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(E) An American in Vukovar in "Harrison's Flowers"
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  03/12/2002 | Entertainment | Unrated
(E) An American in Vukovar in "Harrison's Flowers"
An American in Vukovar: 
"Harrison's Flowers" by Elie Chouraqui 
With this movie, which has now been released, the French film director Elie Chouraqui is presenting the first feature film with a plot unfolding on the background of the war which engulfed Croatia in 1991, and more particularly in the environs of Vukovar which was taken by the Serbian army and militias after a terrible siege that had lasted for three months. Although this is fiction, the film director has nevertheless managed to reconstitute the war scenes with gripping realism. An informed public will no doubt recognize the imposing documentary and reconstructive work that would have been needed in the making of the movie. 
In the fall of 1991, at the beginning of Serbian aggression on Croatia, Harrison Lloyd (played by David Strathairn), an American photographer employed by Newsweek, disappears in the environs of Vukovar, leaving behind him two children and his wife Sarah (Andie MacDowell) who refuses to believe that he is dead. She flies to Austria, rents a car, crosses the frontier and joins a groups of press photographers who are covering the conflict, among them Kyle (Adrian Brody), a friend of her husband's. Yeager Pollock (Elias Koteas), another colleague, soon joins them. Together, passing through all kinds of hardship, they visit the ruins of the Croatian martyr city that had been besieged, pounded, and soon invaded by the Belgrade army and Serbian militias. That is the stage setting. 
It is on this background that Chouraquie weaves his story, in which he brilliantly depicts the difficult profession of war correspondent. Concerning his choice of the war in Croatia, he explains: "Indeed, I took the example of Vukovar to show the hysterical folly of man. (...) In 1991, Vukovar was the first European city bombed out of existence since World War II. The Serbs pounded it for 80 days. They were obstinate in razing this 17th century city, so that the Croatian architectural genius would disappear from the face of the earth. The Serbs indulged in summary executions, in multiple atrocities, in extermination by grenades, in killing the wounded in the hospital. Everything shown in the movie appears in the report of the United Nations (...)". And in effect, the meticulousness that the film director shows in his effort to reconstitute faithfully the apocalyptic atmosphere reigning in the "Croatian Stalingrad" is truly disconcerting. 
Harrison's Flowers is nevertheless fiction, as its creator rightly points out. Those who were hoping finally to see on the screen the epic of the famous "battle of Vukovar" will be disappointed. There is no trace of the heroic and by now legendary resistance of a small group of some thousand men crushed under the bombs, who succeeded, contrary to all expectations, to keep at bay an enemy that was vastly over equipped and numerically far superior. Certainly the script, already excellent, would without doubt have been even better for it. There are however moments where the director makes use of some historical references, albeit secondary ones, with precision and very realistically. Thus he has us experience again the capturing of the sadly famous Vukovar hospital by the Serbs, but without showing the deadly fate that was awaiting its two hundred wounded who later got buried some distance away, in the mass grave at Ovcara. 
On the other hand, while the fact that the film director deliberately chose to give the rank of characters only to the Western reporters undoubtedly serves to maintain a certain distance from the conflict, it nevertheless affords a better grasp of it a posteriori. The suggested identification with the main character, forcefully played by Andie MacDowell, is only made easier that way. Paradoxically, the rawness and the astounding realism of the war scenes are probably going to surprise the Western public, which generally remembers from the "ex-Yugoslav" war only the siege of Sarajevo, to which may have been recently added the NATO intervention in Kosovo. But the harshness of certain scenes reminds us in a brutal fashion, to what an extent the violence of the Serbian military campaign in Croatia, which took place already ten years ago, should not be considered as a simple foretaste of the Bosnian conflict, although the media did not pay as much attention to it. 
Still, some stereotypes seem to be tenacious. Certain commentators, for whom the movie apparently did not really clarify things, even presented it as taking place in Bosnia, or even Serbia... Thus we were able to read recently, from under the circumspect pen of a movie critic, that Chouraqui erred on the side of excess, since, according to this critic, the war in Croatia "never reached" the intensity shown in the movie. When one knows that Vukovar, after only three months of shelling, remains the city where destruction has reached a degree unequaled in the entire region, one should have one's doubts about this. 
Beyond its undeniable esthetic qualities, the great merit of Harrison's Flowers is perhaps precisely its success in mixing adroitly the fiction and the realism, where documentary endeavor advantageously provides substance for an original scenario loosely inspired by Isabel Ellsen's novel The Devil Prevails. While highlighting the risks that war correspondents face daily, Elie Chouraqui also chooses to remind us of the exorbitant price that a nation had to pay, at the dawn of the third millennium, and in the heart of Europe, in order to defend such legitimate and fundamental rights as independence and democracy. 
Translated from the French by Ivana Jeric and submitted by Hilda Foley. 
Andie MacDowell just promoted the film on David Letterman show tonight (March 12, 2002) 
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