‘Friends tell me that Bosnia is finished, and that I should move on somewhere else. But to me, that’s rather as if someone who you loved very much has had a horrible disfiguring accident, and you say to yourself, ‘All right. I’ll go and find someone else. I won’t bother about that person any more.” No normal person would do this – you have to go and see the person you love, whatever has happened to them.’
Thus begins the 1993 documentary ‘Sarajevo Diary: from Bad to Worse’, directed by Dom Rotheroe and narrated by Bill Tribe, a 59-year-old English teacher who’d lived in Sarajevo for twenty years, falling in love with the city, marrying one of its residents and becoming a Bosnian citizen – or rather ‘citizen of Sarajevo’ – in the process. The film’s director, in a stroke of luck, had been introduced to Tribe only a few days before start of filming, realising ‘in a matter of minutes’ he’d be the perfect guide to events there. ‘We popped the question to him and he immediately said yes. But when? Five days? Let’s go.’ Tribe had left his beloved Sarajevo four months earlier at the height of the siege and, plagued by self-reproach, felt honour-bound to return: ‘I feel I cannot reenter the club – that is, the special club of people who remained in Sarajevo throughout.’
The country he leads us back to, via train and plane, is a place of devastated houses and burnt out vehicles. It’s a world merely 20 years past but from another age: pre-internet, pre-mobile phone, wreathed in ubiquitous cigarette-smoke, punctuated not just by the sound of shellfire but the clatter of manual typewriters: a world light-years from our own. The treacherous hills – from which the shelling came daily – are covered in snow, while the city nestles perilously under a heavy grey sky which is almost another character. It’s a place, Tribe reminds us, without telephone, electricity, running water or fuel, where a single bag of firewood costs 20 German Marks.
A Sarajevo Diary doesn’t spare us the horrors of war – on stock-footage we see the mangled, blood soaked victims of the 1992 Bread Queue bombing, we see disinterred corpses with faces blotto from agony, and terrifying, graphic head-wounds. Yet oddly, these become background to the personal encounters Tribe has as, faintly priestlike yet clad in his customary denims, he plays postman to the residents with a sack of long-awaited mail from their relatives in England, reestablishes contact with old friends glad to see him, and moves into a candelit basement with a local family. Tribe nearly always seems to be more hurt by the devastation than the Sarajevans he encounters – their defining spirit throughout is their warmth, humour, and quiet self-control. A young female journalist types her reports in a room whose temperature has sunk to minus 10, resigned to the death of her father 3 months previously from a grenade burst, yet always – like so many women in Sarajevo – immaculately dressed and still managing, at least for the camera, to smile. At another moment Tribe attends a New Year’s party, which looks terrific fun: there’s nothing desperate or forced about the high spirits, just a sense that the importance of such gatherings has been intensified. The courtliness and grace with which the Sarajevans there clink their paper cups together speak volumes, as does the perfect make-up (much of it home-made, one suspects) that the women wear resolutely throughout, and the clean-shaven faces of the men.
Tribe knows all about Sarajevo and we feel the tininess of the world there: he worked alongside Nikola Koljevic (the Bosnian-Serb deputy leader), was treated for depression by Karadzic (the Bosnian-Serb President) and bought his bread from the very bakery at which the bread queue massacre took place. Yet for all its tininess, we also feel the city’s complexity, one in opposition to everything Karadzic and his nationalism represented. ‘We are an obstacle…,’ his hostess explains,’… to those who want to separate us like sheep. Muslim sheep in their fold, Serbs in theirs, Croats in theirs. But we’re not sheep and we don’t want to be put in a fold.’ So sick did the Sarajevans become of being asked their ethnicity that some, in one of the recurrent and intrusive censuses forced upon them, put their nationality as ‘lampshade’ and their religion as ‘tablecloth’. It’s a grimly comic moment (the film, like the city, is full of them) yet Tribe tells us this against a background of freshly dug Sarajevan graves – Serbian, Croatian and Muslim – stretching into the distance, overlooked – in a twist too macabre for fiction – by the building in which Karadzic, destroyer of the city, once practised his psychiatry. The unwitting symbolism is clear: war’s juggernaut is stamping out these voices of sanity: the lunatics are now running the asylum.
There are too many good things in this documentary – one for our time as much as its own – to list: it’s as complex and many-layered as the city it describes, and overlain by Tribe’s commentary, one of controlled, civilised and rational outrage. Indeed, what we’re seeing here, along with the mesmerising Sarajevan grace under fire, is a portrait too of a vividly notable man. Tribe’s neuroses, his emotional generosity and lack of cynicism, his life-affirming bloody-mindedness and – that cheapened and politicised word – compassion, are all on display here – just as they are with the Sarajevans themselves. In this 59 year-old Englishman the Siege of Sarajevo found its consummate narrator – one whose qualities in many ways mirrored the city’s own. It’s a clear labour of love, and if the film is in part his mea culpa for leaving them – the people who had given him ‘everything’ – the debt seems more than repaid.
To watch Dom Rotheroe’s A Sarajevo Diary: From Bad to Worse or read Remembering Bill Tribe: Two Tributes Spoken at his Funeral (both recommended) please click on the icons below.