Angelina Jolie was only 17 when the Bosnian war broke out — when the nascent countries of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia took up against each other in a bitter conflict that lasted four years and left 100,000 people dead — but she considers it "the war of my generation, to my generation." It's the subject of her directorial debut "In the Land of Blood and Honey," which features an all-Bosnian cast, several of whom joined Jolie in New York for a press day to share what it was like working on such an intense project.
Despite reports, the film's shooting permit was never revoked.
Before anyone had read the script, it was rumored to be about a Bosnian woman who fell in love with her rapist during wartime, which turned out to be false. Also false: all those stories about how the film's shooting permits were revoked because of this misunderstanding of the film's plot.
"It's a very sensitive subject matter," Jolie said of the rape storyline. "Nobody who had an issue with the film had read the script or knew what it was about, so it was a fear of the unknown, I suppose." Instead of being about a woman falling in love with her rapist, the story depicts a man and a woman who had already started dating before the war breaks out, and months later, find themselves on opposite sides at a rape camp. Danijel (Goran Kostic) wants to continue his relationship with Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), and offers his protection — without which, she would be raped by other soldiers. He's not a rapist — but is it love?
"['Romeo and Juliet'], that story is two people on opposite sides who find their way to each other," Jolie explained. "This is two people from the same side, who are then told they are different and cannot be together. It's the opposite. We sometimes refer to this as the love story that could have been, if not for war."
More than that, she said, "This film is not about a couple. It's not about one woman. It's not simply about violence against women. It's about how human beings are changed and how they break down when they're surrounded by horror and violence and hate."
Once she gave Bosnia's cultural minister the script, however, any hesitation was cleared up and she received her permits without further delay. "It's par for the course," Jolie said. "When I went to my cast, they said, 'Welcome to the area.' And we bonded over it."
Jolie sought input from lots of sources.
As a first time writer/director, Jolie sought a lot of guidance with her script, which she first sent out to war survivors and war correspondents, to fact check her authenticity and accuracy. Their responses made her realize "how complex the situation was," and she made adjustments.
"The more I learned, the more I was overwhelmed by the guilt of how little I knew," the director said. "I sat down with one particular woman, which was very hard because many people who lived in the war hadn't spoken much about it, and she spoke quite openly and in great detail about how she had been used as a human shield. And while it wasn't the most violent thing she went through, the thing that broke her was when the soldiers took old women and made them dance naked. She could never recover from it."
That scene soon made it into her script, as a harrowing moment. When Jolie started auditioning her cast, she discovered that they had additional stories to tell that would enhance the script as well. "All these extraordinary actors came in and started to teach me about their religions and history and culture," she said. "So I was absorbing their information."
One of the hardest scenes was shot first.
On the first day of shooting, Jolie staged a scene where the women first arrive at the rape camp, "when the women are pulled off the bus and their things are ripped away from them," and one woman after another is to be raped — by being forced down face first on a crude table and penetrated from behind. "I was nervous that this scene would cause tension, because it would be shocking for everybody," the director said.
Jolie tried to do the shoot with only two cameras, and told the cast and crew before they started, "Please give me your all. I know this is so hard, and we will not do this all day, but we have to do this. I know it's going to be painful."
"I didn't want to ask the 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. And it was much harder for the men who were there, because they had to act in a way that was not in their nature. But I told them it was a gift that they were giving to these women, to show the true horror of what happened."
After she called "Cut!" the actor playing the rapist, Erwin Sijamija, picked up the actress playing the raped woman and "gave her the biggest hug," Jolie said. "He made sure she was OK. And then the other men picked up the clothes and redressed the women themselves. And that really set the tone. It taught me everything."
Most of the cast lived through the war.
Alma Terzić, who played Hana, lost 28 members of her family in the war — and believed her father to be dead when Bosnian soldiers took him from his home and forced him to join the military. (He returned a year later). Vanessa Glodjo, who played Lejla, had a bomb destroy half her home and was hit with shrapnel in her leg ("At least I didn't lose my leg," she said.)
Rade Serbedzija, who played Nebojsa, was in Sarajevo on the first day of fighting in April, 1992, and was performing at a protest in the city's main square when snipers on a Holiday Inn rooftop opened fire on the crowd, killing one man ten feet from him. "People started to run, but I couldn't run," Serbedzija said. "I could only watch what was going on and notice that a war had started.
As for Sijamija, who became a Bosnian government soldier during the war at the age of seventeen, he said he saw countless friends die. One day, he received a phone call from a former classmate, warning him that he had seen him on the road and that he should move more quickly if he didn't want to be shot. Turned out his friend was now a sniper on the opposite side. "And there's the question: Is he a good soldier, or a good man?" Sijamija asked. "He maybe killed somebody before me."
Most of the cast had some difficulty talking about the war, having not shared all their experiences or memories with each other before the promotional push for the film. "I told myself after the war, 'Be strong. You can survive this. Don't cry,'" Sijamija said. "When I was watching the movie, I heard someone crying, and I started to cry."
The film was shot in two languages.
Jolie directed the cast to act each scene two ways — once in English, and once in Bosnian. The release this week is in Bosnian with English subtitles, but the other version will be available likely later on DVD or digitally. "You're all welcome to see it," Jolie said. "I'm equally as proud of it."
But, she ultimately decided to release the film first in Bosnian, because that's the more "authentic language" for the cast and subject matter. "You wonder how a film like this is going to be received," Jolie said. "You're told you're going to have to do a lot of different things, such as shoot it in English and with a cast that people are going to recognize. We decided to do neither. The cast speaks English beautifully, and we did it in English for people not as comfortable sitting through a movie with subtitles, and we worked twice as hard to switch languages constantly, to reach as many people as possible. I don't know any other actors who could pull off what they did in two languages. But I'm happy it's coming out in its authentic language, because that's the dream."
"In The Land Of Blood And Honey" opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 23rd.