A Look Back At Bosnia, Through Angelina Jolie’s Eyes (video interview included)

By: Tom Gjelten

Angelina Jolie was just 16 when the war in Bosnia began, and she acknowledges now that she paid little heed to it at the time. But as her awareness of international issues later took shape, her attention was drawn back to that Balkan conflict.

“I wanted to understand,” she says. “I was so young, and I felt that this was my generation; how do I not know more?” Now, that war is the subject of In the Land of Blood and Honey, her debut film as a writer and director.

As someone who covered Bosnia, I appreciate Jolie’s interest in highlighting the war again at a time when it has mostly faded from the public consciousness. The conflict, which set Serb and Croat nationalist forces against the Muslim-led Bosnian government, was characterized by gross violations of human rights, and it made a mockery of allegedly European values — in the very heart of Europe.

This was the war that popularized the term “ethnic cleansing,” a euphemism for the forced transfer of populations purely on the basis of their ethnic background or religion. Between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped during the war, leading to the first prosecution of rape on its own as a crime against humanity. Many of us who covered the war felt it deserved more attention than it got.

But the Balkans is a region of great complexity, persistent interethnic tension, deep national identities and rival historical narratives. The same events tend to be viewed differently by different sides. No one — no journalist, no writer, no filmmaker — ventures into Balkan storytelling without controversy. Bosnia, where Serbs, Muslims, Croats and people of mixed ancestry have long co-mingled, is a minefield all its own.

In order to make her film as fair and accurate as possible, Jolie needed to familiarize herself with Bosnian culture, down to the drinking habits and the linguistic peculiarities in a country where the different sides speak essentially the same language but cling to the notion that their dialects are unique. She met with Bosnians on all sides and heard their stories firsthand. She read books and consulted with some of the key characters from that conflict, like U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke. She talked to journalists who covered the war, me included.

Perhaps most important, she cast her film entirely with actors from the former Yugoslavia, all of whom brought their own war experience to the project.

Alma Terzic, who grew up in a Muslim family in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, was just 5 years old when war broke out.

“I was a little child, and for me … everything was so huge, the bombs and the guns,” Terzic said during a panel discussion among the cast members and Jolie last month in New York, at the premiere of Jolie’s film. “And I remember the smell. Some details just stuck in your head, and you want to move [them], but they just stay with you.”

In the movie, Terzic plays a Bosnian Muslim woman who is imprisoned with other Muslim women and repeatedly raped by Bosnian Serb forces. In her own case, however, the most traumatic experience in the war came when soldiers from the Muslim-led Bosnian government broke into her house and forced her father to go with them to fight the Serbs. Terzic, her mother and her sister were left on their own.

“I remember how hungry we were,” Terzic recalled, “and my mother’s hair going white after they took my father.”

Vanesa Glodjo, a Sarajevo native, was cast as a Muslim woman stranded in Sarajevo during the war, just as she was in real life. Seventeen at the time the war began, Glodjo endured days of shelling. Her building had a basement where people took shelter, though Glodjo strangely wanted to go outside when the mortars began to fall.