First Night: In the Land of Blood and Honey, Berlin Film Festival

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Courage under fire! Jolie's debut is not for faint-hearted

When Angelina Jolie arrives in snowbound Berlin at the weekend for the screening of In The Land Of Blood And Honey (her debut feature as a director), the paparazzi will be out in force. She will walk the red carpet. Amid all the fanfare, many will forget quite how grim her film actually is.

Many debut directors make solipsistic and autobiographical dramas about their own growing pains. To her credit, Jolie takes the reverse tack, instead plunging headstrong into the maelstrom of the Bosnian war. The film was given a respectful reception when it was shown to the international press in advance of its Berlin premiere on Saturday evening. Whatever else, Jolie has gumption. It was a small triumph for her to complete the movie at all given the controversy it provoked when she first started trying to shoot in Bosnia. The Bosnian authorities were initially very suspicious of this Hollywood star in their backyard, telling a story that was still horribly raw to many. At first, they refused permission for her to film in the country. Bosnian rape victims were reportedly indignant that she was making a film about a Muslim woman who had a love affair with her Serbian captor.

In The Land Of Blood And Honey is certainly very gruelling viewing indeed. Aside from a five minute pre-war preface in which the heroine  Ajna (Zana Marjanovic) is shown at her easel painting, walking the  streets and dancing, it is pretty much an atrocity exhibition all the  way through.

Jolie shows an unlikely flair for juddering action sequences and for showing Serbian snipers picking off their prey. There are many moments here that make you wince and turn away your eyes – killings, explosions and rapes. The superstar turned director certainly conveys just how surreal and terrifying the experiences of Bosnian Muslims were when their former friends and neighbours turned against them in such savage fashion.

One might argue that this material has been covered by many other filmmakers, both in dramas and documentaries. Leslie Woodhead’s harrowing documentary A Cry From The Grave (1999), about the fall of  Srebrenica, and Srdan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame  which offered a Serbian perspective on the atrocities of the war, are  two prime examples. Jolie’s film shares some elements of both films.  Certain scenes have the feel of documentary re-enactments. Others share Dragojevic’s tendency to lurch toward Sam Peckinpah-like mannerism (for example, the moments of slow-motion violence.) The characterization of the Serbs as boozing, wantonly sadistic brutes can’t help but rekindle memories of the equally caricatured villains in spaghetti westerns. If there is anything redeeming about them, the director doesn’t show it.

Jolie elicits two very strong performances. Marjanovic excels as the 28-year-old woman, gifted as an artist, ingenuous and kind-hearted,  who is suddenly pushed into the most hellish existence imaginable.  Goran Kostic (who once played a Polish builder in EastEnders) is also impressive as Danjiel, the Serbian commander who becomes Ajna’s lover and protector. He captures well the character’s chauvinism and his creeping doubts about the fanatical cause that he espouses.

Where Jolie is markedly less sure-footed is in telling a story. The romance between Danijel and Ajna can’t help but seem far-fetched in  the extreme. Jolie, who also scripted the film, is all too clumsily trying to contrast the intimate scenes between the two solicitous lovers with the cruelty that surrounds them. As the film progresses, the tempo becomes ever more torpid. Sequences are held for too long as the director throws in portentous close-ups. It is uncomfortable to watch scenes of lovemaking between the couple with the rape scenes that precede them.

Every so often, we’ll hear a radio broadcast or see TV footage that tries to place the events we are watching in historical context. The film ends abruptly and strangely. Jolie’s debut is uneven and sometimes even preposterous but it’s also courageous and very ambitious. Anyone who turns up to watch the film drawn by Jolie’s star profile is likely to get a severe and chastening surprise.

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