[22 December 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“This song is for lovers,” announces a singer at a Bosnian club. And as his band begins to play, dancers on the crowded floor move close to one and begin to sway, including Ajla (Zana Marjanović) and Danijel (Goran Kostić). In this first scene of In the Land of Blood and Honey, you don’t know yet that she’s a painter and he’s a policeman (though you might guess, as he’s wearing his uniform). As the camera pushes in and then around them, they’re isolated amid the music and other couples, made special and also clichéd.
And then an explosion rips through the club wall. Ajla and Danijel fall forward and out of frame, which erupts into flames and thick smoke. In the next moment, he’s directing his men to close off the area and search for culprits, she’s tending to her injured sister.
As these would-be lovers are launched into the Bosnian war in 1992, Angelina Jolie’s film is launched into a series of irresolvable conflicts. Most obviously, Ajla is Muslim and Danijel is Serb, and so caught up in Romeo and Juliet-like tragedy, only much, much darker, beginning with Ajla’s internment at a rape camp where Danijel is in command. More insidiously, the movie is caught up in representational tensions, where characters awkwardly embody moral and ideological positions. This amid explicit images of rape, murder, and torture, images that make clear that war is irrational and hellish, and also that it’s imagined and wrought by individuals, not faceless and not always thoughtless.
This depiction of how war is made is upsetting in particular ways, and to its credit, the film offers none of the usual heroic actions or assertions of patriotic glory so familiar in most war movies. The music here is spare, and sad and ominous, the shots of vicious (or apparently nonchalant) violence and, especially, rape, are difficult to see.
During the first rape scene, a soldier makes a show of a woman prisoner who has offered her services as a seamstress. “Can you fuck?” he taunts her, throwing her over a table and taking her from behind as her fellow rape camp inmates realize what they’re in for. The assailant looks out at Ajla and the other women and the camera cuts from the rape to their faces, eyes closed or averted (as your gaze has also been) but still hearing her cries and the sounds of the assault. This is what the movie does well: it makes the war—the rapes being an essential tactic and practice—hard to watch, and to know what you’re not seeing at a particular moment.
This again when Danijel appears on this same scene just as Ajla is laid onto the table: he asserts that he’ll “do this one,” then leans over her: in close-up, you see him whisper into her ear a phrase from their night in the club, when they dreamed of being lovers, “Are you hiding something from me?” She was and will always have to hide something from this monster, as much as he thinks himself not one, and so the film goes on to entangle their lives, her survival and his power, in a series of scenes where he might be genuinely confused about what he wants and who he is.
One evening, he has her delivered into his room: as she watches, horrified, he bares what seems to be his soul, recalling how that afternoon he was aiming at a Muslim—as the Serb soldiers are instructed to do daily, stand on bridges or other high points and pick off civilians as they look for food or scurry through seemingly empty spaces—and he tells her he thought, “Would she thank me if I spared this man’s life?” he picks up his rifle and holds it on her as she remains silent. It’s a harrowing moment and you can only imagine her abjection and her fear, but it doesn’t make it easier to understand how she understands herself in later scenes, returning to his room at the rape camp on subsequent nights, submitting to him in frames that are soft-lit rather than brutal.
Such imagery suggest how both Ajla and Danijel might perceive themselves, as lovers rather than abuser and victim. But their circumstances dictate otherwise: they can never make sense as a romance, as a couple of individuals. They are framed by history, as emblems, as impossibilities. This much is made dreadfully clear some time later, when Danijel’s father, a famous general named Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Šerbedžija), learns that his son is “keeping his Muslim whore” in a room at yet another camp. Nebojsa arrives in her room (where she has a white-sheeted bed for her nights with Danijel and an easel so she might create and recreate his portrait) and demands that she paint him. As she works, her hand trembling nearly uncontrollably, the father tells the story of his own mother and siblings, massacred by Muslims.
Though she points out that she is of mixed heritage, that during those times when Bosnians think of themselves as such, and not as Turks and Serbs, the division he describes is uncertain rather than definitional. He nods, exits, and sends in a minion to rape her, an act that Danijel first reads as her “choice,” as his nights with her have also been her “choice.” “What have you done?” he cries as he straddles and strangles her. “It was your father,” she explains.
War is, of course, always a matter of fathers, and mothers, and sisters and brothers too, a matter of payback and money, remembering and forgetting. Families must avenge themselves, enemies must be dealt with, and reconciliation remains unthinkable. From the confines her room, removed from her sister (Vanesa Glodjo) and community, Ajla watches soldiers who look up at her and whisper, and listens to their radios, with news of the UN peacekeeping mission (restricted from interfering with the genocide) and the US refusal to get involved (Ajla overhears a report of former Secretary of State James Baker’s famous assessment, “We don’t have a dog in that hunt”). The outside world remains far outside, and that is, the film asserts, its enduring shame.
Ajla’s confinement and desolation, her powerlessness, stand in for the Muslims’ situation in the war, just as Danijel’s abuses, his misreadings, and his torment concerning his father’s expectations, incarnate the Serbs’. But these massive representational burdens weigh down the film: the plot turns unwieldy and individuals become unpersuasive. As soon as you hear that Ajla’s sister, a young mother, is venturing out for supplies, you anticipate the cost she’ll pay, and when you learn that a soldier (Nikola Djuricko) is an expectant father, you know what will happen).
This burden, a result of the film doing too much, is costly. It distracts from what’s right about the movie, its insistent evocation of the daily terrors of war, bodies in the street, troops shooting as they drive by, as well as details of life in wartime, brief yearnings for simple pleasures, a pear or a steak. And yet, even as these details suggest people live here, amid vivid atrocities, as victims’ bruised limbs and bloodied faces and broken bodies fill frame after frame, In the Land of Blood and Honey becomes impossible in its own way.