Having recently read Bruce Dickinson’s autobiography ‘What does this Button Do?’ I can’t help but think of director Tarik Hodzic’s ‘Scream for me Sarajevo’ as a companion piece. However, while Bruce’s book is an often humorous Don Quixote-like affair, “Scream for me Sarajevo” is a very serious movie with a very poignant message. In fact, Dickinson plays a deceptively minor role in the overarching story of an unlikely assortment of British and Bosnian characters on the frontlines of the fascist siege of Sarajevo by insurgents of the Army of Republika Srpska during the Bosnian War.
The film’s raison d’être is the ill-conceived 1994 concert given by Dickinson’s Skunkworks band in a war-torn Sarajevo during the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. The real story however, lies in the contextual details of the hardships faced by Bosnian concert attendees and their families, UN workers, and to a lesser but no less significant extent, Bruce and his band.
The premise of the concert thread is that UN commander Major Martin Morris reached out to Bruce to ask if he wanted to play a show in Sarejevo. The story goes that the concert organizers, Bruce and his band were all unaware of how bad the situation in the city was. Information about the concert itself had to be kept under tight wraps, as they wanted to avoid becoming a target for insurgent bombers or snipers, so it was spread word to mouth on the days leading up to the show. Bruce and his band arrived in Split only to find out that the threat level was too high for the group to be helicoptered into Sarajevo by the UN. In predictable fashion, Bruce being the audacious renaissance man that he is, hitched a ride with The Serious Road Trip, the self-described “most rock n’ roll humanitarian group at the time.” The Road Trip took Bruce, the band, a bottle of whiskey and a crate of beer along the frontlines to Sarajevo in an audaciously bright yellow van brandished on the side with a picture of Looney Tunes’ Roadrunner.
The heart of the story however, is in the contextual interviews with the collected artists, musicians, filmmakers, and other luminaries, who along with military personnel and volunteer service people, were present and in various capacities involved in the concert. Concert goers recall experiencing the horrors of a senseless war as teenagers. From children caught in sniper fire, to families of inter-ethnic parents being threatened specifically because one parent was Muslim, to the systematic burning of buildings, like the Olympic museum that the Bosnian people held so dear. Interviewees paint a very grim picture of life during the siege.
In a very moving interview with Skunkworks drummer Alessandro Elena, he relays the story of a surveying the enemy frontline on the horizon with a UN officer “like a tourist.” He recalls the officer pointing out that they were likely being watched via the barrel of a sniper rifle. In that moment, Ajanovic realized the full gravity of the situation, as he was indeed a target regardless of his intentions or status as a civilian musician. Elsewhere, in a rare allusion to his family, Bruce gets choked-up as he, as a father, talks about playing acoustically at an orphanage full of the misplaced children of war.
In another moving scene, Bruce discusses a conversation that he has with one of the local musicians. He asks how they rehearse in an environment torn by war and devoid of electricity. To which the musician replies “with our spirit.” This narrative is indicative of the thread found throughout the film, as Hodzic and co-writer Jasenko Pasic highlight the much needed escapism that the concert, and art and music in general, brought to its organizers and attendees.
Musically, the film offers very little in terms of live performance footage. “Gods of War” from 1994s ‘Balls to Picasso’ (which is worth a re-listen) is featured prominently and effectively as a soundtrack to grainy footage of the siege, and as one of the few extended performance clips. Elsewhere, studio recordings of Bruce’s excellent “Tears of the Dragon,” “Change of Heart” (also from ‘Balls to Picasso’), and Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” help tie the film together thematically.
Potential viewers should be aware that ‘Scream for me Sarajevo’ offers none of the escapism inherent in Bruce Dickinson’s solo or Iron Maiden related work. The film, set to Bruce’s music, spins a tale that is both a tragic anti-war screed and a bittersweet celebration of the human spirit’s remarkable ability to exhibit grace and courage in the face of tyrannical adversity.