The Unsubtle Politics of 'In the Land of Blood and Honey'

Angelina Jolie's directorial debut gets the Bosnian war right, but preaches its message clumsily.

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Film District

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.)

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.)

The most disturbing sexual encounters, however, might be those between Danijel and Ajla. They are, the movie tells us, consensual, but Ajla is technically Danijel's captive, so the scenes possess an alarming undertone of shock, vulnerability, and foreboding. Does Ajla love Danijel, or is she unable to reject his affection (if it can be called that at all) because she fears what might happen if she does? Does Danijel love Ajla, or does she symbolize proof, which he craves, that he has not lost his humanity? In one particularly harrowing scene, a conflicted and angry Danijel has sex with Ajla after tying her to her bed and asking if he can trust her, further blurring the line between rape and consent. Afterward, he utters the (somewhat unnecessary) line, "Why couldn't you have been born a Serb?" It is clear that Danijel and Ajla's relationship is meant to represent a perverse reality of the Bosnian war: that it pitted neighbors against neighbors, confused loyalties, and destroyed trust.

Its willingness to challenge viewers with difficult scenes and character interactions stemming from the tragic truths of the Bosnian conflict is where the film is at its political best. This isn't to say it doesn't emotionally stack the deck by being selective in the history it portrays, presumably for dramatic effect or the sake of scope. Namely, the Serb soldiers are portrayed as the lone bad guys in the conflict (with some gestures toward humanization, like mentioning their families). As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has noted, although Serbs committed the vast majority of war crimes--in addition to mass rape, for example, there was the use of human shields and the genocide of Muslim men, both of which the movie shows or alludes to--the ICTY has also convicted Muslims. The same goes for Croats, who are more or less left out of the movie.

Yet the movie's main problem isn't historical. Rather, it comes about when Jolie climbs onto a bully pulpit to chastise the West for its years of inaction in the Balkans. The movie is right, of course: We waited far too long, despite evidence of atrocities, to intervene. (For a full telling of how this happened, see Samantha Power's A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide.) However, the film often crosses the line from letting this story unfold to preaching its moral lessons. Consider, for instance, a conversation between Danijel and his father (veteran Serbian actor Rade Šerbedžija), who seems to exist largely for the purpose of reminding audiences of the sort of enemy the West saw but ignored:

Danijel: You think the rest of the world will ignore all this? I don't. The U.N. has already sent peacekeepers to Croatia. They will not turn their backs on all this.

General Vukojević : Of course they see everything, but they will not attack us. They won't do anything. And they know we are the right partners for negotiations. They need us. They will not attack us. Bolster your men and finish cleansing this area.

This sort of emblematic dialogue crops up several times. In another instance, Danijel and Ajla discuss the crimes being committed in the war:

Ajla: Are we so terrible that we should be exterminated?

Danijel: It's politics, not murder.

Ajla: It's murder for political gain.

As Jolie told Charlie Rose, "You should be sitting in your seat thinking, 'Will somebody please stop this?'" While an admirable goal for the film, it could have been achieved with a much lighter touch. I wouldn't go nearly as far as the Village Voice's Karina Longworth, who called the film "a United Nations extra-credit project" (a reference to Jolie's work as a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador), but a lot of what is good and right about the film and its political bent is marred by Jolie's heavy-handedness in delivering her message. In the end, the movie ends up feeling like a work of activism as much as—or possibly more than—a work of art.

Jolie seems genuine in her commitment both to filmmaking and to shining a light on the suffering of those in conflict. But In the Land of Blood and Honey would have been a much more effective film if she hadn't so explicitly combined her two roles. In creating art that is a voice for the voiceless, she would do well to let her work speak for itself.