Portrait of Wartime: A Look at IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY
What I know about the Balkans, I did not learn from Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey. Don’t get me wrong, the film astonishes. The movie does extremely well in forcing an understanding of the immediacy of war onto audiences.
War is something that could happen on your front step. It does not take place exclusively in the so-called Third World Countries, or the “South” as we euphemistically refer to states that were victimized by colonialism. The realism of life disrupted; of incessant, systemic violence; death; scarcity introduced into a modern city is unparalleled: this is not something happening “over there” anymore, this hits home. This is where the film succeeds, exceedingly.
For me, the Bosnian War is a deeply personal topic. No, I don’t come from the region, although mistaken assumptions have been made in that regard often. Still, I was flooded with nostalgia, watching the wardrobe, the skinny tie over the oddly colored local cop’s uniform: coming from a post-communist country where we’ve come to identify this particular unflattering shade as “railway blue”, since railroad worker were issued clothing in this hue. Oh, the radiators, a part of the central heating system in the apartment buildings, had me waxing poetic. The same goes for the window frames, the concrete blocks of flats, the hairstyles, the unflattering cuts of skirts and blouses. The accuracy of now historic detail is nothing to frown upon. In the Land of Blood and Honey got this right, as well.
The opening sequence captures an earnest joy of locals coming together to celebrate, complete with their lively music that we have come to love so in Kusturica’s movies. It parallels the optimism the Balkan was experiencing along with other former Eastern Bloc countries that were just freed from the yoke of totalitarian regimes. This illusion of hope was shattered rather effectively, as the night on town is disrupted with a deadly explosion, sudden, harrowing, chilling. I was stupefied and in high anticipation of the rest of the movie. My high hopes were to be crushed, as well.
I was a teenager, as the siege of Sarajevo was happening from April 1992 through February 1996, almost perfectly aligned with my time in high school. Think about that: some kid was living under fire with food drooped by air without any semblance of normalcy, struggling to survive every day through the years that are meant to be the time of their life. While I was living hundreds of miles away, the news about Serbian soldiers sticking babies into ovens and about “internment” camps was front-page news.
I have probably first heard of Sarajevo during my elementary school classes, as the city where Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand, thus setting into motion WWI, unwittingly. The Balkans was since displayed as a keg with gunpowder in European editorial cartoons, the fuse on fire. The fear of the explosiveness of the Bosnian war was quite palatable across the continent, especially in the context of renewed nationalism that was sweeping Europe like a fashion fad. Hey, even conservative UK had (and still has) the Scots vying for independence. The borders were shifting left and right, new countries emerging. But the change was not always orderly.
In the Land of Blood and Honey documents the extreme rampant nationalism, the delusions leading to perpetual retribution; the nonsensical hatred fueled by misguided ambition that does not shy away from exterminating those you personally know. All in the name of some blind ideology. Rade Serbedzija is excellent in his role of general Nebojsa; a ruthless jingoist who in pursuit of Serb nation’s greatness not only denies self-determination to others, but also feels it justifies extermination on genocidal scale. We watch the events unfold, as Muslims are hunted down or killed by snipers, rounded up, taken from their homes to be shot right in front of their loved ones. Bankers and teachers are recruited to kill painters and mechanics they used to have drinks with just a few months ago, people they went to school with. This is Europe. No, this is the world at large.
The Eurocentrist upbringing I had is obviously an aberration – so perhaps this rude awakening I should be grateful for: at fourteen, I had not yet spent a lifetime suffering from misconceptions of indoctrination. If you think about it, Rwandan genocide was happening simultaneously, and the UN and other international agencies, as well as the US, failed to take timely action in both instances. Somehow the African conflict was interpreted as “tribal violence” whereas the genocide in Bosnia was a “civil war”. International criminal tribunals regarding war crimes in both instances, established by the UN still continue their activity in their present day.
The Bosnian war certainly deserves its Hotel Rwanda. But, In the Land of Blood and Honeyunfortunately, is not it. While the production value, the atmosphere, the exteriors, interiors are all impressive, the narrative arc and the dialogue lag behind. There is no real intimacy established between the two main characters, Ajla and Danijel. There were few memorable lines. Honestly, rather simple sentences were used. No development could be observed in the personalities of the two protagonists. We don’t know what motivates them. Surely, aside from their ethnic or religious affiliations, they must have some other primary identity. We are told that Ajla is a painter. Yes, she does paint, and talks about painting. But, in the language lacking in depth and sophistication. How are we supposed to get excited about her work, when she herself lacks passion for it?
Ajla and her lover/prison guard Danijel go through the motions of their affair in a rather monotone fashion. Their inflection hardly changes as they are thrust into life and death situations or discuss deeply personal matters. Whenever we see Ajla’s naked body, it’s arranged on the bed in a painterly fashion, but in a manner of artifice, so no sensuality abounds.
Then, there is the issue of sex itself: there seems to be little distinction between how rape is portrayed versus a lover’s tryst. I had trouble deciding what it is I am looking at, because of the bouts of violence from Danijel towards Ajla, who was all too accepting. I had more sympathy for Darko, who appeared in cursive only, because I was given all I needed to care about him. Indeed, he is a naïve expectant father who so hard wants to persuade himself he is only participating at war to secure a future for his unborn child. The more I saw of Danijel, the less I understood where he was coming from and where he was headed.
I left the theatre rather upset. I thought the movie is an accomplishment, and a missed opportunity all at the same time. Because of the marks it hits. Because of the marks it does not.
What I know about the Balkans may not be a result of the movie, but I was reminded of it, in vivid colors, and for that I am grateful, at least. There are crimes not to be forgotten. And the siege of Sarajevo, and the Yugoslav wars are some of them.