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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times