Angelina Jolie’s first film as a director, In the Land of Blood and Honey, is a horrific tale set during the Bosnian conflict. She talks to John Hiscock about the emotional cost of making it.
Angelina Jolie’s first film as a director is definitely not for kids. She had to ban her and Brad Pitt’s six children from the Budapest set of In the Land of Blood and Honey whenever she was filming brutal and harrowing scenes, which was much of the time.
But, whenever there was a break in filming, the children, aged between two and 10, were summoned to bring fun and laughter to the cast and crew and provide a welcome respite from the grim and horrific acts being depicted for the cameras.
“They liked to visit the set and play in the fake snow, but there were many days when they couldn’t come because we were filming scenes that weren’t appropriate for children,” she says. “But, whenever I called 'cut’ and we had a break, the kids would come and play soccer with the cast, and we’d all laugh because they brought levity and love to something that was so dark. I was always so happy to see them I probably smothered them with love because of the nature of the subject matter I was dealing with.”
The subject matter is a vivid and graphically explicit look at the fratricidal Bosnian war of the 1990s, which pitted Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia against each other along ethnic and religious lines, leaving an estimated 100,000 people dead, 50,000 women raped and introduced the term “ethnic cleansing” to the lexicon of war.
The movie, filmed in 42 days for less than £10 million, was written by Jolie who also produced as well as directed.
“I wanted to do this film because of what I’d witnessed in the past 10 years in travelling to all parts of the world. And the more I started to read and research about the former Yugoslavia, the more I was emotionally affected and ashamed at myself for knowing so little about it.”
Apart from reading everything she could find, she also consulted Richard C Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton accords that ended the conflict in December 1995 (who died in December 2010), Gen Wesley Clark, the Nato commander, as well as correspondents who covered the war and some of the victims and survivors.
Once she started writing, it took her a month to craft the story of Ajla, a Bosnian Muslim woman, and Danijel, a Serbian police officer, who meet in Sarajevo just before the war starts and are reunited when she is sent to one of the notorious “rape camps” where he is in charge.
Jolie decided to model her directing techniques on those of Clint Eastwood, who had directed her to an Oscar nomination in 2008’s Changeling.
“I had a great experience with him, and his sets are like family,” she says. “He works with good people. You have to be talented, but at heart you have to be a good person. There are no egos and everybody respects each other and works together. He’s so fast and economical, which I had to be because we had so very little money and had to move very fast.”
Her actors are from the former Yugoslavia, a mix of Serbs, Muslims and Croats, many of whom had lost family members or were wounded during the war. “It was a particularly hard film because I was asking people to recreate things they actually lived through and do brutal things to each other. As rough as we depicted the violence against women, it was really a thousand times worse.
“On the first day of filming, we shot a mass rape scene, and it was the first time these people from different sides of the conflict were in the same space and working together. I thought, 'This is either going to bring about great tension and we’re going to have a very difficult morning, or it’s going to do something else.’
“Right after I called 'cut’, the actor picked the actress up, gave her the biggest hug and brushed all the snow off her, and all the other officers picked up the women’s clothes and re-dressed them and apologised and brought them tea. By lunchtime, people were friendly and kind to each other, so there was a lot of love in the film. But there was a strong intention on my part to make it hard to watch because I wanted people to sit for two hours and be thinking, 'Please stop this, somebody intervene.’ We made it difficult to watch on purpose.” In a bizarre convergence of Hollywood glamour and the horrors of war, we are talking in the comfort of a Beverly Hills hotel suite. She is well aware that her star status not only ensured the film could be made but is also the reason for the publicity it is generating and the discussion of the issues it raises, including rape as a war crime and the ethics of international intervention.
“How can there be such violence against women? How can the international community turn its back and allow these kind of atrocities?” she says. “There is no sane answer and it makes absolutely no sense.”
Her and Brad Pitt’s celebrity has helped in her role as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and brought attention to the humanitarian causes they support with both time and money. For the past decade, in between making movies, they have travelled the world, visiting refugee camps, building schools and hospitals and donating money where it is needed.
“Here in Hollywood, people get so stressed about things that are simply not the important things in life. So I am very grateful that years ago I was put in the middle of a conflict zone, where I came face to face with what is really happening in the world.
“I love being an actor, and I appreciate and have fun with all the blessings I’ve got from it, but it is a very small part of what is happening around the world. If I wasn’t somehow able to bring attention to issues when I go to other countries, it would weigh on me heavily. I have moments when I burst out crying and I don’t know why, and sometimes I can’t sleep at nights, but at least I can feel I can do something to be part of the solution.”
She is still basking in the positive reactions to a screening of In the Land of Blood and Honey, which she had just hosted in Sarajevo for representatives of war victims’ associations. Their original objections to her story of love between a Serb man and a Muslim woman had forced her to shoot most of the film in Hungary, with only some of the exterior scenes in Bosnia. But, she says, they were pleased with the finished product.
“Sensitivities are still running high, and I have a deep sympathy for people who were nervous, but I asked that people give us the chance to tell the story, and the actors would not have been a part of it if it wasn’t something that was right and correct.”
Jolie, 36, is keen to write and direct another movie and has already started working on a script about Afghanistan. “I loved the experience of directing, and I’d like to do it again. But I’m not yet confident that I’m good at it.”