Seated front and center at a dais in a Waldorf Towers banquet hall, Angelina Jolie remains silent for a long stretch. It's the New York press conference for Jolie's screenwriting and directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and seven of her international actors are doing the talking, each one recounting how he or she was directly affected by the Bosnian War, the film's gruesome and devastating backdrop. Determined to make a movie that came from and, in a sense, belonged to, the native witnesses of the 1990s conflict, Jolie filled her cast with Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs. At the junket, as the actors dig up painful memories like being hit with bomb debris or nearly losing a father at the age of five, the first-time filmmaker regards them all like a protective mother, that sharp, authoritative jawline accentuated with every concerned turn of the head. Each poignant recollection draws a sympathetic expression from Jolie—each mood-lightening anecdote, a breathy giggle and smiley parting of those big, iconic lips.
It'd be easy to cynically dismiss Jolie's on-cue reactions as mugging for the cameras, a routine perfected after more than 20 years in the business and roughly 10 years of being one of the most famous women on the planet. But considering the film she's made, a fervid, tragic, and statement-making war epic without a noticeable trace of Hollywood compromise, such a dismissal would be a rather broad miscalculation. Filmed in both English and Serbo-Croatian, but being released to theaters in its native tongue, In the Land of Blood and Honey is by turns brutal and sensitive; it continually reflects the juxtaposition of its title, a direct translation of the name of its Balkan-region setting (in Turkish, "bal" means "honey" and "kan" means "blood"). The clamorous horrors of war, whose scope and detail suggest the film was no small logistical enterprise, are presented in close conjunction with shots of the sun-kissed landscape, and the central love story, between a Bosnian Serb police officer (Daniel Craig doppelgänger Goran Kostić) and a Bosnian Muslim artist (the unconventionally comely Zana Marjanović), is a strange, star-crossed dance of devotion and distrust, tenderness and circumstantial hatred. All of it is indicative of Jolie's directorial voice, a voice equally defined by compassion and anger.
"For years, I'd been haunted by what I'd seen traveling in the field," says Jolie, who famously became the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2001. "I was haunted by the trauma people faced in post-conflict situations, by the lack of intervention, and by my frustration in seeing their pain and wondering if we could have prevented this, if we could have done something. I was haunted by violence against women, by man's inhumanity to man, all of it. And so, I sat down privately to write something and it led me, clearly, to Bosnia, because it was a war of my generation, to my generation, and it was one that I felt a responsibility to learn about because I didn't know it. And the more I learned, the more I was overwhelmed by the guilt of how little I knew. I was shocked by what was going on."
Unfolding from 1992 to 1995, the war in Bosnia became the deadliest European conflict since World War II, claiming the lives of roughly 100,000 people, and displacing more than two million. As a result of the ethnic cleansing conducted by Bosnian Serbs, an estimated 7,000 Bosnian Muslim males were murdered, while upward of 50,000 Bosnian Muslim women were imprisoned and raped. Like the Hutu-Tutsi carnage at the center of (the inferior) Hotel Rwanda, the intimate nightmares of the Bosnian War, largely un-documented in narrative cinema, comprise a story that deserves to be told in a manner that transcends filtered news coverage. But did anyone ever think the teller would be Angelina Jolie? Through pre-production, actors like Kostić and Marjanović were kept in the dark in regard to who was behind the movie they were working on, and both were reportedly shocked when Jolie's name was revealed. In the film's press notes, "authentic" and "familiar" are words used by Marjanović to describe the material she'd been handed. With her cast in place and the cat out of the bag, Jolie began merging what she brought to the table with the tumultuous pasts of her collaborators, honing what was already a surprisingly legit interpretation.
"It started with me questioning, 'Well, what if it were me?'" Jolie says. "'What if it were me and my family? What if it happened tomorrow? What would I do? What would it take...what would have to happen before I broke and changed, and how would I behave?' So that was the meditation through it and I wrote it as best as I could. Then I started to send it out to everyone, and we all really worked on it together. Everybody here knows this history better then I do. They lived through this history, they were physically under attack themselves on different sides of this conflict, so they would tell me—they filled in the story and they enhanced it. They helped me to become them."
If you want to get to the bottom of who Jolie is, beyond tabloid speculation about covert weddings, beyond Mother Theresa and mommy-to-the-world jokes, even beyond what she's put forth in her more serious and lauded performances, In the Land of Blood and Honey is a good place to start digging. Kostić is the first to say that the project ultimately makes sense when one considers Jolie's humanitarian work, but it's not as though she's made some preachy, heal-the-planet infomercial. Peppered with tough-to-watch slayings, bullets to the face, and rape scenes that aren't soon forgotten, her movie is a harsh, unflinching depiction of war's ability to shatter people's innocence, made intimate by a doomed romance that might have flourished if not for its time and place (an especially poetic passage sees Kostić's character plead with his lover to tell him whether or not she's his enemy, because he truly doesn't know). The film's violence is sure to elicit disdain from viewers and critics alike, causing them to call Jolie's taste level into question, but it more than serves its director's purpose. Its ferocity, which is most certainly channeling Jolie's indictment of that lack of intervention, points to how this film is in so many ways a harmonious mark of artistic evolution. For beneath the worldly exploits that brought Jolie family and fulfillment in the aughts, remains the soul of a rebel who rose to fame while stirring the pot and flaunting provocation in the '90s.
"I've tried to find a voice," Jolie says, "and I've tried, throughout this film, to work with other women and men who have gone through conflict and to discuss these bigger themes of war and intervention. This film is not about a couple, it's not about one woman, and it's not just simply about violence against women. It is about how human beings are changed and how decent people are broken, and I did this so we would have these questions and discuss this and talk about the wars and situations going on in the world today, things that could be happening tomorrow. And in a place like former Yugoslavia, the wounds are still fresh, and people are still going through quite a lot—traumatized and wounded, and yet very brave and very strong. They deserve the world's attention."
The talents of Marjanović's artist, Ajla, become pivotal to the plot of In the Land of Blood and Honey, and her work becomes a motif that, again, reflects that titular implication of beauty amid darkness. Bookending the film are shots of self-portraits of Ajla, one in a time of relative personal peace, and one after much hope-shattering turmoil. In a movie that doesn't skimp on impressive visuals, it's Jolie's most telling aesthetic choice, as her feature debut is, to a very real degree, her own self-portrait.