This addition to the growing number of films about the tragic Bosnian War is a highly personal response to the conflict that takes the viewer into the besieged city of Sarajevo and introduces real-life characters whose lives are directly, agonizingly affected by the carnage. Uncompromising and challenging, “Exile in Sarajevo” is natural video fodder, but could also have a limited theatrical life in some territories, if not overshadowed by such higher-profile pics as “Welcome to Sarajevo” and “Comanche Territory,” which cover similar ground in a fictional format.
Tahir Cambis, an Australian of Bosnian extraction, decided to make the hazardous journey to his parents’ home city of Sarajevo as soon as the conflict began. But the young actor, armed only with a video camera, was seriously wounded in the leg while traveling to his destination, and spent a year recuperating. He tried again in 1995, accompanied this time by an Australian cameraman, Roman Baska, and on this occasion was successful.
Cambis hired as sound recordist a local woman, Alma Sahbaz, and filming commenced with footage of Cambis meeting relatives and long-lost friends, as well as coverage of day-to-day activities in the city — the shellings, the daily UN briefings. Foreign news crews are viewed with some disdain by the locals (who refer to them as “cockroaches” because “they film us like animals”). But Cambis and his tiny crew are accepted as insiders, and are thus given access to material that might have been denied foreigners.
One particularly chilling episode involves a little girl, Nirvana, seen taking part in a dance competition the night before she’s killed by a shell fired from the hills above the city. Her traumatized mother, Zimka, becomes a major character in the unfolding drama, and eventually decides to pack up and leave the city, ending up (as a closing title indicates) in St. Louis.
These, and other intimate stories and events, unfold against the waning days of the crippling siege. But “Exile In Sarajevo” fascinates, too, because of the behind-the-scenes tensions within Cambis’ own crew. After several weeks, cameraman Baska decides to return to Australia, convinced that Cambis is more committed to Sarajevo itself than to the film they’re supposed to be making. Sahbaz takes over the camera, and hints of a growing relationship between her and Cambis are confirmed when she joins him in Melbourne for the post-production process. Thus, on one level, this is a love story in which the woman is rarely seen because she’s behind the camera.
Cambis and Sahbaz, who share director credit, have vividly personalized the siege of Sarajevo in this distressing, emotionally wrenching film. Unswervingly anti-Serb in its attitudes, docu unflinchingly depicts the plight of the citizens of what was once a great, cosmopolitan European city.