Sunday, January 8, 2012

In the Land of Blood and Honey [2011]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

In the Land of Blood and Honey (written and directed by Angelina Jolie) is an excellent film that (1) needed to be made, (2) needed to be made _by a woman_, (3) needed to be made by a _prominent woman_ (like someone like Angelina Jolie), and one that despite all this will probably be seen by not nearly enough people and after its run in the theaters will probably be shown only at the occasional human rights gathering.  That of course is a shame and yet also probably human nature.  But one should be grateful to Angelina Jolie for deciding to make the film at all.

What is the film about?  It's a film with a cast almost entirely composed of Bosnian actors about the war which raged in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia, and it highlights a particularly awful aspect of that conflict: the all routine, indeed systematic, practice of rape of Bosnia's women by the armies during the conflict.  I say routine/systematic because when women are rounded-up en masse and then taken _to headquarters_ to both serve (cook/clean for) and "service" (be raped by) the soldiers/officers then rape becomes not merely an "isolated" crime perpetrated "by a few bad apples," but de facto standard operating procedure.

The focus of this movie (as was always the case even during the conflict) was on the Bosnian Serb army and I know that Serbs have _always complained_ that abuses of all kinds (including rape) were being perpetrated by all sides in the conflict.  Nevertheless the point is made in this film that women were being raped en masse during this conflict and that, it is / ought to be recognized for what it is (or ought to be) -- a war crime.

To Angelina Jolie's credit, she also does a very good job at presenting the "other" (Bosnian Serb) side.  The entire world has looked at the conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s solely in terms of what was happening _at that time_.  And yes, the Bosnian Serbs were conducting horrific atrocities at the time.  But the Serbs were _not_ looking at this war in isolation.  They were remembering both hundreds of years of previous oppression under the Turks (Moslems) but also _far more recent_ atrocities committed against Orthodox Christian Serbs by Catholic Croatians and Bosnian Muslims _in service of the Nazis_ during World War II.  One of the main characters of this film, remembered _his mother and older sisters_ raped and killed by Bosnian Muslims serving the Nazis during World War II.  So to Angelina Jolie's credit, she was sensitive to the complexities in that war.  And I do understand that just because one's mother and sisters were raped and killed fifty years ago AND THERE WAS NEVER A REAL ACCOUNTING FOR THAT CRIME 40-50 YEARS AGO, shouldn't give one the right to send out one's sons and grandsons to rape the granddaughters of the perpetrators of those crimes.  But one gets the sense of some of the layers of injustices that occurred in the region.

Then as one of Slavic descent (Czech, Russian and Ukrainian) myself, I am sensitive to the question of how these crimes (and they are crimes / WAR CRIMES) are portrayed, because these were crimes perpetrated by Slavs who have historically been looked at in Germanic ("Aryan") / Anglo-Saxon ("WASP") circles as being "at the lower end of the 'white race.'"  So I myself would find offense if these crimes came to be portrayed in a racial manner, that is, in terms of "those semi-animal Slavs," continuing then: "We Anglos/Americans are far more civilized about these sorts of things.  We _pay_ (cash on the barrel...) for _our sex_ during war time."

Indeed, one "good" thing that one could say about American involvement in its various wars in the Middle East over these past few decades is that it's put something of a damper on the "brothel" mentality that has accompanied U.S. military adventures since WW I: "How do you send Johnny back to the farm after he's seen the lights of 'gay Paris'?" (WWI), "The problem with the Yanks is that they're overpaid, over sexed and over here" (WW II), the summarization of the entire history of the Philippines since Magellan as "400 years in the Convent (under the Spanish) 50 years in a whore-house (under the Americans)," to say nothing of American behavior during Korea and Vietnam where after a long hard day of napalming the enemy, American fighting men would come back to the brothels around base to be serviced by the girls provided (eminently for cash...) by "Mamasan..."  

So sexual exploitation/coercion comes in many forms and no particular army looks particularly good.  Still one has to start somewhere and certainly Serb behavior during the wars in former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s helped give Rape as a War Crime the attention that it deserves.  And Abu Gharib notwithstanding, even American/Allied behavior during war time has probably improved as a result. 

Great, but then how does Land of Blood and Honey tell the story?  The film follows a would be couple from Sarajevo, Ayla (played by Zana Marjanovic) a young artist from a secularized Bosnian-Muslim family and Danijel (played by Goran Kostic) from a blue collar Serbian family working as a police officer.  The film opens with the two meeting happily at a Sarajevo dance club on an early date.  Everyone's happy, everyone's dancing.  A bomb goes off and those carefree days come to an end.

The film resumes four months later ... By this point the civil war is in full swing.  Ayla's / her sister's apartment block is stormed by Bosnian Serb soldiers.  They round up the people.  They separate the young from the old and then the young men from the young women.  The old are allowed "to stay."  The young men are escorted down an alley and summarily shot (yes, that's what happened to the young men at the time) and the young women put on a bus to be transported to "HQ" to serve as slaves sexual and otherwise to the officers/troops.  A young woman didn't quite understand what her role would be.  So she's dragged in front of the others by one of the soldiers, her panties torn off and raped against a table in front of the others, in case the others didn't get the point.  They did.  And so it was...

It happened though that Danijel was serving in the same unit (now as a junior military officer) as this was taking place.  So he was able to exert his influence to protect Ayla from the others.  They then become, _in a sense_, "lovers" throughout the war.  But it's unclear to everybody, from them themselves, to the other soldiers, to Danijel's father Nebojsa (played by Rade Serbedija) a senior officer in the Bosnian Serb army (and the one who remembered his mother and older sisters being raped by Croatian / Bosnian Muslim soldiers collaborating with the Nazis during World War II), to the viewers, what exactly Ayla's and Danijel's relationship was.  Was it / could it possibly be "love" under such circumstances?  Or was he just using her?  And was she simply doing what she felt she needed to do to keep alive?  Could either really trust the other under such circumstances?  Perhaps most tragic: in a fratricidal conflict like this, could this awful kind of relationship so horribly flawed/contrived/ambiguous be "as good as it gets?" ...

Perhaps only someone like Angelina Jolie could tell a story like this, and IMHO I do believe she did an excellent job.

Note to parents:  This is an R-rated film.  There are many examples of disturbing violence throughout this film.  There is also a good deal of nudity, though interestingly enough generally not linked with the various scenes involving rape.  Rape was generally portrayed violently and yet left largely to the imagination.  The nudity involved more the relationship between the two principal protagonists of the story.  In any case, there's probably little reason unless one happened to be somehow more directly involved in the conflict (or one similar it) to take a minor to this picture.  Minors probably wouldn't understand it anyway though young adults would: Imagine if your life depended on a guy who you barely knew and who you went out with only a few times "before the war."  Or imagine if you found yourself in a position with quite literally "life and death power" over someone who you only dated a few times prior to this whole conflict who in other circumstances you might have even graciously broken-up with but now "break-up" would mean _her certain death_ ...What a truly awful situation.

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  1. You are treating this movie as a dating drama to which the attrocities of Balkan wars are just a setup. Not a single person in the Balkans has nor will approach this movie in that manner. Rather, to them, it is completely - a war movie; the romantic part, they take as merely the director's device for making the movie more interesting to the foreigners. Thus, you have decided to develop your review around noth but a cinematic device, while offering only a cursory treatment of the bloodbath. That renders it a ridiculous review. Not only the Balkan audences will have the first described approach, but most of other audiences as well. Beside, what drove Jolie, a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to do this project? The tribulations in love life? Really? Or rape of women and "the third world" injustices? Haven't you read what Ebert wrote?

  2. Hi Darius, It just seems to me that you were looking for a different kind of movie. The 1970s mini-series Holocaust was criticized in much the same manner. Angelina Jolie opens her up to further criticism because she isn't from the Balkans. However, obviously I liked the movie and saw value in it.

    And I liked the film basically for two reasons: (1) It actually presented in some way "the Serb side" of the conflict -- that many Serbs saw the conflict as a continuation of previous conflicts and yes as "payback" (however misguided) for atrocities committed against them and their relatives in those previous conflicts, and (2) the film personalized the statistics. Each of those people killed and raped in the conflict was a person who could have had a different destiny if not for the conflict. Then, prior to the conflict, there really was, necessarily, intermingling between the various ethnic and religious groups. Yes, the film was "melodramatic," but there really were/are inter-ethnic couples and families in the Balkans (and elsewhere) whose lives have been largely reduced to melodrama because of ethnic/religious tensions.