Most of us are extremely under-informed on the details of the Bosnian War thanks to the cursory western media coverage, and the mostly hands-off approach the United Nations took in responding to it. In the Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie’s writing/directorial debut, works to rectify that. And while it doesn’t shy away from exposing the atrocities of ethnic cleansing, genocide or the crimes against women that occurred, it does so through an intimate story rather than via an epic, calculated tale of war.
This is no place for a history lesson, and I would certainly not be the one to supply it if it were, but some basics are required to somewhat understand what’s going on. The reign of Yugoslavian President Tito lasted until his death in 1980. Although much criticism is directed his way, he was able to guide a society that allowed the co-existence of Bosniak Muslims, Croat Catholics and Orthodox Serbs (you might recall that in 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics). Not long after that, Yugoslavia splintered and the republics — Slovenia and Croatia — began skirmishes to take back land from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which ultimately escalated into a complicated, bloody civil war lasting from 1992 to 1995.
The film, however, focuses on two people: Danijel (Goran Kostic) and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic). They are dancing cozily in a nightclub when a bomb shatters their date and their lives. Danijel goes on to become a mid-level military leader for the Serbs, while Ajla, an artist, and her Muslim family and friends have their way of life ripped apart. Some are executed. Some are tortured. Ajla ends up as a prisoner at the camp Danijel commands. He manages to protect her from the brutal rapes orchestrated by soldiers in the camp by staking a claim on her and putting the order out that she is not to be touched.
Their earlier dance evolves into a personal war of wits, mistrust and psychological escape. Danijel is clearly not of the mindset to be a brutal killer, yet Ajla constantly observes his every movement and interprets even the slightest change in his approach to her and the war. She does what she needs to survive and he uses her as an escape from the atrocities of his day job. The end result of this relationship is both shocking and inevitable.
Danijel’s father, Nebojsa (Rade Serbedzija, “The Saint,” “Snatch”) is a senior level military leader who shows up in time to provide us with a brief history lesson dating back 600 years. He takes much pride in the Serbs ability to conquer and persevere. He is a powerful and frightening character, and we quickly understand why he doubts his son’s fortitude. The moment he finds out about Ajla, we are immediately hit with a feeling of overwhelming dread for her.
After the screening, the audience was fortunate enough to have a discussion panel sponsored by the World Affairs Council. One of the panel members was a former officer in the Bosnian Army who spent time in two separate concentration camps. Viewing In the Land of Blood and Honey was very emotional for him and he said it captured the realities as well as a movie possibly could. Of course, we should never lose sight of the fact that what we see on screen are not “real” bullets, not “real” rape, and not “real” blood.
To us, though, it seems real enough and Jolie, who has dedicated much of her time to humanitarian efforts, deserves a lot of credit. Even though this is technically her first time behind the scenes, she brings a mature, caring perspective to the movie, working diligently to tell a story that exposes the harsh realities of war and how humanity can dissolve into horror. It’s not a perfect film (it runs a bit long and suffers from a storytelling lapse or two), but capped by an understated and haunting Gabriel Yared score, the film is a brutal reminder that war is the ultimate sacrifice and punishment for real people and real families.