Film Review: In the Land of Blood and Honey

As powerful as its creator, Angelina Jolie, whose spirit hovers over her writing-directing-producing debut,<i> In the Land of Blood and Honey</i> shows the horrifying byproducts of the terrible war in the former Yugoslavia.

In her directing (and screenwriting) debut, Angelina Jolie helms In the Land of Blood and Honey with confidence and at times brilliance, if a bit didactically. She manages the sweep of a once-beautiful countryside, violent war scenes, and a central love relationship in which the issues of the opposing sides are played out. But most tellingly, the focus is on the slave “rape camps” which imposed ethnic cleansing, mostly of Serbs against Bosnians, in the Bosnian War of the 1990s.

The early scenes show a united people, with all the diverse ethnic groups living in harmony, as the film’s onscreen statement tells us. Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Bosnian Serb police officer, and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Bosnian Muslim artist, are clearly in love, together in a dance club where we also sense the joie de vivre of the crowd. Then, boom! A sudden bomb blast ends this dream. Four months later, Danijel is serving under his father, General Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Serbedzija), and Ajla has been captured and ironically taken to a camp run by Danijel.

Nearly every age and class of woman is represented in the deplorable, degrading circumstances, awaiting the dreaded tap on the shoulder to indicate it is her ‘turn” to be raped. We see a professional woman, a doctor, ruefully rubbing her pregnant belly—the “strange fruit” of cleansing. Rape is not the only terror: One memorably metaphorical scene shows women taken from the camps and used as human shields while literally smoking out the enemy, their countrymen. Jolie uses famed cinematographer Dean Semler for relieving scenes of aesthetic and erotic pleasure: the artist Ajla working by a window; the covert lovemaking of the couple which eventually occurs.

Jolie does not hesitate to take sides behind the camera either. Serbian men were used to portray the scenes in which the women are first captured, stripped and then raped publically as an example. Marjanovic, Kostic and Vanessa Glodjo as Ajla’s sister Lejla are all Bosnians, Kostic a Bosnian Serb. This may contribute to the movie’s effectiveness if you know enough to pick up on it. But some of the dialogue is preachy. Danijel says, “I don’t like this war. But my father the General thinks differently.” The two discuss the situation at times in a bit of a Cliff Notes approach. “It’s politics, not murder,” to which Ajla replies, “But it’s still murder.”

The events are enough. Glodjo is particularly moving as Lejla, whose baby is killed. The suspenseful build-up to the moment when she discovers her tragedy is a marvelous edit up some stairs—Battleship Potemkin in reverse?—to an apartment ransacked by Serb soldiers.

Periodically throughout the film, there are radio reports in English (everything else is in Bosnian, at Jolie’s request), indicating the rest of the world is doing little to relieve the atrocities. One American official is quoted, “We don’t have a dog in that fight,” but finally there is a report that Madeline Albright is in charge, with investigations and hearings imminent. These documentary-like elements are framed by onscreen statements, including the verifiable statistic that somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped. A worthy explanatory approach, but jarring at times.

It’s more telling to use the characters to exemplify the state of things. It was a very good idea to cast Serbedzija as the General, a character effectively devious in trying to force his son to get rid of Ajla. His is, oddly, the strongest performance in the film, though he represents the “wrong” side, as he movingly explains the centuries-long history of the Serbs fighting off the Turks, recalling that Serbians soaked the land with their blood in fending off Hitler. His eyes are truly malevolent as he describes the callused hands of his mother who had to serve the silken-dressed Muslim women. Best is his delivery to a diminishing band of supporters when he says that the war is turning against them because Clinton is afraid of getting his ass kicked in Washington.

All hosannas to Jolie for picking this topic, which the Producers Guild of America has acknowledged in giving her the Stanley Kramer Award (for socially significant movies). Yet her real flair as a filmmaker (and the fact that we’re already analyzing what she’s best at tells you she already is one) is in the intense, twisted-up, highly emotional and erotic sequences with her two leads. The set-up is of course inherently dramatic: Former lovers, now enemies, are thrown together in a sexually exploitative situation which challenges their own feelings about their homeland and family loyalties. Only one other film so successfully exploits the war camp/love affair metaphor of master-slave: The Night Porter. The Nazi death camps and the Serbian rape camps have this terrible template in common.

A new woman director in a male-dominated world is now at hand. It was only last century (gather round all ye lads and lasses who don’t remember) when Barbra Streisand was stiffed by the Oscars for her Yentl. And now we have Phyllida Lloyd, Jennifer Yuh Nelson and, of course, Kathryn Bigelow, to mention just a few. But of the current crop of actresses-turned-auteurs, Vera Farmiga and Madonna among them, and perhaps thinking of role model Ida Lupino, place your bets on Jolie.