Friday, 27 September 2013

Welcome To Sarajevo (1997)

Reaching your teens is probably the time you start to become more globally aware, more politicised and more aware of the tragedies, injustices and the shitty end of the stick.  It was certainly that way for me was as a young teen in the early 90s when, perhaps the biggest wake up call for any youth to experience at that time, occurred; the Bosnian/Serbian conflict. This was a window to hell that lasted just over three years, it brought to the world terms like ethnic cleansing and the harsh reality of just what that means; torture, mass murder and war crimes, it all spewed forth into the living rooms of the UK and to my impressionable eyes thanks, in no small part, to ITN coverage from reporter Michael Nicholson.

Welcome To Sarajevo is based on Natasha’s Story by Nicholson himself. The book details his reporting of the war, his discovery of an orphanage with some 200 children existing precariously on the front line enduring shelling which had saw four dead already. Ultimately, Nicholson went from observing and commenting on the war to actively doing something heroic to make a change. Suspending his impartiality he pleaded to the authorities to evacuate the children only for his campaign to fall on deaf ears (''Evacuation is actually collaboration'' as one UN official puts it in the film ) As a result, Nicholson smuggled nine year old Natasha out of the country, claiming her as his daughter. Upon reaching Heathrow, he handed her over to immigration and, despite protest from Bosnian authorities, succeeded in adopting her, taking her into his already existing family and giving her a life in England. In the modern world where TV news coverage of wars occurring just a few hours on a plane, can leave viewers feeling disassociated and alienated, as if the events we witness are from another planet or somehow not real, this was an act that bridged the divide and hit home, capturing a nation's conscience and admiration.

The real Nicholson with Natasha, some years after her adoption

The film directed by Michael Winterbottom touched me just as deeply when it was released in 1997, however it is a loosely adapted version by Frank Cottrell Boyce of Nicholson and Natasha's story that takes some natural liberties  - I seem to recall the then in his 50s Nicholson professing Stephen Dillane who plays 'Michael Henderson' was far more attractive then he ever was and at 40, younger. 

Stephen Dillane as Michael Henderson, Nicholson in all but name

Winterbottom handles the story with great conviction, brutal realism and stylistic aplomb. Dropping in actual news footage between the 'fiction' showing the genuine after effects of shelling and mortar attacks may make for harrowing images, but it's purpose is valid in reminding you that this conflict was real.  That these things happened. Equally, the film is rightly powerful and steeped in authenticity for being filmed in the city itself, using real ruins and debris, with filming taking place just a few months after the war had ceased.  His use of soundtrack is very good too, placing hits of the day in amongst the action; the sight of  Goran Visnjic, running through the trenches of the battered and war torn city with water supplies to the sound of the Stones Roses 'I Wanna Be Adored' is a sequence that has remained with me for some time and no doubt will continue to do so, as indeed is the real footage scenes of  the leaders of The West claiming they can do nothing to truly help, interspersed with images from the siege of Sarajevo that cry out for help from surely even the coldest of hearts is  accompanied with much irony  Bobby McFerrin's 'Don't Worry Be Happy'

'I Wanna Be Adored'

Welcome To Sarajevo equally benefits from a cast who clearly were all on the same page and wanted to do justice to the project. No actor seems out of place, not even the Americans as cannily Winterbottom specifically casts a starry Woody Harrelson as the starry US war correspondent, Flynn. It never feels like stunt casting or something to appeal to the US audiences - though this US poster below does place emphasis on him with centre image and central billing

Stephen Dillane is brilliant, with a clear honest integrity and quiet determination at the film's core to the extent I'm still baffled as to why, even now, he's not a household name. He's ably assisted by Kerry Fox, James Nesbitt, Emily Lloyd and Goran Visnjic as his producer, cameraman, fellow reporter and driver respectively and by Marisa Tomei as an aid worker and Juliet Aubrey as his wife at home, but praise to must be given to Emira Nusevic, the local child actress in her only film, who plays Emira, the character inspired by Natasha. It's a performance that is unhindered by sentimentality thanks to Winterbottom's assured handling and belief in his audience finding their own emotive response to what he places on screen. In short this isn't some mawkish Hollywood mistreatment of the atrocity that manipulatively tugs at your heart strings. 

Emira, the film's Natasha

Welcome To Sarajevo is an important film that stands shoulder to shoulder with The Killing Fields in its depiction of horrendous 20th century conflicts through the eyes of the western world's journalists.  With the after effects of this war still ongoing; mass murderers like Ratko Mladić only being extradited to The Hague two years ago with his trial commencing last year,  and still appearing in the news only this week - with both Bosnia and Serbia finally making huge steps in terms of collaborating to get the staggering number of war crimes prosecuted correctly - this is still a film with something to say, and a message that hopes we will never have endure or witness such horror again.

Trying to make sense of the insensible

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