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Filmmaker Bill Carter Documents the Human Face of War

Where the Streets Have No Name

Some of Bill Carter's photos from his time in the Balkans.
Courtesy Photo

Not many people make a conscious decision to venture into the midst of a war zone. But for Bill Carter, it seemed an obvious thing to do. Having recently lost his girlfriend in a car crash, he felt an overwhelming desire to make a positive stamp on the world.

When Carter set off for Sarajevo in the early 1990s to assist with relief distribution, even he didn’t know just how big that mark was destined to be. The Californian writer and filmmaker not only introduced the plight of Balkan people to U2-the band that subsequently brought it to the attention of the world via satellite-linked footage during their ’92-’93 world tour-but he also documented his encounters and experiences on film and in text. With his 1995 Bono-produced documentary Miss Sarajevo being screened in Los Olivos next week-followed by a reading and signing of his new book Red Summer, about life in an Alaskan fishing village-Carter recently reminisced with me about his Balkan experiences.

Bill Carter
Leigh Carter

What led you to the Balkans? It was an accidental happenstance. I had a friend who was working as a humanitarian organizer for the UN in Croatia. I had no real plan at all. I just got on a plane and went to Luxembourg and then took trains and hitchhiked across Europe to get down there. All I knew was that I wanted to help. The motivation behind why I was doing it wasn’t a linear thing. My humanitarian ideas came from the fact that I was dealing with the death of someone I loved very much. I had been spinning out of control for two years, disappearing from people’s lives and having a hard time of it. I don’t know why a war seemed like the right place to go, but once I got involved, it just made sense.

What inspired you to start filming? Basically, because of the stuff I was seeing and people I was meeting. My experiences there were vastly different from what I was seeing on the news. This was just another war for them. It was the same old crap. I never saw the people I knew, who were vibrant and artistic and nutty. I never saw the underground discos or rock bands. I got my camera sent to me in Sarajevo and started filming. This, of course, turned out to be Miss Sarajevo.

Courtesy Photo

Did you intend to make a documentary? To be honest, all I was doing at first was documenting. When I arrived in Sarajevo, I had 200 bucks shoved into my boots and that was it. Financially, I just couldn’t do anything. I had a camera and I had tapes, but that was it. So I started collecting mass amounts of footage. In my mind, I was seeing the story, but when I left there, I was still wondering how I was going to be able to tell it.

How did the idea of reaching out to U2 come about? My friend in Croatia told me about a concert they were doing in Italy and asked if I wanted to go. I was pretty indignant at the time because of what I was seeing. I got all pissed off and said, “How can you even be thinking about going to a concert when there is a war going on?” And then it suddenly occurred to me that we should try and reach out to this band because they have a political and humanitarian side, too.

And I believe your reaching out came in a rather non-linear way. I am not an idiot, and knew very well that they wouldn’t be communicating to someone named Bill Carter whom they didn’t know. So what I did was use some stationery from the Bosnian television station on which I wrote a letter and signed it as the station manager. It took me three or four days to get the fax number and then to send the fax because there wasn’t electricity and I had to go to the Red Cross. But I knew if they got a fax from Sarajevo in the midst of this war that would probably prick up their ears.

Courtesy Photo

How did that meeting manifest into the satellite links? When I went to Italy and interviewed them, I didn’t know what I was doing. And they didn’t really know what they were doing either. It was an emotional, intense situation, especially for Bono. He is usually asked the same questions in every town he goes to and here I was, asking him about something very different. That night planted the seed. They wanted to come to Sarajevo, which of course they couldn’t, so then I came up with the idea of doing these satellites. The way to use U2 was not have them come to Sarajevo, but to take Sarajevo to them. So we started doing satellite link-ups from Sarajevo to their concerts.

What was it like for you when U2 finally made it to Sarajevo? It was definitely overwhelming. As I was standing there, I felt I had come full circle. I cheated my way into a TV station in 1993, stole some stationery, and made contact with the biggest band in the world. We did the satellite broadcasts, no one died, and I got out. Then, there I was, among 50,000 people. The band had promised to come. And they did it. It was an amazing and gratifying experience. To stand there with the people in the film and the book-my friends-experiencing this was something insane.

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Bill Carter’s film Miss Sarajevo will screen at the Santa Ynez Valley Grange Hall on Thursday, May 15, at 8 p.m., and he will sign copies of his new book, Red Summer, on May 16, at 7 p.m., at the Book Loft in Solvang. For more info, see billcarter.cc.

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