Angelina Jolie got a crash course in Bosnian politics while shooting her directorial debut, "In the Land of Blood and Honey." Rumors swirled that the film set during the Bosnian War involved a rape victim falling in love with her attacker. Protests led the production to nearly lose its shooting permit and the actress-turned-filmmaker found herself having to set the record straight for Bosnia's cultural minister.
When she returned to her shooting schedule, Jolie said she felt even closer to her all-Bosnian cast. "They said, 'Welcome to the area,'" she recalled.
"Nobody who had an issue with the film had read the script or knew what it was about," Jolie said during a press conference for the film yesterday in New York. "It was a fear of the unknown, I suppose."
Set for a limited release by FilmDistrict on December 23 ahead of a wider release in January, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is the bleak tale of Aija (Zana Marjanovic), a Bosnian Muslim woman who has a brief romantic encounter with Serbian soldier Danijel (Goran Kostic) before the war. Later, Danijel develops into a fierce soldier but manages to keep Ajila safe in the prison camp he runs. While their affair behind closed doors courts danger, the movie's extends beyond forbidden love to explore the ubiquitous sense of claustrophobia and danger experienced by Bosnians at the time.
Underscoring that point, Tuesday's press conference was moderated by longtime NPR journalist Tom Gjelten, who spoke of his experiences covering the war. "This really is the way it was," he told a roomful of journalists, citing the film's depictions of cramped detention camps and forced evacuations in the film. He then asked a number of Serbian castmembers to share their war stories, leading to a dour series of testimonials that took the focus off the star director and turned the experience into something closer to a focus group.
Those stories, of course, were precisely what drew Jolie to the material. A teenager during the Bosnian war, she only recognized the depth of trauma it caused for countless Bosnians later in life. "When I first approached the film, I never planned to direct anything," she said. "I had been haunted for years by the lack of intervention people face in conflict."
Research about the war brought an immediacy to her concerns. "It was a war of my generation and something I felt a responsibility to write about," she said. "The more I learned about it, the more I was overwhelmed by the guilt of how little I knew." To prepare for the movie, she spoke with many war survivors. "It was very hard and emotional," she said.
"Blood and Honey" sports a grim tone that places it alongside other dark historical dramas about war, torture and societal oppression in general. More surprisingly, the movie has genuine production values rather than the first-time amateurishness some viewers might expect from a global celebrity with the power to make the movie on her own terms.
Jolie said her work with countless top-tier directors helped her prepare for the experience. She cited Clint Eastwood, who cast her in"Changeling," as her primary mentor. "He taught me a lot about working with people you love," she said. "He's also very fast. I had to learn about the economy of a shoot and a budget." She also mentioned her experience with Michael Winterbottom on "A Mighty Heart." "The way he set the tone made it feel real," she said. "He allowed a lot of room for the actors to create something that wasn't pushed on them."
Jolie managed to do that by allowing her actors to speak in their native language. (While they also recorded their dialogue in English, the Bosnian version will hit U.S. theaters.) The bigger challenge, however, was shooting scenes of rough violence. Jolie mentioned an early moment where Serbian soldiers line up their women captives and proceed to rape them. "As a director, I didn't want to ask women to do that," she said. "I felt that I was torturing them myself, so I kept apologizing and telling them that they were doing a great service to other women. It was much harder for the men that were there. This was not their nature."
But she made peace with the scene, she said, because she felt the movie addressed bigger issues. "It's not simply about violence against women," she said. "It's about how human beings break down when surrounded by such horror, ugliness and hate. Even decent people are broken. I did this so we would have these questions and discuss wars around the world today — and what could happen tomorrow."
She said it wasn't a duty she took lightly. "You feel a huge pressure and responsibility for this very real, difficult part of history," she said. "I still feel that pressure."
Her closeness to the material was evident when she bristled at a question about early comparisons of the movie's plot to "Romeo and Juliet." She called it "an oversimplification," adding, "I think we all know that story as people from opposite sides who find their way to each other. This is two people from the same side who are then told they are different and cannot be together. It's the opposite."
Ducking easy hooks for her movie, Jolie made it clear that the commercial prospects for a project of this nature are dicey. Asked if she wanted to work on other difficult projects, she replied, "We had a very low budget, so we're starting at a good base." It was the rare moment where she allowed herself to laugh. "The success was being able to get this made," she said. "I hope people see it as a piece of art as well. I hope the actors involved are acknowledged for being extraordinary. My fingers are crossed for that."