Does Angelina Jolie Owe Bosnia More Than Blood and Honey?

Angelina Jolie’s new film In the Land of Blood and Honey is set in Sarjevo, during the Bosnian War that raged between 1992 and 1995. After seeing only the trailer for the film, which will be Jolie’s directorial debut, many critics have already slated it as an Academy Award winner.

“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,” Jolie stated about the film, which she also wrote. “The film is specific to the Bosnian War, but it’s also universal. I wanted to tell a story of how human relationships and behavior are deeply affected by living inside a war”.

When making a movie about so recent and so misunderstood a topic as the ethnic wars that ripped apart Eastern Europe after the fall of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, what, if any, is the filmmaker’s responsibility? Does a Bosnian War movie need to have an artistic function? Is it necessary that In the Land of Blood and Honey educate viewers on the horrors of that specific war?

If art should really be made for art’s sake – and therefore not for politic’s sake – than is In the Land of Blood and Honey art? Or is it something else?

Movies have a unique place in popular culture. They can be high-art, low-art, educational (documentaries especially), political or propagandizing. They can be remade and revamped. But many people (such as those who write film criticism) take movies too seriously. Most of the time there is no social, philosophical or historical importance to a movie. The principal point of movies is to entertain. And that’s good.

Angelina Jolie doesn’t need to teach anyone anything. She made a movie set in Bosnia like Sleepless in Seattle is set in Seattle and The Lord of the Rings is set in Middle Earth. Black Hawk Down takes place in Mogadishu, and while it’s a true story, Ridley Scott didn’t have a responsibility to present to viewers how a failed state fractured the country of Somalia, opening a void that was soon filled by a religious paramilitary rebel group called al-Shabab, and eventually, ten years later, that failed state allowed a drought to turn into a famine, and a famine into the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. That’s all there if you know where to find it, but Scott’s only responsibility was to make a gripping war movie, in which he succeeded.

The import of Jolie’s movie has already been both praised and questioned, and has been for at least a year before its release. So why all the hubbub anew about In the Land of Blood and Honey?

The most commendable aspects of Jolie’s filmmaking were actually the source of most of the film’s controversy. In a quest for authenticity, Jolie filmed on location and with local actors. Normally, this would be a brave and artistically sound choice. In the vein of the great Italian Neorealist directors like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, Jolie uses these techniques to make the film more real, which is imperative if In The Land of Blood and Honey is to be more than just a box-office success.

In addition to an English version of the film, Jolie is also releasing a version in Serbo-Croatian. This commitment to the subject matter and the people involved shows that the movie isn’t meant to exploit a tragedy in the name of profit.

The Bosnian War officially ended 15 years ago. Only the youngest generation of Serbs and Bosnians don’t carry the scar of a war that killed 100,000 people, pitted neighbor against neighbor, and displaced millions. Even after the war officially ended in 1995, violence continued at the hands of Slobodan Milošević, who kept the unofficial war going until 1999.

There’s still tension between Serbia and Kosovo to this day. Up until a few months ago, some of the most violent and evil war criminals were still freely living in Serbia and Bosnia. Now, the war’s former generals and politicos – people like Ratko Mladić, Goran Hadžić and Radovan Karadžić, who perpetrated the worst atrocities in modern history in the name of nationalism and ethnic purity – are now at The Hague, but many have yet to be tried and justice won’t come for another three years, when the mandate for the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia expires in 2014. Is it a surprise that a rich, white woman waving a Hollywood love story in the faces of people whose whole families were murdered would make those same people angry?

Still from In the Land of Blood and Honey

The Italian Neorealists were looking at an Italy in flux, watching the country as it changed. But the Bosnia War is over and the nations and the peoples that once made up Yugoslavia have already been changed irreparably. Ironically, if Jolie had just made a Bosnian War movie on a Hollywood sound stage, and lost authenticity, there would have been fewer problems.

Things went from ethically challenging to physically challenging for Jolie when a rumor spread around Bosnia last year that the movie was about a Bosniak Muslim woman who falls in love with the Serbian soldier who rapes her. A group called Association of Women, Victims of War petitioned Sarajevo’s culture minister Gavrilo Grahovac to revoke Jolie’s film permit, which he did, without even looking at a script.

Jolie was understandably upset, but it seems that she didn’t quite understand Grahovac’s decision. She said in a statement that it was a shame that “unfair pressure based on wrong information” stalled filming, adding “my hope is that people will hold judgment until they have seen the film”.

Yet, while the movie’s protagonist isn’t actually a rapist, he does apparently work as a guard at a rape camp. Somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped during the Bosnian War. Only 12 of those cases have been brought to justice. Thousands of women, on all sides of the conflict, were rounded up and locked in houses that were essentially torture chambers.

“The wars in the Balkans saw the rise of rape camps, places where women were kept under guard and repeatedly abused by Serbian paramilitary forces,” writes Chris Hedges, a journalist who covered the wars in the Balkans, in his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. “When this became boring – for perverse sex, like killing, must constantly entail the new and bizarre – the women were mutilated and killed, reportedly on video”.

To those thousands of victims, Jolie’s movie is a facsimile of those rape videos, again made to entertain others, presumably perverse westerners. For the members of the Association of Women, Victims of War, In the Land of Blood and Honey is literally too close to home.

Still, is the realism worth it? The atrocities of the Balkans conflicts aren’t well known to much of the film’s audience. Hedges claims that “the United States and the West based our responses in Bosnia… on myths,” an idea that has been echoed by philosophers from the former-Yugoslavia such as Slavoj Zizek, who says that “Europe projects all its dirty secrets” onto the Balkan Wars of the ’90s. It’s a part of human history that is misunderstood, mythologized and has, so far, been poorly represented by international cinema.

If Jolie’s movie indeed portrays an accurate yet difficult truth, than there is nothing morally wrong with In the Land of Blood and Honey. These crimes need to be told to the world. A lesson can and must be learned. And, as a work of art, what does it matter if it offends? An artist cannot and should not try to please everyone, especially with a story that hasn’t been told.

It comes back to the question of responsibility. What’s the point of Jolie’s movie? As a work of realism, the more she shocks and offends the better. As a piece of entertainment, the only responsibility she has is to make it as entertaining as possible within the confines of the story and of history. If setting it in a rape camp makes it more compelling, then that would be the right choice. If it doesn’t, than it is a superfluous – and ultimately exploitative – choice.

But Angelina Jolie, the humanitarian, the United Nations Ambassador, the philanthropist, the artist, clearly wants to transcend pure entertainment. She earnestly picked In the Land of Blood and Honey for her directorial debut. It’s more than just an artistic challenge and an ambitious risk.

Nonetheless, the wounds might be too fresh. World War II movies and Holocaust movies don’t face the same challenges, because time has past. There are still surviving concentration camp prisoners and guards, but the years have provided an artistic buffer. Jolie isn’t so fortunate. Because of that, and because she is an outsider and not a Serbian or Bosnian artist who suffered along with the country, Jolie is responsible for educating In the Land of Blood and Honey’s Western audience about the atrocities of the war.

Because Jolie worked so hard to preserve authenticity, the film is required to dispel the Balkan myth. If it doesn’t, then Jolie will have failed.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.