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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era