Angelina Jolie visited Sarajevo this week, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to debut her film In the Land of Blood and Honey.
Much of the Bosnian War film, which is the first film that Jolie has written and directed, takes place in Sarajevo, a city that was physically and emotionally devastated by the conflict.
On Jolie's part, screening the movie in Bosnia was a brave choice. Because of the subject matter, the film has been banned from Serb theaters in the country, and despite receiving an honorary Cinema for Peace award, some critics aren't happy with how In the Land of Blood and Honey portrays the events of the war.
In a quest for realism, Jolie gathered a multi-ethnic cast of actors that had lived through the conflict in some way -- some fighting in it and others watching from abroad. But the film has apparently opened old wounds for many people in the former-Yugoslavia.
People back home are complaining, calling it anti-Serb, anti-Bosnian, and so on, Goran Kostic, the Bosnian Serb actor who plays the lead role of Danijel, said before the U.S. release of the film.
Jolie told The Guardian that she and the cast received threats of violence online, and at least one actor had his or her car windows broken, while another was the victim on an e-mail hacking job.
Even during the film-making process the prospect of a foreigner commenting on their own ethnic conflict was hard for some in the region. Jolie tried to shoot the movie on location, but a national women's survivor group petitioned the government to take away Jolie's film permit, which the government did, because the group thought the movie was about a woman who fell in love with her rapist.
Nobody who had an issue with the film had read the script or knew what it was about, so it was a fear of the unknown, I suppose, Jolie said of the incident.
The women's group's ideas of the film, which were based on rumors instead of on the script, aren't far from the truth. Rape was a tragic facet of the Bosnian war, and Jolie, whose humanitarian work has focused on women and the victims of conflict, felt it was important to bring those issues to the fore.
But the lovers in the film met before the war began, and while they were reunited in a rape camp, violence is largely kept out of their relationship.
My review of the film is below.
* * *
A bomb explodes. It's unclear who detonated it, but it doesn't matter. A nightclub is ripped apart, the music stops. And the lives of two lovers, Ajla and Danijel are forever altered as an idyllic European autumn turns into an Eastern winter made infinitely grayer by the shadow of the Bosnian War.
In the Land of Blood and Honey, which is Angelina Jolie's directorial debut, is a hard film to categorize. It is not really a war movie, although it takes place during a war. It is not a love story, although it is a story that is anchored in a relationship that is, at times, loving.
Jolie described her film as the exact opposite of Romeo and Juliet. The protagonists are Ajla and Danijel, two people from the same side, who are then told that they are different and that they cannot be together, she explained.
It's not the love story; it's the love story that could have been.
Ajla is a Bosniak, a Slavic minority group, and Danijel is a Bosnian Serb and the son of a prominent general. During the Bosnian War, warlords used the idea of nationalism and ethnic purity to gain territory in the chaos following the fall of Yugoslavia.
Bosniaks and Serbs, thus Ajla and Danijel, become eternal enemies. In the film, we see them lose each other and then come back together, jointly locked inside physical and emotional prisons.
There is a sort of love between them, but it is a perverse love. For both, it is a relationship of necessity that they use to escape the horrors of the conflict around them. For Ajla, Danijel her best chance at survival. For Danijel, Ajla is an oasis in a desert of death, and his only way of rebelling against his father.
Danijel, as Goran Kostic told IBTimes, is a reluctant soldier. He has a duty to his people and to his family, but he abhors the killing going on around him. Still, he is not strong enough to stop fighting and the warmth he finds in Ajla allows him to overlook the cold suffering around him.
Love becomes very important [in conflict], Kostic said when talking about his character.
People start appreciating these moments. A touch, a kindness, a relationship you have with somebody. All of a sudden, the family gets close; neighbors are more important. That little things you can offer to a person -- that in today's life you wouldn't think twice about -- is of much great value and importance.
But the agencies of war work specifically to subvert those values. The love, family, and so on that try to grow like grass through a crack in the pavement during the conflict are the enemies of war as much as the Bosniaks are the enemies of the Serbs and vice versa.
For Ajla, the tenuous love she has for Danijel is shattered by the war. Although she has found safe harbor in Danijel, the war still finds its way to her in the form of rape and betrayal.
And love is destroyed by rape. In the Bosnian War, rape was used as a tool and was institutionalized by the combatants. Most of the first half of the film takes place inside a rape camp, a very real facet of the conflict. Tens of thousands of women were taken to these places, where they were locked up for sexual sport.
In fact, the rape camp shown in the movie -- with women forced to serve soldiers in every sense of the word -- was probably tame compared to what actually occurred. According to reports, once rape had become rote for the soldiers, they moved on to mutilation and other forms of torture.
(To be clear, the scenes of rape and abuse in In The Land of Blood and Honey are graphic and horrible and hard to watch and also brave on Jolie's part.)
Rape also subverts family -- including Danijel's -- but not more so than war itself. In the film, Ajla loses her mother, her sister and her baby niece. Families are torn apart and separated, and in Ajla's case, the older generation and the newest generation are murdered, isolating the conflict in time and severing it from history.
Alma Terzic, who plays Hana, another camp victim, had something similar happen to her in real life. As a child, Bosnian soldiers came to her house and took her father to a prison camp because he refused to fight for them. For a year, her family assumed that he was dead. They heard rumors from neighbors that he had been killed in a prison camp. But, miraculously, one day he just showed up at their house.
All of the actors in the film have stories like this. The most commendable and resonant aspect of this film is Jolie's insistence on realism. She chose to use all local actors -- including Ermin Sijamija, who actually fought in the war as a Bosnian government soldier, and the great Rade Šerbedžija, who was a peace activist at the time -- and filmed both a Bosnian and an English version.
The real-life experiences of the actors, while varied, gave the film an incredible emotional force. Moreover, they compounded the real war with the war seen in the film, layering truth on fiction and bringing that isolated history into the present.
But, the film's biggest flaw is that Jolie tried to cram so much into it. In an earlier essay, I asked what Jolie's intention for making the film was. Was it to make art, or to depict a war, or a combination of the two?
In her real life, Jolie plays a number of roles -- actor, humanitarian, activist and now, artist -- and in Land of Blood and Honey she is trying to be everything at once. She wants In The Land of Blood and Honey to remind the world of a horror that it barely paid attention to 15 years ago; she wants to advocate for women's rights; she wants to talk about art and about art in war (Ajla is a painter); and she wants to tell a compelling story.
Jolie achieves all of this, but only so much time can be spent on each in two hours and so some themes end up frail and unfinished.
As a result, the film is never as good as it is in the first 30 minutes. While the dramatic tension, as well as the atrocities, do not abate, In the Land of Blood of Honey stays level for the next hour, even as Ajla and Danijel's relationship ebbs and flows along with the siege of Sarajevo.
Like those living through (and committing) the atrocities of the war, the viewer gets desensitized to the violence, and even the story arc, of the film.
Somehow, slowly, you adapt to it, Kostic said when speaking about living through war. All of sudden... two or three months in and it becomes acceptable. What is your reality? The fact that you've been killed, bombarded. The first time, of course it's a shock. The second time, less so. After seeing many tragic things, you know, it affects a person, it hardens a person.
So, as viewers, we are hardened by In the Land of Blood and Honey. It is not an easy film and it takes all our emotional strength to grasp Ajla and Danijel's affair, but we do grasp it. And when it's over, we leave the theater feeling like we too have just lived through an explosion -- dazed, shaken and desperately trying to weigh the gravity of what just happened.
That is the most important part of In the Land of Blood and Honey and Jolie's greatest strength as a director. We cannot stand to see the horrors of Bosnia unfold again. We have been taught an important lesson, witnessed an unimaginable truth.
(Originally published on Jan. 2, 2012.)