Playing War


AT THE RISK of sounding like a movie-magazine cliché, I must acknowledge right off the bat that British actor Stephen Dillane, star of Welcome to Sarajevo, is heart-breakingly beautiful in the flesh: He has greasy long hair, crooked teeth, crumbs on his lapel, and eyes so delicate and still that one imagines they might hurt a bit to look through. I only mention this because in his role as an emotionally frayed war correspondent, Dillane isn't unattractive but he is rather forgettable--as if the character's actual body is snoozing somewhere offscreen, leaving us to watch his sleepwalking ghost stumble through a hard-edged world he can't quite grasp. (By contrast, Dillane's scenery-chewing co-star Woody Harrelson seems at first to have stepped onto the wrong set.)

As it turns out, Dillane's choices say a lot about the film as a whole. "When you're that stressed and angry," Dillane says of his character, "you don't know what you're doing. You're not clear, you're certainly not attractive, you're not sexy. It's horrible. Usually, when you get a film script it's quite clear what the soundtrack is. There's various moments--the close-up, the moment when the hero suddenly realizes he's got to act, the moments of triumph. [Here, we tried] to allow every single moment to be as unfocused and ambivalent as in real life. Because you're the leading man, you often feel as if you've got to be engaging: You've got to seduce an audience into liking you, you've got to carry this film. But this one was the other way around. The challenge was to get out of the way, to not allow the audience to see you act, to have the nerve to be invisible."

Nevertheless, the mood on the Sarajevo set was apparently jocular. "The old cliché that everybody had a great time during the war is true," Dillane observes. "But one of the most shocking things is that when you arrive in Sarajevo, everybody's quite normal. I'd read a lot of books and seen a lot of footage and started to make this journey into what it would be like. And you turn up at this place which has obviously been devastated, and you see people walk around and they're quite cheerful and chatty. It's one of those moments when you just realize that you don't know anything."

It wasn't until Dillane returned home that the total experience hit him: "You get back into looking for work, and I couldn't take anything seriously at all, I didn't work for quite a few months. You can't be in close proximity to that stuff for very long without becoming a little unrecognizable to everybody else in a peacetime situation. Even with my very glancing connection to it, I had some insight into how it is that people come back and can't speak. There's nothing to talk about; people here appear to be mad. And it wasn't just me--a lot of us used to phone each other up [afterwards] and say, 'How are you getting on? Making sense yet?'

"Maybe that's one of the main reasons for seeing the film, and for making a film like that--to get an audience to make the same imaginative journey without having to go there. And I don't think you do that by just showing people getting blown up. It's a much tougher task than that."

Welcome to Sarajevo starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.

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