Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Movie Review: In the Land of Blood and Honey

by Micah Zenko
December 13, 2011

Angelina Jolie talks to actors during the filming of her yet directorial debut in Budapest on August 11, 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Laszlo Balogh).

Angelina Jolie talks to actors during the filming of her yet directorial debut in Budapest on August 11, 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Laszlo Balogh).

In August, I wrote a review of the powerful and moving documentary, The Interrupters, which follows the work of Project CeaseFire, a grassroots organization that employs ex-gang members to attempt to mediate neighborhood disputes in Chicago before they turn violent. I wanted to share another movie that also deals with the ethical choices people make to try to survive in a conflict zone, In the Land of Blood and Honey, a fictionalized account of the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. A conflict that is estimated to have cost 156,000 people their lives, with another 175,000 seriously injured or disabled.

The movie has received strong attention in the press, no doubt because it was written and directed by Angelina Jolie. (Full disclosure: Jolie is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.) Overall, it succeeds as the rare example of harnessing star power to get a movie made about a difficult and rarely-remembered event, including with Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian actors speaking in their native dialects. Moreover, it does not require the viewer to recall what happened in the Balkans in the early 1990s, since the complexities of the civil war are distilled into a narrative focused on two people and set in one location: Sarejevo.

The upside of this approach is that we can grasp and at times even sympathize with the difficult choices made by the actors. The downside is that by opting for an intimate and localized approach, the movie obviously cannot be a comprehensive and balanced account of the war. Yet, the film is a work of fiction and only 127 minutes long. What appears on screen is nevertheless recommended viewing for those interested in how combat impacts non-combatants, especially women who are targeted by regular army and paramilitary forces.

Much like The Battle for Algiers and Dr. Strangelove are shown to students for their cinematic portrayal of counterinsurgencies and civil-military relations, In the Land of Blood and Honey should be screened to attempt to convey the use of sexual violence as a tool of war to depopulate civilian areas, and as an organizing principle for armed forces in detention centers. In a February 2001 ruling, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) set a new judicial precedent by convicting three Serbian men for enslavement and sexual violence as crimes against humanity. In many ways, this film is a tribute to that landmark decision.

The civil war is told through the prism of a Serbian police officer (Danijel) and a Bosnian painter (Ajla) who were lovers before the war erupted. After the first indiscriminate attacks against civilians, ethnic communities that once lived together choose sides, or are forcibly displaced. The two are unexpectedly reconnected and their relationship develops in the tense environment of a Serb barracks/detention center for Bosnian Muslim women.  Daniel’s father is a general in the Serbian Army who wants is son to “do good work” by way of ethnic cleansing, while Ajla has friends in the Bosnian insurgency who want intelligence that can be used to target Serb forces. Their interactions are closely monitored, and both make micro-decisions with ostensibly macro-parallels, motivated by some combination of patriotism, resistance, and romance.

The international community is also featured, and early on deserves a Best Un-Supporting Actor nomination. In one gripping early scene, a Bosnian woman’s infant son is killed by rampaging Serbian soldiers ordered to clear an apartment complex of its civilian inhabitants. The camera lingers above the woman while she kneels in a snow-filled empty courtyard holding her deceased boy and weeping loudly. The image is intended to convey that the Bosnian people are suffering and alone, while the world watches but and does little other than provide aid and endlessly debate UN Security Council resolutions (there would be fifty-five of them regarding Bosnia-Herzegovina.)

There are numerous scenes depicting war crimes committed by Serbian armed forces: the repeated rape of Bosnian women; attacking a clearly marked Red Cross van with a rocket-propelled grenades; wearing a flak jacket clearly labeled “press;” using human shields in counterinsurgency operations; stationing a headquarters in culturally sensitive sites to avoid NATO airpower (as Danijel says “They’re not bombing churches, which works in our favor”); showing emaciated Bosnian men imprisoned in concentration camp settings; and the mass killing of captured Bosnian men.

The film does not apportion suffering in amounts that reflect the reality of the Bosnian civil war. In fact, I could not recall a definitive example of a Bosnian Muslim committing a war crime. Bosnian insurgent forces are portrayed as thoughtful, scrappy, and resourceful. While this was undoubtedly true about elements of the Bosnian resistance in Sarajevo and elsewhere, it must be noted that the ICTY has also convicted Bosnian Muslims and Croats for war crimes perpetrated against Serbs.

Moreover, the film does not show what happens on the battlefields outside of the capital city. In the winter of 1994, Danijel brags to Ajla: “We now control 80 percent if the territory.” By that time, however, Iran was smuggling plane-loads of weapons to the Bosnian Army—with the Clinton administration’s tacit approval—in open violation of UN-mandated arms embargos (which Serb forces also violated). In addition, the American private military contractor, Military Professional Resources Incorporated, was sanctioned to train the Croatian military. By the summer of 1995, artillery fire from British, French, and Dutch forces, NATO air strikes, and a Croatian ground offensive (that displaced hundreds of thousands of Serbs) reduced the amount of territory controlled by the Serbs to 50 percent.

When asked what was the most challenging aspect of making the film, Jolie answered: “Trying to find the balance in it. It is one of the most complicated conflicts to understand. I’ve studied it for years, and I’m still not sure I understand it.” Years ago, I was fortunate to be a research assistant to two books that covered Balkans conflicts, and later serve as a contributor to the State Department’s Kosovo History Project. After being immersed in the complex issues and later following them from a distance, I never understood what the motivations or outcomes were for all parties to the conflicts. If nothing else, In the Land of Blood and Honey forced me to think about the acute suffering faced by local communities in civil wars, and the potential international responsibilities and requirements for responding to them.


Post a Comment 20 Comments

  • Posted by Suzana Stankovic

    “It is one of the most complicated conflicts to understand. I’ve studied it for years, and I’m still not sure I understand it.” -Angelina Jolie. Then why make a film about something you don’t understand? Rather, create a documentary based on real subjects from both sides and let them speak in their own words. It is completely irresponsible to make a film about a conflict one admittedly does not understand as it will inevitably be an incomplete, inaccurate, biased or otherwise warped account.

  • Posted by Jennifer

    It’s rather unfair to accuse her of being biased based on that quote. It’s clear that what she means is it’s a complex subject. Not easily put together in a neat package and say “here this is what it is.” I think Angelina should be commended for putting together a film that isn’t trying to be the definitive story on that brutal war. It’s about getting people to focus on what happened, why it happened and perhaps make their own film or documentary. It’s clear she spent YEARS researching this, the response you posted is perhaps overly emotional and short sighted.

  • Posted by John Crandall


    I disagree. Even in academia, 90% of the experts on a topic will tell you that the more they learn, the less they feel they know. Angelina is telling one story of many. There is always room for multiple narratives when discussing violence, suffering and the complex issues of our time.

    Even if it is an incomplete, inaccurate, biased and warped account, it is still an account. What film could capture everything? How would any film represent every angle on any conflict like this – especially in a few hours!I look forward to seeing how Jolie portrays this struggle. I imagine that it will be great!

  • Posted by Suzana Stankovic

    Ms. Jolie is certainly free to make a film about whatever she chooses and no film should ever be the definitive film on anything, that’s not what I implied nor did I imply that her film is biased. I chose my words carefully. In my opinion it is irresponsible to make a film about warring peoples without fully understanding the matter. I wonder what her goals are exactly. Whether the film will succeed in generating meaningful discussion or awareness of the conflict remains to be seen. If the film is indeed biased or skewed by her admitted lack of understanding then people will walk away with a biased and/or incomplete account ESPECIALLY as most individuals are quick to label warring factions as either ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. Is her film encouraging this ‘good guy/bad guy’ mind-set or enlightening viewers to the actual issues at hand? I am skeptical as to whether she will succeed in making a film that is BOTH true to the complexities and history of the region and accessible/appealing to the mainstream movie-going audience, which is why I feel a documentary would be a more suitable format for such a layered and weighty topic. Rarely, are the truths of war and the hardships suffered by both sides portrayed in an honest and objective manner in such films, unless the subjects speak for themselves and not through a script supplied by an American celebrity who lives worlds away in EVERY regard- no matter how well-intentioned they might be. I doubt Ms. Jolie’s war romance will do much to pave a new future for the Balkans. If she really wants to make a difference there perhaps she should consider another approach or at the very least broaden her scope of focus to include the region of Kosovo in which Serbs live in unthinkable poverty and daily persecution.

  • Posted by NikolaSerb

    Non-sense. Here are some real movies about the war: Lepa sela lepo gore (Nice village,Good flame), Savior (Spasitelj)… Shows both sides of the story not just lies about Serbs.

    Make a movie about the present,Holly Joile where Bosnian war criminals,moslems,are the political top and Serbs sent theirs (a lot less) to the Hague where they never will exit as seen after the murder of Milosevic once he was proven innocent of all the lies NATO press wrote. He was a thief not a killer but all polititians are tives,the democrats today are far worst then anyone from back them! In all ex-yu countries!

    Suzana I agree about Kosovo movie. Serbs live in constant danger. Even their chuches and monasteries are being tourched and destroyed and the press not only ignores it but writes,like Guardian, that they deserve it. One article even said Gracanica was albanian,in the top of their racism (not ignorance).

    And to Jeff and Ginger,what ever your names are. You don;t know anything about the region even if you read about it so don;t be so awful to talk to Suzana who obviously DOES know.Also I admire your non hatred atitude Suz, it takes alot not to let the rage rip the soul I know that too!

  • Posted by Suzana Stankovic

    Nikola, I appreciate everything you said and I’m familiar with the films you mentioned. There is a lot of ignorance in America about former Yugoslavia and in general, about world history and other nations. It’s sad, but Americans can be quite arrogant often thinking that they are the only country that really matters in the world. They can be very condescending toward non-western nations feeling that they are a special authority on various matters. I am technically an American because I was born here but I do not identify with much that is typically American. A part of me wants to laugh when I think about Angelina Jolie going into Bosnia and making a film. LOL! Like, “who are you?”, “what do you know about this war and these people?” She might be well-intentioned but her war romance is just ridiculous…trying so hard to be ‘Hollywood’ and dramatic but humanitarian at the same time. She’s confused…
    I am not at all saying Serbs are perfect in any way but it is a fact that they have received unfair treatment in the media and in the world and because I am Serbian in my blood, it is very painful to see this. And you’re right, it is VERY hard not to let the rage rip the soul in the face of such blatant ignorance and arrogance but the Dalai Lama and his peaceful nature toward China remains my inspiration.

  • Posted by Veronik Bogomolny

    Suzana and Nikola, there is a lot of resentment in your posts, so it is very hard to believe you’re not letting the rage rip your soul. The fact is, in the time period this movie is focused on, the Serbians committed unspeakable crimes against the Bosnians, while most of the rest of the world, not just the USA, did little to help. And the help we did provide was too little too late. If you are bitter and resentful because you feel similar atrocities were committed against the Serbians by the Bosnians, and are not being acknowledged, then I suggest you make your own documentary.

  • Posted by Suzana Stankovic

    My posts contain no resentment whatsoever. Read them carefully and you will see that my intention is to raise some poignant questions, alternate perspectives and to speak in an open way for all parties concerned, which includes Serbs. It is my right to make mention of the unfair treatment and biased reporting Serbs have received in the media especially in light of the anti-Serb sentiment that people who have nothing to do with ex-Yugoslavia blindly subscribe to. And as you point out, the reason why America did so little to help is because it had nothing to gain from the region. I firmly believe that for the issues at hand a documentary on Ms. Jolie’s part would be a more effective and valuable offering than a glamorized fictitious war romance. Read and think before you judge.

  • Posted by Veronik Bogomolny

    I suggest you follow your own advice to read and think before you judge, only I will extend it to actually seeing the movie before you condem it. It is not a glamorized war romance. Again, the atrocities committed to the Bosnians by the Serbians are very well documented. They are better documented than anything the Bosnians have done to the Serbs. What is really going on with you is misery loves company. I had nothing to do with Nazi Germany either, but accoring to you, I am blindly subscribing to anti nazi sentiment. Whatever. If the Serbs have a story to tell, then quit bellyaching and tell it. But even then, it would not take away from the events that happened to the Bosnians in the early 1990s.

  • Posted by Suzana Stankovic

    “the atrocities committed to the Bosnians by the Serbians are very well documented. They are better documented than anything the Bosnians have done to the Serbs.” LOL! Shows how much you know. You really should refrain from commenting. “According to you, I am blindly subscribing to ant nazi sentiment.” ??? I know nothing about what you subscribe to nor do I care nor was I speaking about nazis…totally separate matter. I was speaking in general terms. Most people do blindly subscribe to a plethora of things. The average Joe is a follower, does not think deeply or ask that many questions. And yes, the film is a glamorized fictitious war romance intended to appeal to BOTH male and female audiences- war and explosions=male audience, romance=female audience. This is how film producers and film distributors and marketers operate, it’s called business and selling tickets and another reason why I repeat that a distilled documentary minus a fictitious script, would be a more effective and valuable offering.

  • Posted by Suzana Stankovic

    I speak from a very personal place. My mother is a Serb from Bosnia, a small town less than 2km from Srebrenica, where the greatest most vicious fighting occurred. My mother’s brother was killed in the war at the age of 25, so was her cousin in his late thirties who left behind two small children, my grandfather died of heartache shortly after the death of his youngest son- he just lost faith in humanity. My mother’s childhood home was burned to the ground, now wild shrubs grow there. Two of my aunts fled Bosnia altogether to live in foreign countries where they are still not fully accepted or included because of the anti-Serb sentiment I speak of. The war has affected my mother and my family deeply. Serbs are a minority in that part of Bosnia and my mother’s parents and siblings lived in absolute terror everyday, hiding out in bunkers and rationing their food in the winter. They all lost their homes, spouses, sons etc. The conflict that “seems” to have erupted in the 90s actually has deep roots dating back to the Ottoman Empire and that is why situation is so complex. Everyone is glad the war is over, it’s not something ordinary people wanted anyway. My mom grew up with Muslim Bosnians and they were all happy in their small towns, supporting and helping each other the way small-town folk do. There never was any hatred among them. I spent every summer of my childhood and adolescence there and to me it was one of the happiest places on earth- everyone was always smiling, preparing big meals and sharing with their neighbors. The war was all political- just political bullsh*t and male egotism. I wonder if any of that comes across in A. Jolie’s movie…

  • Posted by A. T.

    Mr. Zenko

    Enjoyed your review and thanks.

    The complexity of any war is obviously far more nuanced, but this is a fictional account, apparently intended to raise awareness. Most people around the world except for those involved in any war, have short memory about historical conflicts.

  • Posted by Linda

    I believe that the reason for making this film is more to give a face to the victims of that war — women muslims, raped, dehumanized, and treated less than a piece of discarded box. The film is not about explaining the whole history of that region and it’s ethnic divides and how the whole war started. One doesn’t have to understand the whole situation to feel sympathy and horror in what this women went through and still going through, and wishing to do something to make sure that these victims are not forgotten and be reminded to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I applaud Ms. Jolie’s effort to humanized these women that were victimized during that shameful time.

  • Posted by Dragan Stojkovic

    Suzana and Nikola;

    We Serbs must force ourself to experience a major catharsis as I see that as the only hope for our delusional nation. For hundreds of years we have been living in some kind of mythological state of collective mind (as a nation) perpetuated with endless wars that created no good to us as a nation. Only harm. In order to survive as a nation; we have to face the realities of heinous war crimes that some of our countrymen have committed in this unfortunate war in Bosnia. Only then will we be able to reconcile as a nation and move forward stronger. I’ll give you an example; Germany post WWII.
    Be well.

  • Posted by Suzana Stankovic

    Dragan, I happen to be in Germany right now as my husband is German. I agree with you that focusing on the future is the only solution however, I do not see any similarities between the Serbs and the Holocaust. Every nation can be found guilty of an atrocity at some point in its history, no country has an unblemished past. The Serbs certainly have a great deal of growing to do my only issue is with the film itself being a glamorized fictional war romance and the media’s over-simplification of the events in former Yugoslavia.

    Peace and love to all and a happy and healthy new year!

  • Posted by Nathan

    Micah (or one of the blog’s readers),
    Would you care to comment and compare with the recent movie The Whistleblower which talks about the involvement of UN personnel in sex trafficking in Yugoslavia at the time of the war? That would be great.

    Nathan, from Paris.

  • Posted by Suzana Stankovic

    Love, peace and joy to all the world! I wish for healing and renewal for all people affected by war. War is NEVER the answer. Let us not forget that violence exists in many forms…in the thoughts we think about ourselves or others, in the words we use and in our actions. We never need look far to see the wounds we cause whether knowingly or unknowingly.
    And in regards to Jolie’s film, if it succeeds in generating compassion, healing, understanding, forgiveness, awareness and renewal for all concerned then it will be a valuable contribution.

    “Your life is like a pebble dropped into a pool of water, creating ripples endlessly. You do not know the end of a thought, word or action.” – White Eagle

    Let us use our lives toward peace from the smallest, simplest and most nearest of ways beginning with ourselves and eventually all will be well in the world.

  • Posted by morningstar

    I’m not so sure she’s the one to tell the story, methinks the lady wants an Oscar, or two.

  • Posted by granted

    She wants people to see her as smart,..I’m thinking that could be a hard sell, but I do believe she’s shrewd, maybe? …Paul Krugman; smart, Marwa Doudy; smart, Rosalind Franklin; smart…..Angelina Jolie; not so much. I do believe rapes happened in the Balkans, I do believe horrendous crimes were committed, from all sides, and I do believe that the Serbs were hand picked by the US and the rest of the world to be portrayed as the primary aggressors of the war in the Balkan’s. With a leader like Milosevic in place, (who with only his national rhetoric, managed to expand his shelf-life way beyond his expiration date) and the PR machines working both the Croat and Bosnian sides, why would anyone question other wise? And now this perception of the Serbs being the “bad guys” has found its way, once again, in Hollywood storytelling.

    She outlined a “story”. Had her cast “flesh it out”. And then, hired one of the best cinematographers to shoot it. What more can you say?…She’s travelled the most war ravaged regions in the world but yet, she choses the Balkans, why? Why not Rwanda? Why not Sierra Leone? Why not Afghanistan? Answer: This is a very safe backdrop for her to tell this story. The cast is white, so audience members can identify them, they can empathize easier, and the narrative is neat and digestible. It’s a much better sell, than if you were to set it in Sierra Leone.

    In two different interviews she’s said – “this film is not a political statement”, and then, “I was thinking of these international themes of violence against women, lack of intervention”, hmmm?

    You can’t say “this film isn’t a political statement” and show rape as a ‘tool’ of war, and you can’t ever, ever turn rape into a love story. This movie is ridiculous, if it’s about anything, it’s about her ego. I would have revoked her filming permits as well. She’s quoted as saying, “I’m just a punk kid with tattoos” hardly,..well she might have tattoos, but she is the consummate conformist.

    Here’s a suggestion for Ms. Punk Kid, I would have probably stuck a little closer to home….your mother was French, right? Why not write a story or film a documentary, or interview those young Muslim girls that, by FRENCH law, are not allowed to wear the hijab? Is that oppressive-lite for you? Or maybe you can tap into that German side of you?

    Any writer will advise those that are aspiring, to write about what you know…you might want to consider that.

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