Angelina Jolie's directorial debut gets the Bosnian war right, but preaches its message clumsily.
You'd be forgiven for assuming that Angelina Jolie's directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, is pure Oscar bait. After all, the film, which takes place during the Bosnian conflict in the early 1990s, is standard Academy catnip: a historical, war-time drama helmed by Hollywood royalty. And it's getting plenty of media attention. Jolie has appeared on The Charlie Rose Show and Anderson to field questions about what it's like to go from hair and makeup to yelling "action!," and she was the subject of a glowing Newsweek cover story in December entitled "Angie Goes to War." During each stop on the film's publicity tour, Jolie—who also wrote and produced the film—has said the movie was a collaborative effort: The actors, who are natives of the Balkans, helped finalize the script based on their own experiences during the war. Given all this, it's reasonable to wonder whether Jolie is in the game for a Best Director nod at the Oscars, or at the very least for a lesser nomination (Best Song, perhaps?) for her film. (It is up for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes but doesn't qualify in that category with the Academy.)
The movie is right, of course: We waited far too long, despite evidence of atrocities, to intervene.
After seeing the film and Jolie's many plugs for it, I don't think she's doing any serious Oscar-baiting. Certainly, the reviews for her movie have been mixed enough that it hasn't shaped up to be much of a serious awards contender. Its controversial content (more on that later) has similarly been met with both praise and heavy criticism. But this doesn't mean In the Land of Blood and Honey isn't a baiting exercise of a different sort. Jolie told Charlie Rose of her film, "It's not a political movie, but it has politics in it." Nothing could be further from the truth. It was the most political film I saw in 2011—and paradoxically, this is at once its greatest strength and greatest weakness.
I went into the screening of the movie with low hopes. After spending time in the Balkans as a journalist a few years ago and following the region closely since, I was prepared for a Hollywood-ized story that hewed to a boiled-down version of the events of the Bosnian war while glossing over the more challenging aspects of the conflict. So I was surprised when the movie not only kept me interested, even inducing a gasp with a final plot twist, but also offered a relatively fair take on the brutal events of the '90s. (It said a lot that a friend of mine, a native of the Balkans and a film lover, leaned over several times to comment on things she thought the movie got right.)
To give a quick summary of the plot: Ajla (Zana Marjanović), a Bosnian Muslim artist, and Danijel (Goran Kostić), a Bosnian Serb police officer, are involved romantically before the war. After the conflict erupts, Ajla is rounded up with other Muslim women and taken to a camp where they quickly learn they will be raped-repeatedly-by Serb soldiers. Danijel, who happens to be an officer at the camp (and whose father is a Serb general), spots Ajla and tells the other soldiers to stay away from her, offering her some semblance of protection. The movie then tells the story of Danijel and Ajla's emotional and sexual relationship over the next several years, with the worsening war as a backdrop.
To be sure, according to the metrics used to measure any film, In the Land of Blood and Honey is imperfect. It's too long, plot points don't always cohere, and the characters can feel hollow. But Jolie was smart to cast local actors and to release the film in their native language. And although filmed mostly in Hungary due to controversy in Bosnia over its content, the movie both feels and looks authentic.
More important, however, are the stories it tells. The film doesn't shy away from rape, and rightly so: Tens of thousands of women were sexually assaulted during the Bosnian conflict, and in a landmark case in 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled that mass rape and sexual enslavement during war were crimes against humanity. (For an excellent account of the real women whose stories led to this ruling, watch the PBS documentary "I Came to Testify," which premiered this fall.) The movie's horrifying scenes of women being raped—or waiting, bruised, bloodied, and humiliated, in the camp for the next attackers to pick them—offer moving insight into an aspect of the war that is too often forgotten. Indeed, without Jolie's name, it's hard to imagine the topic might otherwise have gotten prime-time attention some 15 years after the conflict ended. (Case in point: There was another movie released in 2011 on the same subject—As If I Am Not There, based on Slavenka Drakulić's book of the same name—but it hasn't received a fraction of the buzz Jolie's film has garnered, despite being a formal submission to the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film.)