Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Angelina Jolie’s ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’

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Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, is difficult to watch. Difficult to watch in the sense that, here in the UK, it hasn’t been released, and there doesn’t appear to be any information about when or where it will be – certainly not on the movie’s official website, nor in any of the reviews that have appeared in UK newspapers. I spent the first three days of this week in Washington DC, where I found that the film was no longer playing in that city either, and that Amazon.com would not sell me the download since my debit card had a UK address. I have now managed to see the film – unfortunately, only the English-language version – via a link posted by a friend on Facebook.

In the Land of Blood and Honey‘s unavailability for viewing is odd, considering the widespread publicity it has received, the controversy that has surrounded it and the fame and popularity of the director. But not odd, when you consider that it violates just about every principle of Hollywood film-making, and that if everyone as famous as Jolie were to make their films like this, it would amount to a global cultural revolution. It is difficult to express just how surprising it is to watch a film about an inter-ethnic love story in time of conflict that makes no concession to either cinematic or romantic cliche. Apparently, mainstream global audiences can only be fed films like Dances with Wolves, involving the standard American hero and almost complete absence of ambiguity or nuance; or Monster’s Ball, involving a boringly predictable romance for which themes of racism are mere window-dressing; or Avatar, with its vomit-inducing, patronising liberal gushing over imagined noble savages.

In the Land of Blood and Honey is not like any of these. The film centres on a relationship, in a Serb concentration-camp during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, between a Bosniak woman-prisoner and a Serb military captain. This much is known to anyone who has followed the controversy surrounding the film, whose production in Bosnia was halted for a while due to local complaints that it romanticised the relationship between Serb rapists and Bosniak women prisoners. In fact – and this review contains no spoilers – the relationship portrayed here is not the cliche of true love in the face of adversity. Nor is it lurid, pornographic or sado-masochistic. In fact, it is convincing in its portrayal of what such a relationship in such circumstances might actually be like, involving as it does a fledgling romance that was interrupted by the outbreak of war, then resumed under very different circumstances in the concentration camp. The film brutally portrays the enforced tension between, on the one hand, the genuine attraction and emotional affinity between the two main characters, Ajla and Danijel – portrayed respectively by Zana Marjanovic and Goran Kostic –  and the obscene imbalance of power between them. The relationship is alternately, indeed simultaneously touching and menacing. Whereas Ajla’s attraction to Danijel is unambiguous, her sexual consent is not; the genuine tenderness of the love scenes occurs only in the context of her absolute lack of choice in the matter and terrifying dependency on him for her survival. Meanwhile, the conflicted, unstable Danijel veers between chivalry and brutality, keeping the viewer guessing right to the last minute as to how the love-story and the film will end.

Jolie has avoided the annoying habit of Hollywood movies – and indeed movies generally – of sparing audiences uncomfortable ethical confusion by making the involved rights and wrongs safely black-and-white, so that heroes are implausibly noble and villains implausibly wicked. Neither has she spared the audience anything, in terms of depicting the horrors of the Bosnian war; the systematic rape, killing and humiliation of Bosniaks are vividly shown. Nor does her heroine, Ajla, get off lightly (in the long-established tradition epitomised by Captain Kirk, who is always spared serious violence or humiliation no matter how many expendable officers of the USS Enterprise are bumped off on strange planets). This is taut, harrowing viewing, made all the more so by the plot’s sheer unpredictability.

Nor, however, are the horrors and violence portrayed here of the comic-book, caricatured variety. Inevitably, this film has come under fire from the Great Serb, genocide-denying lobby for supposedly being ‘anti-Serb’, and portraying ‘the Serbs’ as monsters. Well, it is ‘anti-Serb’ in the same way that films like Schindler’s List or The Pianist are ‘anti-German’. In fact, Danijel is far from an unambiguous villain in the vein of Amon Goeth, the psychopathic camp-commander in Schindler’s List, who also falls in love with one of his camp inmates. Nor is he a noble, romantic hero trapped on the wrong side of a conflict – far from it. The ambiguity of his character is one of the film’s great strengths; the emotional and ethical dilemmas he faces convey realistically the dilemma faced by many ordinary Serbs who were not a priori extreme nationalists or Muslim-haters, but became complicit in the genocide nonetheless. But because he is the protagonist of the film, the viewer, too, becomes complicit in the dilemmas and ambiguities surrounding him; when he goes into battle with Bosnian Army soldiers, our sympathies are divided. We do not know whether he can or should trust Ajla, or more to the point, whether she should trust and be loyal to him. The thin line between closeness and enmity across the ethnic and military divide that forms the theme of many films about the Bosnian war – No Man’s Land, Lepa sela lepo gore – has never been more harshly depicted than it is here.

Likewise, the cruelty of the Serb soldiers and guards is portrayed graphically but realistically – in a manner that compares favourably, for example, with the caricatured evil of the Vietcong guerrillas in The Deer Hunter, or of the IRA guerrillas in The Crying Game. The realism of this portrayal is more comparable to that of the portrayal of Italian-American mafiosi in The Sopranos, or of high-ranking Nazis in Downfall or in Conspiracy – evil neither caricatured nor prettified, but humanised.

In fact, one of the strengths of Jolie’s film is that it portrays the cruelty of the Serb soldiers and guards not as stemming from any supposed inherent wickedness of Serbs as people, but rather from the systematic, institutionalised policy of persecution and killing that actually took place; she shows that this was an organised genocide. Furthermore, without any pretence of moral equivalency between Serb perpetrators and Bosniak victims, the film nevertheless permits the Serb ethnic-cleansers to present their own viewpoint – above all through the mouth of Danijel’s father, General Nebojsa Vukojevic, portrayed by the veteran Croatian Serb actor Rade Serbedzija.

Herein lies one of the film’s few – minor – flaws: though Serbedzija’s performance, like those of the other stars, is excellent, a couple of the little speeches his character gives that serve to illustrate the Serb-nationalist viewpoint sound somewhat unrealistic. Thus, early in the film, General Vukojevic tells his son of the Serbs’ historic heroism in resisting and defeating first the Ottomans, then the Austro-Hungarians, then the Nazis – it is part of the nationalist-historical catechism that Serbs are indeed likely to relate to Western visitors, but a general would be unlikely to feel the need to tell something so elementary to a captain. Likewise, toward the end of the film, General Vukojevic tells his troops that they will, like Prince Lazar – the legendary Serb hero of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo – reject the earthly kingdom in favour of the heavenly kingdom, and refuse to negotiate their own climb-down with the international community; though this self-destructive, bloody-minded mentality has indeed been a characteristic of contemporary Serb nationalism, it is unlikely that a Serb general would have vocalised it quite so explicitly.

Another wrong note is struck by the church building that appears toward the end of the film; actually located in Budapest, where much of the filming occurred, it looks out of place in Bosnia. Finally, in the English-language version of the film at least, there simply isn’t enough swearing to make the dialogue sound entirely authentic.

That said, Jolie clearly bothered to study the war properly, and avoids the cliches about it as successfully as she avoids general cinematic cliches. So the film is not patronising; it does not depict Bosnia, its people or its war – as is so often the case in Western portrayals – as colourful but ridiculous; they are not seen through the eyes of some well-meaning but ignorant and self-important foreign visitor. Indeed, it is refreshing to watch a film about Bosnia in which there are no Western or international characters whatsoever.

As indicated above, In the Land of Blood and Honey has fallen afoul both of Bosniaks who wrongly jumped to the conclusion that it was misrepresenting or sanitising the Serb forces’ rape and ethnic cleansing, and of Serb nationalists who have equally wrongly labelled it as ‘anti-Serb’. But perhaps the most powerful constituency that it has offended is the smug, sexist constituency that feels threatened by the possibility that a young, attractive female superstar might produce a film so intelligent, hard-hitting and technically near-flawless. Well, she has. This is a splendid film; possibly the best yet made about the Bosnian war. It should be watched and appreciated even by those not specially interested in the subject.

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Saturday, 3 March 2012 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Marko Attila Hoare, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Angelina Jolie’s Bosnian imbroglio

Angelina Jolie is among the most intelligent and politically aware of Hollywood actresses; her humanitarian campaigning has taken her all over the world, and she has a particular interest in the plight of refugees. It would seem appropriate, therefore, that her directorial debut will be a film set during the Bosnian war, with Bosnian actors and actresses playing several of the leading roles (as well as, apparently, the famous Croatian Hollywood actor Rade Serbedzija). For all the publicity that the Bosnian war received, it is often forgotten that Bosnia effectively lost the war, and that the Bosnian state remains crippled to this day by its outcome; its people still suffering from the effects of an unjust peace settlement. One would think that one of the world’s most famous actresses showing such an interest in the country would be something warmly received by its people.

Yet Jolie has had to overcome a degree of unfounded hostility and suspicion before being allowed to film in Bosnia. Her permit to film was initially revoked by the minister of culture in the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Gavrilo Grahovac, formally on the grounds that she had failed to submit a copy of the script to the ministry. This came, however, after complaints about the film from Women Victims of War, an organisation representing wartime rape victims, which claimed to have learned that the storyline involved a Muslim rape-victim falling in love with a Serb rapist. The organisation’s president Bakira Hasecic, herself a rape victim, said that such a storyline would be an ‘an outrageous and humiliating misrepresentation of our ordeal’.

However, neither Hasecic nor any member of her organisation had actually read the script, and it was suggested that the rumour may have originated with TV Pink, a Serbian television network formerly associated with Slobodan Milosevic’s wife Mira Markovic. TV Pink’s owner Zeljko Mitrovic was already reported to have been hostile to Jolie’s film project on the grounds that it was ‘biased against Serbs’, and some Bosnian officials have been horrified that such a source should have led the country to snub Jolie. Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, minister of culture minister of the Sarajevo Canton and himself a famous actor, asked ‘Is this how we thank Angelina Jolie… for treating a Bosnian tragedy that has already been forgotten by the world… for hiring five or six Bosnian actors in her movie?’ He also said that it was ‘grotesque that the owner of a television network that was created with Milosevic’s financial backing was now concerned about the dignity of Bosnian women who were victims of war.’ Hadzihafizbegovic made clear that he was ‘going to give a shooting permit even if they have to arrest me.’

Grahovac told Bosnian radio ‘They no longer have the authorisation to shoot in Bosnia. They will have it if they send us the script with a story which will be different from what we have been told by people who read it.’ This amounted to a grave infringement on freedom of expression, as the prominent anti-nationalist Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic made clear: ‘In this case we are dealing with censorship, which is unacceptable coming from the minister of culture, whom reports quoted as saying that he would ban shooting of that movie anywhere, not just in Bosnia, because the movie offends the feelings of victims… Such an important decision was based on rumours.’

Jolie, for her part, urged the Bosnians not to succumb to ‘unfair pressure based on wrong information’. As she said, ‘The choice to make a film about this area and set in this time in history was also to remind people of what happened not so long ago and to give attention to the survivors of the war.’ She added that she would like to talk with representatives of the rape victims’ association ‘to personally clear up any misunderstandings about this project.’ Eventually, permission for Jolie to film was reinstated, but only after her production had been treated in a manner that bordered on harassment. In the words of the film’s Bosnian producer, Edin Sarkic, ‘At no other place in the world they would ask for the script. One is required to give a synopsis, not a script.’ There remains the possibility that the filming may be disrupted by protests.

The whole affair represents a minor disgrace for patriotic Bosnians; a pathetic attempt at censorship inspired by unfounded rumour that only illustrates the unserious character of the Bosnian state and its officials, and their whimsical approach to both procedure and freedom of expression. While one may sympathise with the feelings of Hasecic and the members of her organisation, a democratic state has no business suppressing a film just because they deem it to be politically incorrect. As far back as 1974, it was possible for the film ‘The Night Porter’, starring Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde, to be shown in Western cinemas; it was a story of a consensual sadomasochistic relationship between a former Nazi SS guard and a former female camp inmate he had previously abused during the war. It was controversial, but it was not censored.

The struggle for Bosnia is far from over; there are indications that the conflict there may heat up again in the near future. Currently, it is the government in Republika Srpska that is pursuing a clever, sustained campaign to win foreign support. This is not a time for Bosnia to be alienating its friends.

Visiting refugees in East Bosnia with partner Brad Pitt

Meeting Bosnian presidency member Haris Silajdzic.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Marko Attila Hoare, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments