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.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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Val McDermid Q&A: “I have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon”

The crime writer on her heroes, joining a band and winning Mastermind. 

Val McDermid is the author of 39 books, the majority being crime fiction. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She also sponsors the McDermid Stand at Raith Rovers’s football ground, named  in honour of her father, a club scout.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on my father’s shoulders in the town square in Kirkcaldy at Christmas time. I remember the impossibly tall Christmas tree covered in lights. And there was a coin-operated machine about the size of a table football game that featured plastic figures of pipers and drummers moving back and forth to the tinny sound of “Scotland the Brave”.

Who was your childhood hero?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were my heroes. I’m not much given to hero worship, but I still admire them both.

What political figure, past or present,do you look up to?

I had considerable admiration for the late John Smith. I think he would have made very different choices from those of Tony Blair. And I do have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opened my eyes to the reality of life for many of the immigrants who come to this country; the price they pay and the persistence they show in trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families. It puts a human face on the empty posturing of so many politicians.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life of Christopher Marlowe – the same as it was last time, when I won.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m happy where I am. Chances are, any other time or place, I’d be a lowly peasant with no way out.

What TV show could you not live without?

It’s a toss-up between University Challenge and Only Connect.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m currently sitting for a longitudinal drawing by Audrey Grant, an Edinburgh artist. It’s a fascinating process.

What’s your theme tune?

“First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen. It’s got energy and indomitability. It’s about not giving up or giving in.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Early in my career, I asked Sara Paretsky for advice. She said: “Never do anything that isn’t tax deductible.” I’ve done my best to stick to that.

What’s currently bugging you?

How long have you got? Almost every element of Westminster politics, for starters…

What single thing would make your life better?

A clone to do the stuff I don’t want to.

When were you happiest?

I’ve never been happier than I am now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to think I could have been a singer-songwriter. I’ve recently started performing again in a band with a bunch of friends – Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.

Are we all doomed?

It’s hard not to think so, but I remain optimistic.

“Insidious Intent” by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear