The Global Fund for Women invited members of its mailing list to attend a screening of In the Land of Blood and Honey at the Metreon. At first I was a bit reluctant, despite Angelina Jolie's work with refugees I'm not her biggest fan and this is the first movie that she has written and directed. But, unable to turn down a bargain (the New Englander in me) and trying to meet my goal of seeing several movies a month in the theatre, I RSVP'd for two. A fellow public healther who also made her way to the left coast said she would come with me. I've been to screening put on by NGOs before, usually there's 20 or 30 people, if you're lucky. When I arrive at about 5:45 with the movie starting at 6:30, there were at least 100 people in the VIP line (those of us with reserved tickets) and several hundred people waiting in line to try to secure unreserved seats. I was astonished. Did this many people want to see a film about genocide on a Thursday night? Did they like free movies? Or was it Angelina Jolie's star power and willingness to rent out an entire AMC screen? Either way the room was packed, with two entire rows filled with press. Little did I know we were attending the West coast premiere of the film!
I can't tell you to go see this film. It's not that it wasn't good, but it portrays war and its accompanying atrocities in such a vivid way that I would recommend you think long and hard before you go see it. Neither my friend nor I got much sleep the night after seeing it, and she jokingly emailed me that she has a little PTSD with loud noises after the fact. But also note that I am particularly affected by films, I don't sit back and assess what is unrealistic about them, but rather believe it all and let myself by drawn in. So with that said, here's what I thought without many spoilers just in case some of you do choose to see the film after it's February 12 general release date.
In an effort to keep this short and sweet, here are three initial thoughts after seeing the film:
1. The setting and elements of the film outside of the main story are incredibly well done. The entire film is in Serbian and Bosnian with sub-titles. The film was shot on location. All the actors are of the ethnic backgrounds they represent. Additionally, scenes meant to convey what it feels like to live inside of a war zone do just that (from what I've heard and read). The constant, the arbitrary nature of punishment, and feeling of powerlessness. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to live in the middle of a war where a slew of war crimes are taking place, I think this film will give you an idea.
2. I'm glad this film wasn't set in Africa. Now hear me out. Angelina could just as well have chosen to document a different war where genocide occurred and rape was used as a weapon, this war was not unique in that. However, I think that the portrayal of Europeans committing such acts against one another, solely because of politics and religious differences makes the horrific nature of the crimes more difficult for some people to dismiss. I have heard many people say things about genocide or rape or war 'over in Africa'. There is a view that 'those things happen there'. But those things happen in many places, and I think that having perpetrators of crimes against humanity who look like me or many of you has a different impact. This doesn't lessen the importance or inhumanity of such acts in Africa, but I think that once people see how horrific such a conflict is in a culture to which they can relate, perhaps they are more likely to realize it is equally horrific among people with whom they have more difficulty identifying.
3. The main plot. I am a bit conflicted about how I feel about the main plot of the movie, essentially Danjiel, a Serb, and Ajla, a Muslim, go on a date before the war and hit it off. Then the war begins, but they end up meeting again. The main conflict in much of the movie is how they choose to and are forced to interact given that they are technically enemies, but in fact have romantic feelings for one another. I think the plot itself is a stretch, but I also feel like it provides a glimpse of humanity in the midst of atrocity. There is rarely purely good and purely evil during conflict, and many people are 'assigned' to a side which they may not wholly support. The plot is absolutely a stretch at times, I could imagine a skeptic watching it and finding it unbelievable. But finding a love story in the midst of tragedy is also difficult, and just watching one war crime after another would quickly go from engaging to nauseating without breaks where the humanity of people is shown. There is an adage in the humanitarian community that it is easier to make someone care about one child in danger than a country full of children in danger. So it goes with this film, seeing one person struggle with choices, engage in and be tortured, change due to the things they do and witness is easier to understand than watching populations go through the very same circumstances. While it may not be entirely believable, I think Angelina succeeded in making perpetrators and victims of war crimes personable, which is a quite a feat.
As a final note, I know far less about this conflict than others that were taking place around the same time, Rwanda for instance. I cannot attest to the accuracy of the portrayal of the actions of the various factions. However, I can say that the perspective was not entirely unbalanced and I think learning about a war, where ethnic cleansing was occurring, in which the US avoided intervening for years because they said 'we don't have a dog in that fight', is useful, whether through this film or other means.