Who could believe that one of the most famous and beautiful stars of world cinema was capable of making one of the most impressive testimonies of the war in Bosnia!
I certainly couldn’t, nor many Bosnians who witnessed or were even victims of some of the worst carnage of the 20th century. But she, Angelina Jolie, did it. Her film “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” although dealing with the intimate human feelings of love and hatred, magnificently embodies the historical environment the story was set in.
If one of the main tasks of art is to make a fictional picture as close as possible to the real world -- meaning also to the truth -- she did it. And if the art of film -- which is not only for leisure but also a very influential and powerful tool in culture, education and propaganda -- carries a message aimed at bringing about a better understanding and reconciliation between peoples in a complicated dispute, she did that as well. In short, the movie tells the story of Danijel (Goran Kostic), a soldier fighting in the Bosnian Serb army, and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Bosnian Muslim who wants to become a painter. They start a promising romance on the eve of the war in Bosnia, in the spring of 1992. A few months later, Ajla is among a group of women held captive and forced to be sex slaves for the Bosnian Serb soldiers. It so happens that she is brought to a camp Danijel oversees. He bends her over a table, pretending to rape her, and a new tense and forceful connection starts between them. The story is closely interwoven with its backdrop -- the war, its causes, its atrocities and particularly the cruelty and extreme humiliation the women were exposed to.
Most of the around 5,000 attendees at the film’s premiere in Sarajevo last week watched the film more tearfully than cheerfully, together with its director and scenarist, who could not hide her tears as well. Many of them said afterwards, “That’s exactly how it was!” Murat Tahirovic, the head of the Prisoners of War Association, said Jolie had “really succeeded in telling the story of the whole war -- mass executions, rapes, human shields and all the other horrors.”
The popular French philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy, who took part in presenting the premiere in Paris, said, “That film, first of all, rings unbelievably true.” He deserves to say that because he was one of the most frequent foreign visitors to Bosnia during the war and made his own documentary film, “Bosna!,” in its midst in 1994. Christiane Amanpour, who became a global TV star after reporting on the war in Bosnia, called the movie “remarkable and courageous.”
A film that ‘rings unbelievably true’
The truth about what happened in Bosnia alone is the first value that makes this movie more remarkable, efficacious and controversial than a piece of film art. The truth has been acknowledged in the findings and verdicts of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The main actors responsible for the war have been brought to its prison, and some of them have already died there. However, a great majority of Serbs from Serbia and almost half of Bosnia still do not recognize the truth, because they have their own -- that everybody else but them was responsible and guilty. They simply do not want to see the film, accusing in advance its author of distorting their narrow historical view.
Only 12, literally 12 people, came to a Belgrade movie theater to see the movie. Three of them left before the end, garnishing their comments by curses. More people are believed to have found ways to see it in Serbia, and a Bosnian Serb woman was brave enough to announce on Facebook that she has screened its “premiere” in her small apartment. I doubt the movie would ever be shown in Russian cinemas as well because most Russians still consider as heroes those Serbs who committed war crimes and genocide in Bosnia.
Responding to claims that she was not neutral and that her film was not balanced, Jolie stated: “The war was not balanced. I can’t understand people who are looking for a balance that did not exist. There are some people who don’t want to be reminded of these things, some even who deny that these things even happened.” Furthermore, she chose most of the actors from among Bosnians of different ethnicity and religion, who did have similar destinies in the real war, and that gave the film particular emotional force.
The timing of the movie’s release is also significant. As Jews quite rightly remind the world of the Holocaust on every occasion, the war and genocide in Bosnia deserve to be remembered as well, at least as a warning for future generations. This was done through film a decade ago by the Bosnian author Danis Tanovic. In addition to 40 other awards, he also won the Oscar for his movie “No Man’s Land.” Jolie’s intention now was also to remind the world of the worst war crimes and atrocities that took place in Europe after World War II, but it also comes at a time when Bosnian Serb leaders not only deny the Srebrenica genocide -- which has been declared so by The Hague tribunal -- but also continue to challenge the very existence of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A film can’t do everything, of course, but it can revive focus on Bosnia, especially of those in the so-called international community, and before all the United States administration, which did not stop the war in Bosnia in time and which should use more decisively its commitment to prevent its further destabilization. I remember a story of how Hillary Clinton, the first lady at the time, handed her husband President Bill Clinton a book on the Balkans that helped him better understand the human side of the Bosnian war and to perhaps decide, late as it may have been, on NATO intervention. However marginally, Jolie’s film may also have the same effect. President Barack Obama, receiving Jolie and the lead actress Marjanovic, carefully listened to their “concerns about some things going on” in Bosnia.
“The movie is about universal topics -- conflict, torture, violence of women, and the response of society. This movie is not judgmental, it is not anti-Serbian,” Jolie said. “I believe that its core issue -- which is the need for intervention and need for the world to care about atrocities when they are happening -- is very, very timely and especially with things that are happening in Syria today.” A Hollywood star speaking about the uprising in Syria might seem strange to those who don’t know that she already visited Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime in Altınözü camp in the Turkish province of Hatay last June. Earlier, she had the courage to visit the Libyan rebels fighting against Gaddafi in Misrata, the Afghan village of Qala Gadu north of Kabul, and poor Baghdad suburbs.
In one decade she visited more than 30 countries as the UN Refugee Agency goodwill ambassador. Together with her partner, Brad Pitt, she has donated $5 million for different UN operations. Jolie, in fact, has elevated herself much higher than one can imagine an American movie star was capable of. From her first visit to Cambodia, as a child, she has been learning in the field, so to speak, about human suffering in war-torn areas, until she was finally able to conclude, “I have a real view of the real world.” After visiting Bosnia and learning about its still unhealed wounds from the war that took place two decades ago, she decided to make her own film, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” in which she summarized all these experiences and feelings she has been harboring deeply in her mind and heart.
Jolie’s intentions and sincerity
After seeing her artistic expression on the awareness of those horrific and dehumanizing events, who could have any doubts about her intentions and sincerity? She was especially touched by the tragedy of the Bosnian women who were used as sex slaves by Bosnian Serbs. She expressed it through the developing of a very delicate relationship between the film’s leading “heroes,” Ajla and Daniel, which was not a love story, as many wrongly thought before even watching the film. Under such an impression, Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) women NGOs pressured the minister of culture to rescind the movie’s filming permit in Bosnia.
Jolie showed her intention was to make a story that is the exact opposite of Romeo and Juliet. “It is not a love story, it is a love story that could have been,” she said. For Ajla, the tenuous love she had for Daniel was shattered by war. As Daniel Tovrov said in his critique, which was for me the best among many I’ve read, “Love is destroyed by rape,” which was institutionalized by Bosnian Serb warlords. Tens of thousands of women and girls, some 12 years old, were taken to camps and places where they have been systematically forced to serve soldiers “in every sense of the word.” Tavrov stresses that just that “rape story” is the most important part of “In the Land of Blood and Honey.”
“We cannot stand to see the horrors of Bosnia unfold again. We have been taught an important lesson, witnessed an unimaginable truth,” he said, using almost the same words that were uttered by philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy after watching the movie in Paris. Being informed of how the crowd in Sarajevo’s Olympic Stadium Zetra was watching the film “between tears and cheering,” Levy, from whom I borrowed my headline, wrote: “It is normal. Consider the violated women who have remained silent for the past 20 years. The children of those rapes, who are now becoming adults, who have born their genetic burden like a disgrace. Consider this Bosnian society that beheld, there, its most painful secret. Here is, suddenly, a great actress, and a great lady as well, who has used her prestige so that, for the first time, they might be allowed to raise their downcast heads.”
To conclude with a note: While completing this review on Sunday evening, I found in Today’s Zaman an excellent article titled “Can the arts put an end to wars,” in which Marion James also uses the example of the film “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” in which Jolie “attempts to get out from inside her some of frustration she had with the international community in general, and issues of justice in particular.”
Pleased by our similar approach, I hope my piece sheds some more detailed light on the same question.
*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey.