It begins in the spring of 1992. A young artist named Ajla (Zana Marjanović) makes herself pretty for her boyfriend, a cop named Danijel (Goran Kostić), who she meets up with at an intimate nightclub in Sarajevo. At this point, we know virtually nothing about them, apart from the fact that they’re in love. But as the music slows and the two embrace for a romantic dance, a bomb destroys the club, killing some and critically wounding others. As far as the plot is concerned, the Bosnian War has suddenly started. In reality, tensions had been mounting for years following the economic decline of Yugoslavia, which acted as a buffer zone between westernized Europe and the Soviet Union. The 1980 death of President Josip Broz Tito didn’t help matters much, for he was no longer able to maintain the unity he created between the Bosniaks, the Serbs, and the Croats, the country’s three largest religious and ethnic groups.
At first glance, In the Land of Blood and Honey seems to be ignoring these broad historical facts. But the more we watch scene after scene of violence and bloodshed, the more we realize that first time writer/director Angelina Jolie is in fact educating us. It’s merely a question of method; rather than explain the Bosnian War with cold academic detachment, she instead narrows in and humanizes it. From the images of shell bombings and gunfights to the human atrocities of ethnic cleansing and mass rape, we’re not spared the horrors of this conflict. Jolie, well known for her humanitarian efforts, made it a point to cast actors from the Bosnia and Herzegovina area, allowed them to speak their native language, and even involved them in the screenwriting process. It’s no wonder, then, that this aspect of the story feels the most authentic.
But the film is equal parts war story and tragic romance, and it’s the latter part that I find myself questioning. In the same narrative tradition as Romeo and Juliet, the love story between Ajla and Danijel is challenged by the opposing ideologies of their respective peoples. Only after the nightclub bombing and the country’s descent into chaos do we learn that Ajla is a Bosniak and Danijel is a Serb. Popular opinion dictates that they should hate each other. Not long after the war starts, Ajla is part of large a group of Bosniak women arrested and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp; as it so happens, the place is run by Danijel, now a captain in the Serbian Army. Many of the women are repeatedly raped, but Ajla, through Danijel’s influence, is left untouched. She is, however, still required to do degrading menial tasks such as serve the soldiers’ food.
As time marches ahead toward 1995, the year the war ended, Ajla and Danijel will repeatedly reenter each other’s lives and assert their love for one another, albeit under emotionally draining circumstances. If they wish to continue seeing one another, for example, she must allow herself to be locked in a cell, presumably to pose as one of his political prisoners. I grant you, it’s a spacious cell, and not too many prisoners are privileged enough to continue what they love doing – painting, in Ajla’s case. But a cell is still a cell; her love does not grant her any degree of freedom. It certainly does nothing for the other women being held prisoner, nor does it spare her sister, Lejla (Vanessa Glodjo), from enduring the greatest pain a woman in her position will ever know.
As well acted as this subplot is, much of it feels contrived, as if created solely for the purpose of being dramatic. Having said that, aspects of it are compelling, none more so than the extent to which conflict and injustice can traumatize people. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the bond Ajla and Danijel formed prior to the war is breaking. At a certain point, it was no longer clear to me how they truly felt for one another; they both seem torn between what they once had and the reality of the current situation, spurred by long-standing ethnic tensions. Danijel in particular is weak-minded when confronted with his father, the Serbian general Nebojša Vukojević (Rade Šerbedžija), who, following the slaughter of his family at the hands of the Turks, has absolutely no tolerance for Muslims. Danijel may not be as impartial as he initially thought.
There’s much to admire about In the Land of Blood and Honey. Not too many first-time directors would have the fortitude to write a screenplay for a war film, shoot it in distant foreign locations, hire local actors, and stage elaborate action sequences that require days if not weeks to prepare. From a technical standpoint, Jolie has risen to the challenge. She also deserves praise from a historical standpoint, for she has brought our attention back to a conflict the world in general has largely forgotten. Amazing such a thing could happen, given the fact that not even twenty years has passed. From a narrative standpoint, on the other hand, there’s room for improvement. There’s nothing wrong with setting a love story against the backdrop of war, but there are more convincing ways to go about it.
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