All Is Fear in Love and War

Angelina Jolie’s controversial directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey is a strident take on the horrors and unexpected connections of the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s

On The Town | Samuel Goff | March 2012

The year is 1992. A young couple hold each other close in a lively dancehall. Their story seems only to be beginning. Yet the moment is shattered when a bomb explodes nearby; soon it becomes clear that not only this burgeoning romance, but an entire world of emotional and social ties is coming to a violent end.

The conflicts in Bosnia are the daunting subject of Hollywood icon Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, and as is fitting for a film about war and rape, violence and intrusion are powerful themes throughout. The weight of her celebrity has stirred up heated discussion as to whether an A-lister like Jolie has the authority to tell such a grimly exotic tale in the first place. Might she be committing her own act of intrusion?

Jolie has, to her credit, chosen not to indulge in any flourishes that might distract from the admittedly grim material. Indeed, the film seems the product of meticulous study, careful negotiation, of almost self-effacing homework. The result has the solid gravity that its difficult subject demands, and with solid performances throughout, the film has reportedly brought local audiences to tears.

Ajla (Zana Marjanović) and Danijel (Goran Kostić) are the couple from the dancehall. She is an artist and a Bosnian Muslim, he a policeman and a Bosnian Serb, son of a fanatical army general (veteran Yugoslav actor Rade Šerbedžija). As the world of pre-war, multi-ethnic Sarajevo is undone, the descent into brutality is unerring. Ajla and her sister, Lejla, are taken to a prison camp. Danijel is the local Serb commander.

Now, Jolie introduces the trauma central to the film: the systematic rape of female prisoners by Serb guards, in public displays of sadism and night time amusements. There is a clinical sheen to these events, shocking enough to feel authentic but not so awful as to deter multiplex audiences.

Here, Danijel "saves" Ajla, claiming her as his "property". An uneasy, and frankly implausible relationship evolves, as Danijel draws the traumatised woman closer to him (she becomes "official" artist to the camp, sequestered away in a private studio), and he ever more paranoid, struggling to reconcile erotic and military tensions.

The moral questions are compelling: Is Danijel a "good" man or merely self-interested? In such terrible circumstances, does it matter? While he becomes a more well-rounded character, Ajla vacilates between raw fear and nervous attraction. "You are not a prisoner if you want to be here," Danijel intones, a loaded statement, whose implications were not fully explored.

This is unwieldy stuff, and the production and release of the film have proven agonising. Jolie enlisted the late U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, co-author of the Dayton Accords, as well as allowing her actors – all local – to contribute to the process.

Yet perhaps inevitably, reactions in Sarajevo have splintered, notably between women’s rights groups acting on behalf of the estimated 50,000 cases of war rape during the conflicts. Activist Bakira Hasečić of the Women Victims of War Association, for example, attacked the film, claiming the screenplay involved a Bosnian woman falling in love with her Serb rapist. As a result, the Bosnian culture minister denied Jolie permission to film in Bosnia. Other groups have supported it – including the 8,000-strong Association of Concentration Camp Survivors.

In the end, production had to be moved to Hungary and unease persists. While a crowd of 5,000 applauded through their tears in a premiere at Sarajevo Stadium in February, the film will not be screened at all in Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority state-within-a-state that constitutes more than half of Bosnia. Jolie and the cast are reported to have received death threats.

Given these difficulties, Jolie was perhaps wise to structure her film on the metaphorical fulcrum of Ajla and Danijel’s affair; yet this simplicity is, frustratingly, also the film’s great weakness. The divide between bestial, stock-villain Serbia and artistic, feminine Bosnia detracts from any real engagement with larger issues: the Ajla/Danijel’s axis requires too much elaboration as a psychodrama for anything truly "political" to emerge, beyond didactic lessons on war crimes that require no debate.

Still, in focusing on the plight of rape victims, Jolie has evoked an overlooked aspect of warfare. Conflicts are often perceived as battles between men, yet it is women who bear some of the most hideous symbolic and literal scars. The ugly power of rape as a metaphor goes without saying.

Jolie is a solid enough director, evoking involving performances from both Marjanović and Kostić. The military "action" scenes are handled with a deftness that veers on mannerism, a slow-motion violence that tends to distance the viewer. The dialogue is fine, marred only by clunky, history-lesson soundbites ("the United Nations has already sent peacekeepers to Croatia!") presumably for the American audience.

To return to that dancehall explosion that shatters our innocence: Who is Jolie trying to shake with this blast of a movie? The film has been shot in two versions, one in Bosnian, one in English; it follows that there are two audiences, at least, in mind. Whilst for Bosnian victims, the film may be offered as a cathartic, sympathetic reimagining, for Americans it may serve as a harsher chastisement for the deferral of intervention in the region until much irrevocable damage had already been done. Jolie is unsettling the American liberal consciousness, intruding on the unhappy secret that more might have been done to prevent Ajla and Lejla’s story.

At one point, Danijel’s repulsive father brushes aside his son’s concerns that the United Nations will attack Bosnian Serb forces. "They know we are the right partners… They need us. They won’t attack," he remarks.

Perhaps Jolie’s most unsettling insight is this implicit message: that demons such as these rapacious Serbs are a necessary evil, as much a part of our world and worldview as the victims, like Ajla, for whom we might like to think we stand.

Bosnia’s loss of innocence may also be ours.

Other articles from this issue