In The Land of Blood and Honey

There’s something magical about watching a movie on the silver screen. You give permission for the story to envelop you, to get lost in the scenes, to become a character.

And then there are the films where one needs the sanctuary of home, to absorb without being in it, because the intensity of the experience leaves one appreciating the safe comfort of one’s home.

“In the Land of Blood and Honey” is one such film. Not available in my local theaters, I curled up in an overstuffed armchair and relied on the “One Demand” menu to transport me into Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut.

It’s a tough, emotional journey, drawing one through the tangled, complex love story made even more complicated by the historical reality of the Balkans. The romance between Danijel, a Christian-Serb (played by Goran Kostic) and Muslim-Bosnian Ajla (Zana Marjonivic) plays out as a metaphor for a country beset by ancient prejudices, double standards and the universal application of violence against women and one’s own neighbors, to support (in this case Serbian-Christian) male hegemony.

Jolie paints Danijel a complex character – gentle and sensitive, yet victim of an Oedipal complex as he tries to follow his father, General Nebojsa Vukojevich (Rade Serbedzija) into the Serbian army and xenophobic-inspired killing. Danijel is popular with the men he leads, turning into a Muslim killer before our eyes, and we see him constantly wrestle with the conflicting roles he plays. As the viewer squirms away from the violence of neighbor against neighbor, and feels revulsion when faced with the General’s hateful views towards the Muslims of his own community, as we also feel sympathy for the man caught in a situation beyond his control. One aches for the soldier who tries to protect his love, his prisoner, from his own people.

“Why couldn’t you be born a Serb?” he asks plaintively, gently stroking her face.

Ajla is a more passive character – something of a surprise to me, considering the strong, powerful women Jolie usually elects to play as an actress. Ajla is a metaphor for all the women caught up in this testosterone-fuelled war. In the few moments where she shows her inner strength, we can believe she will endure, if she simply stays quiet, submissive. It is this subtlety in Jolie’s writing and direction that is remarkable. Too often, especially with an actor-novice director, the actor cannot help but be the unseen star. But Jolie steps away, allowing the story to speak its own truth.

The film includes a by now well-known scene: a row of Muslim prisoners, emaciated, watching the camera blankly as it pans past them. Those stares sear our consciousness and fuses with the same eyes we’ve seen in footage from Nazi concentration camps, Darfurian refugees, starving East African children.

As politicians try to deny the existence of these situations (Bush 1’s Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Thomas Niles: “We don’t have, thus far, substantiated information that would confirm the existence of these camps.”), we become increasingly aware of the weakness in our leaders and the international community in dealing with a situation like this, favoring the protection of their political careers over getting involved in protecting fellow humans.

The former Yugoslavia was a complicated beast: a federation of 6 Republics: Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro, and the larger and more problematic three, Serbia (mostly Orthodox, but with a large Albanian enclave in Kosovo); Croatia (mainly Catholic, but complicated by Serb-dominated Karjina); and Bosnia, with a large Muslim population and nationalistic Serb-Croatian minorities.

Prior to the Ottoman Empire, the majority of Bosnia had been Orthodox Christian, albeit with regular conflicts with Rome. That lack of strict orthodoxy may well have contributed to opening the door to Islam when the Ottoman Empire powered through the region. Conversion of about one-third of Bosnia’s Christians to Islam appears, however, to be more a matter of survival and expediency than any spiritual awakening.

For more than three centuries, Christians were routinely subjected to rigorous oppression: hefty poll taxes, unable to carry weapons, barred from wearing green, the color of Islam. They were required to dismount when a Muslim passed; they were not allowed to build a better residence than a Muslim neighbor; churches were to be built low and modest, and certainly with no church bells. Non-Muslims had no legal status and could not testify against a Muslim. They could be sentenced to death if found guilty of blasphemy – a Muslim’s accusation could not be countered.

By the time the indignity and humiliation resulted in numerous uprisings against the Muslim overlords, the anger had settled blood-deep. As much as the Hapsburgs were seen initially as liberators, their continued pandering to the Muslims did not help the nationalistic fervor that was growing.

In a telling scene in the film, a conversation between Danijel and his father: “This land is soaked in Serbian blood. And now they want us to live here under Muslim rule? In a Muslim state?”

Tito’s Yugoslavia was a time where at least on a superficial level, wounds appeared to have healed. But, in constructing as fair a balance as possible between the groups, the resultant peace merely served as a band-aid to the centuries-long resentment.

Numerous uprisings between the parties, all claiming to be more historically aggrieved than the others unsettled Yugoslavia after Tito’s death, and by 1992, when the European Community recognized Bosnia as an independent state, tensions erupted. As Serbians tried to take control of Sarajevo, and the country stepped closer to the abyss, the cruelty of Serbian anger grew, as they unflinchingly attacked women and children, and bombed hospitals – a signal of what was in store.

The reign of terror, the rape camps where women, and children as young as 3 or 4 years old, were violated in tens of thousands, left no doubt that nothing short of ethnic cleansing was on Serbian minds. In some areas, a home owner’s ethnicity was painted on his front door – Serb homes were left untouched. Muslim and Croatians homes were destroyed. Non-Serbs were forced out of their jobs. In at least one instance, hundreds were locked in a building which was then burned down; many hundreds were rounded into cattle trucks and left for days, with masses of children and the vulnerable adults dying.

While Serb forces were driving out nearly 2 million Bosnians, the UN relief agencies refused refugees access to safety – acknowledgement of their plight would make them accomplices to the cleansing.

The most powerful weapon in a war is the media. Much of what happened was due to political manipulation of the media from all sides.

Both Muslim and Christians indulged in vampiric hominems, instilling fear and driving all sides closer to war.

One journalist said, “You Americans would become nationalist and racists, too, if your media were totally in the hands of the KKK.”

The propaganda was relentless, and the fear of what could happen became the impetus for what actually happened.

The UN peacekeepers sent to Bosnia in May 1992 were refused permission to use force beyond personal protection. Wagging a finger at a patriot intent on killing is no way to keep any peace, and UN and NATO soldiers were mocked, with some taken hostage in a clear message of contempt for the international community.

DANIJEL: You think the rest of the world will ignore this? I don’t. The UN has already sent peacekeepers to Croatia. They will not turn their backs on all of this.

VUKOJEVIC: Of course they see everything, but they will not attack us. They won’t do anything…. Bolster your men. And finish cleansing this area.

This mirrors a real moment, caught on tape of a Serb Commander of the VRS (Army of Republika Srpska), ordering the shelling of the UN-protected “safe zone” of Srebrenica:

“That’s it, man. I see the hard one. Let’s lash out at them…. Push it now. I want to hear the Wolves howling. Charge! NATO Pact won’t do anything to us… Take your best positions…”

From Radislav Krstic, Chief of Staff of the Drina Wolves, outside Srebrenica: “There are still 3,500 parcels I have to distribute and I have no solution.”

And later, from the Muslim enclave of Zepa, “Kill them all – not a single one must be left alive.”

The infamous assault on the town of Srebrenica has been written by many. The desire by General Mladic to stop the pipeline of arms into the UN-run town, defended by Dutch peacekeepers trying to protect thousands of Muslim refugees, resulted in the shocking genocide that finally catapulted the war onto front pages globally. Non-combatant Serbs, including women and children, were butchered, tortured, mutilated, burned alive, and the fortunate few to escape that horror were brutally raped as peacekeepers stood by, unable to defend the victims.

Finally, the world paid attention. Whether Srebrenica was attacked as a way to score points in the propaganda war, or whether it was resolved ethnic cleansing of Muslims, can be debated. Certainly, neither side had clean hands in the war to this point.

Perhaps the term “ethnic cleansing” is a misnomer. The ethnic groups had been living in relative harmony for a long time, despite the underlying tensions. This appeared to be more cultural, communal, and religious.

Indira Hadziomerovic said in Sarajevo, 1992: “We lived happily together for many years and now it has come to killing each other’s babies. What is happening to us?”

Trying to cloak genocide behind a wall neatly labeled “humanitarian crisis” reflects a leadership driven by fear. In an attempt to relegate the Balkans to irrelevance, James Baker described it as a “European problem”. A “European problem” allowed America to divorce itself from the reality of being a part of Europe. A myopic vision of history meant Americans seeing the Balkans as an isolated, European issue, rather than a contribution to the stability of Europe, and by extension, America. The fates of all countries are tied together, and the relationship between Danijel and Ajla is symbolic of that connection.

The film being available “on demand” proves a point: even at the height of the genocide, few in the general public were really interested in what was happening. The disinterest was probably as much from not understanding the complicated scenario of Croats-Serb-Muslim-Christians, and the inability to word what was happening into a soundbite, as it was the near-xenophobic view many embrace by thinking that what happens “over there” is none of their concern.

The unflinching conclusion made me grateful for that overstuffed armchair, as I sat, doing something I never normally do: watching every credit as it rolled past, unable to move, reluctant to return to the world, relieved that I didn’t need to step over empty popcorn boxes, to join the throng of people in a sane, safe shopping mall.

Instead, I sat stunned. Absorbed. Moved. Quiet. Grateful.

This review was first published in MIPJ, Volume 1.