FROM SARAJEVO TO SEDONA
An exclusive conversation with Bill Carter – photographer, filmmaker, journalist, author, professor and Sedona’s U2 connection.
It’s surreal to sit across from a Sedona resident who has Bono on speed dial, but it gets even more surreal when you realize that’s not the most interesting thing about Bill Carter. Bill became friends – close friends – with Bono and the rest of U2 in 1993 when he managed to get backstage at a U2 concert in Italy and persuade the band to spread the word about the atrocities of the Bosnian War, which was largely being ignored by the European and American press. Bill, who was born in California, was volunteering as an aid worker in Sarajevo. After a few days of brainstorming and one very lavish party attended by rock stars and supermodels, U2 agreed to do a series of satellite broadcasts from Sarajevo to hundreds of thousands of audience members attending the European leg of the band’s groundbreaking Zoo TV Tour. The linkups frequently killed the concert buzz, but they also got the word out about what was happening in Eastern Europe.
“We first met Bill Carter in July 1993 in Verona, Italy, during the height of the Bosnian War,” says Bono in a quote obtained by Bill. “We were on tour, and Bill had traveled to the concert venue from Sarajevo. After the initial meeting we decided to do satellite link-ups between Sarajevo and the venues in European cities where we were playing. Those glimpses from Sarajevo had a lasting effect on us and our audiences.
Bill has since made several documentary films and written three books including his most recent, Boom, Bust, Boom, which received a paperback printing this spring. This journalist/filmmaker/photographer moved to Sedona last summer. Once I heard a major player in the U2 story was living a few miles away, I knew I had to meet him. Bill and I sipped tea at Desert Flour Bakery in the Village of Oak Creek one morning. What follows is an edited transcription of our conversation.
Sedona Monthly: Before you traveled to Bosnia with The Serious Road Trip, what was your background?
Bill Carter: I was a young traveler in many ways. I graduated from UC Santa Cruz with degrees in economics and political science. I was very interested in traveling the world, and I did that on my own for two years. I worked as a bartender in Australia. I taught English in Taiwan. When I came home, I went to Alaska and worked for a cannery. I met a young girl and fell in love. We had it all mapped out like you do when you’re 25, and she had a tragic accident and died. That began a two-year process of being lost. I spent a year in Trinidad in the West Indies, out of contact with everyone I knew. I was hitchhiking from Luxembourg to Croatia and The Road Trip picked me up and took me to Sarajevo. I didn’t know them. I had a backpack, a bottle of whiskey, some toilet paper, clothes and a camera. I had $200. It was winter in Bosnia, and I was overwhelmed by what I walked into. I only knew about the war in the vaguest of ways. I basically spent two years there on $200. People think I got there because I had connections, but my story is a testimony to the fact that I didn’t have any connections.
How did you get the idea to approach U2 about the war? You’ve indicated that you weren’t a huge U2 fan.
I grew up with them. One of the first shows I went to was Amnesty International. I was a fan, and they were in the mix with The Cure and The Smiths. But a perfect storm brewed in late spring ’93. I had been in Sarajevo for three months, and I was exhausted. The summer of ’93 was the worst of the war. I was hanging out with a lot of musicians, and I was getting tired of watching people die and starve. Our efforts were good, but I wanted to take it to another level. Sarajevo is a very vibrant, alive city, and I felt like they were being starved in that way, too. Really, my motivation for reaching out to U2 was to connect that. I knew U2 was coming to Italy, and I had a friend who was going with his girlfriend. I was working at a TV station in Sarajevo doing dark comedy sketches with Bosnian friends of mine. I saw U2 talking about the birth of the European Union. I thought they were insane – Europe was on fire. But I liked that U2 were thinking about the EU. They were Irish, which meant they had a history with the ‘troubles.’ They would be well-versed on religion as a weapon rather than a reason for war. I’d read the liner notes – I knew they were people with heart. The Irish are a lot of things, but they have a lot of heart. I thought it was worth a chance.
There was a snafu with your press credentials in Verona, so how did you wind up getting backstage?
I didn’t sneak backstage. I wrote a fake fax, and they told me to come to Italy. I was in Sarajevo, and I had lost track of reality. I thought that because they faxed me to come, that was all I needed. When I got to the stadium, all I had was a fax. I was on a mission, and I was very focused. I wanted to interview Bono and the band about Sarajevo. The Italian guards thought I was a joke. The guard said Sarajevo was full of thieves, and I hit him. We got into a fistfight. I took what he said personally. We were on the ground, and at that point, U2’s inner sanctum came running out. I gave them the fax and they said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve been waiting for you. Come on in.’ I was ushered downstairs into a hallway. They had to clear the green room of super models – literally – and I set up with my camera. Their publicist told me the band had never done an interview before a show. They were going onstage in 55 minutes. I said I’d wait, but she said Bono really wanted to do it. Bono came into the room. As an interview, it’s very amateur. I’m asking him U2 questions, he doesn’t want to answer U2 questions and I don’t want to ask U2 questions. At some point, we basically – without saying anything – switched the channel. That’s when it became fascinating.
Did you have experience as a journalist before you interviewed Bono? I realize he wasn’t as in demand in 1993 as now, but what was it like to interview arguably the biggest rock star of your generation?
No, he was my very first interview [laughs]. It was exciting. I was intimidated, but I wasn’t scared because that wasn’t part of my DNA at that point. I just didn’t want to screw it up. To me, a lot of people in Bosnia were depending on it, even though they really weren’t. In my mind, they were depending on it. In their minds, they were trying to stay alive. I felt that weight. In terms of Bono, I liked him from the first moment. He was open and funny and trying to be self-deprecating. He was trying to find his footing, too. The best part of the initial conversation was when he interviewed me. He thought I was Bosnian, and when he realized I was American, he wanted to know how I got backstage. I told him the story, and the Irish in him liked that gamble.
In Italy, you experienced your first taste of the celebrity lifestyle. What was that like given your living conditions in Sarajevo?
I couldn’t handle it. I had two reactions. One, I wanted to burn the place down. Two, I wanted to steal all the food and all the booze, and get it back to Sarajevo. Then I wanted to yell at everybody. I had this kind of short fuse. I told myself to calm down. There’re multiple worlds going on all the time. That’s life. And the U2 camp is filled with kind, generous people. The visuals were very strange. You had Pearl Jam in the pool and models in the pool. What a weird world! It was unbelievable that this was happening. And that was when we had a very intense conversation about [U2] coming to Sarajevo. But we couldn’t have them come. First, Sarajevans would gather and get killed. Even if it were underground, they would gather outside to get in. The secondary problem was the airport. It didn’t matter if they were U2. The airport would close for weeks at a time, and no one was getting out. So we reversed the idea and used their big TVs instead. It was complicated, but we did it.
Is it safe to say the broadcasts from Sarajevo changed the course of your life?
Not that I knew it at the time, but yes. If I hadn’t gotten involved with U2, I don’t know if the film [Miss Sarajevo] would have been made. Obviously I wouldn’t have gotten involved in all these other things. But I try to tell people that what happened wasn’t chance or luck. At some point in your life, a door is going to open. It will remain open if you have something to take through it. If you have nothing to take through it besides wanting to go through, it’s going to close on you. If I had gone to that party as a reporter and hadn’t been driven by something bigger, that would have been it. That wasn’t my focus. My focus was to stop my friends from dying. If they could help me do that, I was going to ride that train to the edge of the earth. That’s why U2 responded to me. They recognized a burning passion.
Do you get tired of answering questions about something that happened 20 years ago?
I don’t get tired of people asking legitimate questions, but I do get tired of people who seem interested in my work but just want to get a hold of Bono. I don’t do that. That was established many years ago.
What is your favorite memory from your time with U2?
I have a lot of memories [laughs]. I went to Bono’s house in the south of France for a week. That was fantastic. I just hung out with Bono and his wife and kids, and Edge and his family. Yes, they live in this historic mansion, but it was also incredibly normal – swimming, hanging out. It’s a different life, but there’s a normal side. We forget these are just people, but at the same time, I’ve met other people in the business, and I don’t want to go to their house. U2 are very grounded. They are superstars, but they still know who humans are. They are very humble.
Are you still in contact with the band?
Oh yeah. We talk. The easiest way to talk to them is when they are on tour. My wife and I go to three or four shows during a tour, and we catch up. They support everything I do.
What brought you to Arizona?
It’s a U2 story! I’d been to Arizona. I was transfixed with the desert. I was on a tour with the Miss Sarajevosong, and I was flying to the biggest radio stations. At the end of it, I was in LA, and it was assumed I lived in LA. But I hadn’t lived anywhere for years. The woman interviewing me asked where I was going, and I said Tucson. I had met a friend who told me about a band there and about Bisbee, and I decided to check it out. So I met the band Giant Sand, which morphed into Calexico, and I stayed four years. Then I spent 10 years in Bisbee. I left Tucson because I was very close to the musicians. I have a strange relationship with musicians. I love what they do, and we always have good friendships, but you can get drawn into their world and it’s not my world. I don’t want to be on the road everyday. I don’t think in music. I feel in music, so I can make documentaries and photograph, but I’m not a day-to-day musician. I went to Bisbee because I wanted to write a book, and I couldn’t do it with all the distractions. I moved in 1999. I met my wife in Bisbee at a poker game. We bought a house. As much as we’re renegades, we did the extremely traditional thing: got married, bought a house, had kids – two daughters.
You’ve since worked with Emmylou Harris and Tucson-based Calexico. Are you a musician?
No, I don’t play anything. I’m totally a lameass [laughs]. There’s nothing in the world that moves us as quick emotionally as music. A book can move you, but it takes four years to read it. A poem can move you but not everybody. Music is instantaneous. It’s across the board. You can have a raging war going on, but if you like the music and I like the music, we might have something to talk about. Music is the ultimate communicator of the soul.
What was the impetus for ‘Boom, Bust, Boom’?
My wife was pregnant with our second daughter, and I got sick. They were starting to test the soil in Bisbee, and I had this epiphany that I lived in southern Arizona near all these copper mines, and I didn’t know anything about copper or the business or the state. I later found out I had arsenic poisoning. I was working in our garden and eating food from the garden. Now the current owners of the mine don’t have anything to do with this. This is all a product of the smelters belching out heavy metals hundreds of years ago. But just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean they aren’t still there. And as soon as I started to peel back and learn a little bit, I was more fascinated with this topic than anything else I had done before from an intellectual aspect.
Arizona is nicknamed the Copper State, and it’s the largest copper producer in the U.S. Given your book’s subject matter, how do you reconcile raising your family here?
Well, I left Bisbee. We went to Flagstaff, and you aren’t going to find pollution from copper mining up there. The pollution is essentially transmitted through water. It’s impossible to stop the leaching of heavy metals. We don’t have the technology to eliminate copper. These guys work really hard to try to contain it, but ultimately it’s going to go down into our aquifers. But I feel fine here. I’m not as worried about it because I have this blind thing that I feel this system we have called towns are monitoring things to make sure they are safe for human consumption. If we don’t have that, we’re all screwed no matter where we live. But if you’re living near a copper mine, whether it’s open or closed, it’s a whole different thing.
What brought you to Flagstaff and Sedona?
We were worried about our kids. My wife was interested in going to grad school and we didn’t want to leave Arizona. NAU addressed her particular field – she’s an archaeologist. She got her master’s in two years. The day she turned in her thesis, she heard about the job at Verde Valley School for an anthropology teacher. We were skeptical at first. Sedona was not on our radar. We are a little beatnik-y. But we moved here last August. We live at the school, and it’s beautiful.
What are you working on now?
I took a job at NAU two weeks ago. I’m a professor of practice. I taught all over the country, but I don’t have the right degrees. But there’s this new trend called professor of practice in certain departments. I’m teaching documentary studies – screenwriting, documentary production and long-form journalism. And I’m almost done with my first novel.
You’ve worked as a journalist, author, filmmaker and photographer. Which do you gravitate toward?
I don’t know. Photography was my first medium. I had shows around the Bay Area. I took photos in Sarajevo – documentary style. The movies came out of left field from the meeting with U2. That led to Emmylou Harris calling and asking me to film her while she made her first album that she had written. I’m a huge Emmylou Harris fan, so I spent a month with her in New Orleans. I was documenting in this huge house, and one night there was a knock on the door, late. She told me to answer it, and a guy asked for her. This was in a bad neighborhood. I told him she was there, and then he left. One minute later, Bruce Springsteen walks through the door with his wife. [Harris and Springsteen] had never met. I was sitting there between the two of them, and Bruce’s band was there. It was one of the most unbelievable moments of my life. I was in this beautiful parlor in New Orleans with Emmylou on the couch. I’m next to her. There are two microphones and Emmylou and Bruce are singing, separately and together. But this has a Sedona connection. Emmylou invited me to come to Sedona and shoot her concert here in Sedona [at the defunct Sedona Cultural Park].
What’s the last song you listened to on your iPod?
Wow. I actually listened to an album I helped produce with a professor from NAU. It’s called Border Songs, and it raises money for migrants dying along the border.
What’s the one question you’ve never been asked but always wanted to answer?
It would be a philosophical question: What drives you? It’s the drive of humanity that fascinates me. Is it money? Career? Making dad happy? None of them are wrong. What drives me is complicated. I have a really deep belief in the human experience and love – love in a broad way, love that drives us toward each other or else what in the hell are we doing? It’s a concept behind compassion or being good shepherds of the earth. If you leave anything, to be a part of that drive is important to me and important to pass on to my kids. I love human beings. It’s not hippy, goofy-ass love. One of the reason I’ve gone to war or been a fisherman or a fireman is that in those situations, people are revealed for who they are. There’s no hiding. If you’re the guy who’s going to turn in the Jews down the street to the Nazis, you’re going to be found out in a war. I like to see people for who they are. The grand experiment of being human is very strange, but I love it. I hope that comes through in my teaching.
U2 revives Miss Sarajevo on tour
BY THOMAS CONNER
July 4, 2011
The May 26 arrest of accused war criminal Ratko Mladic, after 16 years on the run, brought back memories for Bill Carter none of them cheerful.
Pure evil, Carter said, describing the infamous Serbian general now on trial, accused of genocide during the Yugoslav Wars. Its a big deal for him to finally be captured. He killed a lot of people I knew.
For nearly four years 1992-96, the longest siege of a modern capital Serbian forces blockaded and bombed the capital city of Bosnia & Herzegovina, while nearly every day snipers fired at citizens. More than 10,000 were killed, many more wounded. Carter, an American writer and filmmaker, was living in Sarajevo at the outbreak of the war.
He related his experience in an acclaimed documentary, Miss Sarajevo, and a book, Fools Rush In: A True Story of Love, War and Redemption. But while there, Carter tried to tell the world what was happening to Sarajevo. He knew we wouldnt necessarily listen to him, but he bluffed his way into a meeting with someone we were listening to, U2 singer Bono a desperate gamble that connected one of the worlds biggest rock bands to one of the worlds greatest humanitarian crises.
Within days, U2 was broadcasting live video of Sarajevos plight during its 1993 ZooTV concerts in sold-out arenas throughout Europe. Bono then not only produced Carters film, he wrote a song for it Miss Sarajevo, recorded with famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti which U2 is now performing on tour for only the second time in North America, with footage from Carters film.
On a couple of occasions, and as recently as a 2009 interview, Bono has cited Miss Sarajevo as his favorite U2 song. A few reviews of the current leg of the bands 360 Tour claim the song is a high point of the evening. But its rooted in a low point of Carters life.
He arrived in Sarajevo in 1993, part of the Serious Road Trip, a humanitarian organization delivering food to desperate Sarajevans. He himself learned what its like to be hungry and addled by a war zone.
I had a stash of chocolate baby food that I lived on for months, Carter recalled. I lost 30 pounds, some hair and a tooth. The people in Sarajevo, you know, after years of constant bombings, snipers they were completely stressed. Adrenaline is a very powerful drug in the body, and when shells are constantly going off around you, you get a high dose. You do that every day for years, and you had kids there who were 18 with gray hair.
Carters film (which opens as hes dodging sniper bullets) depicts the constant terror as well as how Sarajevans coped with it, muddling through daily life and resorting to surrealism and defiant, dark humor. It culminates in the Miss Sarajevo pageant, which featured contestants in bathing suits posing for a photo and holding a banner that read, Dont let them kill us.
Carter, like most Sarajevans, felt the world was ignoring the citys plight. (As U2 guitarist The Edge said in an August 1993 radio interview, At that time, Sarajevo was not really on Page One of any of the international newspapers. It was like Page Seven, and you really had to go looking for it.) He sought a way to get the worlds attention.
While working on film footage one summer day in 93 at the Sarajevo television station, a rare day with electricity, he saw U2 on TV being interviewed, describing their futuristic new tour.
The answer from one of the band members, Carter writes in Fools Rush In, was something like, A great deal of whats behind this tour is the idea of addressing the idea of a united Europe. What Europe were they speaking of? Europe was ignoring their geographical ass down here in Bosnia.
U2s tour was coming to nearby Verona, Italy, in a few weeks. So Carter borrowed some letterhead from the president of Sarajevo TV and faxed the band an interview request, as if he actually worked for the network. He expected nothing, but weeks later a return fax came. Bono would love to chat before the show.
Dont give me money
Carter escaped Sarajevo in a cargo plane to Verona, where he sat down with Bono for 20 minutes. The backstage interview footage is included on the DVD of his Miss Sarajevo film. We dont seem to learn from history, Carter says.
Thats the subject of a lot of our songs, says Bono.
Hours later, Carter was in a villa with the band, teaching them the intricacies of the Serbian-Bosnian conflict and the human toll being exacted. With several days before the next U2 concert, Bono was ready to jump in the car with Carter and go to Sarajevo, see for himself, maybe play an impromptu gig. Carter dissuaded him any large gathering of people in Sarajevo was an easy target for Serb missile batteries.
But the band wanted to do something, and a relationship was established that resulted in an idea.
I think it worked because I didnt ask anything for me, Carter said. I told Bono, Dont give me money. Thats not gonna do s---. We have to reach peoples consciousness. Thats our only hope, or were just spinning our wheels. That appeals to U2. So I was like, the biggest band in the world wants to come to Sarajevo, what do I do? What if we could take Sarajevo to them instead? What if we could link to their concerts by satellite and just tell people what was going on?
On July 17, 1993, thats what happened. In an experiment fraught with challenges technical (Sarajevos electricity was unreliable), logistical (for Carter to get to the TV station in Sarajevo meant darting through Snipers Alley) and faithful (I was just some crazy f---ing longhair kid who they met one night and was slightly nuts, probably what if I went on the first broadcast and pulled my pants down? he mused), Carter and two friends stood in front of a camera in Sarajevo and appeared on a giant screen at U2s concert in Bologna.
They talked about the refugees under attack, the need for water and food, and Carter told a story about a friend hit by a grenade. For 10 concerts over the next month, the last one in Londons Wembley Stadium to 100,000 people, they did the same thing broadcasting the news from Sarajevo in the middle of a U2 concert.
Artistically, it was awkward, The Edge later confessed. We knew it was a risk in the sense that putting something that potent and that shocking in the middle of a rock and roll show, which is ultimately about having a good time and seeing a band play a few songs, could completely scuttle the show. On some nights, it almost did. But what we also, I suppose, hoped to achieve from it was maybe to generate a little bit more media coverage of what was going on there. And, of course, now events have overtaken us and Sarajevo is right on the front page again.
A tough show for U2
After the war, U2 made it to Sarajevo, at last, playing a concert in 1997 attended by members of the various factions whod been shooting at each other a few years earlier. Bono called the concert one of the toughest and one of the sweetest night of my life. Carter thinks it was the most important concert they ever played, that and Belfast.
The whole experience was certainly important for Carter. If it hadnt happened, if he hadnt gotten in front of Bono, it would have been bad. That summer of 93 was the worst. The war and the heat and there was no water. I was watching people die. It would have ended badly for me.
Now the song Miss Sarajevo reappears on U2s tour, which in April became the most successful tour of all time. Ticket sales for the 2009-11 jaunt are expected to surpass $700 million, besting the previous record held by the Rolling Stones Bigger Bang Tour, 2005-07, which grossed $554 million. (Tuesdays show, rescheduled from its original date of July 6, 2010, was one of several postponed last year after Bono suffered a back injury.) The performance now features footage from Carters film, which he was able to finish in U2s Dublin studios.
Im not sure why they chose the song now, Carter said. They pick songs extremely carefully. Its a unique song in their repertoire. It doesnt sound like anything else they do. But it also has some resonance again. With the footage, people are asking questions again. What is that about? Whatever happened in Bosnia? If they ask, they get answers, and they learn, and maybe it helps in some weird way for something like this never to happen again.