Angelina Jolie is parched.
It's the end of a long day of interviews and Jolie is relieved. "I can't tell you what the last few days have been like," she confided as she nestled into the couch of her Beverly Hills hotel room. "I'm finally starting to breathe again."
The 36-year-old actress was in Los Angeles to premiere her latest movie. But this time, she's not promoting a starring role, but a step behind the camera, writing and directing her first feature film, In The Land Of Blood And Honey.
"I have never felt so much responsibility for something," she admitted.
Sure, it's not the first time an A-list star has taken their turn behind the camera, but Jolie has taken on a topic so complex and emotional that it would challenge even the most experienced filmmaker.
In The Land Of Blood And Honey is set in the brutal and senseless war in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia that lasted between 1992 and 1995. The title hails from a popular local interpretation of the Balkan region (in Turkish "bal" means "honey" while "kan" stands for "blood"). The Bosnian war claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people in a horrendous and notorious policy of "ethnic cleansing", while violent acts against women were so rampant that it led to the first tribunal to prosecute rape as an independent crime against humanity.
Jolie was 17 when the war broke out and, like many of us, was ignorant of its causes and ramifications. Over the past 10 years, in her role as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she made several visits to the area.
"The more I read and researched about the former Yugoslavia, the more I was emotionally affected and ashamed of how little I knew," she said. There was one particular rape victim she met on one of her trips there who spurred her into action.
"You could see that it would never leave her mind and she would never be the same again. I was really affected by her and it's what really compelled me to write this," she said.
Acknowledging the pain
In The Land Of Blood And Honey centres on the relationship of a young Bosnian Muslim artist, Ajla, and a Bosnian Serb army officer (Danijel) living in Sarajevo. They meet and fall in love before the war but their romance suddenly takes a fractured turn, a parallel for the atrocities that surround them. Ajla is interned with countless other Muslim women in what were later dubbed "rape camps" where Danijel in now a commanding officer. He tries to stay anesthetised to the horrors around him, while Ajla seems paralysed to escape her subjugation.
"The couple at the centre of this, is what I would relate to the most, if it happened to me tomorrow," said Jolie. "I couldn't even imagine it to be possible but as I was writing I kept asking the question: What would have to happen to change two people this much who love each other?"
Jolie chose to cast local actors who had first hand experience of the war. To ensure they reacted honestly to the script, it was sent to them without her name attached. The actors were surprised to learn it was Jolie. "I had no idea. I thought at first it had to be a Bosnian who wrote it," said 28-year-old Sarajevo-born actress Zana Marjanovic, who plays Ajla. "It definitely felt like it was someone who was from the community but objective enough to present all the different voices of the conflict."
While Jolie didn't initially set out to direct, it was hard to relinquish her passion for the project. "In the end I thought that's what mattered most. I think that's just as important as the technical skills, having your heart in the right place."
She sought an inclusive approach that would bring people together from all sides of the conflict. "We had this understanding that they could say anything," she said.
"She told us this is our personal story. Only we can give this film complete justice," said Goran Kostic, who plays Danijel. Kostic escaped to London for the duration of the war, but like his character, hails from a Serbian military family.
Other actors like Vanessa Glodjo, who plays Ajla's sister, Lejla, witnessed the violence first hand living on the front line in the besieged city of Sarajevo - where dodging bullets down Sniper Alley was a daily occurrence.
"Being someone who lived in the war, I knew how far I could push the emotions in that scene," said Glodjo, about the scene where she comes home to discover her infant boy has been killed by a Serbian soldier.
Jolie admits for any mother it's a tough scene to witness. "I didn't even want to put it on the page because somehow that puts it closer to you," she said. "It is without doubt my greatest fear but it's what happened to people during this time. I wanted to show this for the people who lost their children, to acknowledge their pain."
Learning from mistakes
Despite the tough scenes it was a surprisingly happy set. "Everyone came together to relive this terrible time in their history, but in doing so it brought about so much love, so much kindness, and so much friendship between them. In between, whenever we had a chance to lighten things up, we would," said Jolie.
Filmed in Hungary and Bosnia over 41 days, each scene was shot twice, once in English and once in the local language. Jolie would have preferred it in its foreign language version, but wanted to provide an option. "We wanted to make sure we reached as broad an audience as possible," she said. "We know there are a lot of people that don't like going to subtitled movies, so we worked twice as hard so we could share this story with as many people as we could."
Of course it's hard to expect her first foray into directing not to grab some headlines of its own. Early on during filming a Bosnian women's group, mistaking the nature of the central romance in the film, tried to stop filming, while Serbian media have been quick to accuse it of propaganda. "It's very important that people don't misinterpret this in any way and it's upsetting when that happens," Jolie said emphatically. "That's why, early on, we made sure we screened this to NGO's, women's groups and Bosnian women who were victims of the war."
Hollywood seems to be embracing Jolie as filmmaker. The film received a number of plaudits including a Golden Globe nod for Best Foreign Language Film, and the Producers Guild of America honoured the movie with its Stanley Kramer Award, recognising socially conscious filmmaking.
Jolie may take the director's chair again, but only for an issue that really moves her. In the meantime, she hoped that In The Land Of Blood And Honey would provoke the kind of discussion that can bring about social change.
"There is a big message and it's not to point fingers," she said. "We have to learn the mistakes made, understand them, and figure out how to handle these situations that are going on today. It's not a film intentionally attacking anyone but it is reminding people what happened." TEXT COURTESY OF SHAW ORGANISATION
by Katherine Tulich firstname.lastname@example.org