Angelina Jolie talks candidly about the conception and making of her directorial debut, In The Land Of Blood And Honey, which has its international premiere in Berlin.

“I know my film is hard for people to watch, but it is intended to be so,” says Angelina Jolie of her directorial debut In The Land Of Blood And Honey. “War should be represented that way. It may seem like a strange thing for a director to feel, but I think people should be uncomfortable watching it.”

The film, which receives its international premiere at the Berlinale, is set in and around Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s and follows a Serbian soldier (Goran Kostic) and his relationship with the Bosnian woman (Zana Marjanovic) with whom he was involved prior to the conflict. When he finds her a captive in the prison camp he oversees, he protects her from the rape and abuse the other women suffer. But, as the war goes on, they are both led down a path of betrayal and recrimination.

Jolie, who also wrote the screenplay, does not avoid depicting the atrocities of the conflict — easy killings and routine cruelties —  but her passion in bringing the story to the screen derives, she says, from a desire to understand how they could have happened.

“I knew so little about the war when I was a teenager or in my twenties. Even through all my years of working with the United Nations and talking to people at the State Department, I still couldn’t get anyone to explain to me what happened and why.

“I couldn’t work out how, at that time in the 1990s when everyone was talking about Schindler’s List and we were very focused on mass atrocities, we could go on ignoring this situation for so long and not assist these people. How did that happen?”

Disturbing situation

“In every conflict, every situation dealing with man’s inhumanity to man, there are things that no rational person can understand because it doesn’t make any sense,” she continues. “But there was something very disturbing to me about this situation where neighbours turned against neighbours in a country 40 minutes away from Italy, in the 1990s.”

Jolie visited the region twice in her role as Goodwill Ambassador to the UN to meet with victims of the war and was struck by the beauty and culture of Bosnia. But when she started writing the script, she never imagined it would ever be made.

“I’ve written in ‘op-ed’ form and tinkered around with the scripts of films that I worked on, and I thought it would be interesting to try to write in a script form,” she explains. “I didn’t write it ever thinking that anybody would read it and I was doing it privately. I didn’t have much work on so I thought I would give myself this task like homework, like I was giving myself an assignment.”

She used the script as an incentive to research the war, reading books and watching documentaries.

‘When you are face to face with people who have survived something or faced danger, it really centres you on what is important in life and the human condition’

Angelina Jolie

“I decided that I would start with these people at the beginning in this country which had all this unity and mixed marriages, and was unusual and beautiful in what it stood for. And then I wanted to try to take these characters through the war, to try to understand and answer these questions: how could a woman — a mother, a sweetheart — ever get to the point where she could try to take somebody’s life?

“And how could two people in love — and I thought here about the relationship with the man in my life — ever get to the point where I would try to kill him or he would try to kill me?

“So the story of the script was to try to put these characters through these years inside the ugliness and violence, and examine the toll that war takes on a human being and what it breaks inside them. And, hopefully, at the end of the piece you somehow feel like you believe they would do what they do.”

She informed the writing with her own knowledge of wartime situations heard first-hand from survivors of war. The scene, for example, where the women are used as human shields in an attack was based on a first-hand account.

“When you are face to face with people who have survived something or faced danger, or have been aggressors but are coming to terms with why they did what they did and what that means, it really centres you on what is important in life and the human condition.”

The first draft was written quickly and Jolie’s partner Brad Pitt read it and suggested she should let others read it.

“I still didn’t take it seriously at that point and just thought he was being sweet, but I sent it to a few people who said I should consider making it. The only way I would consider making it was if I could do it with actors from all sides of the conflict. I didn’t think we’d ever get the money, but we did. And I never thought they’d let me shoot it in authentic languages, but they did. Suddenly, there was this day when I realised, “Oh my God, I’m going to be doing this.’”

She did not even have much prep time, since she was committed to look after their children while Pitt shot Moneyball in late 2010. “I left for a few days to scout and then I came back to the US for a few weeks, and then I think I got three days before we started shooting.”

A balanced portrait

Jolie was determined to present a balanced portrait of the two sides and worked closely with the cast to fine tune the script.

“I had no dog in the fight, as they say. I wasn’t related to either side. I was just trying to understand what happened. But the cast, who were from all different sides, had all suffered through the war in one way or another. They made it real. They taught me. They made sure to influence the script and performances in a way that would be correct — in ways that would be impossible for me to understand.”

“Rade [Serbedzija, who plays a Serbian general in the film] helped me a lot to understand the history and the fact the people really believed in what they were doing. I don’t believe in films where the bad guy is just blankly bad. I think it’s important to have a character that really believes he is doing the right things for his people and country.”

Jolie explains the Bosnian actors inserted the line that they do not hate all Serbs, just the “Chetnik” Serbs, referring to the nationalist paramilitary faction of the Serbian population.

“It was important for them to define it, because they wanted to say to the world that ‘we don’t hate all Serbs — we feel bad for them because this will scar them as well. The Serbian people are amazing people — loving, funny, wonderful, beautiful people.’ But this is a dark part in everybody’s history.”

Indeed, she was nervous the film might re-open recently healed wounds.

“There was the big question when we were making it of whether it was too soon or not because it’s still so sensitive. It is soon, but I think it’s important at this time because there is still so much going on. All parts of the former Yugoslavia are going through economic situations, dealing with corruption and housing issues for people who were displaced. We have a habit in the international community to wrap things up when a conflict ends and move on. And we need to follow through more.”

Though there was initial scepticism in Bosnia about the project, the film has been well-received on a limited opening there and Jolie is excited to return to Sarajevo for the official release launch.

“I am not a big enough believer that film can change anything,” she says. “But with our film, we wanted to open a dialogue to remind the world of that time and discuss the issues that they are struggling with today.

“We’ve been able to do that on different shows around the world and the whole cast has been able to speak about what they went through and where their country is at now and about coming together as one.

“I know the region enough to know that is a big deal. It is important to have symbols of unity when people are still trying to divide other people.”

In The Land Of Blood And Honey

  • Written and directed by Angelina Jolie
  • Produced by Tim Moore, Graham King and Tim Headington
  • Starring Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic, Vanesa Glodjo and Rade Serbedzija
  • Film shot a version in BHS and Serbian and a version in English
  • International sales by GK Films
  • US release by FilmDistrict launched December 23, 2011
  • Jolie won the PGA’s Stanley Kramer award
  • Golden Globe nominated for best foreign-language film.
  • Screening in Berlinale Special