Angelina Jolie Directs a Film About the Bosnian War

Angelina Jolie
Photograph by Sofia Sanchez & Mauro Mongiello for Newsweek

As I sat in a restaurant in down-town Budapest it felt as if I was with another reporter or aid worker I had met over the years rather than an international movie star. Angelina Jolie had just returned from the Libyan city of Misrata, which sustained one of the bloodiest battles of the civil war. It has since become a symbol of the suffering of the people there. But despite the journey, and what she had seen in the devastated city, she was not rattled. She could flip from talking about her experiences as a first-time director to discussing systematic rape in Bosnia, her trips to Darfur, or the flood of refugees in the Horn of Africa.

“When I go somewhere, I am always willing to learn about it. I get briefings, I read books, I talk to people,” she said. “But mainly I try to go somewhere to bring awareness, to come home and pick up the phone and call someone and try to get something done.”

She took this focus and directness, this earnest approach to her new film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, which opens in the U.S. this month. She told me that when it came to the technicalities of making a film, “I wasn’t afraid to ask the DP [director of photography]. And I listened to my cast, most of whom lived through the war. I listened to their stories and tried to incorporate it into the work.” Against the backdrop of the war, she has created a moving and surprising love story of a Serbian soldier and the Bosnian woman he reencounters ambiguously during the war. It is difficult not to admire Jolie, particularly after watching her film.

At 3 a.m., after we talked mainly about the horrors of the Bosnian war—which erupted in the wake of the dismemberment of Yugoslavia in 1991, pitted the nascent countries Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia against each other along complicated ethnic and religious lines, and left an estimated 100,000 people dead—her bodyguard popped his head in. He reminded us gently that it was late. We had been talking and drinking for eight hours; still, she insisted on walking me back to my hotel so I arrived safely. “I want to make sure you’re all right,” she said.

As a journalist who lived through the siege of Sarajevo, I saw Muslims, Serbs, and Croats who had formerly lived side by side and been friends viciously turn on each other. I witnessed the ethnic cleansing, the burning of houses, the columns of refugees pouring from the country, and, once, a dog running down the street with a human hand in its mouth. I went to see Blood and Honey with an especially critical eye. I was on the lookout for inauthentic details, since other films I have seen about Bosnia left me irritated and annoyed: Why hadn’t the director done more research? Why couldn’t someone tell the true story of the brutal war in the heart of Europe at the end of the 20th century?

I emerged from Jolie’s screening impressed. How could a woman who was only 17 when the conflict in Bosnia erupted in April 1992 have so perfectly captured the horror of a war that focused largely on indiscriminate and brutal attacks on civilians? She is honest when she says, “At the time, I had no idea of the extent of the agony.”

But her work as an ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees exposed her to the plight of the Bosnian civilians and how the aftermath lingers on. The women who were raped in the infamous eastern Bosnian “rape camps” are still suffering from the emotional and traumatic fallout; it was an especially sensitive point for her. So Jolie, who has always taken on her roles with an intensity that is almost frightening, immersed herself in reading everything she could about the Bosnian war.

Jolie replicated the city of Sarajevo—which endured the longest-running siege in modern history—exactly as I remembered it. The humanitarian trucks being cruelly rocketed by Serb gunmen; the young rape victim slowly losing her mind after being held in captivity and repeatedly violated; the drunken snipers targeting a father and son running across a bridge.

Her film depicts the isolation of war. Early on in the fighting, I remember going for a walk, avoiding the Serb snipers near the Jewish cemetery on the hill, to a neighborhood on the opposite side of the river where I lived. It was a time of intense bombing, sniping, starving, and freezing. I had witnessed old people who had been abandoned in their frontline nursing home and died in their beds. I saw kids who got rocketed for building snowmen. At the beginning of the war, America did not want to get involved; it saw the conflict as a European problem. In America it was portrayed as an intensely complicated fight between ancient enemies (Christians versus Muslims, Croats versus Serbs) and taking place in Europe’s backyard. As the fighting spread between Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, the U.N. got involved, but it was not until NATO airstrikes in 1994–95 that the opposing parties were forced to the negotiating table, where the U.S. played a major role in bringing about peace. And yet early on, people hung American flags out their windows. “Are they coming to save us?” they asked me, tugging at my sleeves. “When are the Americans coming?” It was heartbreaking. Jolie’s film shows what it is like to be one of those people—a poet, a bank teller, a teacher, a mother—and to be transformed by the cruelty and betrayal of war. It is about what humans do to other humans to survive.

“The people felt as though the world had forgotten them,” Jolie said. “It was a time of great pain, and I wanted to depict how courageous people were—without offending anyone.”

The Bosnians desperately wanted help, from anywhere, anyone—but no one came. Even now, too few people know what happened there. Perhaps it takes the star power of someone like Jolie to remind them of this incredibly complex, bloody conflict. “It was made to remind everybody of the war—but only a small group of people will really understand,” she admitted. Which is perhaps why she decided to release the film first in the Bosnian language, with English subtitles.

The authenticity of Blood and Honey comes from a team of talented actors from the former Yugoslavia—a mix of Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. Most of them lived through the war: many lost family members or were wounded. Some of the actors saw the war up close. The leading man, Goran Kostic, comes from a distinguished military family. His depiction of an officer who is forced to commit savage acts against his will is honest and painful. Vanesa Glodjo, who dreamed of becoming an actress and whose hopes were temporarily smashed by the war, recalls how she was “shot at many times. But they didn’t get me there on my way to school. They wounded me in my own house with the granate [mortar].”

And then there is Ermin Bravo, a young actor who was a child during the siege. During filming he wore the patched, frayed combat trousers that his older brother had actually worn as a Sarajevo defender. Bravo recalled during his audition that he “forgot what a banana tasted like” (people lived on humanitarian-aid packages, which largely consisted of rice, pasta, powdered milk, and a kind of liquid cheese).

Yet conjuring up memories of a war that everyone wants to forget was not easy for any of them.

“The [film shoot] was especially hard for me, as my father fought during the war while I was living with my mom and sister,” says Alma Terzich, another member of the cast. Terzich has real scars. She lost 28 members of her family in the fighting. “It was a huge responsibility to play the role of a woman surviving in such inhuman conditions,” she says. “It was my duty to play it truthfully as much as possible.”

The nuances Jolie brings to the film are as important as the authenticity of the actors. She understands that many of the Serb gunners were drinking a potent fruit brandy known as slivovitz throughout the war (she shows the commander having a bottle on his desk), and that the safest time to drive down Sniper’s Alley was in the morning when they were sleeping off their hangovers. She also portrays the inability of the U.N. peacekeepers to protect the civilian population because of their limited, and ineffective, mandate—they could fire only when they were fired upon, and technically protect only the humanitarian-aid workers, not the civilians themselves (though there were some heroic souls who broke that mandate independently because they were so disgusted by their powerlessness).

There are minor details that were hugely important—street scenes, furniture, the way Bosnian women dress and talk, their expressions.

“It was half script, half improvisation,” Jolie said of some of the scenes, and she relied heavily on local staff. “The white shirt that the leading character wears throughout,” she mused at one point. “It stayed white through the rape-camp scenes—and it bothered me. We kept talking about that white shirt.” She also shows characters longing for food, for contact with the outside world, for books, cinema, poetry—all the things that existed before the war.

In one poignant scene, the young Bosnian soldiers eat together in a bunker while the mortars fall around them, joking about what they will eat when the war ends. Only someone who was in Sarajevo at that time would understand their macabre, black humor, their laughter (Sarajevans were famous in the former Yugoslavia for their clownlike humor), their constant reminiscence of the food they missed.

The film was not made without controversy. I was in Sarajevo in July 2010, for the 15th anniversary of the massacre of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica, when the news broke that Jolie and her partner, Brad Pitt, were in Foca in eastern Bosnia. That was the scene of the horrific “rape camps” in which Bosnian Muslim women were rounded up, then bused to halls and schools and repeatedly violated by Serb soldiers; some were deliberately impregnated to dilute the Muslim gene pool. Some of the victims told me they had been raped up to 10 times a day; one young woman was 12 when she was sent to Foca and raped alongside her own mother.

But the rape issue is sensitive in Bosnia, as is anything to do with the war. At first people assumed Jolie was doing her UNHCR duties. (In 2001, after already having won an Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, she became a Goodwill Ambassador to try to shed a light on some of the darkest corners of the world, from Cambodia to Afghanistan.) Soon word got out that she was planning to make a film. The press inaccurately reported that her script was about a woman who falls in love with her rapist.

In fact, Blood and Honey is much more complicated. It is the love story of a couple who met before the war and a woman who is sent to the camps. But it is also a tale of betrayal, of passion, and sometimes of hope.

Jolie struggled to convey on the screen how Sarajevo, prewar, was a multicultural city; how everyone knew everyone; and how later, neighbors who had once loved each other and gone to school together turned with vengeance and hatred on their friends.

And yet throughout the filming (done in 42 days in Budapest and Bosnia, in two languages, once the government lifted a filming ban), even as Jolie was getting negative press from both Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs about her script, Bravo insists she made them all feel “safe and relaxed. She created a family atmosphere.”

Her transformation from a Hollywood kid to a humanitarian leader came from her filming in Cambodia (where she adopted her first child, Maddox, in 2002), where the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot left an estimated 2 million dead. Her first UNHCR trip was to Sierra Leone, which endured another brutal civil war in which civilians routinely had their limbs amputated by rebel soldiers (the question asked was “Do you want long sleeves or short sleeves?”—meaning to cut at the wrist or the elbow).

These journeys gave Jolie the experience to write the script for In the Land of Blood and Honey, which took “about a month, then it went through a lot of revisions, Brad read it, people read it,” but the actual technicalities of directing must have been daunting.

With six children, she still manages to visit these kinds of countries, traveling lightly, without much security, taking the same bumpy roads and dodgy planes and going through the same military checkpoints as I do when I report from conflict zones. There is no red carpet in Libya or Sudan. She still packs her own flashlights, notebooks, and waterproof gear. She made Blood and Honey with $13 million and a lot of humility. She approached it the way she does her job for UNHCR, like a student.

“When I go on a field mission, I get multiple briefings, including from the CFR [Council on Foreign Relations],” she said. “And I took a course on international law. So I did the same thing I did with missions. I studied.”

For the film, she “read a lot of books about the war. I talked to a lot of people, I watched, I listened. I just wanted to tell the real story.” She repeated what she has said several times: “I wanted to be respectful of people.” If she did not know something, “I asked.”

During our evening, I told her a story. A senior U.N. official who hosted a lunch for her described to me a trip Jolie made to Baghdad at the height of the bloodshed. After an exhausting day talking to the displaced and dispossessed, she patiently allowed some starstruck Iraqi local staff to take her photograph with them for their children. She smiled throughout, and had not an ounce of prima donna to her.

“Oh, I remember that,” she says. “But I would do anything for children. Who wouldn’t?”

Jolie is an unlikely celebrity, with a kind of natural ease and warmth that the cast said they experienced as well. During dinner, she talked with love and passion of her family, how she is educating them in their own languages and cultures, how she loves to fly around the world but how hard it is to be separated from them when she is away. She talked of how someone “who never was a babysitter” knew how to take care of Maddox as a 27-year-old single mother.

“I didn’t know whether to give one bottle or 30 bottles,” she says, laughing, of her son’s infant days. “I called my mother.”

Her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, a former actress and producer, who died in 2007 at the age of 58, was a major influence. Jolie adored her. When Bertrand was dying, Jolie says, her mother told her she had done with her life exactly what she wanted to do, by simply taking care of her children. “Her goodness had a huge impact on me,” she said.

“Sometimes I go into hotels now and bellboys ask me about her. My mother used to write them notes when their children were born or christened. She was just that sort of person—everyone loved her.”

In the end, Jolie’s film stays with you. Some scenes are as vivid and horrific as the real days of war. In one, Vanesa Glodjo leaves her infant to raid a bombed-out pharmacy because none of the neighbors has medicine. She comes home to find him dead from a sniper’s bullet.

Her screams of agony over his tiny, still body are not acting. Glodjo lived through the war. More than 100,000 people died, including thousands of children. All of us who lived there remember the children who went out in the snow and were killed simply for playing. Or the “Romeo and Juliet” Muslim and Serb couple who, just after being married, were shot holding hands crossing a bridge on their way to tell their relatives the happy news. Their bodies lay on that bridge for days—snipers kept shooting at anyone who tried to move them away.

It is the love story that is perhaps the heart of In the Land of Blood and Honey. The couple meets before the war, in a time when Sarajevo was café society, a former Olympic city of art and music and poetry. Through their eyes, we see the disintegration of society—and, more important, the evil that man can inflict on his fellow man.

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