April marks the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War. Like writer/director Angelina Jolie, many people, especially in the Western world, were unaware not only of the conflict itself, but also the history of the region’s ethnic and religious strife. Jolie promotes awareness of the horrors of the war between Bosnian Serbs and Muslims using a relationship as the medium (and very obvious metaphor) in her film In the Land of Blood and Honey.
Controversy surrounded the film. Rumors that the film depicted a relationship between a male soldier and his female captive abounded. While there is a relationship between a Serb military officer and a woman detainee in his camp, we know from the start of the film that the two were acquainted and dating before the war. That a boyfriend would attempt to protect his girlfriend in such a situation is not unlikely. It is not necessarily a stretch to believe they might continue their romance, even under such circumstances. This is not a tale of a woman falling in love with her rapist.
The film is fraught with disturbing images. However, there is nothing gratuitous about how atrocities are depicted. When the men are moved away from the women and children after an apartment building is raided, we are no less disturbed for only seeing the terrified faces and pained reactions of the women when we hear gunshots. The rape scenes are also not shown in detail, yet they are no less disturbing because we see the anguish on the faces of the other prisoners versus much of the rape itself.
All of this is significant to the war and the telling of its story since the Bosnian war entailed human atrocity the likes of which had not been seen since World War II. Not only that, the Bosnian conflict is the first for which courts viewed sexual acts as crimes of war, and perpetrators of these crimes were prosecuted. As such, the story In the Land of Blood and Honey wants to tell is an ugly one, yet one worth the telling.
The love story within the film leaves us with no one to vilify and no one to idolize. We meet Ajla and Danijel when they are dating before the war. We are aware that she is a painter and he is a police officer. They are two people, a man and a woman, falling in love. A terrorist attack occurs, which blows apart the relationship in its aftermath, since Ajla is Muslim and Danijel is a Serb. Ajla and her sister attempt to flee the country. Before they can, their apartment is raided and they are separated. Ajla is brought to a detention camp where she and Danijel, now a military officer, meet again. Danijel saves Ajla from being raped. Even so, when Ajla is brought to Daniel later, she fears him. He treats her respectfully and affectionately, and attempts to win her trust. He protects her while he is at the camp, and when he is called to Sarajevo, he tries to help Ajla escape. Eventually, she escapes on her own, and is reunited with her sister.
With fellow Muslims, Ajla hears rumors that Danijel condones the behaviors of his soldiers, and that he is abusive himself. It is determined that Ajla might allow herself to be captured, and will then be able to help the Muslim Bosnians. She is kept in a secure, spacious set of rooms with a private bath. Danijel not only makes sure that Ajla has adequate foods, but also treats. His ruse is that she is his portrait artist, and thus she also paints to pass the time. Danijel and Ajla resume a passionate relationship that is full of doubt and distrust as both partners yearn for a different time, place and set of circumstances. Danijel eventually asks rhetorically why Ajla cannot just be a Serb. It is at this point when Ajla is ready to betray Danijel to the Muslim side of the conflict. The film lays bare how the political becomes personal and how dangerous and destructive this is. Danijel and Ajla are both destroyed by the war.
I don’t want to give away the plot, yet it will suffice to say the film is as violent at the end as at the start. The way violence is handled is interesting. We see a divide between those who “kill for sport,” as well as rape, and those who would not. We even see leaders overlook and thus encourage and condone such behavior, for it is viewed as the means to the desired end, which is what is now called “ethnic cleansing.”
On the surface, I can ask the obvious feminist question, “Who sets a love story in the middle of a war and has the love story be about a military officer and his captive?” I believe this very question might get more people to see the film than would otherwise see a documentary on the Bosnian war. The relationship between Danijel and Ajla is the microcosm, the personal representation of how ugly hatred due to religious and ethnic differences and past grievances can be. The war itself is, of course, the macro view. It is more a sad commentary on movie-goers in the Western world than it is a criticism of the film to say that some kind of intriguing plot, and especially a controversial one, is required to attract the attention of viewers. Since the relationship between Ajla and Danijel is so contrived, we can put aside what would otherwise be our horror at the idea of a military officer and his female captive actually being romantically involved, and focus on how the greater conflict of the Bosnian war plays out within this personal relationship. We see the divide not only between Ajla and Danijel widen, but also how the father/son relationship between Danijel and his father is altered.
War, of any kind, destroys love. It destroys families. It divides neighbors and turns friends into enemies. This we know, or should know. In the Land of Blood and Honey wants us to relearn, as Jolie does not believe any of us are aware enough of ethnic cleansing policies as part of war. The film is effective in getting the message across. I believe it is also much less “war porn” than other films made with less romantic plots as the basis and more explosive battles and gratuitous violence. The violence in this film is not the plot, it is meant to disrupt our peace. It is meant to help us feel the jarring of love being rendered powerless to stop the forces of hatred in war.
Overall, the message of In the Land of Blood and Honey is awareness of the Bosnian war, and its method of using rape as a way to destroy a people. While we are not protected from the horrors of this fact, we are also not shown rape or violence for its own sake. Awareness helps us become activists and advocates. A film with a story helps a wider audience become aware. In this way, In the Land of Blood and Honey is significant and timely.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.