In the Land of Nonexistent Objectivity and Empathy

Most people know Angelina Jolie as an attractive actress who has built a career on a number of action films in which she often appears with the biggest Hollywood stars. However, parallel with that work she has been a good will ambassador for UNHCR. For more than ten years now she has travelled the world with the organization trying to help benighted refugees, hoping to draw attention of the world media to some of these causes. One of the countries she has taken an interest in is Bosnia-Herzegovina, which went through a horrific war and brutal crimes between 1992 and 1995.

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Jolie, moved by the tragic fate of women in the Bosnian war, decided to direct the movie In the Land of Blood and Honey which presents rather well the brutality of war, as well as the particular cruelty of Serbian strategy during that war, but focusing mainly on the subject of the “Bosnian woman”, i.e. the 20,000-50,000 mainly Bosniak women who were raped during the war. This mass rape of women was used by the Serbian side as one of the instruments of implementation of terror against the non-Serb population. The Human Rights Quarterly report argues that “the desire for the Serbs to degrade the Bosnian Muslim woman, to humiliate and fertilize her with the ‘little Chetniks” is of paramount importance. “This issue, among others, was earlier recognized and dealt with by the Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić in her film Grbavica which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2006.

This is by no means a review of Jolie’s directorial debut, so this column will not contain a detailed analysis of the plot, nor will it assess the quality of the dialogue or the acting. But it is necessary to briefly describe the subject of the film. It is about a relationship between a Serb police officer Danijel and Ajla, a Bosniak painter, a relationship abruptly interrupted by the beginning of the war in Bosnia. Ajla is arrested by Serb soldiers and ends up at the camp where Danijel places her under his protection in order to prevent her from getting raped by other soldiers. He was in love with Ajla before the war, and during the war continues to have warm feelings towards her, but at the same time he is able to take advantage of her unequal position since she is in a way his private property. Meanwhile, Daniel’s father is a senior officer and a hardline Serbian nationalist and obviously cannot see anything good in the fact that Danijel is in love with a Muslim and is determined to end the relationship.

No film about the war in Bosnia has raised such a rumpus as Jolie’s directorial debut. At the very outset, the project encountered dispute and obstacles. The authorities of Sarajevo, under pressure from the Srebrenica women’s association and other organizations, refused to give a filming license because they thought that the reported (at this early stage, also misreported) premise of the film (raped Bosnian woman falls in love with her rapist) offends all Bosnian women who were abused during the war. Thus the producers were forced to switch to shooting the film in central Bosnia, and Hungary.

Much more furious reactions came after the premiere of the film and particularly from much of the Serbian media and many Internet forums, which almost unanimously characterized the movie as one-sided, anti-Serbian, a project aiming to denigrate the Serbian people and once again show the stereotypical Serbs as the “bad guys” in an American film. Serbian criticism of the film culminated when thousands of people, clearly orchestrated and recruited on Facebook, and various forums and web sites, went on the pre-eminent movie database giving the film lowest marks, plunging it’s average rating to 4.1 (out of 10), as of 6 April 2012. Many negative comments left on the website were written by disgruntled Serbian visitors, most of whom had not seen the film.

It should be noted that at the Sarajevo premiere 5000 moviegoers attended, while in Belgrade, there were only 12 (three of whom left the hall before the end), and that the Bosnian Serb dominated entity Republika Srpska completely boycotted and refused to screen the film. The Bosnian and Serbian media cannot look at this movie objectively because they cannot look Bosnian war objectively. In the media, and the societies at large, there is an obvious lack of maturity in the thinking about the war and its atrocities. It is clear that there is still no willingness from any party to truly confront all the crimes that were committed in its name, and objectively look at all the crimes that were committed during the 1990s. The main culprit for this is still a pronounced nationalism that keeps most citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina in its deadly embrace. For me, it’s sad when you see thousands of people unable to face the past and recognize unequivocally the historical facts.

Of course, every crime is a crime that should and must be prosecuted, but it is unacceptable to demand that every conflict is relativized until it bears no semblance to actual events, nor to demand that every work of art, newspaper article or a documentary film seek to uncritically present the other side of the conflict, because referring to one victim only in relation to another victim, diminishes both. Imagine if the Germans objected that in, say, Spielberg's Schindler’s List (a film about the Nazi atrocities against Jews during World War II) does not show the murder of German civilians and numerous rapes of German women by Russian soldiers (all true, and horrible). Of course, there is nothing wrong about mentioning these as a historical fact, but when it requires a counterbalancing of any crime, then you are deliberately trying to relativize and thus minimize the individual losses. Every war has attackers and defenders, victims and executioners, ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’; even though it is also true these can appear on both sides. There were Serbian acts of heroism and humanity in that war, as there were Bosniaks who committed war crimes. These things happened. But this does not explain, nor excuse, nor diminish the brute facts of the beginning and the evolution of that war. Serbian forces largely carried out the brutal plan of their political leadership (mainly Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić), including the Hague-recognized genocide against Bosniaks in eastern Bosnia, ethnic cleansing in areas inhabited by Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks, and the systematic destruction of cultural and religious monuments, buildings and institutions that did not wear the prefix “Serbian”.

But, to return to Jolie’s film. Is it some kind of masterpiece that will be remembered for its brilliant screenplay, extraordinary photography, or acting? Probably not. But Angelina wanted to make a film that would throw light on all the raped women of the unfortunate war in Bosnia through the story of one woman. This is why this film cannot be seen and evaluated only as a work of art, but should be viewed in the light of the weigh of history and the message it carries.

In the Land of Blood and Honey has given, if not a great contribution to film art, then certainly a contribution to our collective memory of the past. We should all remember the evil that happened during the Balkan wars in order to prevent them from happening again. Tragic is the level of discussion every time you raise the issue of war crimes in Bosnia. And if we take the film In the Land of Blood and Honey, it is obvious that very few of the articles and texts which were written attacking it were an attempt to understand what it was like to be a woman (of any ethnicity) in various camps during the war. They usually simply expressed grievances caused by the film to whatever side the writer represented. It is precisely this devastating image that shows the way the war is always perceived only in the light of “our” victims. Rarely is there a bit of objectivity or desire to understand the suffering on the other side.

The masses should sooner identify with all the unfortunate victims and all the raped woman than to side with war criminals just because these may belong to their people. This should be done not only for moral and humanitarian reasons (though humanity comes before nationality surely), but for the future of its people, so that something similar would not happen again, because only truth, repentance and forgiveness can lead to a true reconciliation, which would eventually bring real peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the rest of Southeast Europe.

“Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Conflict: A Framework for Prevention and Response”. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 2008.
Weitsman P.A. (2008). “The Politics of Identity and Sexual Violence: A Review of Bosnia and Rwanda”. Human Rights Quarterly 30: 561–578.