Film Review: In the Land of Blood and Honey

18 Mar

After seeing the Rotten Tomatoes rating for In the Land of Blood and Honey, viewers might go into Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut expecting a boring, poorly-constructed love-story set in wartime.  They would be surprised to find that aside from being set in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, the film is none of these things.  Instead, In the Land of Blood and Honey is a fast-paced and truly riveting story about a woman trying to survive a genocide and a man who feels unwilling, but obligated, to participate in it. 

The history of Bosnia-Herzegovina is not pretty.  It’s also not simple.  From 1945 to 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina was a province of Yugoslavia inhabited by a mix of Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbians (Orthodox Christians), and Croats (Catholics).  In 1992, the province’s Muslim majority voted to break free of a Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia ruled by Slobodan Milosevic.  However, many Serbs in Bosnia – some still haunted by the 400-year rule of Bosnia by the Ottoman Empire, in which non-Muslims experienced oppression and discriminatory taxation — feared a Muslim-dominated country and wanted Bosnia to remain part of Yugoslavia.  A Bosnian Serb army was formed and proceeded to “cleanse” Bosnia of its Muslim population.  In addition to killing civilians, the Bosnian Serb army placed many Bosnian Muslim women into concentration camps, where they were systematically raped by the army’s soldiers.

Jolie’s film dives right into this history from the beginning, exploring the Bosnian War from the perspective of Ajla, a Bosnian Muslim woman, and Danijel, a Bosnian Serb army officer.  The two are seen together in the film’s opening scenes, on what seems to be their first date.  Almost immediately, the war begins and their budding romance is shattered.  Bosnian Muslim civilians are rounded up by the Bosnian Serb army.  The men are shot, and a chosen number of the women, including Ajla, are marched off to the rape camps.  When Ajla arrives at the camp, she finds that Danijel is its overseer.  Riddled with guilt over the army’s actions, Danijel attempts to protect Ajla from the other soldiers by claiming her as his personal property.  From here, the film follows the couple’s careful navigation of trust and distrust.

.Jolie’s decision to hire Bosnian actors for the film was a stroke of genius.  Sarajevo-born Zana Marjanovic plays Ajla, and with her bobbed haircut and adorable nose, at times she resembles a young Jennifer Grey.  She emanates a quiet strength as her character is thrust from her mundane life into a world of horror.  Goran Kostic, the Bosnian Serb actor who plays Danijel, will put audiences in mind of Daniel Craig, showing that same ability to express powerful emotion without overdone display.

Jolie has done a masterful job of incorporating historical information seamlessly into the plot, as when one character remarks that the war took place only 40 miles away from Italy, where sunbathers were relaxing on the beach.  Viewers learn that humanitarian aid planes came, dropped off food, and left empty, without taking any refugees out of the country.   This is not a movie for the faint-hearted, as there are myriad scenes of rape and violence, but overall it’s an incredibly moving look at how people behave during wartime,  and it does not end the way you think it will.

That said, one must wonder, what accounts for the poor ratings on Rotten Tomatoes?  Two things.

First, many critics seem to be upset that what was billed in the trailer as a love story is . . . not really a love story.  (See the comments section for spoilers that are important to understanding how the film’s big plot twist fits into this.)  To imagine that this film is a love story, one must have some very twisted and unfortunate ideas about love.  Thus, it’s best to simply experience the film for what it is:  a story about how two people navigate their different situations during wartime.  Anyone making the claim, after seeing it, that In the Land of Blood and Honey is a romance should have his head examined.  This includes, perhaps, the maker of the trailer.

The second issue that accounts for the film’s poor ratings must be addressed with utmost care.  If one looks through the audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it will become clear that most of the negative reviews are written by those who express frustration that the film is “anti-Serbian.”  One reviewer charges that the film is a “one-sided story” about “bad Serbs.”  Another writes that “Serbs [are] represented as monsters.”  Yet another asserts that the film is “a senseless act of anti-Serbian nazism and satanization of Serbs.”  It seems safe to say that no group of people wants to be portrayed as purveyors of genocide, especially in a film that, because of its connection to a Hollywood powerhouse like Jolie, will get such broad international attention.

Yes, it is true that the film does not discuss what happened to Serbs under the the Ottoman Empire.  It does not remind us that many Serbs were themselves victims of genocide, interned in concentration camps along with Jewish people, by the Ustasha, back in WWII when Bosnia was part of a Nazi puppet state.  Today, Serbian anger stems from the fact that while the atrocities of the Bosnian Serb army in the Bosnian War are internationally known, the historical atrocities against the Serbs have been lost to most history books.

Yet Jolie’s film is hardly all black and white.  As he questions his role in the camp while also feeling obligated to be a good son to his father (who is a general in the Bosnian Serb army), Danijel is no monster.  Even a “bad Serb” like Danijel’s father (Rade Serbedzija) is given a monologue in which he recounts the killing of his family members by Bosnian Muslims.  These portrayals humanize the Bosnian Serb soldier, allowing viewers a deeper look into his hatred, not to mention into the ways in which violence begets more violence.

Further, while some critics denounce the film for neglecting to show “both sides,” it’s not clear what “other side” there is in a story of civilian women being placed in rape camps by an army.  Even if some Bosnian Muslims committed abuses against Serbs earlier in Bosnia’s history, these civilian women living in 1992 did nothing to deserve their torture.  They were innocents, and their story deserves to be told, over and over again, until people get the point that there is no excuse for using mass civilian rape as a tactic of war.

That said, all viewers should keep in mind that nothing in the film should be construed as equating the Bosnian Serb army with all Serbs everywhere.  The film does not charge that the entire Serbian population is responsible for the actions of the Serb army in Bosnia.  We shouldn’t forget that that same Serb army killed other Serbs as well.  Jolie would likely agree that as an American, for example, she should not get offended every time someone points out abuses committed by the U.S. military.  In that case, the proper response from an American is not to take offense because “Americans” are being shown in a bad light, but to direct attention to and hold accountable those who have committed abusive acts.  And Americans may soon enough have the opportunity to look critically at their own history.  Apparently, Jolie’s next film will be about the war in Afghanistan.

Final Verdict:  Though painful to watch, In the Land of Blood and Honey is an incredible film that asks its viewers to remember a war that many ignored.

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