No A-list Hollywood celebrity has done more to try to soothe the wounds in the Balkans than Angelina Jolie.
Through her Jolie-Pitt Foundation, she has donated millions of dollars to groups active in the region, such as Doctors Without Borders and Global Action for Children. And last spring, Jolie and partner Brad Pitt visited Bosnia to assist the nearly 120,000 people who remain displaced, unable to return to their homes.
But Jolie finds herself in the difficult position of reopening those wounds with a new movie set against the backdrop of the 1992-1995 conflict.
The actress is writing, directing and producing the independent-film project, which features a local cast but not Jolie herself. The movie has begun shooting in Hungary and is set to move its cameras into Sarajevo in the coming weeks.
But after word began to circulate that the film would depict not only the rape of a Bosnian Muslim woman by a Serb but also a romance between the two, a backlash erupted. Bakira Hasecic, a rape victim and president of the Women Victims of War Assn. in Sarajevo, lodged a protest with government officials objecting to the romantic plotline. The government is currently examining whether Jolie’s production will be allowed to shoot in Bosnia.
“There is no chance that a [ Bosnian Muslim rape victim] can fall in love with a man from that ethnic group, even if he was not a rapist and camp commander,” Hasecic told The Times on Friday. “If that is what the film says, then we will not allow it.”
While Hasecic acknowledged that she has read only an approximately 10-sentence description of the plot, which she received from the ministry of culture for the Muslim and Croat section of Bosnia, she said it was sufficient to prompt her outrage.
“I only know that the script says that the love was born between the [Serb] commander of the camp and” a Bosnian Muslim woman, Hasecic said. “If this is really what the script says, then this is not true.” Hasecic added that her group, one of many such groups that have sprung up in Bosnia in recent years, wanted to meet with Jolie but had yet to hear from the star.
The controversy highlights the sensitivities and tensions in the Balkans, which remain high 15 years after the conflict in Bosnia officially ended.
“For many people, the war is not a memory but a reality,” said Wanda Troszczynska-van Genderen, the Balkans researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The biggest problem is there’s no common collective memory of the war,” making it difficult for any single dramatic account — even from a well-intentioned artist — to reflect the experience of all Bosnians, Serbs and Croats, she added.
Jolie has resisted divulging specifics about her movie’s plot, but she said she was aware of the still-raw emotions and was taking them into account.
“Obviously any dramatic interpretation will always fail those who have had a real experience. This is not a documentary,” she said in a statement. “There are many twists in the plot that address the sensitive nature of the relationship between the main characters and that will be revealed once the film is released. My hope is that people will hold judgment until they have seen the film.”
Other international filmmakers and stars have made movies about the Balkan wars, including Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo” and “The Hunting Party,” starring Richard Gere. But Jolie’s high-profile position in the region — the actress serves as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and visited with rape victims on her April trip to Bosnia — subjects her to particular scrutiny.
On Thursday, the BBC and other news outlets reported that Minister of Culture Gavrilo Grahovac had revoked a permit for Jolie to shoot in Bosnia. However, Geyer Kosinski, Jolie’s longtime manager and a producer on the film, and Graham King, another producer on the movie, said they believed this was just a hiccup and that the movie would face no production problems.
On Friday, the status of the permit remained unclear. The well-regarded Bosnian newspaper Nezavisne Novine quoted Edo Sarkic, director of Scout, the Bosnian production house working on the movie, as saying that the company had only received “oral approval,” not a “written permit” to film. Sarkic said that he was told by ministry officials that “Grahovac approved filming after he read the script.” He said that “the [oral] approval was issued a month ago.”
Even if the filmmakers are forced to shoot the film outside of Bosnia, the movie seems likely to continue polarizing people. Citizens of both Serbia and Bosnia have recognized that the film could be seen by future generations as a representation of reality perhaps even more than historical records or witness’ testimonies in the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
The movie has been one of the main topics in the media in the former Yugoslavia since the project was announced late last August. At first, Serbs expressed anger. Tabloids in Belgrade labeled the film “anti-Serbian,” and in forums and comment sections on Serbian media websites, scores of insults were directed at Jolie, objecting to, as one commenter put it, Serbs being depicted as “infamous butchers.”
In Sarajevo and other majority-Muslim parts of Bosnia, news of the production was originally greeted with jubilation. Yet in recent days, as Bosnian Muslims voiced their outrage over the rumored rape-romance, Serbs have shifted their stance slightly, perhaps believing that anything in the film that upsets Muslims is bound to please Serbs.
Adding to the media firestorm over the still-untitled movie were reports in Belgrade’s respected Danas newspaper and the Alo tabloid that the movie involves the Serb character slicing or mutilating the woman’s breast and raping her.
Kosinski declined to reveal script details but stressed Jolie’s interest in constructing an authentic story, saying she had spent “months researching” the film and was using a multi-ethnic cast to better reflect the region’s complexities.
Jolie said she saw the film as a continuation of her humanitarian efforts. “The choice to make a film about this area and set in this time in history was also to remind people of what happened not so long ago and to give attention to the survivors of the war,” she said in her statement.
She has found some local support. Jasmila Zbanic, the Bosnian writer-director of “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams,” which won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006, defended Jolie’s movie. “Annulling the permit is an act of supreme primitivism and totalitarianism,” she said in a statement, adding that there are “no noble motives” for denying the permit.
Zbanic said that she “absolutely believes in the integrity of the director, the Bosnian-Herzegovinian actors and the production company that is behind this movie.”
Cirjakovic is a special correspondent for The Times.