“In the Land of Blood and Honey”

20 May

A lot of us probably had our doubts about this one – in retrospect, unfair doubts and probably (not a little bit) sexist ones.  La Jolie has made a film about us Balkanians…  How could she possibly understand our mystery, our inscrutable savagery, the complexity of our past?  A Hollywood vanity project, for sure.

It turns out this is a great film.  It’s beautiful as a film: beautifully written, shot, acted (some tragic editing errors or omissions though).  And it’s beautiful and intelligent as ethnography and history as well.  She’s modest about her descriptions of her work, but whatever corner of the collective unconscious belongs to our fucked up little part of the world, she was channeling it.

The film recently “premiered” in Belgrade.  A few dozen people showed up and half of those left after the first few scenes, which tells you how much progress we’re making on the Serbian front.  But it struck me really hard that Jolie didn’t attend either.  I thought it was cowardly and, after the love and intelligence she’s obviously put into the project, just plain stupid on her part. Granted, some of the actors, all Bosnian, meaning Serb and Muslim, have been threatened, had their car windows smashed but, you know, all great art has always provoked…

No really, why was she not there?  I clearly, for whatever historical or cultural or mostly emotional reasons, have a special love for Serbs.  I understand they often come across as — or are even – unruly, contrarian, inat-driven, loose cannons (this word, “inat,” deserves an entry of its own and can’t be wrapped up in a footnote).  But I know that more than anything they want to hear and be heard; they crave a healthy confrontation.  That the nineties continue to be simplistically narrated as the story of their villainy rightly pisses them off to no end and they want the chance, at least, to present another narrative; if they pretend that they don’t give a shit what the world thinks it’s just hurt pride or they’ve just given up trying.  Without wanting to add to the reams of crap written about what macho lunatics they are, Serbs are guys – by which I mean the women too – and if Jolie had gone it would’ve gained her instant balls and street cred’ in their eyes and led to all kinds of productive discussion and exchange; I’m not kidding one bit.  If she had truly wanted to say something about the Balkans or the Yugoslav wars and not just about women, she undid more than half the good she could’ve done.

Jolie with extras

One thing that makes you furious about the isolation that was the result of that pointless separating into dumb little countries is that we don’t otherwise know these actors; we got a near fatal dose of Kusturica while Bosnia was on our screens and then it disappeared.  (See below for some extra photos of all.)  Their performances are flawless and their technical competence is proven, if by nothing else, than by the fact that they pulled off the amazing feat of shooting the entire film in both languages.  Not dubbing or anything.  They shot the entire film twice: once in SerboCroatoBosnoHerzegovinoMontenegrin (to be scrupulously correct but which I’ll just call Serbian from here on) and once in English.  Jolie and her team had something to do with how well this came off too.  They let the actors speak the English they speak, which is literally perfect but has the tiny idiosyncrasies that a non-native speaker’s naturally has.  This is the opposite of what Hollywood usually does, which is write a role for, say, Penelope Cruz, in an absolutely impeccable American English which someone with her incomprehensible accent couldn’t possibly speak and which makes her even more incomprehensible and cripples what might otherwise be a decent performance.  But beyond that, they’re all great.  If this one Sarajevo can produce all these actors it makes you want to live there just to go to the theatre or wait for someone to make their next film.

Of course the two you can’t take your eyes off and can’t get out of your head afterwards are the two leads: the painfully sexy Goran Kostić as Danijel, the Serbian cop thrust into the role of Bosnian Serb army captain, and Žana Marjanović as the inscrutable Ajla, the Muslim woman he falls for, one of those close to six-foot Dinaric beauties that make you hate all ex-Yugos; she goes out in one of the opening sequences in heels, a blue dress and a traditional silverwork belt and makes you want to cry, for all kinds of reasons.  I say inscrutable partly because a South American friend who saw the film described her as “parca,” which means dry or stiff or cold — the same root as “parched” maybe – and I had to explain that that attitude implies nobility in our parts, a posture that Ajla doesn’t slip from even for one moment, despite the hell she’s put through; in fact she clings to it even more desperately throughout, her dignity the only thing she has left, her only weapon against male power.  (“Archontia” is another word I need to give a full entry to at some point.)

Goran Kostić (Danijel) and Žana Marjanović (Ajla)

They meet, fall in love just before the war — he in a spellbound way that would be unbelievable if Kostić’s performance didn’t make it so naively magical that you buy it — and then, under circumstances which also strain belief a tiny bit but which you forgive, she ends up in his “custody” as a female POW, for lack of a better word.  Jolie says some trite stuff in the “Making of…” about a “love story that could’ve ended up in happiness, in marriage and children and what war does to that” but, whether she knows it or not, she’s made a film about something so much more complex and true.  Ajla (Marjanović) is both terrified and in the grips of the acute, aching desires of Stockholm Syndrome, but though Danijel is constantly groping around blindly in her heart, he never knows whether she’s there because she “wants” to be with him or not.  Kostić plays the perfect good soldier and officer — the way perfect good soldiers have always been perfect: he’s brave, tough, loves his men, is completely scared to death the whole time and never finds the slightest relief from the tormenting doubts of what he’s doing.

This is a film about anything but a love story — or it’s about a real love story, since these two are in love not in spite of, but because of, war.  It’s a story about the fear that women feel in the presence of potential male violence, something that no man will ever, ever understand in his gut, and Marjanović, like the painter her character Ajla is, gives you a hundred different shades of that fear; it’s about how men will never stop feeling the temptations of that violence; it’s about how sex and love are always about fear and violence.  It’s about how your tribal affiliations are not the product of the Western media but will burst out of you under the slightest pressure in what you had thought was a forgotten and buried language of hatred; it inverts the traditional Muslim-Christian power structure of the region’s sexual captivity narratives; it confronts your loyalties and asks what they’re worth to you; it throws your capacity for betrayal in your face and challenges you to deny it.  Serbian viewers might have been slightly flattered by the discursive lip service given to the Serbian position in the conflict.  But if the film has any real compassion for that position it’s in how the two lovers end up, a subtle and powerful metaphor for the two societies.*  Ajla is battered to no end — and a horrible one; it leaves you feeling crushed in ways that I am unable to describe and, as a man, wouldn’t try to.  But she achieves a kind of heroic closure ultimately that Danijel never can.  He’s the film’s true tragic figure, driven by a child’s insatiable thirst to be loved that’s impossible to quench and that ultimately destroys him in ways that she’s spared.

(* The absent Croats in this metaphor are that species of bad driver who never gets into any accidents himself but causes them all around him — just a calculating version.)

Get the Blu-Ray if you can.  It gives you a choice between the English or Serbian.  On either DVD or Blu-Ray, watch the “Making of…” segment and definitely see the “Deleted Scenes” because I don’t know what they were thinking when they cut these segments out of the final film.  If it was to fit Hollywood commercial length expectations it was particularly dumb because that audience is just not going to see this film anyway.  There are several segments in there that help you understand the sado-masochistic intensity of Danijel and Ajla’s relationship and how they get to that point.  And there’s one scene of priceless beauty where Ermin Bravo (Mehmet), sings what I think is a “sevdalinka,” a Bosnian love song, to his beloved, Vanesa Glodjo (Lejla) — see both below – a scene that breaks your heart with the realization that even another’s most exquisite tenderness will only relieve the agony of a tragic loss for a brief moment.  Every soul is on its own.

Some of the rest of cast:

Vanesa Glodjo (Lejla)

Ermin Bravo (Mehmet)

Boris Ler (Tarik)

And with Jolie

Ler and Bravo in a great shot (from another, unknown stage production) — again, this city must have great theatre… (photo: Irfan Redzović)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com


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