In 1992, ITN reporter Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane) travels to Sarajevo, the besieged capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He meets American star journalist Jimmy Flynn (Woody Harrelson) on the chase for the most exciting stories and pictures. Henderson and Flynn have friendly arguments and differences in the intervals between reporting. They stay at the Holiday Inn, which was the primary hotel for the press in Sarajevo during the siege. After a previous translator proves corrupt and inept, ITN hires Risto (Goran Višnjić) to be Henderson's translator. Their work permits them blunt and unobstructed views of the suffering of the people of Sarajevo. The situation changes when Henderson makes a report from an orphanage located on the front lines (Ljubica Ivezic Orphanage) in which two hundred children live in desperate conditions. After increasingly brutal attacks fail to make the lead story in the UK, Henderson makes the orphanage his lead story to try to bring full attention to the war.
When American aid worker Nina (Marisa Tomei) organises a UN-sanctioned bus-borne evacuation of several orphaned Sarajevan children to Italy, Henderson convinces Nina to include a Bosniak girl from the orphanage, Emira (Emira Nušević), to whom Henderson had made a promise to evacuate. Nina knows this is an illegal act – Emira's mother is still alive and signed no papers authorising the evacuation – but the orphanage director allows it because of the desperate circumstances. Henderson and his cameraman accompany the evacuation under the pretense of covering it as a news story.
Despite a UN escort, Bosnian Serbs hinder the evacuation at several points along its route. The final harassment is the worst – a group of Chetniks halt the bus, forcibly disembark the Bosniak Muslim children and put them on their armed lorry, presumably to repatriate them.
When Henderson finally makes it to London with Emira, Emira quickly becomes a member of Henderson's family in a comfortable London home. After an ambiguous interval of perhaps 100 days, Henderson receives word from his former producer, who is still in Sarajevo, that Emira's mother wants Emira back. Henderson returns to Sarajevo, now riven not only by the siege but also by internal organised crime, and seeks out Risto, who has become a Bosnian-Herzegovinian soldier. Henderson recruits Risto to find Emira's mother. They nearly succeed, but the unstable situation unravels around them and they are forced to retreat. When Risto is killed by a sniper in his own home, Henderson falls back on Zeljko (Drazen Sivak), a concierge at the Holiday Inn who Henderson had helped in previous Sarajevo tours. Zeljko negotiates the streets and road-blocks that lead to Emira's mother. As prelude to signing the adoption papers, she outlines the reasons she wants Emira back. She cannot in good conscience bring Emira back to Sarajevo, though, and she signs the papers.
A running joke in the movie is the designation by a UN official that Sarajevo was only the 14th worst crisis in the world. In the middle of the movie, Harun, a cellist friend of Risto, says that he would play a concert on the streets of Sarajevo once it is designated the worst place on Earth. Though he acknowledges the danger, he claims that "the people will die happily listening to my music." The movie ends with Harun holding a "concert of peace" on a hill overlooking Sarajevo, playing his cello to hundreds of Sarajevans. Among the attendees are Henderson, Flynn and several children from the orphanage. Henderson gives Harun a sad smile; the concert is beautiful, but it also means that Sarajevo had, indeed, become the worst place on Earth.
The closing credits say that Emira still lives in England.Stephen Dillane – Michael Henderson
Woody Harrelson – Jimmy Flynn
Marisa Tomei – Nina
Emira Nušević – Emira
Kerry Fox – Jane Carson
Goran Višnjić – Risto Bavić
James Nesbitt – Gregg
Emily Lloyd – Annie McGee
Igor Džambazov – Jacket
Gordana Gadžić – Mrs. Savić
Juliet Aubrey – Helen Henderson
Drazen Šivak – Željko
Vesna Orel – Munira Hodžić
Davor Janjić – Dragan
Vladimir Jokanović – Emira's Uncle
Senad Bašić – Svercer
Ines Fančović – Woman shouting at bread queue
Michael Winterbottom portrays the events with brutality. In the opening sequence, there is a sniper attack on a wedding procession. Other shocking sequences include Henderson stumbling upon a massacre at a farm-house, a Bosnian-Serb officer nonchalantly executing groups of Bosniaks and Henderson's arrival in the immediate aftermath of the first of the Markale Massacres.
Shot just a few months after the war on locations in Sarajevo and Croatia, the film uses real ruins and war debris to give the film a feeling of authenticity. Many scenes of the characters witnessing and reporting on street carnage were intercut with video footage of the historic events.
Two widely known pieces of music were among those used in the film. "Don't Worry Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin is used ironically, played against scenes of the siege of Sarajevo, with people being wounded by bombs, blood everywhere on the streets, etc. The second piece is "Adagio in G minor" by Remo Giazotto, based on a fragment from Sonata in G minor by Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni; it has been used in many films and advertisements since being popularized in the American anti-war movie Platoon. House of Love's "Shine On" (Creation, 1987) and Stone Roses' "I Wanna Be Adored" (Silvertone, 1989) are among the English independent rock classics featured in contrast to the dark barbarism affecting the people of Sarajevo. Rock anthems from the 1960s were used as part of the soundtracks in such Vietnam War-era movies as Apocalypse Now and Platoon. The anthems used in Welcome to Sarajevo were popular closer to the era of the film.
The film made its world premiere 1997-05-09 at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for the Golden Palm and for the Golden Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. It was awarded a "Special Recognition for Excellence in Filmmaking" by the National Board of Review (USA) during the 69th National Board of Review Awards (1997).