I finally managed to see In the Land of Blood and Honey, the directorial and writing debut of Angelina Jolie, and at our wonderful historic neighborhood cinema, the Avalon. There’s nothing like leaving home ten minutes before showtime and walking to an interesting film.
The potential for Jolie to screw this up was very high, and its to her great credit that the film she has written and directed is an excellent piece of work. The cinematic photography is professional and engaging; a few shots with digital backgrounds were too ‘enhanced’ (suggesting a video game) and didn’t look great next to the rest but the dark, ruined, decayed look brought a compelling aesthetic to the screen. Second, the acting is very very good, with the two main characters, and supporting actors, finding an emotional tenor and tone that brought depth to their characters. That can not have been easy. Third, the emotional relationships are also quite compelling and engaging. The war is not incidental but it is also not quite at the emotional heart of the film. The possibility of love and trust between two people who find themselves not only from opposing groups in a racist/ethnicist war but with radically different power positions is a brave subject to tackle. Writing that out required some emotional dexterity, maturity and insight into the dark corners of sexual relationships. Human relations of various kinds — mother-son, sister-sister, father-son, master-slave, lover-lover — are the universal dynamics it explores. Filling out the geopolitical context of the film without getting off kilter also is an achievement. Finally, the film does have what we expect from cinema, the ‘entertainment’ of kinetic action, suspense, sex, art as well as some twists and turns. Its ending is a bit dramatic, the scene before the UN soldiers, and perhaps unrealistic but its a film.
How true is it to the Bosnian war? Well those who know this history well will not recognize much in the characters just as those who know Bosnia will not recognize most of the locations. It travels from April 1992 to post-Srebrenica 1995 (interestingly mispronounced twice in a radio broadcast, perhaps deliberately in a nod to the butchering of local names that locals are all too familiar with). Its portrait of the Serbs is not deep but not inaccurate either in its voicing of myths of resistance against Turkish oppression, the real history of World War II massacres, and the proclivity of many to hold racist conceptions of Muslims. It is also not monolithic. Some Serb characters are given sympathetic backstories and many have depth. These are not cut-out evil characters. The portrait of the ARBiH is misleading in that it is cast as a resistance movement rather than a proper army. Easily the most interesting aspect of the film is its gendered perspective. This is a film that portrays the Bosnian war from the perspective of women and mothers. This is established early on with the two sisters and while the film moves beyond this at times, it comes back to the theme of patriarchal violence — not all of it men against women but also father against son — again in effective ways. Some aspects of the film, those concerning sexual violence against women, are shocking and deeply disturbing. Violence is always close to the surface, the VRS soldiers always capable of brutality and sadism. One doesn’t quite know how Daniele will behave at all times just as one doesn’t quite know if Anja really loves him or not. The scene suggesting a Srebrenica style massacre is hardly satisfactory but what could do justice to that horror?
In summary, this is a surprisingly strong film and I hope it garners a wide audience and some awards for the actors. Congratulations to those involved in the film for producing something of genuine artistic worth. That’s not common so its worth noting when it happens.