Angelina Jolie tells veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni what compelled her to tackle the brutal realities of the Bosnian war for In the Land of Blood and Honey – her first film as director
When we meet in a cafe in Budapest, Angelina Jolie has just returned from the Libyan city of Misrata, which sustained one of the bloodiest battles of the civil war. But despite the journey, and what she has seen in the devastated city, she is not rattled. “When I go somewhere, I am always willing to learn about it. I get briefings, I read books, I talk to people,” she says. “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 directorial debut, In The Land Of Blood And Honey, which opens in the US 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 fighting, she has created a love story about Danijel, a Serbian soldier, and Ajila, the Bosnian woman he re-encounters during the war.
At 3am, after we have 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 of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia against each other along complicated ethnic and religious lines, and left an estimated 100,000 people dead – her bodyguard pops his head in to gently remind us it is late. We’ve been talking and drinking for eight hours; still, she insists on walking me back to my hotel, so I arrive safely. “I want to make sure you’re all right,” she says.
As a journalist who lived through the siege of Sarajevo, 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’ve 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 erupted in April 1992 have so captured the horror of a war that focused largely on indiscriminate and brutal attacks on civilians?
“At the time, I had no idea of the extent of the agony,” she admits, describing how it was her later role as an ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that exposed her to the plight of the Bosnian civilians and made her want to learn more about the war.
Jolie replicates the city of Sarajevo – which endured the longest-running siege in modern history – exactly as I remember it. The humanitarian trucks being 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 neighbourhood 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. As the fighting spread between Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, the UN got involved, but it was not until Nato air strikes in 1994-95 that the opposing parties were forced to the negotiating table, where the US played a role in bringing about peace.
And yet early on, people hung American flags out of their windows. “Are they coming to save us?” they asked me, tugging at my sleeves. “When are the Americans coming?” Jolie’s film shows what it is like to be one of those people – a poet, a bank clerk, a teacher, a mother – and to be transformed by the cruelty and betrayal of war.
“The people felt as though the world had forgotten them,” Jolie says. “It was a time of great pain, and I wanted to depict how courageous people were – without offending anyone. It was made to remind everybody of the war – but only a small group of people will really understand,” she says. 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. Some 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 recalls how she was “shot at many times. But they didn’t get me 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 mum and sister,” Alma Terzic says. Terzic lost 28 members of her family in the fighting. “It was a huge responsibility,” she says. “It was my duty to play it truthfully as much as possible.”
The nuances Jolie brings to the film are equally important. “It was half script, half improvisation,” she says, and she relied heavily on local staff. She understands that many of the Serb gunners were drinking a potent fruit brandy known as slivovitz throughout the war (she shows the commander with a bottle on his desk), and that the safest time to drive down Sniper Alley was in the morning when they were sleeping off their hangovers. She also portrays the inability of the UN 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 because they were so disgusted by their powerlessness).
There are minor details that are hugely important – street scenes, furniture, the way Bosnian women dress and talk. “The white shirt that the leading character wears throughout,” she notes at one point, “it stayed white through the rape-camp scenes – and it bothered me. We kept talking about that white shirt.”
In another 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 banter (Sarajevans were famous in the former Yugoslavia for their clownlike humour).
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 “rape camps” in which Bosnian Muslim women were rounded up, then bused to halls and schools and repeatedly violated by Serb soldiers. 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 mother.
But the rape issue is sensitive in Bosnia, as is anything to do with the war. At first people assumed Jolie was there in her role as a goodwill ambassador for the UNHCR. 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 more complicated: telling the story of a couple who met before the war and a woman who is sent to the camps.
Jolie struggled to convey how prewar Sarajevo was a multicultural city and how later, neighbours who had gone to school together turned on their friends with vengeance and hatred. 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, Bravo insists she made them all feel “safe and relaxed. She created a family atmosphere.”
It took Jolie about a month to write the script, she tells me, “then it went through a lot of revisions, Brad read it, people read it.” But the logistics of directing her first film must still have been daunting.
She approached the $13m project like a student. “I 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 repeats several times: “I wanted to be respectful of people.”
With six children, she still manages to travel 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.
During dinner, she talks about 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 talks about 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 actor and producer, who died in 2007 at 58, was a major influence. Jolie adored her. When Bertrand was dying, Jolie says, her mother told her she had done exactly what she wanted to do with her life, by simply taking care of her children. “Her goodness had a huge impact on me,” she says.
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 at home while she goes to raid a bombed-out pharmacy because none of the neighbours has medicine. She comes home to find him dead from a sniper’s bullet. Her screams of agony do not feel like acting. Glodjo lived through the war. More than 100,000 people died, including thousands of children. All of us who were there remember the children who 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.
Jolie’s couple meet before the war, in a time when Sarajevo was a former Olympic city of art and music and poetry. Through their eyes, we see the disintegration of that cafe society – and, more important, what humans do to other humans to survive.
This article first appeared in Newsweek.