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Welcome to Sarajevo

Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Starring Steven Dillane, Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Emira Nusevic, Kerry Fox, Goran Visnjic, James Nesbitt, Emily Lloyd. (1997, R, 101 min.)

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 13, 1998

Trying to make sense of a conflict that most Westerners would rather put out of their minds isn't really Welcome to Sarajevo's chief concern (although that may be the feeling you get going in). Instead, director Winterbottom takes an accusatory stance against not only the plight of the many victims of the Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian civil war in former Yugoslavia, but also against the politics of the West that allowed the bloodshed to continue across the better part of the first half of this decade. For all the U.N.'s blue helmets and John Major's endless speechifying, the war and its simultaneous “ethnic cleansing” was, for most of the world, second-page news at best. Loosely based on the memoir Natasha's Story by British journalist Michael Nicholson, Welcome to Sarajevo tells the story of the war correspondents sent to cover the siege of Sarajevo in 1993. There's Michael Henderson (Dillane), the gruff Brit who finds himself drawn to the plight of nine-year-old war orphan Emira (Nusevic); gonzo American Flynn (Harrelson), who courageously risks a sniper's bullet to aid a fallen victim, then makes damn sure the footage makes it into his newscast; Nina (Tomei), the American relief worker eager to cut any deal to airlift the orphans to safety in Italy; and Risto (Visnjic), the Yugoslav driver and aide de camp who fills in after his predecessor is killed. Tomei looks far too fresh-scrubbed to be anywhere near a bloody, messy hell like this, but the rest of the cast is grimly realistic, particularly Harrelson, who manages to bring some goofball credibility to what is essentially a very small role. Throughout the scenes of carnage (of which there are many -- Winterbottom weaves real atrocity footage amongst his staged recreations, and the effect is chilling and very gory), the main story emerges, that of Henderson's attempts to smuggle the young Emira to safety in Britain. Welcome to Sarajevo also brings up some hard questions about the sheer impossibility of foreign corespondents remaining true to their journalistic neutrality in a war zone. If, like Harrelson's character, a journalist risks his life to save a sniper's victim, isn't he by that very act of compassion abandoning his credo of impartiality? It's a tough question, and one that is a source of endless debate amongst the correspondents who cover war zones. At times, Winterbottom veers into pedantic, visual screeds, editing in footage of ineffectual Western leaders against shots of dead children and mangled families. That aside, he's crafted a harrowing glimpse inside this conflict that, at the time, no one much seemed to care about, and that in itself is worth some attention.

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