I wanted to explore and understand the Bosnian War... It was the deadliest war in Europe since World War II, but sometimes people forget the terrible violence that happened in our time, in our generation, to our generation...
--- Angelina Jolie on why she made her new film, In the Land of Blood and Honey.
It's one story of many, but in that story it's fairly accurate...
--- Goran Kostic, the Bosnian Serb actor who plays the lead role of Danijel.
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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.