Angelina Jolie set aside plans for a surprise birthday present for her partner Brad Pitt’s 48th birthday as she stood to greet me with a smile: “I’m Angie.” Poised and approachable, and clad all in black, the Oscar-winning actress was at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood to discuss her directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which follows the relationship between a Bosnian woman and a Serbian officer amid ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
That genocide took place in the 1990s, five decades after the Holocaust: “Two months ago, I visited Auschwitz for the first time,” Jolie said early in the conversation. “When Brad was filming ‘World War Z’ in Budapest, I flew up and spent the day, as I feel everyone should; the sheer scale of it had never before hit me. The organization was what was so infuriating,” she added. “This was not a crime of passion but a very planned, organized effort. And then 50 years after we said, ‘Never again,’ there it was, in the former Yugoslavia, just 40 miles from Italy. It made me angry.”
Jolie’s same anger fueled “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which was shot in four languages and unflinchingly depicts the Balkan genocide through the lens of a love story. The Bosnian Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), an artist, and Serbian Danijel (Goran Kostic), a police officer, are, in Jolie’s words, “a couple in the thrall of early dating, at the beginning of all that good love and lust.” But as they dance intimately at a nightclub, the war literally implodes their relationship. Later, Ajla is shocked to discover that Danijel is the commanding officer in an internment camp where she and other women are being held prisoner and sexually abused. The way their affair resumes and transforms becomes Jolie’s meditation on how an emotional and sexual landscape can be twisted by war.
“They say write what you know,” Jolie explained of why she chose to tell the story through a love affair. “The film in some ways is my mind separated into different characters, and of course my closest relationship is to the man that I love. What if tomorrow I was told that we were different and we were separated somehow? I couldn’t possibly imagine Brad ever becoming my enemy. So I tried to construct a relationship where in the beginning that seems impossible. But in the end, you understand that’s where it naturally went.”
Jolie, 36, began working on the film in a decidedly domestic setting: She was at home but separated from her six children because she had the flu, when she began thinking back on her visits to conflict zones as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ goodwill ambassador. “During my first few years of traveling, all I did was cry,” she said. Eventually, Jolie immersed herself in the nuts and bolts of activism: “I had written journals and op-ed pieces about it,” she said, “but nothing ever in script form.” On that day as she was fighting the flu, she decided to try a screenplay “just as a personal meditation, not something the world would ever see.”
She began the project not long before July 2010, the 15th anniversary of the massacre of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica, and Jolie found herself reflecting on how little she knew about that disturbingly recent genocide. “I created this world in my head of people I could identify with, and in the process, I gave myself an education,” she said.
“And then I was sitting with this script that I didn’t show anybody, until Brad read it and said, ‘You know, honey, this is kind of good.’ ” Jolie was terrified that, as an outsider, she wouldn’t get the story right. “So I sent the script without my name on it to people who had been on all sides of the war,” she said. She proceeded only after they said she had it right, shooting the film over just 42 days during a freezing winter last year.
Jolie’s cast are all actors from the various sides of the brutal ethnic conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they, too, did much to vet the script as well as, through a process of improvisation, adding parts of own their lives to the story.
“It was very important to make people understand how recent this was,” Jolie said, “and that this wasn’t World War II, but 1992.” Thus her movie opens with a rock ’n’ roll song, and the cinematography and set design, at least early in the film, are vibrant and modern.
“I wanted people to sit in the theater for two hours and be uncomfortable,” added Jolie, who punctuated the film with scenes of random violence that are as sudden as they are shocking. A drunken sniper shoots a man and his son; gunmen blow up a truck providing humanitarian aid; a row of men is machine-gunned into a waiting, mass grave. “If you’re sitting in your seat saying, ‘Please make this stop,’ then you understand what the film is about,” Jolie said.
The actress credits her late mother, Marcheline Bertrand, for introducing her to issues involving human rights: “She took me to my first Amnesty International meeting when I was 9,” Jolie recalled. Because Bertrand was part Native American, Jolie knew about that genocide from an early age; the Nazi Holocaust came into focus when Jolie visited the Museum of Tolerance soon after it opened, around the corner from her Los Angeles home, in 1993.
Her film work has, at times, mirrored her interest in real-life conflict zones, such as when she portrayed Mariane Pearl, the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, in 2007’s “A Mighty Heart.”
“The Land of Blood and Honey” already has gleaned a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film, though the shoot in the former Yugoslavia was not without its share of controversy. Jolie’s permit to film in one area was temporarily revoked, when the false rumor spread that the heroine was a prisoner who falls in love with her rapist, which was cleared up when Jolie submitted the script to officials and they saw the truth.
Leaders of a Serbian prisoners’ group and an organization for rape survivors also declared that Jolie had portrayed them callously.
The filmmaker, however, was adamant that her film did not take sides — and that the rape scenes were anything but titillating. “I intentionally never showed nudity during the rapes; I wanted the camera to focus on the reactions of the victim and the people watching,” she said.
The most difficult sequence to shoot, for Jolie, was based on a true story about soldiers forcing elderly woman to dance, nude, as they jeered. “I had to ask three older women to take off all their clothes in front of a bunch of people who were going to be laughing and making fun of them,” she recalled. “I felt like I was torturing them, and I almost didn’t do it. I kept reminding them that I was directing people to laugh at them; that I would only shoot the scene once; that there were robes around the corner and that I’m so sorry! They were doing the scene for all the women who had gone through this, but it still felt horrible.”
Jolie said she never intended to become a director. “If anything, I wanted to do less films over the next few years, to be home a lot more and be a mom,” she said. “But then I thought, I have a responsibility to my generation.”
And to “Never again.”
“In the Land of Blood and Honey” opens in limited release on Dec. 23