Thirty years on, the Bosnian war still has the power to horrify, with its genocidal massacres and concentration camps in the heart of Europe even as international leaders solemnly avowed their determination never to repeat the nightmare of the second world war. Even now, cultural commentators call the 1990s the “Seinfeld decade” where nothing happened, disregarding the carnage in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Nenad Cicin-Sain’s music documentary gives us an unofficial, unlicensed look at the nightmare of Sarajevo and the way that rock music kept humanity and hope alive: the rough-and-ready gigs and discos happening in Sarajevo’s battered garages and bomb shelters, while war raged above. It also tells the story of a maverick American journalist and film-maker called Bill Carter, a member of the ragtag expat group of aid workers, musicians and artists in Sarajevo, who was electrified by the sight of U2’s Bono on MTV talking about the Bosnian war. With extraordinary persistence, Carter got an interview with Bono for Bosnian TV, induced the band to do live TV linkup interviews on stage with Bosnian people during their colossal Zoo TV Tour and finally inspired the band to mount a giant concert in Sarajevo in 1997 supported by local bands and a Muslim women’s choir, after the Dayton Accords peace agreement. People interviewed here believe that the Bosnian war only properly ended when Bono took to the stage and yelled: “Fuck the past, kiss the future!”
Of course, it isn’t that simple. The globalist grandiloquence of U2 is always in danger of looking naive. But the documentary is an interesting reminder that it is precisely that naive, ahistorical, ungrownup quality of rock music, its youth, its (arguable) callowness, its idealism, which is what made it so potent and so inclusive. And Bono himself, a man who has – in the Scots phrase – no small opinion of himself, was the guy to make it happen: he had the audacity and the imagination. There were limits to what he could do during the war itself, and the Sarajevo people themselves began to suspect that their pain was being used as set-dressing for U2’s tour; it caused a temporary rift in the love affair between the band and the Bosnians. But U2 became an important part of keeping the world focused on the Bosnian war when plenty of influential people on the left and right were in favour of forgetting all about them. And music reminded Sarajevans that they were human and they had a way of defying the carnage.
Perhaps there was no place in this documentary to say it, but it’s important to realise just how much the word “Sarajevo” scared the geopolitical classes: the thought that intervention would risk replaying August 1914. As it turned out, one reason why western military activity was thinkable was that Russia was too demoralised by the collapse of communism to respond in the interest of its traditional ally: the Serbs.
Which brings us to what that future was which everyone kissed in that huge and euphoric U2 concert in Sarajevo. The grim answer is obvious before the film explicitly raises it in a final TV news montage. Serbia’s president Slobodan Milošević provided a model of belligerent ethnic fascism and land-grabbing tyranny that is now written large by Vladimir Putin. One interviewee says that a Bono/Sarajevo concert is needed again, but the thought that it can only be staged after the war is over must give us pause. This movie is a time-capsule of Europe’s recent tragic past.