Eroticism and war in Angelina Jolie's directorial debut

In the Land of Blood and Honey is a partial success, says Grace Jennings-Edquist.

Given Hollywood's relative historic disregard for the Bosnian war, Angelina Jolie's directorial debut was always going to pique the interests of ethnic groups in the Balkan region and critics alike.

In the Land of Blood and Honey is a drama set against the bloody backdrop of 1990s ex-Yugoslavia. The Golden Globe-nominated project charts the ambiguous relationship between Ajla (Zana Marjanović), a Bosniak painter, and Danijel (Goran Kostić), a Serb soldier. It follows them from their pre-war date in a nightclub to the horrific rape camps of Bosnia-Herzegovina and, ultimately, to the confined military quarters where Danijel variously protects and imprisons his lover/enemy.

Jolie, who wrote, directed and co-produced the feature, set herself a momentous challenge. The region still has a long way to go in resolving the ugly tensions which sparked the Bosnian war following the collapse of Tito-led Yugoslavia; today, ethnic groups live side by side in what the film describes as "an uneasy peace".

It is unsurprising, then, that even before its December 23 US release, the project attracted both the ire of Bosnian Muslims - when local media erroneously reported an on-screen love narrative between a Bosniak rape victim and her Serbian attacker - and criticism from Serbian groups incensed by the film's alleged one-sided account of the conflict.

Thankfully, Jolie has risen to the challenge with sensitivity. The film is shot in Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles, its representation of the bullet-ridden Sarajevo cityscape shows attention to detail -- despite filming taking place largely in Hungary -- and the actors are local to the region. Jolie's interest in respectful accuracy precludes her film from obtaining the "vanity project" status feared by some.

Indeed, she obviously intends the project as a Hotel Rwanda-esque exercise in global awareness-raising; as she recalled in one interview: "I wanted people to sit for two hours and think, please stop this conflict. Because that's us screaming in our hearts to the international community - please stop this."

Although this goal unsubtly finds expression in several gratuitous monologues and broadcast announcements throughout, it remains laudable, given the relative lack of widespread comprehension of the conflict's complexities. Indeed, the feature proves commendable in its focus on the mass abuse of women that first saw rape recognised as a war crime by the international justice system.

Unfortunately, Jolie's decision to engage the protagonists in an admittedly indistinct "romance" is unrealistic at best and flatly offensive at worst. Danijel intimidates Ajla with weapons and sporadically controls her with violence, even initiating an apparent attempt to rape her; the narrative's attempt to explain away his outbursts as inevitable consequences of family pressure leaves too many questions unanswered.

While the feature thankfully stops short of directly eroticising the relationship's abusive undertones, the inclusion of soft-focus sex scenes and an manipulatively sentimental soundtrack- particularly in combination with Danijel's lament, "if only [Ajla] had been born a Serb" -- occasionally hint at an unsettling attempt at an amorous Montague-and-Capulet-style narrative.

The film's grisly ending provides a degree of much-needed clarity on the protagonists' motivations in pursuing the relationship. Danijel's repentant surrender in the final frame, however, may be read as a partial directorial exoneration of the character -- a conclusion that will disappoint some.

The UK release date for In The Land of Blood and Honey is yet to be confirmed.

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred