In the Land of Blood and Honey
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Tuesday, January 24th, 2012
I have to confess, I might have passed on seeing In the Land of Blood and Honey, under the influence of its many skewering critics, if it hadn’t been for my partner, Ed, who, unbeknownst to me, got us free tickets to a preview. Words like “predictable” “ludicrous” “sanctimonious” and “vanity project” had me bracing for the worst. But after five minutes, I had forgotten the critics’ venom. By ten minutes, I had forgotten the director’s name (which, in case you don’t know, is Angelina Jolie, who also wrote the screenplay).
Hark! Rejoice! Good news is at hand! The dramatized discussion on the realities of sexual violence, begun 20 years ago by Callie Khouri in Thelma & Louise, is not, after all, dead. But in this showing, the glamorous, ass-kicking, newly empowered female is not an eponymous fiction on screen. She is, rather, in the director’s chair. What does appear on screen is a visually spare, verbally muted, blue-grey toned Bosnian war drama that shines a light on rape as a military weapon as it explores what happens when two people in love find themselves on opposing sides of a conflict.
Now I wonder why so many critics can’t find it within themselves to uphold this well-considered and compassionate work. Few of them seem able to discuss the film apart from the person who made it, which brings up an unfortunate Catch 22 of beauty, glamor, sex appeal, wealth and fame: Jolie’s film might have been judged more fairly had she kept her authorship under wraps, but then no one would have bothered to see it.
I don’t want to dwell too much on these critic ravings, but I do have to muse aloud on two of their frequent slurs: that the film is, on the one hand, an “activist film” and, on the other, a “vanity project.” These strike me as somewhat mutually exclusive, although there was one critic who cleverly managed to bypass that contradiction by accusing Jolie of being motivated by a desire to serve her vanity as an activist.
What I’d like to know is: When did it become a sin to hope your film will have an impact on society? And, how did being behind the camera of a film with no stars, in a foreign culture and a foreign language, confronting the viewer with uncomfortable truths become part of the definition of a vanity project?
Here’s what I have to say about In the Land of Blood and Honey: It is not only a very good film, it is a remarkably good directorial debut, as well as an impressive first-time screenwriting effort. And the critics, whatever their motivations, are missing the point.
Here’s the point: Having, by now, in her humanitarian work, witnessed untold horrors around the world, Jolie became gripped by an impulse to tell a story reflecting some fraction of the totality of what she has seen. She could have chosen the story of child warriors in Africa, or Pol Pot survivors in Cambodia, or women living under the Taliban in Afghanistan or any number of other human tragedies she has visited. But she chose the systematic rape and ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian War.
This was a sensible choice for two reasons: one, given that the audience she most wants to impact with a revealing picture of aggressive conflict is the comfortable, sheltered western audience, to focus on a European tragedy brings it sufficiently close to home for those viewers to connect with. And, two, being that she is, herself, female, choosing to focus on the use of rape as a weapon in these conflicts makes it personal, which is the strongest place from which to undertake the telling of a story. These are the kinds of responsible choices any mature writer would make who feels compelled to say something meaningful in their creative work.
However, given who Jolie is in the world, her creative work is bound to attract a percentage of viewers who are simply the wrong ones for it. “Our favorite bombshell action star has directed a war film? Oh boy! Can’t wait! Kathryn Bigelow, watch out!” But this is not a war film. The Bosnian War is raging somewhere in the background. What is being foregrounded here are the civilian by-products of war: the persecution of ethnic muslims, the massacre of men suspected to be soldiers and, most of all, the systematic rape of women. That last one is key because, when endeavoring to gain dominance over a population, it actually isn’t necessary to kill all the women. Rape will do the trick just fine. This is what makes it such an effective weapon of war. And this is the statement Jolie felt compelled to put forth.
But how does one do that in a filmed drama? Do you show the literal experience of a Bosnian muslim woman being taken hostage, put in an encampment and raped over and over again? That would be kind of hard to watch. And, more important, how do you end that story? The war ends. She goes back to her husband (if he’s still alive) who, entrenched in cultural prejudice, can’t help seeing her as tainted and therefore rejects her. As much as this may be the truth, such a harsh delivery doesn’t help the audience take it in. A compassionate storyteller must have a certain amount of compassion for the viewer, as well.
Okay, so how bout if all the women in the encampment band together and carry out a plan to poison their persecutors through the food they are forced to cook them everyday? With the men writhing in pain on the floor, the women grab their guns and form a guerilla force not to be reckoned with, ultimately winning the day. Hooray! Hooray! But, wait, . . . that’s not what we’re trying to say. We’re trying to shed light on an under-acknowledged crime that persists all over the world, to this day. The reality is that women don’t win in this fight and won’t win until both men and women acknowledge it enough to want to stop it. To end with an outlandish Hollywood triumph is only to support our collective denial of how unending the problem still is.
So, if these options are unworkable, how do we tell a story that is grounded in devastating literal truth while also pointing to a larger human Truth? One way this is done is by making the main character’s plight both individual and universal, which then allows it a metaphoric resonance. So let’s take this rape-as-a-weapon-of-war story and put in the middle of it two people from opposing sides who are in love. What does that do? It takes the extreme broken end of human connection, second only to murder (or, arguably, equal to it), which is rape, and puts it up against the far other end of human connection, from which rape is so horribly disconnected, which is love.
This is what Jolie chose to do, and to great effect. As the relationship between Danijel, a Serbian military officer, and Ajla, a Bosnian muslim civilian, progresses, in the midst of surrounding horror, we see the positive potential that exists between them while also seeing the horrifying obstacles they are up against. The love they feel is a representation of all human connection. The difficulty they have maintaining that love while surrounded by sexual violence provides the fullest picture of how much is lost in the perpetuation of brutality, rape and war.
Their story also reminds us that context is everything. The wartime context brings us right up to a delicate edge between lovemaking and rape. On the one hand, being surrounded with death triggers a need for life affirming lovemaking. But, on the other, violent aggression fosters sexual aggression. Ultimately, Ajla can’t tell if Danijel is protecting her or exploiting her. Jolie takes a light touch as she endeavors to resolve these opposing impulses, very much in the European filmmaking tradition, but perhaps too light for some of her American viewing public.
A post-script to the film offers a supporting fact: In the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosnian Muslims, an estimated 50,000 women were raped. Fifty thousand? Statistics of this magnitude are too often a side note in news reports on war. I encountered a similar example just the other day when a headline caught my eye, “Active-Duty Army Suicides Reach Record High.” My concern for veterans drew me in and I learned that, indeed, there were two more suicides in 2011 than in the previous years’ high. Then, well into the article, I read that 2011 showed a 30% increase in reported rapes among the ranks. Thirty percent? Why was that not the headline? Our own society is still a long way from showing an appropriate moral outrage about sexual violence.
That Jolie is clearly ahead of her society on this subject makes me think of the popular 19th century British actress Fanny Kemble who left her southern slave-owning husband because she couldn’t stomach her complicity as a slave-owner’s wife. Kemble already knew that which her society would stay determinedly blind to for a while yet — slavery is a crime against humanity. Nothing forced her to give up her comfortable life other than a grinding moral discomfort.
Likewise, Jolie used her position to speak out loud about the horrifying reality of sexual violence perpetrated against women in war, another crime against humanity. Nothing in her surroundings demanded that she do this. Only her grinding moral discomfort. I think she deserves high praise for making this film. And I hope to God she makes another one.
You can stream In The land Of Blood And Honey on the following Video On Demand websites: