IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY, written and directed by Angelina Jolie, starring Zana Marjovich and Goran Kostic, in Bosnian and Serbian with English subtitles.

                                                                THE CIVIL WAR IN THE BALKANS
                                                                   By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

I liked this intense film, “In the Land of Blood and Honey."  But I wasn’t sure if Angelina Jolie intended her directorial debut film to be story about love and betrayal or a depiction of the horrors wreaked against one’s own people.  In a devastating three-and-a-half-year civil war, soldiers killed people they had been classmates with; it tore families apart and at least 100,000 were killed and two million displaced.  In her interviews, Jolie, involved in humanitarian work around the world, has said that she felt driven to make a film about the Bosnian war because she knew so little about it at the time (she was 17) and felt guilty because no one seemed to want to do anything.   It was the worst European conflict since World War II.

“Blood and Honey” was cut from over four hours to two which may explain some holes in the script.   It opens in 1992 on a scene of people living ordinary lives.   Muslim sisters Lejla (Vanessa Glodjic), a single mother of an infant, and Ajla (Zana Marjovich), a portrait artist share an apartment.  They wear Western style clothes and no headscarves.  Ajla is involved with Danijel (Goran Kostic), a wiry, blond, Daniel Craig type, Serbian army captain.  At a club while drinking and dancing, it is hit by an explosion.  The screen goes dark.  The blast has reduced the building to twisted metal, concrete rubble, and bloody body parts.  Danijel, unharmed, takes charge, relieved that Ajla had survived.  You’re thinking that these days this could happen at any time in any city in the world- and has.

The film jumps ahead four months.  Things turn violent.  Bodies appear on the streets.  Heavily armed Serbian soldiers patrol the neighborhoods, storm into buildings, ordering people out.   They separate women from men.  A woman questions a soldier who then brutally, anally rapes her.   Ajla is shocked to see Danijel, who doesn’t notice her, among the milling soldiers.   His father, General Nebojsa  (Rade Serbedzija), orders him to “Cleanse the area, Danijel.  Make me a proud father!”  (“Cleanse” being the operative word for “kill everybody.”)  Ajla and other women are herded on to buses and driven to an abandoned school where Serbian soldiers treat them as both sexual and domestic slaves; to them, they are sluts, whores, bitches; they laugh as they mouth lewd jokes.  Women are randomly hauled away and raped; they feel doomed.  Where are their men?  In town, electricity is cut; the women, including Lejla, who are still in the apartment building, are terrified  the soldiers will return; Leja worries about her baby and that her sister could be dead.  There’s no escape, nowhere to go.  She returns from a furtive run to a bombed out pharmacy for medicine and supplies, horrified to find that her baby has met a tragic end.  In her absence, the military had returned to clear the building.   A woman complains and is shot in the head.  Lejla joins a resistance group holed up in a ruin.

Danijel protects Ajla.  Their relationship is conflicted.  He confesses that he hates the “war,” cautioning her that “People don’t appear to be who they truly are.”  At times, he comes across as the voice of conscience.  She makes an attempt to escape but is caught and beaten. What I found strange is that Ajla doesn’t seem concerned about her sister or the baby.   In fact, Marjovitch plays Ajla as unemotional.  Perhaps Jolie directed her to appear numbed by it all or had to cut explanatory scenes due to time constraints. 
Random BBC news is broadcast on a portable radio:  “The US says, ‘We don’t have a dog in this fight’. “  Filthy UN vans rumble through town.  A Red Cross truck, outfitted with a bomb, blows up in the middle of the road, killing several civilians.  Military transports drive past camps, where emaciated, ragged prisoners cling to wire fences; and block after block of bombed out, gutted, buildings and rubble filled streets; bodies sprawl in ditches.

Danijel arranges private quarters for Ajla, ostensibly for a quiet place to paint his portrait.   They argue about his killing of her people, she shouts, “I don’t have to sleep with their murderer!”   He asks if she believes her people are not murderers, too.  “That you are clean?”    His soldiers call her “the Captain’s whore.”   When Danijel finds out that one of his men has raped her, he kills him.  The weird thing is: this man was a huge presence in a lot of scenes.  Were he to suddenly disappear, he would be missed.  Yet no one asks, “Hey, haven’t seen the big guy around.  What happened to him?”  But since there are snipers on hilltops picking off soldiers and civilians, I guess Jolie feels we’ll figure that’s what happened; or it was another scene that she had to cut.   In another scene, General Nebosja bursts in on Ajla; berating her about his mother working hard so Muslim women could wear fine clothes.  She tells him she believes there’s no difference between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims; for this, he rapes her.  Later, he orders Danijel  to get rid of his “Muslim whore!  We have got to kill them all!”   

It’s now 1995.  Listening with his men to news about NATO forces authorized to step in, the general launches into a tirade of grievances going back four hundred years.  “We don’t need them,” he shouts. There’s a scene of women used as human shields; and of women-old and young- forced to strip naked and dance for partying soldiers.  Jolie also includes scenes that made world news after the fact of mass graves holding thousands of slaughtered Bosnian men and boys;  of snipers on bunkered, secure hillsides shooting people as they venture out of hiding for food or water; and lobbing rockets at buildings across the way. 
One night, during a clandestine outing, Danijel tells Ajla to walk home by herself (he’s given his men a night off)  because he’s suddenly been called to the front.   They arrange a signal to let her know he’s alive; and later, she gets it; yet the next day, she is shocked to see him crawling out of the ruins of a bombed church where he had sequestered his men.  What did she do and where did she go after he drove off last night, leaving her alone?

Fifteen years after the war, the people of Bosnia-Herzogovina, of course, still remember.  Jolie has said that it was difficult asking Bosnian and Serbian actors to relive it; some were extremely emotional.  Yet because of their experience, they made the film real.  She admits that they helped her write and direct it.  This is not exactly a blatant anti-war film nor does it get to the roots of the “Great Serbia” ideology, which trod upon the rights of other nationalities in the former Yugoslavia.   Still, the film depicts the stupidity of war and how, through the centuries, especially as recently as 1914 early in the 20th Century (said to be  the bloodiest in history), rulers having learned nothing from the carnage of war.  Instead, they constantly resort to whipping up national, religious, and misogynous prejudices–no matter how irrational they might be in order to attain their ends.   War slogans like “The War to End All Wars”, “Never Again,” and others, are laughable.  The US and NATO are now raising a hysterical cry against Iran, which is in their sights for the next bloodbath.

Note: This review had been adapted for the January 2012 issue of Socialist Action News.  See www.socialistaction.org