Director's Sarajevo Saga Reopens War Wounds
Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom is enjoying a beer in a Sheraton Centre Hotel bar after jetting all night from London for the Toronto International Film Festival. His new film, Welcome To Sarajevo, has just screened at the festival to rave reviews.Winterbottom, who hails from North England, is tired, and he's a mumbler -- which means I have to lean in close to pick up his conversation. He reminds me of a graduate student who's just stayed up all night to finish a term paper and now wants to talk to someone about it. He's intense and thoughtful -- just like his movies.The 38-year-old director's two previous films, Butterfly Kiss and Jude, landed him squarely in the category of gloomy, truth-seeking English filmmaker. Both are dark and unflinching accounts of despair, especially Jude -- an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel Jude The Obscure -- but both films also display unabashed sympathy for their characters.It's this steady eye and grand compassion that prepared Winterbottom for a film like Welcome To Sarajevo, in which real-life TV footage and fast-paced fiction collide to create a heart-wrenching account of a modern-day travesty, the siege of Sarajevo.The movie is based on the book Natasha's Story, by British TV journalist Michael Nicholson. His sojourn in Sarajevo was the veteran reporter's 15th trip into a war zone, but this conflict spurred something deep inside Nicholson. He found himself throwing away his objectivity by helping a group of orphans escape the city, and adopted one child himself.Relief WorkerThe film stars Stephen Dillane as Henderson (the character based on Nicholson), Woody Harrelson as a gonzo American TV reporter, Marisa Tomei as the relief worker who comes to rescue the children, and newcomer Emira Nusevic as the 10-year-old girl whom Henderson adopts."When Frank Cottrell Boyce and I sat down and started working on the script," remembers Winterbottom, "we tried to figure out how to use Henderson as a witness to the other stories happening around him. The movie isn't supposed to be just his story, but rather more like a collection of short stories."Winterbottom gives the film a more free-flowing narrative, in the course of which each character has a moment, leaves and returns; it moves like a jazz score. Violent images harmonize with poignant acts of courage. It's a difficult film to watch, but it's mesmerizing."One of the reasons I wanted to make the film is that the dominant image of war journalists is that they're the most cynical, burnt-out people, who've lost all normal emotional responses," says Winterbottom."And that was really untrue in the case of Sarajevo. A lot of journalists risked their lives to go there, and a lot were killed. What they were doing was important -- they were getting the pictures and stories out -- which should have made the world realize what was happening and get us to do something about it."But no one responded, not the politicians or the general public. It was the journalists' frustration that fascinated me."Dillane, Harrelson, Kerry Fox and Emily Lloyd give great performances as the various newsies coming to terms with their role in covering a war-torn city, and Winterbottom makes sure no one gets stuck playing a two-dimensional character."Woody Harrelson plays Flynn, this star American journalist, and you can see the hostility between him and Henderson. Henderson thinks Flynn is a lightweight TV personality, and it turns out Flynn actually knows more than Henderson. Just because Henderson is uptight, serious and British doesn't make him the better journalist," laughs Winterbottom.Gonzo ReporterCasting Harrelson as the gonzo reporter ensured the film could be made -- he's a name actor in a hard-to-sell movie."There's a line in the film that Flynn says -- 'Back home no one's ever heard of Sarajevo, but they've heard of me' -- which sums up why we needed someone like Woody," says Winterbottom."Woody was very keen to go to Sarajevo and quickly tuned in to the city. He was genuinely interested in the politics, and the Sarajevans loved him. They loved the fact that he came and was such a nice guy. He was the perfect person to play a journalist, because he could walk anywhere in the city and everyone would automatically become his mate."It's great to have his name in the movie, and there's the added advantage that he's a great actor. I'd like people to come and see this film, and if people come and see the film for Woody or Marisa Tomei then that's fine by me."The film doesn't go into the complex ethnic or political history of the region. Like the conflicts in Northern Ireland or the Middle East, the war in the Balkans has been brewing and erupting over hundreds of years. It wasn't something Winterbottom felt he was qualified to comment on."The irony of Sarajevo is that it doesn't matter if you understand which people are Serbs, Muslims or Croats, because here was a city where people were completely ethnically mixed and were living together just like here in Toronto."Imagine if Toronto were Sarajevo -- you don't really need to know if the person beside you comes from Quebec or Ontario. All you know is that they are being shot at. You don't need to know their family history to recognize that."