Angelina Jolie’s Directorial Debut Highlights the Troubled History of Former Yugoslavia

Trevor Laurence Jockims

 

In The Land of Blood and Honey, written and directed by Angelina Jolie, focuses on the relationship between Danijel (Goran Kostić), a Bosnian-Serb soldier, and Ajla (Zana Marjanović), a Bosnian Muslim. Aside from a handful of largely forgettable films (Welcome to Sarajevo, Behind Enemy Lines, and Savior come to mind), the wars of 1992-1995 in the former Yugoslavia have received limited attention from Hollywood.

 

Jolie, who was given the Heart of Sarajevo award at the Sarajevo Film Festival this past summer, is clearly sincere in her desire to bring attention to the troubled history of the region and the continued difficulties faced by survivors of the war in Bosnia, particularly women. She has called this the war of her generation, and her film—which she shot in both English and Bosnian versions, and for which she cast primarily Bosnian actors—admirably takes on the complexities of the region, nobly trying to bring attention to a war that has somehow always remained on the periphery of wider consciousness.

 

The film is at its strongest in its opening sequences, as the terms of the war are being set. Jolie manages to get the viewer to see, with alarm, just how near and horrid this moment in history is. The mythic absurdity of the war that these first scenes so deftly capture—a fireball destroying a nightclub, soldiers pounding on apartment doors and ordering occupants to get out, tanks rumbling down modern European streets—suggests what the film might have achieved. Like Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2002 Academy Award, Best Foreign Film), Jolie’s camera takes time to linger on the placidity of the Bosnian countryside, its green hills at odds with the violence to come. Unlike Tanović’s film, which covers just one day and focuses on only three characters—one of whom is immobilized in a trench for the duration of the film—Jolie’s film tries to cover too much, spanning the whole war but failing to bring the central story of Ajla and Danijel to life.

 

It is the inability of the film to make the pair of Ajla and Danijel effectively do what they are so obviously intended to—embody the terrible suffering and emotional trauma of the war in Bosnia as it tears them, and their country, apart—that is at the heart of the film’s ultimate shortcomings. We never really know how far back their shared history goes, nor is the depth of their connection ever made entirely clear.

 

We first see the pair dancing together in a nightclub. They embrace and nuzzle briefly, before an explosion strikes the club, rapidly bringing war into the world of the two lovers. When their paths cross again at a camp where Ajla is one of the detainees and Danijel is an officer in charge, he protects her from the rape that her fellow captors face. Ajla spends much of the rest of the film in Danijel’s officer’s quarters at the camp, hovering somewhere between lover and prisoner.

 

For all the taboos suggested by this relationship, very little actual heat passes between Ajla and Danijel. Kostić and Marjanović often seem set adrift by their characters’ lack of backstory. During a dinner together in Danijel’s quarters the pair has something like a second or third date conversation, despite having lived through months and months of the war together. Almost comically, they ask one another when their birthdays are, this after so much has been risked, sacrificed, and tossed aside so that they might remain together.

Danijel mentions their past together just once, in another unintentionally comedic moment, musing over “how good it was that night at the club.” Ajla occasionally flashes looks of intense desire at Danijel, but they seem to come out of nowhere, as though the actress is looking for something, anything, to make the scenes hold together. When another guard rapes Ajla, Danijel responds with anger, at first blaming her and exhibiting a machismo wholly at odds with almost every single gesture he has made toward her up until this late point in the film.

 

Toward the end of the film, Ajla—who has left and then, with mixed motives, returned to Danijel—is working as a portrait painter for the Serb army.  Danijel’s father, General Vukojević, played to blazing effect by Rade Šerbedžija, is perhaps the most compelling figure in the film. Charges of caricature could certainly be raised here, but in a film so thin on characterization, Šerbedžija’s nationalistic general comes across as positively Dickensian. Despite too many speeches that are obviously intended to give the audience context, (most of them begin, “Six hundred hundred years ago…”) the character works better than either Ajla or Danijel.

 

General Vukojević has heard what his son has been up to with “the Muslim girl.” When he comes to the camp to rectify matters, he finds Ajla naked in Danijel’s bed. He orders her to get dressed and paint his portrait.  As she paints, Vukojević tells the story of a day in 1944 when he was a child and half his village was slaughtered by Ustaše and Turkish forces. The camera adeptly pans over to the portrait Ajla is outlining of the general’s face as he continues to speak, literally giving us the picture of how he came to be the person he has become. The moment gestures toward historical context, and the rural roots of nationalism, but the portrait is left incomplete.

 

Even after all this, In The Land of Blood and Honey is a difficult film to dislike, mostly because of the good it is doing by highlighting atrocities that have been redoubled by being largely ignored. Jolie shows remarkable command as a director, and several moments of the film are genuinely beautiful, such as a dance between Ajla and Danijel in which their shadows move across the wall of his room, and a very difficult sequence in which Ajla’s sister cradles her dead infant, her mouth open in a silent, anguished scream. But these are aesthetic achievements that in both cases are undercut by problems of unclear characterization that hang onto the edges of the entire film. Instances like these point simultaneously to Jolie’s strengths as a director, and her shortcomings as a screenwriter.

 

Part of the intent of this film, clearly, is to bring attention to Bosnia and Herzegovina, its troubling past and uncertain future. This much it has already achieved, and it remains difficult to separate this noble aim from the film’s flawed execution, though one must, since a more completely realized film would have actually been better positioned to serve the director’s admirable humanitarian aims. This is tough, complex material for which Jolie obviously cares deeply, but noble intentions will only get you so far. Films need to work first as films before they can do much of anything else. This one seems to have gotten that truth backwards.

 

Author Bio:

Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches literature in the English department of Hunter College, City University of New York.

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