LOS ANGELES—“I’m confessing,” Angelina Jolie said toward the end of our recent interview. We had been talking about her directorial debut feature, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” whose screenplay she also wrote.
She took on the challenge of dramatizing a love story between a Serb and a Muslim set against the Bosnian War in the 1990s, the deadliest conflict in Europe since World War II. It’s a project that demanded to be treated with respect, accuracy and delicacy.
But as Angelina revealed, she was overcome by doubts a week before this interview: “I did completely break down and started crying. Brad found me and I said, ‘I’m afraid that I’ve failed this subject matter and these people who put their faith in me.’ I’ve never felt more pressure because I’ve never done anything that meant this much to me. So many people I care about who are now my friends are involved.”
But she need not have worried. “In the Land of Blood and Honey” is a triumph, a remarkably self-assured filmmaking debut. It’s a moving drama that uses the Bosnian language (with English subtitles)—intimate and complex at the same time as Angelina shows how the war, and its atrocities, affect the relationship between a police officer (Goran Kostic) and an artist (Zana Marjanovic).
With a relatively modest budget (by Hollywood standards), the actress-writer-director managed to show the essence of a brutal ethnic conflict that reportedly claimed the lives of approximately 100,000 people, forced two million people away from their homes and led to the rape of an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women. As Angelina was quoted in the production notes of the film shot in Hungary, “Sometimes people forget the terrible violence that happened in our time, in our generation, to our generation.”
She drew nuanced performances from her cast, including Goran, Zana, Vanesa Glodjo and Rade Serbedzija, who joined us later in the interview (more about them in a future column).
As an ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina’s trips to war zones, voracious reading about the Bosnian War, talking to people and listening “a lot” to folks who lived through the conflict gave her screenplay and resulting film a ring of authenticity.
Below are excerpts from our interview:
After speaking to victims of war over the years, how did it make you realize the importance of treasuring one’s family?
When I first went to a war zone, I was forever changed. I will never be self-destructive again. I will never take for granted that I know where my family is, that I have enough food to feed my children and that they are safe. I will never think of these other things that you see people get stressed about, especially in this town where we fill our mind with things that are simply not important in life. So I am very grateful that years ago, I was put in the middle of a conflict zone where I came face to face with what is really happening in the world. So I cherish my family—they’re everything to me.
Why did you want to do this film?
Because of what I’d witnessed in the last 10 years in traveling to various parts of the world. The more I read and researched about the former Yugoslavia, the more I was emotionally affected. I was actually ashamed of myself for knowing very little. I was 17 when the conflict started. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know … How man can be so primal, how can there be such violence against women, how the international community can turn its back and allow these atrocities? There is no sane answer for it because it absolutely makes no sense. We tried, at least in this film, a human perspective and tried to analyze how human beings are warped from having to live inside the situation and what happens. I wish I knew the answer so we could solve it.
I never thought about being a director. In fact, I didn’t intend to make a film when I sat down and wrote this script. I thought it was going to be a private meditation and a script that I would put away and nobody would ever see. But when suddenly it was a reality and people from all sides of the conflict decided to come together to make the film, I felt that it was an important story and I should stick by it.
I thought about directors with great experience I’ve worked with, like Clint Eastwood. A lot of what he taught me has to do with his sets—it’s family. He works with good people. You have to be talented but at heart you have to be a good person. There are no egos involved. Everybody respects each other and works together. He’s also very economic, which we had to be, because we had very little money. So we had to move very fast.
I also thought a lot about my work with Michael Winterbottom when we did “A Mighty Heart,” because of the way he works with actors and tries to make things feel as real as possible, and not let the camera be so present that people are self-conscious.
You must have faced a lot of hurdles, but can you talk about the challenge of making a film in a foreign language?
It was one of those great challenges where it’s difficult, but you’re learning so much. I am drawn to this (Bosnian) language. I think it’s a beautiful language. The film had to be done in its authentic language. The actors and I sat together and agreed it’s important to remind everybody about the subject matter. We want to be able to remind people, even those who are not open to watching a foreign (language) film. So how do we do this? We all decided to work twice as hard and also have the second version in English, in case some people are not open to watching a foreign language film.
I first wrote it in English and then we had it translated. The politics of the region is that there are different sides who had to agree on the translation. Everything had to be agreed upon in three’s for this film. When we shot the scenes, we would sometimes do it first in English so the cameraman would understand when a line is coming. Then they would go to their authentic language. At that point, I could completely understand the emotion behind it.
I edited first in English. It was almost like the English was always used as an outline I could work in, and then shape the foreign (language) film around it.
There are some harrowing scenes in the film. As a first-time director, how did you get your head around how you were going to do them? What kind of emotional toll, if any, did the experience have on you and your family?
It was hard because I was asking people to recreate things they actually lived through. As a woman and a mother, to ask people to recreate and do brutal things to each other… Our first day was the first rape scene and it was these people from different sides of the conflict being in the same space for the first time and agreeing to work together. I thought, this is either going to bring about great tension and we’re going to have a very difficult morning, or it’s going to be something else.
Right after he (actor) did that rape scene, I called “Cut” The actor picked her (the actress playing the victim) up and gave her the biggest hug. He brushed all the snow around her. All the other actors playing the officers picked up the clothes of the women, and redressed them, apologized and brought them tea. By lunchtime, people were kinder to each other.
There was a strong intention to make the film hard to watch because these people lived through this for years. I wanted people to sit for two hours and think, please stop this conflict. Because that’s us screaming in our hearts to the international community—please stop this. Please intervene.
As the writer and director of the film, what did you learn from this tragic period in history?
I think I will never be able to make sense of how neighbors turned against neighbors. When we were auditioning everybody, I wanted to make sure that I cast people from all sides of the conflict. Every time we interviewed, we asked the actors: “What is your background?” They said, “Yugoslavian.” It was very difficult for me to find out if they were Serb, Bosnian Muslim or Bosnian Serb. They were raised in school together and to love each other.
A lot of the actors wanted to do this film because they saw it as a chance to come together. That’s what they wanted. It’s what they want for their children and it’s what I hope for them.
What would make you feel that you’ve achieved what you set out to do with this movie?
I don’t want to get emotional now. This morning, we showed the film to people from all sides of the conflict and people who suffered through the war and that includes the cast members as well. So there were people who were not in the film and there were people who were directly affected by the rape and concentration camps. It was so important to me that this would be a film they would want to support. I feel that it’s good and healthy to bring about this dialogue and that they could stand behind the film. So I got that message this morning and it meant everything.
You experience the extremes in life—the celebrity, Hollywood—and then on the other hand, the dark side of life in the war zones. How do you manage?
I’m neither one side nor the other. I’m just trying to be a good person and learn about all the aspects of life. Certainly this Hollywood aspect, we live in that a little bit but that is not our life. I try to give myself education and travel. I’m giving my children that education. I wake up first and foremost as a mom. But my motherhood is also connected to other countries, so it’s part of my life. I love being an actor. I appreciate and have fun with all the blessings I’ve gotten from being able to be a part of it. But it’s a very small part of what is happening around the world. So that perspective has never been lost on me.
How do you deal with pain?
If I wasn’t able to be part of the solution and bring attention to issues when I go to other countries, it would weigh on me so heavily. I certainly have moments where I break down crying. Or I can’t sleep at night. But at least I feel that I can do something and try to be part of the solution.
On a lighter note, as a director, did you have any particular quirks?
I don’t think I had a thing. People did notice that I had a lot of snacks around. That was the only kind of funny thing. Snacks were always there because I don’t think I ever sat down to eat. I was constantly snacking. There was so much serious stuff on this film. It was my first time that I never even got relaxed enough to find a routine. I winged it every morning and tried to come with my little scribbles on paper. I talked to everybody and tried to do the best that I could. I listened a lot.
Were your kids around during the filming?
They went to school in Hungary and they came to visit the set after school. Most of the time, they had to stay out. They liked to play with the fake snow. There were many days when they could never really come because there were scenes that were not appropriate for children. It was so dark and hard that any time you called “Cut” or we had a break, everybody was playing together. The cast would come out and play soccer with my kids.
We would all laugh and try anything that brought levity and love because it was so dark. Off the set, I was happily with my kids. I was probably smothering them with love because of the nature of the subject matter.
Also on a different note, you recently went to Japan. What did your kids enjoy there?
I love shopping with the children in Japan because there’s such a unique, creative style there… They love it, especially my boys. We always go to Kiddy Land. We always go shopping at different clothing stores. We went to the record store and got lots of CDs of different Japanese artists because we’re getting the boys into Japanese rock and roll.
Almost every step you make and almost every word you say are reported. It must be quite strange. Do you feel too much weight on your shoulders?
Yes, sometimes, but I’m so grateful to have the life and the opportunities that I have. I don’t look at the downside of it. I wouldn’t have been able to make this film if they weren’t sure I’d bring enough attention to it. I do feel a huge amount of pressure but I try to have a good, honest life and focus on my family and do the best I can.
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