Political Film Society - Newsletter #129 - April 1, 2002

April 1, 2002


Harrison's FlowersHarrison's Flowers
, directed by Elie Chouraqui, ups the ante on the reality of ethnic cleansing over earlier efforts, notably Savior (1998) and Behind Enemy Lines (2001). Based on the novel Le Diable a l'Avantage by Isabel Ellsen, the film begins in New Jersey on October 9, 1991. We become acquainted with Harrison Lloyd (played by David Strathairn), his wife Susan (played by Andie MacDowell), and his two adorable children. In his greenhouse, Harrison tends tropical plants, a hobby that gives him peace of mind from his career as a photojournalist, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989. Next, Susan enters the Newsweek office in New York, where the managing editor (played by Alun Armstrong) and the rest of the staff are baffled by what they see and hear on CNN from Yugoslavia; he refers to the events as mere "ethnic skirmishes," an indictment of the way the press was then uninformed by events well known to Europeans, who were then awaiting the Americans to exert leadership. At lunch Harrison informs his boss that he wants to quit and spend more time with his family. His boss agrees, but after one more assignment--the war in Croatia. Before he goes, he presents the Pulitzer Prize in photojournalism for 1991 to Yeager Pollack (played by Elias Koteas), who filmed the man who stopped tanks from entering Tiananmen Square. In the men's room, however, Kyle Morris (played by Adrien Brody) chides Harrison for his earlier easy award that involved few risks. After arriving in Croatia, Harrison sends back shocking photos, and one night Susan receives a call in the middle of the night with no discernible voice. The next morning, the Newsweek staff informs her that Harrison died from a bomb blast in a building in Vukovar. Refusing to believe the account, based on her telephone call, on November 7, 1991, she arrives at the airport in Graz, Austria, and rents a car, destination Vukovar; her mission could be called Saving Photojournalist Harrison.

Entering an unmanned frontier, she soon finds herself in the middle of a battle; a tank totals her car, and a soldier begins to rape her when his commanding officer orders him back to the fighting. Shocked, she collapses on the ground near the car and is presumed dead as Croatian troops gain control of the area, accompanied by several photojournalists, including Morris, who recognizes Susan, expresses indignation at her presence in a war zone, but takes care of her until she recovers from shock and discloses her mission. Although Morris attempts to get Susan to turn back, he changes his mind on realizing that her obsessive pursuit can be a ticket to the most exciting photojournalism of the war, and he heads for Vukovar with her. En route there are many scenes of murdered older people, women, and children, but none so stark as the ongoing ethnic cleansing that they observe first hand on arriving in Vukovar. Susan does indeed find Harrison, who is unable to speak due to the post-traumatic stress of nearly dying from a bomb blast, and the reunited couple returns to the United States. One year later, Harrison snaps out of his trance, and Morris's voiceover at the end informs us that the couple moved to St. Louis, where Harrison spends his time photographing flowers in his new greenhouse. Graphic scenes expose the savage manner in which Serb troops fought, taking no prisoners and raping women and even children. The film is dedicated to the more than forty courageous journalists who lost their lives while trying to get the story out. The film Savior, however, more accurately shows that the indignities were committed on both sides. At one point Morris says that the term "ethnic cleansing" was first used to describe the way Serbs sought a final solution against Croatia, which was seceding from Yugoslavia, but in fact the first use of the term was in 1989, when the Kosovars began a policy of ethnic extermination of Serbs to make the province ethnically pure. Indeed, the action of the Kosovars gave Slobodan Milosevich an opportunity to organize mass demonstrations in Belgrade that brought him to power. The rest, dramatically presented in the superb Discovery Channel documentary Yugoslavia (1999), is history. MH