The Irish director and musician John Carney once made a movie under the working title “Can a Song Save Your Life?,” though the name was changed before it was released. And another batch of Dublin musicians of note ask a similar question in the documentary “Kiss the Future,” which premiered on Sunday at the Berlin International Film Festival and finds U2 using music to aid the occupants of a city under siege, Sarajevo.
Directed by Nenad Cicin-Sain, produced by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Sarah Anthony and written by Bill S. Carter, who is also a major player in the events depicted, “Kiss the Future” is a portrait of a city and a people who used culture to fight back; it’s also the story of a rock ‘n’ roll band exploring the limits of how its music can impact the real world. Above all else, though, it’s a rich and moving chronicle of the use of art as both a weapon and a means to salvation.
In Sarajevo, punk rock was an instrument of war and stadium rock was a means to healing. And when the film ends in the fall of 1997 with the anthemic song “One” played in a stadium built for the Olympics but abandoned as a performance venue during the five-year war in the former Yugoslavia, it is a demonstration that yes, a song can at least feel as if it’s saving your life.
“Maybe it sounds pathetic,” says a resident of Sarajevo of that historic performance, “but the war ended the moment U2 came onstage.”
Perhaps “Kiss the Future” risks sounding pathetic at times, or at least risks overstating the importance of a band that has long been saddled with a reputation for being self-important. But Cicin-Sain’s film, like U2’s music, takes big swings and is unafraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, and that produces moments that are nothing short of glorious.
The film starts with the wall of TV monitors that made up the most eye-catching and at times assaultive part of the band’s extravagant “Zoo TV” tour in 1992-93. This morphs into a collage on the wall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet bloc and the rise of populist and nationalist politician Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia during the time when Yugoslavia was splitting apart. Eager to hang onto power for Serbs during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, his country was the aggressor in a prolonged assault on the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, a liberal city in which Serbs, Croatians, Muslims and Christians lived side-by-side.
For years, the Serbian army encircled the city, shelled it from the surrounding hillsides and shot at civilians as they tried to go about their daily lives in a city often without power and basic necessities. But art became a symbol of defiance: Punk bands formed and played in subterranean clubs and discos, while one resident describes how he would search for radio frequencies used by the enemy army and blast the Clash, Jimi Hendrix and the Sex Pistols as loud as possible on those frequencies to disrupt communications.
(It’s not mentioned in the film, but the Sarajevo Film Festival began during the war, too, with screenings in makeshift theaters and directors like Alfonso Cuaron carrying their film cannisters through an underground tunnel into the city.)
“I don’t think I would have survived without having a disco in the middle of the war,” says one Bosnian musician. When a local drummer lost his hand in an explosion, he duct-taped a drumstick to the end of his arm rather than leave the band.
Initially, there was no connection between U2 and Sarajevo – but as the film documents, that came with the arrival of a countercultural humanitarian group called the Serious Road Trip. A motley group of clowns, musicians and artists who traveled the world trying to help underprivileged children, the Road Trip hooked up with photographer and filmmaker Bill Carter, who decided he was going to reach out to the band when he saw singer Bono on MTV talking about Bosnia.
Through begging, subterfuge and a bit of misrepresentation, Carter got an interview with Bono after a show in Italy, and told the singer about the situation in the besieged Sarajevo, and about what “a rock ‘n’ roll city” it was. “He contained a story, a narrative that I have felt inside all my life,” says Bono in the film.
“He was a bit crazy, but that’s fine,” adds guitarist the Edge in the film. “We can work with crazy.”
The band and its management dismissed Bono’s dreams of immediately doing a concert in the city under siege, but U2 began to incorporate video transmissions from Carter and people in Sarajevo into its Zoo TV shows – at least until one young woman publicly excoriated them for not doing anything concrete to help a population that was being destroyed.
The band brought significant attention to the war before it became uncomfortable with the idea of dropping the nightly visits with residents of a ravaged city into the middle of a rock show. Further attention came when, for a U2 side project with Brian Eno called Passengers, Bono and the Edge wrote a song called “Miss Sarajevo.” The song, which included a vocal passage by Luciano Pavarotti, was inspired by a mocking beauty pageant in which the “contestants” held up a banner saying “Don’t Let them Kill Us.”
“There is nothing more defiant than putting on a beauty pageant in the middle of a war,” says Bono. “It’s a giant ‘f— off.’”
Cicin-Sain tells the story with a mixture of archival footage and interviews with everyone from the band members to the citizens of Sarajevo to politicians like former U.S. President Bill Clinton, all of them sitting in what appear to be bomb-damaged rooms papered with posters and flyers. It’s a theatrical touch, to be sure, but it fits with the subjects, where heightened gestures can mean a lot.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about the filmmaking, but the narrative manages to balance life inside and outside the city; it feels both wrenching and at times inspiring, even if the Dayton Agreement in late 1995 left a lot to be desired as a peace accord.
In the aftermath of that agreement, U2 vowed to come to Sarajevo for a full-scale concert as soon as possible; that turned out to be September of 1997, when the city was still trying to rebuild and military still patrolled the streets. The concert, the first of its kind since the war had ended, was a heartfelt moment on a U2 tour, “Pop,” that was sometimes longer on artifice than heart. And the footage from that show, with Bono straining to sing in a ravaged voice and the ecstatic audience hitting the notes that he can’t reach, is remarkable.
It climaxes, as it must, in a performance of “One,” the song that builds to the proclamation, “We’re one, but we’re not the same/We get to carry each other, carry each other.” Cicin-Sain includes the entire performance, and he also shows it to his interview subjects, many of whom struggle to retain their composure as they revisit a stunning moment that meant so much to a ravaged city.
You could ask if a film about a 30-year-old war and a 26-year-old concert can grip us now the way it might have then, but part of the point of “Kiss the Future” is the danger of not paying attention to injustices when they happen. And while Bono sings, in “One,” “Well it’s too late tonight/To drag the past out into the light,” the movie itself suggests that it’s not too late at all, and that this particular past deserves to be dragged into the light.
It also gives the last word to a Bosnian Olympic skier who says, “I seriously wonder whether we need that concert more today than we needed it in ’97.” This leads into a new montage that includes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, violence along the U.S./Mexico border and floods of refugees around the world.
A time capsule that also insists on being timely, “Kiss the Future” takes its name from something Bono shouted during that 1997 concert: “F— the past, kiss the future!” But the movie is really saying something different: If you want to kiss the future, first you have to remember the past.