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Wed January 18, 2012
Europe

A Look Back At Bosnia, Through Angelina Jolie's Eyes

Originally published on Thu January 19, 2012 7:36 am

Angelina Jolie was just 16 when the war in Bosnia began, and she acknowledges now that she paid little heed to it at the time. But as her awareness of international issues later took shape, her attention was drawn back to that Balkan conflict.

"I wanted to understand," she says. "I was so young, and I felt that this was my generation; how do I not know more?" Now, that war is the subject of In the Land of Blood and Honey, her debut film as a writer and director.

As someone who covered Bosnia, I appreciate Jolie's interest in highlighting the war again at a time when it has mostly faded from the public consciousness. The conflict, which set Serb and Croat nationalist forces against the Muslim-led Bosnian government, was characterized by gross violations of human rights, and it made a mockery of allegedly European values — in the very heart of Europe.

This was the war that popularized the term "ethnic cleansing," a euphemism for the forced transfer of populations purely on the basis of their ethnic background or religion. Between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped during the war, leading to the first prosecution of rape on its own as a crime against humanity. Many of us who covered the war felt it deserved more attention than it got.

But the Balkans is a region of great complexity, persistent interethnic tension, deep national identities and rival historical narratives. The same events tend to be viewed differently by different sides. No one — no journalist, no writer, no filmmaker — ventures into Balkan storytelling without controversy. Bosnia, where Serbs, Muslims, Croats and people of mixed ancestry have long co-mingled, is a minefield all its own.

In order to make her film as fair and accurate as possible, Jolie needed to familiarize herself with Bosnian culture, down to the drinking habits and the linguistic peculiarities in a country where the different sides speak essentially the same language but cling to the notion that their dialects are unique. She met with Bosnians on all sides and heard their stories firsthand. She read books and consulted with some of the key characters from that conflict, like U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke. She talked to journalists who covered the war, me included.

Perhaps most important, she cast her film entirely with actors from the former Yugoslavia, all of whom brought their own war experience to the project.

Alma Terzic, who grew up in a Muslim family in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, was just 5 years old when war broke out.

"I was a little child, and for me ... everything was so huge, the bombs and the guns," Terzic said during a panel discussion among the cast members and Jolie last month in New York, at the premiere of Jolie's film. "And I remember the smell. Some details just stuck in your head, and you want to move [them], but they just stay with you."

In the movie, Terzic plays a Bosnian Muslim woman who is imprisoned with other Muslim women and repeatedly raped by Bosnian Serb forces. In her own case, however, the most traumatic experience in the war came when soldiers from the Muslim-led Bosnian government broke into her house and forced her father to go with them to fight the Serbs. Terzic, her mother and her sister were left on their own.

"I remember how hungry we were," Terzic recalled, "and my mother's hair going white after they took my father."

Vanesa Glodjo, a Sarajevo native, was cast as a Muslim woman stranded in Sarajevo during the war, just as she was in real life. Seventeen at the time the war began, Glodjo endured days of shelling. Her building had a basement where people took shelter, though Glodjo strangely wanted to go outside when the mortars began to fall.

"I was so afraid of basements," she said, "because I didn't know what was happening. As soon as the shelling starts, I go out, which is completely, of course, not rational."

Many Sarajevans came to believe that what would happen to them was strictly a matter of fate. As it turned out, the one time Glodjo got wounded during the war was on a day when she stayed inside.

"Half of my house was gone, destroyed, behind my back," she recalled. "One [piece of] shrapnel went through my leg, through the muscle."

The main Serb character in Jolie's film is a soldier torn between his affection for a Muslim woman and his loyalty to his father, a general in the Bosnian Serb army leading his forces into combat against the Bosnian Muslims and their allies. The role is played by Goran Kostic, who also brought his personal experience to the performance.

"My dad at the time was a Serbian officer in the Serbian army, [with] the rank of general," Kostic told the New York audience. In fact, the tradition of serving in the Serbian army went back several generations in his family. "That was my destiny," Kostic said, "to become a soldier myself."

In the film, his character heeds his father's wishes and joins him fighting on the Bosnian Serb side. Kostic himself, however, did not follow his father's military lead, choosing instead to move to London and escape the war. But he had no trouble identifying with the Serb soldier he was asked to portray and with the personal dilemma the soldier faced.

"It was easy to look at it ... and say there are so many similarities here," Kostic noted. "[I said] 'I can easily get into that emotional landscape between my father in real life and the father in the film itself.' "

Ermin Sijamija had precisely the opposite acting challenge. In Jolie's film, he plays an especially brutal Serb soldier. But in real life he fought with his fellow Muslims on the Bosnian government side. "I was in the war, I was in the fight. I was in combat. I saw my friends dying in my hands," he told the audience. "I saw all the bad things."

Because Jolie had not been in Bosnia during the war, she had to rely on the accounts of others. She heard in one conversation, for example, about an occasion during the war when some elderly Muslim women were forced to strip naked and dance in front of laughing Serb soldiers. Jolie included that incident in her film, along with a scene of Muslim women being used as human shields, which she also learned about during conversations with war victims. Some Sarajevans, meanwhile, insisted that Jolie distinguish between extreme nationalist Serbs and those who rejected the ethnic intolerance of their own leaders.

And then there were the sticklers for accuracy on more mundane points.

One Serb man pulled Jolie aside and told her about the concerns of his fellow Serb actors. "And, of course, they were all 6-foot-4, striking-looking men, and [it was] my first day, and I'm nervous and trying to direct them," Jolie recalls. "And they're saying, 'Miss, we need to talk to you.' "

"And they said, 'First of all, we never say 'sir.' You have us saying 'sir' through the whole script. Serbs don't say 'sir.' And we don't drink tea. We never drink tea.' And I had this whole thing about Turkish coffee," Jolie says, laughing, "and of course that's politically incorrect in the region, which I didn't realize. So I said, 'It's Turkish coffee,' and [they said,] 'No, no, it's Serbian coffee.' "

Jolie says her actors helped make her film more authentic. Still, there was much she had to figure out on her own. Jolie did not know the details of Alma's father being dragooned to fight on the Muslim side, nor, she says, did she know exactly what Sijamija had gone through as a Bosnian soldier.

"He was the silent guy through the entire film," Jolie says. "The entire production, he never spoke. He was just elegant, always doing his job. I heard he had been in the military, but I never wanted to ask him, because I knew it was painful. So I didn't sit him down and drill him about it. I just had a feeling, and I could tell by the way he did the military scenes that he was familiar with weapons, but I never wanted to ask."

My own contribution to Jolie's film was marginal, informal and unpaid. She was keenly aware of Balkan sensitivities and wanted to make sure the facts were straight. Jolie and her producers asked me about intermarriage rates in Sarajevo before and after the war, for example. They asked me to review the opening and closing onscreen texts in the film and to help with the preparation of radio news broadcasts heard in the background during the film. By the time I became involved, Jolie had learned how important it was to get the nuances correct when producing a film about the Bosnian war.

In the Land of Blood and Honey was shot in both English and Serbo-Croatian versions, and Jolie and her producers had struggled with the need to settle on a script translation agreeable to all sides.

"Some people objected to the first one as leaning too far in one direction," she says, "so we did another. And then someone objected to that one as leaning too far the other way. We always had to find a middle ground. Anytime I could get them all to agree, I knew it was the middle ground. So we would go back and forth until everybody agreed. That was the complexity of it. Somebody constantly whispering into your ear, 'We don't do this,' and somebody else saying, 'They absolutely do that.' "

Not surprisingly, Jolie says she's been more concerned about how her movie would be received in Bosnia and Serbia than in New York or Los Angeles. Those local audiences are the ones who will tell her whether her portrayal of the conflict was, in their view, fair and accurate.

Her multiethnic cast in the end was happy with it. The film has already had an initial screening in Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, and it was well-received there. The official premiere in Belgrade, Serbia's capital, is set for next month.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The actress Angelina Jolie was 16 when the war in Bosnia began. She paid little attention at the time. Now that war is a subject of "In the Land of Blood and Honey," Jolie's debut film as a writer and director. To make that film is authentic as possible, she needed to educate herself about and especially complex conflict, one by her own admission she didn't really understand at first.

So she called in a number of people as consultants, including our own Tom Gjelten. He has the story of how the Hollywood star dealt with the Bosnia challenge.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Angelina Jolie made her first trip to Bosnia before she started filming and with only a vague idea of what she was after.

ANGELINA JOLIE: I wanted to understand. And I was very moved by the people from this part of the world. And I was so young and I felt that this was my generation, how do I not know more? So...

GJELTEN: So she met with Bosnians and heard their stories firsthand. She read books and consulted with some of the key characters from that conflict, like U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke. She talked to journalists who covered the war, myself included. And, perhaps most important, she cast her film entirely with actors from the former Yugoslavia, all of whom brought their own war experience to the project.

Among them, Alma Terzic, five years old when the war began.

ALMA TERZIC: I was a little child, and for me, was - everything was so huge, the bombs and the guns. And I remember the smell. Some details that just stuck in your head and you want to move it, but they just stay with you.

GJELTEN: Alma plays a Bosnian Muslim woman in the movie. The film depicts the brutality Bosnian Muslims, especially women, suffered at the hands of Bosnian Serb forces. Alma herself is a Muslim, though in her own case, the most traumatic experience in the war came when soldiers from the Muslim-led Bosnian government broke into her house and forced her father to go with them to fight the Serbs. Alma, her mother, and her sister were left on their own.

TERZIC: When three women is alone, and we don't have food, and I remember how hungry we were, and my mother just - her hair going white, after they took my father.

GJELTEN: Vanesa Glodjo, a Sarajevo native, plays a Muslim woman stranded in Sarajevo during the war, as she, in fact, was. Seventeen at the time, Vanesa endured days of shelling. Her building had a basement where people took shelter, though Vanesa strangely wanted to be outside when the mortars began to fall.

VANESA GLODJO: I was so afraid of basements, because I didn't know like what is happening. So as soon as the shelling starts, I go out - which is completely, of course, not rational.

GJELTEN: Or maybe it was rational, considering what happened one time Vanesa did not go outside when shelling began.

GLODJO: I got wounded in the house. Half of my house was gone, destroyed, behind my back. And just one shrapnel went through my leg, through the muscle.

GJELTEN: At the premiere of Jolie's Bosnia film last month in New York, the main actors spoke with me about how their own war experiences informed their performances. Goran Kostic plays a Bosnian Serb soldier, torn between his affection for a Muslim woman and his loyalty to his father who, in the film, led the Serb forces into combat against the Bosnian Muslims - not too far from Goran's own circumstance.

GORAN KOSTIC: My dad was, at the time, a Serbian officer in the Serbian army, in the rank of general.

GJELTEN: In fact, you came from a military family.

KOSTIC: Yeah, of course, that was my destiny, really, to become a soldier myself.

GJELTEN: The character Goran plays in the film heeds his father's wishes and fights along with him on the Serb side. Goran, the actor, did not follow his father's military lead. He moved to London instead and escaped the war. But Goran had no trouble identifying with the Serb soldier and the dilemma he faced.

KOSTIC: Because it was easy to look at it and think about myself and say, there are so many similarities here that I can easily play that, really. Or I can easily get into that emotional landscape that was happening between my father in real life, and the father in the film itself.

GJELTEN: Ermin Sijamija had precisely the opposite acting challenge. He plays an especially brutal Serb soldier. But in real life, he fought with his fellow Muslims on the Bosnian government side.

ERMIN SIJAMIJA: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: A fellow actor interprets for him.

SIJAMIJA: (Through Translator) I was in the war. I was in the fight I was in combat. I saw my friends dying in my hands from the bombs.

GJELTEN: Because she had not herself been in Bosnia during the war, Jolie had to rely on the accounts of others. And, as every outsider learns when visiting the Balkans, this is a region of conflicting ethnic identities and rival histories. The people are proud, and they can be stubborn. All this became clear to Jolie at the start of filming, when she was approached by a group of Serb actors.

JOLIE: And of course they were all six foot four, and my first day and I'm nervous and trying to direct them. And they're saying, miss, we need to talk to you. And they said, first of all, we never say sir. You have us saying sir through the whole script. Serbs don't say sir. And we don't drink tea. We never drink tea.

And, you know, I had this whole thing about Turkish coffee; and of course that's politically incorrect in the region, which I didn't realize. So I said it's Turkish coffee. And they said, no, it's Serbian coffee.

GJELTEN: Jolie says her actors helped make her film more authentic. Still, there was much she had to figure out on her own. Jolie did not know the details of Alma's father being dragooned to fight on the Muslim side, nor, she says, did she know exactly what Ermin had gone through as a Bosnian soldier.

JOLIE: He's the silent guy through the entire film. The entire production, he never spoke. I heard he'd been in the military, but I never wanted to ask him 'cause I knew it was painful. So I didn't sit him down and drill him about it. I just - I had a feeling, and I could tell by the way he, of course, did the military scenes that he was familiar with weapons. But I never wanted to ask.

GJELTEN: The war in Bosnia ended with a peace agreement more than 16 years ago, but the argument over its origins persists. No one - no journalist, no writer, no filmmaker, ventures into this territory without controversy. Emerging with a story that offends no one is virtually impossible.

JOLIE: Any time I could get them all to agree, I knew it was the middle ground. So we would go back and forth until everybody agreed. And that was the complexity of it, was just a constantly, you know, somebody whispering into your ear, we don't do this; and then somebody else saying, they absolutely do that. And you think, ugh...

GJELTEN: Jolie says she's been more concerned over how her movie would be received in Bosnia and Serbia than in New York or LA. Those local audiences are the ones who will tell her if her portrayal of the conflict was, in their view, fair and accurate.

Her multi-ethnic cast, in the end, was happy with it. The film has already been shown in Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, and was well received there. A screening in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, is scheduled next month.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.