In Angelina Jolie’s surprisingly respectable directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, she takes on the Herculean task of turning her lens on the early ’90s Balkan conflict that saw the death of more than 100,000 people, the displacement of over two million civilians and the rape of up to 50,000 women.
Sounds ambitious, right? Well, it’s certainly not the vanity project that most people expected when Jolie announced her intention to produce and direct the screenplay she’d written.
In fact, the film that resulted from Jolie’s desire to move behind the camera is a blunt and brutal look at the genocide and ethnic cleansing that went on during the war, presented with sub-titles in the official language of Bosnia (now referred to as Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian or BCS). It’s an impressive choice and her passion for putting a face to the atrocities is evident, even when the story’s many complex issues become too unwieldy for her.
The film begins in 1992 during a time of peace. A Muslim artist named Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) is out dancing at a nightclub when she meets a Serb police officer named Danijel (Goran Kostic). They flirt. He asks her to dance. During a romantic spin around the floor, a bomb rips through the wall, killing many of the revellers inside and burying the rest in rubble. In the aftermath, Ajla and Danijel are separated as they help the injured.
Four months later, Ajla and her sister Lejla (Vanesa Glodjo), along with their neighbours are pulled from their mostly Muslim apartment complex out into the parking lot by a Serbian paramilitary group. The men are separated from the women, taken around back and executed. Then the able-bodied women, including Ajla, are loaded onto a bus and shipped to a Serb military base, where they are made to cook, clean and serve as sex slaves to the soldiers.
As it turns out, Danijel, the son of the Serb general, is in charge of the base and rescues Ajla just before she’s raped in front of the crowd of prisoners. Danijel’s a conflicted soul, seeing the world through more open eyes than his father. Or at least he is at first.
He stakes his claim for Ajla and although she’s wary of him at first, they eventually embark on a tentative love affair that they must keep secret in order for Danijel to maintain the respect of his men.
It’s because of this story line that the Bosnian Women Victims of War Association protested the film during its production, but for all of their shades of Romeo and Juliet, Jolie manages to keep the intentions of her lead characters murky, making more of a comment on the way that war can compromise even the most courageous person’s values.
Ajla and Danijel may share complicated feelings for one another on some level, but when their base survival instincts start to kick in, things get ugly, motives become unclear and allegiances are questioned.
Jolie smartly keeps the waters murky until the film’s final moments, which brings what’s essentially been a love story – a really messed up love story, but one nonetheless – into harsh perspective.
It’s a compelling story that is enhanced by the well-researched portrayal of the politics behind the conflict and the ways that people were made to cope. It’s enough to completely overcome the film’s main problems – a handful of overly contrived plot points and the moustache-twirling bad guy depiction of the Bosnian Serb soldiers (Danijel’s Father in particular is straight out of a cartoon) – and signal that Jolie is certainly a Director to keep on your radar.