War stories


My higher hopes for Shot Through the Heart (BBC1, Sunday) were shot through by the title sequence. Linus Roache as Vlado, a Yugoslavian Olympic marksman, wandered through prelapsarian Sarajevo like the star of a commercial for Yugotours. Accompanying him was Dolores O'Riordan's 1992 hit "Dreams", which did the job of conveying vapid optimism a little too well.

It didn't help that the dreams in the mind of Roache's character were all of shooterly glory. Roache, playing the Bos-nian, and Vincent Perez, as his best friend, the Serbian Slavko, portrayed the anal ghastliness of the Olympian spirit rather better than the vileness of their later nationalism. They pipped oranges off gate posts, recalled drinking binges and gently hinted their manly contempt for their friend, a pacifist doctor. In contrast, Sarajevo's women were models of unfanatical good sense and, in the case of Slavko's girlfriend, the travel agent Natasha, the actual Way Out. The war finally petered out, according to this account, because the girls, led by Vlado's wife (Lia Williams, Roache's old co-star for Seaforth), demanded to go back to work.

But so little was offered to explain why Vlado and Slavko agreed to man opposite sides of Sniper Alley that the void was filled by the unworthy thought they joined mainly because it was a good chance to sharpen their technique on moving targets. If the vagueness had a point it was to say that in a civil war people often take sides almost by default. Slavko may have been a Muslim but he was married to a Croatian (and even this was unclear unless you checked with the Radio Times) and sniggered with the rest of the boys at the undesirability of a veiled Muslim woman.

The film was at its best conveying the European ordinariness of Sarajevo, even at war. Gunmen crawled across fitted carpets as variety programmes brayed from televisions; gunfights were conducted under the cover of wheely-bins; roads were dug up as if by cable companies, except it was bodies that were being laid. When the doctor's daughter was shot through the head, it ruptured all our understandings of the rights of childhood.

Vlado, set on avenging her death, targets her murderer only to realise it may have been Slavko. He does not shoot him when he has the chance. Then, deciding he must, he makes the trip to his home in the woods. Slavko now has Vlado in his cross-hairs. Instead, he shoots the branch next to his head and turns it into a joke. Inside, the pair decide to make a night of it; Natasha brings a bowl of water with which Vlado washes off his war paint. This scene should crackle with Pinteresque tension. Instead it is lethargic and inconclusive. By the next morning when Vlado has Slavko in his sights again, you want him to get on with it (although the story is a true one). He does.

Shot Through the Heart disappointed because it failed to create a dramatic Sarajevo to replace the Sarajevo of the news bulletins. Its director, David Attwood, opted for Hollywood gloss. When the city's power cut out, Roache and Williams made love in the configuration of candles decreed in Barbra Streisand's stylebook of romance. The night scenes were bathed in blue light, a convention for the dark we have endured for too long. But feature film production values were not matched by any equivalently flash speeches, at least none that survived being translated through the English actors' Yugoslavian accents, as ridiculous as the cod-German adopted in Pinewood war films of the 1950s.

The final image, presumably shot in Sarajevo, hit home, however. It was of a cemetery lined with tombstones each bearing the date 1992 or 1993. This was a director's exercise in historical perspective. Another was obtained the night before by an unusually moving report by Kate Adie for Correspondent (BBC2). A reminder that you did not need to be felled by a sniper to be killed in Bosnia, it was the story of Sebastian Rich, a news cameraman who let his professional composure drop when faced in Tuzla with a 12-year-old Muslim girl called Sabina. She was dying from a 98 per cent curable strain of leukaemia, dying because the war prevented the drugs that would have cured her reaching her. He took her to a hospital in Split that did have the drugs, but was too late.

This was a tale its participants found almost too sad to tell. Rich could not believe that once the west saw what was happening in a country a two-hour flight away from London, its troops would not swarm in. Faced with a lack of western intervention, into this small tragedy he himself futilely intervened. Taken together with Michael Nicholson's comparable decision to rescue a child from Sarajevo and with Martin Bell's and Fergal Keane's personal accounts of the conflict, it seems as if Bosnia may have irrevocably eroded the ethos of journalistic detachment in war zones.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again