A Look Back At Bosnia, Through Angelina Jolie’s Eyes

Angelina Jolie was just 16 when the war in Bosnia began, and she acknowledges now that she paid little heed to it at the time. But as her awareness of international issues later took shape, her attention was drawn back to that Balkan conflict.

“I wanted to understand,” she says. “I was so young, and I felt that this was my generation; how do I not know more?” That interest led Jolie to choose the Bosnian war as the subject of In the Land of Blood and Honey, her debut film as a writer and director.

As someone who covered Bosnia, I appreciate Jolie’s interest in highlighting the war again at a time when it has mostly faded from the public consciousness. The conflict, which set Serb and Croat nationalist forces against the Muslim-led Bosnian government, was characterized by gross violations of human rights, and it made a mockery of allegedly European values — in the very heart of Europe.

This was the war that popularized the term “ethnic cleansing,” a euphemism for the forced transfer of populations purely on the basis of their ethnic background or religion. Between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped during the war, leading to the first prosecution of rape on its own as a crime against humanity. Many of us who covered the war felt it deserved more attention than it got.

But the Balkans is a region of great complexity, persistent interethnic tension, deep national identities and rival historical narratives. The same events tend to be viewed differently by different sides. No one — no journalist, no writer, no filmmaker — ventures into Balkan storytelling without controversy. Bosnia, where Serbs, Muslims, Croats and people of mixed ancestry have long comingled, is a minefield all its own.

In order to make her film as fair and accurate as possible, Jolie needed to familiarize herself with Bosnian culture, down to the drinking habits and the linguistic peculiarities in a country where the different sides speak essentially the same language but cling to the notion that their dialects are unique. She met with Bosnians on all sides and heard their stories firsthand. She read books and consulted with some of the key characters from that conflict, like U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke. She talked to journalists who covered the war, me included.

Perhaps most important, she cast her film entirely with actors from the former Yugoslavia, all of whom brought their own war experience to the project.

Alma Terzic, who grew up in a Muslim family in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, was just 5 years old when war broke out.

“I was a little child, and for me … everything was so huge, the bombs and the guns,” Terzic said during a panel discussion among the cast members and Jolie last month in New York, at the premiere of Jolie’s film. “And I remember the smell. Some details just stuck in your head, and you want to move [them], but they just stay with you.”

In the movie, Terzic plays a Bosnian Muslim woman who is imprisoned with other Muslim women and repeatedly raped by Bosnian Serb forces. In her own case, however, the most traumatic experience in the war came when soldiers from the Muslim-led Bosnian government broke into her house and forced her father to go with them to fight the Serbs. Terzic, her mother, and her sister were left on their own.

“I remember how hungry we were,” Terzic recalled, “and my mother’s hair going white after they took my father.”

Vanesa Glodjo, a Sarajevo native, was cast as a Muslim woman stranded in Sarajevo during the war, just as she was in real life. Seventeen at the time the war began, Glodjo endured days of shelling. Her building had a basement where people took shelter, though Glodjo strangely wanted to go outside when the mortars began to fall.

“I was so afraid of basements,” she said, “because I didn’t know what was happening. As soon as the shelling starts, I go out, which is completely, of course, not rational.”

Many Sarajevans came to believe what would happen to them was strictly a matter of fate. As it turned out, the one time Glodjo got wounded during the war was on a day when she stayed inside.

“Half of my house was gone, destroyed, behind my back,” she recalled. “One [piece of] shrapnel went through my leg, through the muscle.”

The main Serb character in Jolie’s film is a soldier torn between his affection for a Muslim woman and his loyalty to his father, a general in the Bosnian Serb army, leading his forces into combat against the Bosnian Muslims and their allies. The role is played by Goran Kostic, who also brought his personal experience to the performance.

“My dad at the time was a Serbian officer in the Serbian army, [with] the rank of general,” Kostic told the New York audience. In fact, the tradition of serving in the Serbian army went back several generations in his family. “That was my destiny,” Kostic said, “to become a soldier myself.”

In the film, his character heeds his father’s wishes and joins him fighting on the Bosnian Serb side. Kostic himself, however, did not follow his father’s military lead, choosing instead to move to London and escape the war. But he had no trouble identifying with the Serb soldier he was asked to portray and with the personal dilemma the soldier faced.

“It was easy to look at it … and say there are so many similarities here,” Kostic noted. “[I said,] ‘I can easily get into that emotional landscape between my father in real life and the father in the film itself.’”

Ermin Sijamija had precisely the opposite acting challenge. In Jolie’s film, he plays an especially brutal Serb soldier. But in real life he fought with his fellow Muslims on the Bosnian government side. “I was in the war, I was in the fight. I was in combat. I saw my friends dying in my hands,” he told the audience. “I saw all the bad things.”

Because she herself had not been in Bosnia during the war, Jolie had to rely on the accounts of others. She heard in one conversation, for example, about an occasion during the war when some elderly Muslim women were forced to strip naked and dance in front of laughing Serb soldiers. Jolie included that incident in her film, along with a scene of Muslim women being used as human shields, which she also learned about during conversations with war victims. Some Sarajevans, meanwhile, insisted that Jolie distinguish between extreme nationalist Serbs and those who rejected the ethnic intolerance of their own leaders.

And then there were the sticklers for accuracy on more mundane points.

One Serb man pulled Jolie aside and told her about the concerns of his fellow Serb actors. “And, of course, they were all 6 foot 4, striking-looking men, and [it was] my first day, and I’m nervous and trying to direct them,” Jolie recalls. “And they’re saying, ‘Miss, we need to talk to you.’”

“And they said, ‘First of all, we never say, ‘Sir.’ You have us saying ‘Sir’ through the whole script. Serbs don’t say ‘Sir.’ And we don’t drink tea. We never drink tea.’ And I had this whole thing about Turkish coffee,” Jolie says, laughing, “and of course that’s politically incorrect in the region, which I didn’t realize. So I said, ‘It’s Turkish coffee,’ and [they said,] ‘No, no, it’s Serbian coffee.’”

Jolie says her actors helped make her film more authentic. Still, there was much she had to figure out on her own. Jolie did not know the details of Alma’s father being dragooned to fight on the Muslim side, nor, she says, did she know exactly what Sijamija had gone through as a Bosnian soldier.

“He was the silent guy through the entire film,” Jolie says. “The entire production, he never spoke. He was just elegant, always doing his job. I heard he had been in the military, but I never wanted to ask him, because I knew it was painful. So I didn’t sit him down and drill him about it. I just had a feeling, and I could tell by the way he did the military scenes that he was familiar with weapons, but I never wanted to ask.”

My own contribution to Jolie’s film was marginal, informal and unpaid. She was keenly aware of Balkan sensitivities and wanted to make sure the facts were straight. Jolie and her producers asked me about intermarriage rates in Sarajevo before and after the war, for example. They asked me to review the opening and closing onscreen texts in the film and to help with the preparation of radio news broadcasts heard in the background during the film. By the time I became involved, Jolie had learned how important it was to get the nuances correct when producing a film about the Bosnian war.

In the Land of Blood and Honey was shot in both English and Serbo-Croatian versions, and Jolie and her producers had struggled with the need to settle on a script translation agreeable to all sides.

“Some people objected to the first one as leaning too far in one direction,” she says, “so we did another. And then someone objected to that one as leaning too far the other way. We always had to find a middle ground. Any time I could get them all to agree, I knew it was the middle ground. So we would go back and forth until everybody agreed. That was the complexity of it. Somebody constantly whispering into your ear, ‘We don’t do this,’ and somebody else saying, ‘They absolutely do that.’”

Not surprisingly, Jolie says she’s been more concerned over how her movie would be received in Bosnia and Serbia than in New York or Los Angeles. Those local audiences are the ones who will tell her if her portrayal of the conflict was, in their view, fair and accurate.

Her multiethnic cast in the end was happy with it. The film has already had an initial screening in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, and it was well-received there. The official premiere in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, is set for next month.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.