"What [Bono] said was very interesting about debt relief. It's an important cause. But I really wish I had a ticket to his concert tonight."
-- a fan, 2001
Bill Carter: A Wanderer Rushed In
February 13, 2004
This article is a product of the media. Media: Latin for "middle," something standing between -- in this case, I'm standing in between you and Bill Carter. I read his new memoir Fools Rush In, watched his documentary Miss Sarajevo, then conducted a phone interview with him, and now I am sharing what I learned with you. If I do my job well, everyone benefits -- you find out interesting things without having to do too much research, and Bill Carter gets to do something besides field questions all day.
We take the media for granted sometimes. We think it is the only way to interact with the world. When a war goes on, for example, we expect the BBC, CNN and Time magazine will all send reporters to get the story from the front. We tend to forget that what they give us is mediated: they decide what pictures to show, what questions to ask, what portions of answers to report to us.
All this is necessary if you want to understand why what happened for thirteen nights in 1993 was unprecedented. Each night, one or two or three citizens in besieged Sarajevo spoke to an audience of 50,000, 60,000, or 100,000 people. They spoke for a few minutes about whatever they wanted to talk about. What they said was live and unedited. They did not speak to a reporter who then explained to a news anchor what it all meant -- they spoke to a rock crowd. The audiences were there for U2's Zooropa tour. The guy whose idea it was to link Sarajevo to these concerts, and who found Sarajevans willing to go in front of the cameras every night, was Bill Carter.
"I've never heard of anything like it since," he says now. (Though it's worth noting that the Internet has allowed for similar direct communication -- such as Salam Pax's weblog from Baghdad.) "You almost have to ask everybody involved how it happened or why it happened. I can tell you what made it work for me: I wanted nothing. If I wanted something there would have been a crack in the machine." If Sarajevans had thought he was just using them to promote himself, "I don't think they would have responded to me."
It's a theme that comes up again and again in conversation, and a rule Carter believes governs any kind of project: "What matters is genuineness. If you really have a drive, you'll get through. If you want something, if you need something, you're probably going to hit a hurdle."
The 37-year-old Carter is originally from California but has seen more countries than he has spent years on this planet. He has always been a traveler, but something more than wanderlust prompted him to go to Bosnia in the middle of the war. There he distributed food with the Serious Road Trip. This is an outfit that takes pride in how it has traveled "where other agencies could or would not go," as its web site says.
"I liked Bill from the outset," says Graeme Bint, the road tripper who got Carter involved with the group. "Bill seemed ill prepared, which suited our ad hoc organization. Although he did seem to have a good grasp on the situation 'Up country' so to say! He seemed to have no reason being in Bosnia, but this didn't trouble me; for many people, (especially aid workers) you enter a war zone first, then find the reason...
"I quickly became very good friends with Bill, and our friendship strengthened the more we nearly kept getting killed together! I realized Bill had a driving force behind him, but I didn't know just what. But it was strong; it had to be, as one doesn't take such immense risks without one!"
Those of you who have read U2 At the End of the World may remember: author Bill Flanagan asked Carter what he was doing in Bosnia because he was curious about his driving force. Carter told him about how his girlfriend got killed in a car accident just as they were creating their new life together. Of everything that went into Fools Rush In, Carter now says, "Corrina, her dying, those were the hardest five pages to write. I was circling around it like a hawk."
He put only "a very, very small amount" in the book about the immediate aftermath -- the two years or so between then and when he found himself in Bosnia. "I was extremely present." In those years, "if you would have met me, I would have asked you 'What was your greatest love? Your greatest loss?' " Suicide was out of the question -- he and Corrina had made a pact not to resort to this in a tragic time. However, at the time he considered himself free "to push it all the way to the edge. If I die and it's nature's mistake, then I win." A big loss can lead to fearlessness -- the worst thing has already happened. "There've been times when people have threatened my life, and my natural reaction was 'Okay, go ahead.'I get very relaxed. The more [danger] gets closer, the more I calm way down -- which is a bit weird."
He says that going into a war zone when grieving is not something he recommends, but then he stops himself. "The truth is, I say [that] kind of flippantly, but it did help heal me. You're in a city of grief, which gives you in many weird ways great comfort. In [the U.S.], if someone's in grief and a month later you run into them and they're laughing, people think they're back on track...We just want people to be okay." But in Sarajevo, though he remembers a lot of laughter, it came from a different place. "The laughter just meant we're together...That's what I mean by comforting. Their laughter, their humor -- it drug you along."
He worked in Sarajevo while it was under siege, while there was almost no way out of the city and you had to run past snipers to get to water. And then Carter happened to catch U2 talking on MTV about an idea behind their latest tour -- the idea of a "United Europe." It spurred "a little bit of anger," he says, because all around him was evidence that Europe was not uniting on behalf of its own. That MTV interview prompted him to send a fax to U2's management, and that got him an interview with Bono before a concert in Verona. (Edge told Carter later that Bono was in tears after this interview -- a sight which shook up the rest of U2.) As you may have heard, Bono was in favor of U2 playing Sarajevo right away, but Carter suggested a satellite link from the city to the concerts instead.
What sort of history did he have with U2 before this? What made him suspect they would be receptive to a fax from Sarajevo? "I had a pretty good intuition they'd be hungry and humble and eager to know what's going on, which they were. I'm not a big 'fan' of things...I don't know what 'fan' means...I grew up as a U2 fan. Like a lot of people, I [overdosed] on them after Joshua Tree." He came to appreciate them musically again in the two years after Corrina's death. "I spent one [year] in Trinidad in the West Indies and that was very much -- that was a very strange time, full of grief and then euphoric. I had a Walkman, I had three tapes. I was using them as meditation, as shrine building: Neil Young's Weld, Lou Reed's Magic and Loss and U2's Achtung Baby. In there was a kind of sonic frequency which really helped."
Carter says, "I didn't approach them as a fan, but I've grown to like them a lot. It's hard to do anything for that long and do it well. Most bands do not and cannot. The key thing about any art -- music, writing, filmmaking -- you have to maintain, with rigorous defense weapons, a sense of innocence." It's not talking like a child, but looking at the world with a child's wonder, that he believes is key -- "And I think [U2] do that quite well."
It has to do, again, with purity of motive. Everyone involved with the Sarajevo broadcasts ended up having their motives questioned. U2, as you probably know, were slammed in the press because of the linkups. Carter thinks that was because rock critics were being confronted with realities they weren't qualified to write about. But he got confronted with a different sort of reality, too, when he got back to Sarajevo after meeting up with the band. "I was more isolated in that town" than he'd ever been, he says -- no longer treated as a fellow Sarajevan, but as some stranger working for some rich rock band. "I didn't want thank you cards; I wasn't looking for pats on the back. But I sure didn't expect to be left in Snipers' Alley to die."
It was a test for how pure his motives really were. He had to tell himself, "They didn't ask for your help. You better just give it freely or else you're doing it for the wrong reasons." He had to learn that no one was worried about whether or not he was feeling appreciated. "They had their own problems!"
After the satellite linkups came to an end, Carter went to Dublin and began editing film footage. The end result was a documentary, Miss Sarajevo. The title refers to a beauty pageant held during the war -- contestants had worn a banner proclaiming "DON'T LET THEM KILL US." But Miss Sarajevo may also be the city herself or a girl named Alma who figures prominently in the documentary. She met Bill Carter after the satellite linkups and so never talked to an audience of U2 fans. But maybe she can now. Click here for an email interview with her direct from Sarajevo.
Fools Rush In is available from Amazon in the U.K.
Miss Sarajevo is now available on DVD from Bill Carter's site. The DVD includes the interview Carter did with Bono in Verona and the first Sarajevo satellite linkup, which took place at a concert in Bologna.
© @U2/Pancella, 2004.