The idea that passion in British cinema begins and ends with Celia Johnson’s
moment of crisis on the platform in Brief Encounter as the down express roars past and the
camera tilts is a theory which is pretty much sunk by the films of Michael Winterbottom.
Passionate through and through, as much in their stories as in the uncompromisingly
focused way in which Winterbottom tells them, they testify to someone who cares deeply
both about his subject matter and about the way that that gets translated into film.
" Undoubtedly intense"
And yet you wouldn’t think it to talk to him. Undoubtedly intense, he is, however,
physically slight - the bull-like presence of Oliver Stone seems to belong in a parallel
universe - and rarely forceful. In conversation, that is: it is hard to believe that, on
set, some adrenaline-driven demon is not released. How else would actors be pushed towards
the kind of intensely simple moments of truth that lift Welcome to Sarajevo onto a higher
Moments like the one in which Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane) calls home to his
wife from a hotel room in Split, trying to find ways of explaining to her - also, perhaps,
of explaining to himself - why he has decided to break all the laws and bring home with
him a savvy but withdrawn nine-year-old Bosnian girl (Emira Nusevic)?
Or moments like the one in which in which the hardened, ego-driven American newsman
(Woody Harrelson, fast emerging as the most interesting actor of his generation) shows a
Sarajevo father the Polaroid he has been able to take of his vanished son, whom he has
found emaciated and still alive in the Serbian concentration camp at Omarska?
"These two ‘star’ journalists are not the
focus of the story"
Most impressive of all, though, is the fact that these two ‘star’ journalists
are not the focus of the story in Welcome to Sarajevo. This is no Biko or Ghosts of
Mississippi, where the experience of the oppressed has to be mediated for us through a
familiar (white, middle-class) hero. Working with Sarajevo-based Saga Films, whose
directors and cameramen filmed the war and the siege day to day, as it happened,
Winterbottom has managed for the major part of his film to make the reporters come across
as what they in fact were: witnesses, not players.
"If you do a story about a British journalist rescuing a child from
Sarajevo," says Winterbottom with no great emphasis, as though the point were
self-evident (which it is), "then Sarajevo just becomes an exotic location and the
story’s all about this mid-life crisis of this British journalist, or this act of
heroism by this British journalist. And we didn’t want it to be that.
"We wanted to try and use the journalist as a kind of
"We wanted to try and use the journalist as a kind of focus to make a film that
showed you little bits of Sarajevo and also maybe made you think a bit about the
relationship between the people here [in Western Europe], who were watching the stuff on
TV, like I was, as it happened, but not really thinking that much about it when the TV
True, Welcome to Sarajevo does have a central character: Henderson, the journalist,
based loosely on Independent Television News correspondent Michael Nicholson, who did
indeed abandon his neutrality, both to file stories that became increasingly critical of
the way the West and the UN were (not) responding to the siege of Sarajevo, and to smuggle
out a Bosnian child (whom he and his wife have since adopted). But what
Nicholson/Henderson did is a function of what he saw. And, because we see it too, we
respond not so much through him as with him.
"You don’t want the central character to swamp the film"
"That structure’s quite difficult," admits Winterbottom, "because
you don’t want the central character, Stephen’s character, to swamp the film. We
wanted to have a situation where you’d get involved in the other characters, the
Sarajevans. Normally, those kind of characters feed into the emotional experience of the
central character, whereas what we wanted on this film was for the central
character’s emotional experience to feed into the minor characters’ importance,
so you’re actually involved briefly, but hopefully in a fairly direct way, with lots
of characters for two or three minutes rather than with one character through the whole
Welcome to Sarajevo is at times almost painful to watch for the richness and intensity
of emotions that are concentrated into those short passages focusing on minor characters
like a little girl who has lost both her parents or a woman wounded in the infamous
bread-queue attack. But this was, says Winterbottom, very much a question of capturing
something that pre-existed his work as a director.
"...Getting the impact of reading the script into the
"I think, from my point of view, it was a matter of trying to find a way, while we
were making it, of getting the impact of reading the script into the film," he says,
politely but firmly declining any attempt to hang round his neck the kind of auteurist
label which will doubtless be fabricated, in the French press and elsewhere, over the next
And what of trying to find something which links Winterbottom’s three features to
date: the lesbian-serial killer-road movie Butterfly Kiss; the literary adaptation Jude;
and Welcome to Sarajevo?
"In terms of making the movies," he says, "there are all sorts of
connections between making them. But, as films, I don’t know because, once I’ve
made them, I don't watch them again."
Intensity of passion, I suggest hopefully but somewhat lamely? Winterbottom looks
"If you’re going to deal with something that has
emotions, it might as well be intense emotions"
"I guess the stories that interest me a lot involve deep emotions at some level,
and if you’re going to deal with something that has emotions, it might as well be
intense emotions as not," he says, finally. "I think there are connections
between I Want You (his next film after Sarajevo, about a young boy and his sister who are
drawn into one man's obsessive pursuit of his former lover) and Butterfly Kiss and maybe
even Jude in the nature of the love story. But I think Sarajevo is completely
Amen to that.