SARAJEVO -- Hollywood star and social activist Angelina Jolie has brought her directorial debut to its most critical audience. And the reception has been one of gratitude and respect.
Jolie presented "In the Land of Blood and Honey"
-- an intense, dark drama about a couple torn apart by the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- to an audience assembled by 11 war victims' advocacy organizations in Sarajevo on December 8.
The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Hatidza Mehmedovic, who lost her husband, two sons, and other male relatives in the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 and who now heads an NGO called Srebrenica Mothers, said "In the Land of Blood and Honey" was an important film.
"This is a powerful movie for people who survived war -- for all the victims and for any person who lived to witness the war and aggression,” Mehmedovic said. “I think all people in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- and those around the region and the world -- should see this movie. I think that it would be good for our children and youths. We have children that were born in 1990s, and they do not remember the war.”
She added: “We hope that Angelina Jolie will continue to make such movies. We cannot undo what happened here; we cannot heal the wounds of the families of those who died. But it is good to see the image of what happened presented to the world in the proper way."
This response is just what Jolie was hoping for.
'A Very Good Movie'
In an interview with the Voice of America, Jolie said she had often been bothered by the lack of assistance for war victims -- particularly women -- that she has seen around the world during her travels as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR.
"Bosnia in particular -- the more I learned about it and the more I read about it, the more angry I got about the lack of intervention, the more emotional I was about the violence against women," Jolie said.
WATCH: Angelina Jolie discuses making "In The Land Of Blood And Honey" with VOA
Making the film was not easy. In late 2010, the Bosnian government revoked Jolie's permission to film in response to complaints from victims’ organizations. They had heard unfounded rumors that the film was about a rape victim who falls in love with her rapist. They even petitioned the UNHCR to have her title as goodwill ambassador rescinded.
Murat Tahirovic, a survivor of the Omarska detention camp and now head of the Association of Camp Prisoners of Bosnia-Herzegovina, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that he was among those who lobbied to have the filming blocked -- an action he now regrets after seeing the finished product.
"It is a very good movie, extraordinarily well done,” Tahirovic said. “It deals with the very substance of the war in Bosnia. All the main points are there -- camps, torture, crimes, and -- worst of all -- crimes against the honor of women."
"In the Land of Blood and Honey" tells the story of a Bosnian Muslim woman and an ethnic Serbian man who fall in love before the war and meet again during the conflict -- when he is an officer in the Serbian army and she is a prisoner in a detention camp.
Jolie, who was only a teenager when the war in Bosnia raged in 1992-1995, said she was drawn toward making the film by learning about how the civil war ripped apart the country's multiethnic society.
"The more I learned, the less I understood about how neighbors could turn on neighbors and how a people who are such an intelligent, wonderful, family-oriented people could . . . break down in such a way where people were so brutal to each other,” she said.
“And I wanted to do a film that would help to look into the relationships between not just a couple, but also sisters and fathers and sons and mothers and children."
Conflict Destroyed Lives
Tom Gjelten, a correspondent for U.S.-based National Public Radio who covered the war in Bosnia and served as a consultant on Jolie's film, also emphasized the way this conflict destroyed lives.
"One of the things that interested me in Sarajevo was: What did that experience do to individuals and to the relationships between individuals?” said Gjelten. “How did it erode or corrode human relationships and how did it destroy friendships and, indeed, marriages?"
Although the relationships hold the foreground in "In the Land of Blood and Honey," Jolie took pains to include the full scope of the horrors of war. She said she wanted to force audiences to confront war’s violence and to imagine how horrific it must have been to have endured the conflict.
Nonetheless, she said, some scenes -- such as one showing a stray dog eating part of a human corpse -- were judged unbearable by test audiences and were cut.
Jolie consulted with witnesses, survivors and experts in an attempt to make the film as authentic as possible.
She insisted that it be released in Serbian with English subtitles -- although such a move is seen as unlikely to endear it to U.S. audiences. Nonetheless, it has garnered critical tributes around the world in the run-up to its official U.S. release on December 23.
'I Want People to Remember Bosnia'
Jolie emphasized that the film was a joint production of the team she assembled, including a cast of Bosnian actors. "We made it together,” she said. “It is not an American film made about Bosnia. It is a film made with one American and many Bosnians and many people from the area and we made it together."
Jolie said she hoped the film will make a contribution to Bosnia and the entire Balkans region as it struggles to come to grips with the past and build a better future. "I want people to remember Bosnia and I want them to remember what happened,” she said.
“I want them to pay respect to all the people who survived and, today, to remember that this country still has so much healing to do and that we have a duty as the international community to befriend and support and help through this new stage, this new transition in this part of the world. So, hopefully, at least, this film will bring about discussion."
That discussion seems to be beginning.
Dragisa Andric, an ethnic Serb who was held prisoner by the Bosnian Army during the war and who now heads the Association of Prisoners From Visegrad, told RFE/RL that the film made a lasting impression.
"This is the most difficult film that I have seen in my entire life,” Andric said. “I am very touched and it upset me a lot. Right now, I feel like a boxer after the fight, after coming out of the ring. I am deeply moved by it -- many scenes that I lived through myself are shown in it This film had a message, a very tough message. It is not easy to watch, even for those who didn't experience these things themselves."
Written by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service correspondent Marija Arnautovic, RFE/RL Balkans Service Director Gordana Knezevic, and Voice of America's Bosnian Service.