Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In the Land of Blood and Honey: A War Movie that Remembers the Women

If you're anything like me, you know far less than you should about the Bosnian War in the mid-90s. Angelina Jolie is here to change all that. The plot of In the Land of Blood and Honey, which Jolie wrote, directed, and produced, is pretty much given away in the title. There's going to be horrific violence and there's going to be moments of sweetness made all the more perverse by the carnage that surrounds and produces them.

The film opens with a very successful date between Danijel, a Serb, and Ajla, a Bosnian Muslim. Their flirtatious dancing is blown apart by a bombing, and they find each other again at a detainment camp where Danijel is a commander and Ajla a prisoner about to be raped. He saves her, and they begin a relationship that lasts the duration of the war. It's complicated doesn't begin to cover it.

The two are clearly metaphors for the way war both imposes and exposes the fictionality of nationalist and ethnic boundaries between people. Though the two actors are excellent, I'm not sure the film itself knows how to play their relationship. The tentativeness of the love story is preferable, though, to the clunkiness of the exposition. Jolie knows she's dealing with an audience that is probably under-informed about the conflict, but the expository speeches and conveniently placed radio news reports is not the most elegant way to keep us apprised of the intricacies of the war.

What does not only work in the film, but makes it desperately important, is the unflinching way it details how women's bodies are literally and figuratively used as battlefields and human shields in warfare. This is a reality which most war movies literally and figurative do flinch away from exploring. The closing text reveals that Bosnia marked the first time sexual violence in and of itself was prosecuted as a war crime, and presents us with some truly staggering statistics about the number of women who were raped during the conflict. Jolie's war movie recovers the experience of women in war--how they're used, how they're wounded, and how they manage to survive--scenes that too often get left on the cutting room floor.

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