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.