In the Bible we see the tension between the Jews and the Samaritans. Jesus even used this tension in his storytelling (Parable of the Good Samaritan) and in teachable moments (the woman at the well). The tension between the Christian Serbs and the Muslim Serbs during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s has its share of similarities. Somehow hatred becomes so great that one does not see the humanity in the other. This is what writer-director Angelia Jolie serves us in her directorial debut of In the Land of Blood and Honey.
Set during the Bosnian war, the film follows Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serbian solider, as he re-encounters Ajla (Zane Marjanovic), a Bosnian Muslim artist who is a new captive in the camp Danijel oversees. Their bond is greater than any distance between the two. Before the war, Bosnia was one of the most diverse countries in Europe. After one bomb, sides were created. And suddenly, there were differences that were not okay. The relationship between Danijel and Ajla becomes a metaphor in itself for the war. Their struggles to maintain a relationship with each other resembles the struggle (and the madness) of the two sides fighting this war.
Just as Danijel and Ajla began a relationship before the war started, throughout the film we see evidence of friends on opposing sides. After his general father tells Danijel to get rid of Ajla, he comes to her in tears asking, “Can I trust you?” This sums up the feelings of many of the characters during the war. Trust is a luxury no one can afford when in war.
The film is brilliantly made. The film was shot in both the authentic language version (which was released in theaters) and the never-before-seen English language version (both versions are available on the Blu-ray and DVD). Jolie keeps the film in constant motion, brisk while holding the viewer’s attention. She swiftly moves into the realities of war from the onset. And she does not apologize for it. War is hell. And Jolie captures that hell with respect and grace.
More importantly, perhaps for Jolie, the film gives voice to those so often overlooked in war and in war films: the women.
Danijel says at one point in the film, “Camps are an ugly part of war.” So true as Jolie shows us in an opening scene. Women have been captured and as their possessions are being taken from them, they are asked who can cook. Two women, thinking they can possibly get on the soldiers’ good side, offer what they can do. One is a doctor, another can sew. The latter is asked by a soldier about her sexual abilities. Before the woman can answer, she is taken and raped in front of the other women. We are jarred into the reality of war for women. The act of rape is a common instrument of war throughout history. This act rattles the movie, and rightly so, as it rattles the viewers. Yet, this scene, and others like it, tug at the viewer’s heartstrings in way that causes us to keep watching, as ugly as it can get.
There seems to be an understanding that men in uniform have a license to rape. As if violence against neighbor is not bad enough, there has to be violence against women as well. Jolie is one of the few actresses who have been to Bosnia, and other countries, for more than just a photo op. She has been on the ground and seen the injustice and oppression that women have faced. We can only imagine that these troubling scenes come from stories that she has heard or witnessed.
Just as there is a long history of the tension between Jews and Samaritans that some argue is evidenced in the Hebrew Bible, the tension between the Serbs and Muslims is long and rich. Most likely unknown by the average viewer, some Serbian history slips into Jolie’s film. Early in the film, Danijel’s father, the General (Rade Serbedzija), instructs Danijl in military matters. As he does so, he provides a short history lesson on the region that helps explain some of the tensions. Jolie sprinkles these history lessons throughout the film. Some have complained that this move was unnecessary and disrupted the flow of the film. I found it extremely helpful and thought that the way in which she handled it was perfect. There was no flow disruption here.
Jesus in John 4 did the same when he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. This woman had three strikes against her. She was a woman, she was a Samaritan, and she was known for sleeping around. All three were good reasons for a respected Jewish teacher like Jesus not to be seen with her, much less talk to her. But Jesus did it anyway. Jesus’ actions here challenge us to care for the “other”; to see a bit a humanity in the “other.”
But this is not an easy thing to do.
Danijel represents this ethical struggle. Why does he save Ajla? Because deep down he is fundamentally a good person and it is the right thing to do? Or because his current circumstances have made him a bit selfish? This very human struggle paints the film as the Serbia army prepares to face NATO. And it is this struggle that brings the film to an unexpected close.