‘Blood and Honey’ opens painful window to past for some in cast


For Ermin Bravo, it was the peanut butter that triggered the flashbacks.

Years after the war in Bosnia ended, Bravo, a film and theater actor, still couldn’t touch the condiment, fearful of what it would evoke. “It was the only thing sweet from those [aid] packages we got, and we ate so much of it during the war,” Bravo, now 32, recalled. “Until this shoot [reacquainted me with it], I couldn’t eat it. It brought back too many memories.”

“This shoot” was the filming of “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” a drama about some of the darkest events of the modern era, directed by one of its shiniest celebrities, Angelina Jolie. Moved by survivors she met on goodwill missions, the actress has written, directed and produced a fictional story about Balkan atrocities, told mainly in Bosnian and related Slavic languages. It is her first time behind the camera, but she does not act in the film; instead, the movie stars people who lived through the horrors of the 1992-96 war.


PHOTOS: ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ premiere

The conflict claimed at least 145,000 lives and left countless thousands more injured, raped and otherwise traumatized. Barely noticed by many Americans while it was happening, the war has further receded from public consciousness in the decade since Sept. 11. Now Jolie is trying to rekindle interest in, and shed light on, that grim chapter.

“I’d been to the area, and I’d read about it. But when I started to really look at it, I thought, ‘This is a war that happened to my generation. How do I not know more about it?’” Jolie, 36, said in an interview with the cast at a Manhattan hotel. “I was driven to learn more. And the more I learned, the more I was shocked and angry.”

Unflinching in its emotional and physical brutality, “Blood and Honey,” which arrives in theaters this weekend, stays away from the neat redemption of the Hollywood movies of which Jolie is often a part. But it remains to be seen whether the A-lister’s celebrity will be enough to lure in fans of her mainstream hits, such as “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” or “Salt” — while at the same time not alienating more serious-minded filmgoers.

PHOTOS: ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ premiere

Centering on a romance between a young Bosnian Muslim woman named Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and a Serbian army officer named Danijel (Goran Kostic), “Blood & Honey” contrasts a sweet if complicated love story with a gruesome litany of murder, rape and ethnic cleansing. Ajla and Danijel are together before the war starts. But when fighting breaks out in Sarajevo, they find themselves on opposite sides — painfully so, with Danijel an officer at the rape camp where Ajla is imprisoned.

A few members of Jolie’s cast were able to escape the war — Kostic, now 40, traveled to London and Marjanovic, now 28, was raised in New York. But many of them lived through the atrocities they re-create on screen.

Vanesa Glodjo, 37, plays Lejla, Ajla’s sister and mother to an infant boy. Lejla’s son is killed when soldiers toss the baby off a balcony. She learns of the incident from neighbors who witness it, then lets out a primal scream that is one of the film’s touchstone moments.

The story, Glodjo said, echoed something she experienced.

“My neighbor lost her only son. He was 26 and went to the [front]line and didn’t come back,” she said. “I remember it so clearly. She was a Serb and her husband was a Croat, and two Muslim mothers were comforting her.”

She continued. “A month later, she was crying and we would hear through the walls. At five in the morning, just crying and wailing his name.”

Though the lead actors play characters whose ethnicities mirror their own, Jolie switched some things up, most notably casting Ermin Sijamija, who was a Bosnian soldier during the war, as a cruel Serb soldier. At a news conference after the movie’s New York premiere, Sijamija broke down, saying, “Every time I have to speak about the war, I feel an uncomfortable feeling. I was in combat. I saw my friends dying in my hands. I saw all the bad things.”

On set, too, actors would sometimes spontaneously cry. Jolie would stop filming, and she or an actor would take the person to a private area to try to soothe them. In one difficult scene involving group rape, the male actors all helped the women get dressed right after the cameras stopped rolling, with the knowledge that some of the actresses were doing a lot more than memorizing lines off a page.

“We felt safe and protected,” said Bravo, who plays Mehmet, a Bosniak compatriot of Ajla’s.

Chatting with the actors in the Manhattan hotel, Jolie was a mixture of captain and den mother, reassuring one performer about his nervousness, chiding another about her penchant for snacking, encouraging a third to recount a detail about his filming experience the way a mother might implore her child to tell a favorite family story.

Jolie’s ease with a motley crew of foreigners reflects her long engagement, both public and private, with troubled hot spots — she’s an ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and has adopted children from Cambodia and Ethiopia. Like George Clooney and Sean Penn, she is among a small handful of stars willing and able to allow activism to bleed into their entertainment careers.

Indeed, it’s not the first time Jolie has undertaken something like this. One could view “Blood and Honey” as a spiritual companion to “A Mighty Heart,” the star’s Pakistan-set 2007 passion project in which she played Mariane Pearl, the widow of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, in a different kind of geopolitically flavored drama.

“A lot of research went into both. But that was based on a true story so it’s a different kind of pressure,” Jolie said. “That was one particular family and you feel a certain responsibility. And this is an entire country, so you feel a very different responsibility.”

In preparation for this film, Jolie read books by journalists such as Peter Maass and Tom Gjelten and corresponded with Gen. Wesley Clark, a Balkans expert. She enlisted veteran Hollywood producer Graham King, who worked on her 2010 film “The Tourist,” to help her finance and produce the movie. Eden Sarkic, a Bosnia-based producer, helped with the logistics of shooting in Bosnia.

“Blood and Honey” was shot in Hungary and Bosnia over 41 days, an especially short period given that she shot each scene twice: once in English and once in a foreign language. (Jolie has opted to release the foreign-language version in most countries, including the United States.) No one involved in the film would discuss the budget, but it’s believed to be under $10 million, with the low-profile actors and Central European locations keeping costs low.

Jolie initially concealed her authorship of the script from the actors. “I wanted an honest reaction,” she said. “I wanted people to say, ‘This is terribly written; I don’t know who wrote it but please tell them that it’s terrible, or inaccurate.’”

In fact, the actors were surprised to learn of Jolie’s involvement. “I was really shocked to find out that someone who was not in the war knows so much about it,” said Boris Ler, 26, who plays Tarik, a Bosnian Muslim who Ajla meets in the forest when she tries to escape. “She gets what people were feeling during that time.”

But not everyone in the Balkans has been as enamored.

A Serbian activist complained that the movie casts his people as villains. Serbian tycoon Zeljko Mitrovic declined to allow the use of a soundstage, saying that he believed Jolie’s film demonized Serbs. A Croatian journalist has claimed Jolie stole his idea, and has filed a lawsuit to prevent the film’s release. And a Bosnian Muslim women’s group accused Jolie of cultural insensitivity, seeking, unsuccessfully, to stop her from filming in the country.

Jolie rejected all the allegations. But it’s the last one that upset her most.

“When you’re coming at something because you care so much about an area, especially women in that area, as I was, and you know the themes of the film are violence against women, then to be accused of the opposite hurts,” she said. “You feel a little sickened by it.”

Still, plenty of others have rallied to her side. Jolie’s film has received plaudits from the likes of television journalist Christiane Amanpour and Clark. Gjelten, too, has spoken out in support of the film, and deflected the criticism of cultural insensitivity. He told reporters earlier this month that, “You do not venture into this area without controversy.”

And Hollywood seems to be warming to “Blood and Honey.” The Producers Guild of America is honoring the movie with its Stanley Kramer Award for films about provocative social issues. A review in the Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, called it “a serious piece of work, and not simply a vanity project.”

Asked about her directorial future, Jolie said she has little interest in making movies that don’t dovetail with her international concerns. She has started, then put back in the drawer, a script about Afghanistan.

Bravo said that he appreciates Jolie’s seriousness of purpose. The film, he said, has even brought him a degree of personal peace. “I based my character on my older brother, who was in the army, and during the war was about the age that I am now,” he said. “We never talked about the war. But we started to when I was preparing to make this movie.”

At this, Jolie looked up, a small smile on her face. “We’re not trying to make a political statement,” she said. “We just want to open up a discussion and make sure no one forgets.”

PHOTOS: ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ premiere