aid worker bring some attitude to their roles. But by and large, the actors seem to step back and allow the camera to create the larger mood, so that "the emotional drag of the story can work" as Dillane puts it.
Canadian peacekeepers are seen only in passing, appearing to try to go by the book in what was a madhouse, a dangerously lawless frontier.
"It goes without saying the peacekeepers were in an impossible situation," Dillane says with the briefest of smiles. "It's the prime result of that kind of prevarication."
Dillane says press materials on the film tend to exaggerate the risks, describing, for example, how they had to work with the danger of landmines during location shooting.
"I think we were all physically safe. It was just desperately sad, really...the destruction of this city which by all accounts had been a wonderful city to be in."
Dillane says when he returned to Sarajevo this past week for the festival, he found the place coming back to life, with the cafes reopening and the buildings being restored. He even found the surrounding hills, where the Serb gunners were once located, quite beautiful.
Welcome to Sarajevo is an Alliance release of a Miramax Film, and is being screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, fresh from an appearance at a festival in Sarajevo itself:
Director: Michael Winterbottom.
Producers: Graham Broadbent and Damian Jones.
Based on: Natasha's Story by Michael Nicholson.
Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce.
Stars: Stephen Dillane, Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Kerry Fox, Emily Lloyd.
Location shooting: Sarajevo, Croatia, Macedonia, London.
Plot Summary: An English and American TV reporter covering the 1992 siege of Sarajevo find their objectivity challenged by the random slaughter.
Quote: "Going to war, with death as the matter-of-fact reason for being there, had been my occupation for 25 years. Yet, despite all my experience of war, nothing prepared me for Yugoslavia." -- war correspondent Michael Nicholson, author of the source book, Natasha's Story.