There are a few things about Angelina Jolie's directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey that caught my attention. One is acting. In December last year I read Howard Feinstein's review of the movie in the Daily Screen. That was probably the first time I read impressions of someone who has actually seen the movie. Until then I kept hearing comments of people who had not even seen the movie, but more of that later. In his review Feinstein writes among other things that “... [o]ne selling point could be the foregrounding of an outstanding portrayal of a Bosnian Serb camp commander and civilian cop, Danijel, by the Bosnian Serb actor Goran Kostic, despite the sometimes ludicrous plot situations into which he is thrust. His physical agility, soft but masculine face, piercing blue eyes, and remarkable capacity to shift moods in a split second recall a younger Ralph Fiennes...” Back then I was not in a position to either agree or disagree with the man for whom I have huge respect as a result of his long term stint as one of the program selectors at the Sarajevo Film Festival, but now having seen the movie I have to say that I couldn’t disagree more on this particular point. Even assuming that some of the plot situations are ludicrous, I think that Kostic makes them even more ludicrous by his remarkably unconvincing performance. Whatever he did on the screen never for one second seemed believable to me. It didn’t really matter whether he was hanging out with his comrades, developing his supposedly amorous relationship with Ajla, which in reality is nothing more than sexual slavery, or just being an obedient son to his bigoted father who happens to be the army general, it was flat and extremely lame throughout. Even if Jolie the scriptwriter intended to emasculate the camp commander and empower the victim, which I think she did, he sabotaged it all the way. I failed to detect shifts in his moods from the moments when he was recreating the bygone times pretending to love and protect her to those when he hated her guts simply for not being of his own kind or for suspecting her loyalty, which, in his view, she owed him in return for her privileged status of his private painter and protection resulting from it. For me, Kostic’s portrayal of Danijel’s split-second transformation from a seemingly protective and affectionate to selfish and outright aggresive self in his dealings with Ajla, his alternatively authoritative and submissive personality in the rapport with his men and his father respectively is just pathetic. Yet, nowhere is his hugely unimpressive performance more exposed than in the movie’s final scene, which, to be fair to Howard, is lost on the foreign viewer watching the English version of the film or the one in the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian language with English subtitles. Finally, if any of the lead actors in this movie deserves praise for outstanding portrayal of her character, it is Zana Marjanovic, who, similarly to Natasa Petrovic in another recent movie on the subject of sexual violence during the war, Juanita Wilson’s As If I Am Not There, delivers a solid performance. If these two movies, and Tanovic’s Circus Columbia with Jelena Stupljanin in it, are anything to go by, young female acting talent in the Balkans is much superior and seems to be ahead of the game compared to their male colleagues.
Another interesting issue to arise from the film is Boris Dezulovic’s discussion on the concept of victimhood. Dezulovic is another man for whom I have huge respect on the account of his journalistic genius. In February this year he wrote an article about the film’s premiere in
: “... The ritual in the Zetra Olympic Hall was not meant to be a film premiere, but a ceremony of international recognition, award of the official victim certificate... Bosniac political, cultural and religious elites are perfectly comfortable with the status of victim in peacetime because its victimhood, as they see it, forms the very essence of the Bosniac nation. In their perception, Bosniacs are historically defined as the nation of surviving victims. Once Bosniacs stop being nothing but the victims, there is no longer any need to defend them, make them into saints and bury them alive. Raison d’etre for the existence of patriotic elites is thus rendered meaningless since they exist only as long as there are enough executioners to finish off the remaining survivors. If there are none, they will nevertheless be mobilized by the Bosniac Main Staff because the aggressor is, by default, greater in numbers and the victim never entirely free as freedom from the shadow of one’s own tombstone is a vast, unchartered territory where one loses the national identity of Bosniac victim...” A little bit of background is needed here. During the making of the movie there was a rumour that the victim falls in love with her captor, which led to the withdrawal of Jolie’s permission to film in Bosnia by the country’s culture minister (he later reinstated the permit after reading the script) and even requests from a rape victims association to strip Jolie of her title of the UNHCR goodwill ambassador. A year or so passed by and voila: a gala premiere of Jolie’s film is organized in Sarajevo in front of the crowd of several thousand. Among them the Grand Mufti who in the post-screening interview emphatically exclaimed: “Angelina Jolie’s film is the best thing that happened to Bosnia-Herzegovina since the Dayton Accords.” Sarajevo
My objection to Dezulovic’s passage has nothing to do with his ridicule of Angelina Jolie’s treatment by the local ‘elites’, but rather with the fact that similar controversies are nowadays a regular accompaniment of most films dealing with sensitive issues. It just seems to me that the attribution of victimhood to a nation based on the sequence of events starting with a rumor that resulted in the intitial withdrawal of the filming permit and subsequent requests to strip Jolie of her title of goodwill ambassador and ending with the film’s grand premiere and equally ‘grand’ statement by the Grand Mufti is too big of a leap, especially in light of the fact that issues such as insistence on sticking to the historical facts and strong resistance to giving a human face to the enemy on film, as well as monopolizing the suffering of wartime victims, to name just a few, are certainly not unique to Bosnia. Take for instance Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Responding to the critics who slammed the movie as trivialization of Holocaust, shallow propaganda, caricature of a gruesome war, the movie that promotes terrorism and torture, a fantasy that, if it were to be indulged at the expense of the truth of history, would be the most inglorius bastardization of all, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of Simon Wisenthal Center said: “Jews have to recognize that Hollywood is in the entertainment business, and they have a right to entertain their audience. It’s presumptuous for us to become the czars that tell the entertainment community what kinds of films they can make.” Tarantino for his part said: “I’m telling you it’s fairy tale right at the top... Whoever gets it, gets it: whoever doesn’t, I don’t give a damn.” Yet, in spite of it being a fantasy, a fairy tale that starts off with once upon a time, it is more than just that, at least judging by the experience of actors who participated in the making of this movie. Eli Roth, who plays the character of Bear Jew bashing the Nazis’ heads with a baseball bat, said that it helped him to reconnect with his Judaism and then went on to add: “It was time to redefine Jewish masculinity on film. That’s one of the reasons I hit the weights so hard; I wanted people to go, wow, Jews are tough!” Melanie Laurent, French actress who plays the character of Shosanna described her experience in the following words: “I’m Jewish. I read the script together with my grandfather and he told me: ‘You have to make that movie, please.’ So, it was not just for me, it was for my family. And when he (Tarantino) picked me, I’m the face of the Jewish vengeance. I’m sure my grandfather will love the movie.” As for the film premiere turned into a ritual, this is how the Israeli audience reacted when Basterds premiered in Izrael in 2009: “The chapters of the movie showing Nazi-scalping, baseball bat-wielding Jews instilling fear into the hearts of the German army (and Hitler), as well as the bloodbath finale, elicited cheers and hearty rounds of applause, and the man himself [Tarantino] won a standing ovation as the end credits rolled.” Finally, a few rabbis rose to the occasion and commented in the press on Basterds, yet again showing that religious dignitaries, regardless of their faith, can always be counted on to provide historical parallels both from the recent and distant history, depending on the moment’s inspiration, and to issue official honorary certificates. This time it was Rabbi Judith HaLevy and Rabbi Irwin Kula who respectively exclaimed: “... Shosana is our beautiful queen Esther and the Bear Jew clubbing his Nazi victims to death echoes the fantasy killing of 75,000 Persians so long ago. Neither story is true, but fantasy satisfies a deep desire for the tables to be turned, the righteous to triumph, and the weak to become strong. ‘Inglorious Basterds’ continues the tradition in fine form. Fantasy rocks!” and “... personally, I would give Tarantino an honorary membership in the Jewish people (no circumcision required...) for bringing consciousness of feelings and desires that many Jews could never bring up in mixed company to the screen.”
Bringing feelings of suicide bombers on the screen did not win Hany Abu-Assad, the director of 2005 film Paradise Now, any honorary memberships. On the contrary, he was faced with a barrage of attacks from day one of the filming. As a result of his decision to shoot the movie in the West Bank’s city of
, the film’s crew literally came under fire from missiles and shooting on the ground. At other times the attacks took a different form. During the filming one of the Palestinian factions acted on a rumor that the movie was anti-suicide bombers and they kidnapped the movie’s local location manager Hassan Titi and demanded that the fim’s crew leave Nablus . Abu-Assad had to contact Yasser Arafat to have him released. As soon as this crisis was resolved, another faction was handing pamphlets in which they accused the film’s crew of being an “American/Spanish conspiracy”. To even remotely understand hardships faced by the crew, it is useful to quote an anonymous citizen of Nablus who wrote: “... His [Abu-Assad’s] film was not welcome by the people and he had to bribe Palestinian gunmen to provide him with safety. That is how he managed to record his film; with the protection of militants and not by the citizens themselves... This film is nothing more than an exploitation of people’s suffering. I would like to know why the Israeli occupation authorities agreed to help produce this by recruiting its soldiers and allowing access to the occupied territories. Nablus only permits films that suit its policies and ideological viewpoint...” As the director Hany Abu-Assad briefly put it: “Shooting a film in occupied territories is not an easy thing.” The controversies surrounding Paradise Now would have probably ended there had it not been for the movie’s huge success, Golden Globe award and Oscar nomination in the best foreign film category. At this point we started hearing critiques from the other side of the border. In early February 2006, in her comment on the supposedly anti-Semitic character of the film Irit Linor wrote: “... And so we can rightly call ‘Paradise Now’ a Nazi film: it spins a thin thread of understanding for those who resorted to desperate measures to solve the problem of the constant, unremitting evil of the Jews...” Around the same time, Yossi Zur who lost his teenage son in a suicide-bombing attack initiated a petition to the Academy in an effort to revoke the film’s nomination: “... it is extremely dangerous – not only to the Middle East, but to the whole world... Would the people who awarded this movie the Golden Globe do the same if the movie was about young people from Israel Saudi Arabia who learn how to fly airplanes in the USA, and then use Islamic rituals to prepare themselves for their holy mission, crashing their airplanes into the Twin Towers in ?” Judging by these hostile reactions to Paradise Now, the movie did not seem to “suit [Israeli] policies and ideological viewpoint” after all, as suspected by the anonymous citizen of New York City . Finally, fed up with these and similar attacks coming from both camps, in response to the question about the message he wanted to communicate through this film Hany Abu-Assad said: “I don’t have messages in movies, messages I leave for the postman.” Nablus
Finally, when I started off by disagreeing with Feinstein and Dezulovic, something I thought I would never do, I had no idea that while doing so some of the most tragic landmark events in recent history such as the Holocaust, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Yugoslav wars of the 90s and even 9/11 would creep into the discussion. On the one hand, at the risk of sounding clichéd I am amazed by the sheer power of cinema and on the other I just wish people stopped reading into the movies too much. I also wish competing narratives were more of a narrative and less of a competition. For starters, it would be good if we could at least try and see these movies, regardless of whether they are brilliant or flawed, more from the artistic point of view, more as a human thing, as Abu-Assad puts it. The alternative is to wonder why Lubna Azabal’s character Suha in Paradise Now did not speak with a Palestinian accent, why Cristoph Waltz’s Jew Hunter in Inglorious Basterds is a multidimensional character who speaks several languages, or why those sniping and shelling the city of Sarajevo in In the Land of Blood and Honey had to have such evil grins on their faces.