Angelina Jolie’s directorial and screenwriting debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey (which opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday), is a Bosnian-language war movie starring unknown actors as victims of and participants in the atrocities of the Yugoslav Wars in the ‘90s. The film’s many hard-to-watch scenes feature graphic beatings, brutal rapes, random shootings, methodical massacres, sexual degradation, and battles in which women are used as human shields.
Unsurprising, then, that the press conference I recently attended for the film began as perhaps the grimmest movie-promo event of the holiday season. Jolie and seven of her actors, who hail from Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, squeezed onto a stage in a suite at the Waldorf Towers in New York and looked despondently on as Tom Gjelten, a veteran American journalist who reported from Sarajevo in the ‘90s, introduced them.
Gjelten began by effusively praising Jolie and the film and pronouncing, “What many of us who were there felt most strongly about in this film was its authenticity. … This is really the way it was.” He seemed to have momentarily forgotten that he was sharing the stage with seven people who had quite a bit more credence on the matter of how it really was than he.
Jolie, to her credit, seemed wary of making declarations about how the Bosnian conflict “really was.” She also seemed uncomfortable with her role as an outsider giving voice to other people’s stories of trauma. She spoke of her guilt about asking actors to play scenes of torment that their fellow countrymen had actually lived through. It’s quite clear that Jolie didn’t undertake the making of this film lightly. “Sometimes with even the best intentions … you still feel this huge pressure and responsibility to this real, very real, very difficult part of history,” she said.
After Jolie spoke, Gjelten eagerly asked each actor—in a telling slip of the tongue, he referred to them as “characters”—to tell “a little story” about the war, and the responses were horrifying. Alma Terzić recounted the day Bosnian soldiers kidnapped her father from his home to force him to fight in the military. Vanesa Glodjo described the emotional toll of the violence and the injury she sustained when a bomb hit her home and sent a piece of shrapnel into her leg. Ermin Sijamija who fought on the side of the Bosnian government during the war, spoke slowly in Bosnian (translated into English by a colleague), but his anguished ambivalence about condensing his war experience into a sound bite spoke louder than his words. “Every time I’m asked to speak about the war, I feel some uncomfortable feeling inside of me. I feel some pain, so to say,” he said.
During the question-and-answer period, the press seemed unwilling or unable to engage with the bleak themes of the cast’s recollections. And so it did what it does best: worship at the altar of the cult of celebrity. The first press question, from a chipper reporter, came as a shock. “Loved the film,” she gushed. “I told you last night, Angelina Jolie, that you nailed it. … Were there any scenes where you thought, ‘Wow, this is so much better than I thought it was going to be’?”
The rest of the questions were no better. Most sounded like outtakes from a fluffy celebrity profile: Do you think of this as a Romeo-and-Juliet story, Angelina? What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from working with other directors, Angelina? One journalist asked Jolie whether she related personally to the film’s female protagonist, as though there could be any equivalence between the life of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and that of a woman who is kidnapped, enslaved, and raped by soldiers.
Jolie deflected every fawning compliment, attributing all of the film’s merit to her actors’ talent, professionalism, and commitment. To the single question that wasn’t about her personal life—“How would you define a good soldier?”—she refused to give any forceful answer, expressing instead that “As an American, I feel very, very much for the American soldiers who are caught in this.”
Because Jolie is such a savvy manager of her own image, she never took the kind of forceful political stand that might actually get people talking about war atrocities. In the Land of Blood and Honey could be a powerful film—but it might need a less tactful advocate than Jolie, and a less fawning press corps than the one we’ve got, if it’s actually going to start a dialogue.
Ultimately, the best advocates for Jolie’s antiwar cause are the citizens who survived the nightmarish Bosnian conflict, who can convey the horror and moral ambiguity of war more powerfully than any reporter or director. At the very end of the press conference, Ermin Sijamija, the former Bosnian soldier, finally divulged an anecdote: During the war, he received a phone call from a former high-school classmate, now a sniper on the enemy side, who told Sijamija that he had seen him on the road and warned him to move more quickly if he wanted to avoid getting shot. “And there’s the question: Is he a good soldier or a good man?” Sijamija asked. “He maybe killed somebody before me.”