She can act. She can parent. She can advocate for refugees across the globe. But can Angelina Jolie direct a big-budget drama?
NEW YORK - Fledgling director Angelina Jolie hopes that, on some level, her new movie will repel audiences. In fact, if people feel the urge to flee from the theater mid-film, she says she’ll feel like she succeeded in making her point.
“In the Land of Blood and Honey,’’ which she also wrote, depicts loss and devastation during the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s. The dramatic feature film, opening in the Boston area on Friday, is filled with graphic images of genocide and rape that Jolie expects will shock viewers.
“If you feel like you want to get out, that’s the point,’’ she says during a recent interview at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. “It’s relentless, it’s uncomfortable to be inside. In your mind, you’re hoping someone stops it. And that’s the right thing to be running through your mind. And when it’s over, you’re, hopefully, in shock about what happened. And that’s the right way to feel - in shock and wanting to learn more.’’
Wearing a trim navy dress and matching jacket, the 36-year-old Jolie looks more like a businesswoman than the megastar who has been so relentlessly pursued by the tabloids. And despite her reputation for reclusiveness, Jolie, who seems smaller than she does on the screen, laughs easily and conveys an open, breezy manner, as long as the conversation veers away from her personal life.
The desire to better understand details of the war led her to write the script in the first place, she says. The actress has drawn attention for her work as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In this capacity, she has traveled to war torn regions and felt overwhelmed by the harsh cruelty of war.
“I have spent a lot of time in refugee camps and situations where conflict is ongoing,’’ Jolie says. “I have my own questions about intervention, lack of intervention, violence against women, and how all of humanity suffers inside war. And so I wanted to write a story that shows what war does to mothers, fathers, sons, and lovers. They are people who had wonderful lives - lives we can relate to - and lost it all over 3 1/2 years. That’s what this film is.’’
Before it was a film, “In the Land of Blood and Honey’’ was simply an exercise for Jolie to explore the history of the war in Bosnia. Even though the war took place in the recent past, Jolie says she felt her knowledge of the horrific events was lacking. By some estimates, 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped, many while being held captive. Between 1992 and 1995, approximately 100,000 people were killed in the region.
After the script was complete, Jolie arranged for native Bosnian actors to read it, without telling people she was involved in the project. She says she was concerned the actors would want to flatter her, rather than offer an honest assessment of her work, so she chose to send her work out anonymously.
“I wanted them to be straight with me and say, ‘Whoever wrote this, it isn’t good,’ or say what’s wrong with it,’’ the filmmaker says. “I also felt it would only be a film if we had consent from actors who were on different sides of the conflict and, if they agreed to do it, I thought that would be a sign that we’re heading in the right direction. And if they didn’t agree, we’d burn it, because we’d done something wrong. I didn’t want anything to influence the decision, so my name was taken off.’’
Apparently, Jolie did a fine job of hiding her identity and creating a buzz among the Bosnian actors eager to work on the project. According to Zana Marjanovic, who stars in the film, the script’s raw honesty convinced her the author had lived through the trauma.
“When I read it I thought it was so well written,’’ says Marjanovic, who appeared in “Snow’’ (2008). “It was so true and so brave and it felt to me like it was [written] by someone from Bosnia. And I thought, ‘Whatever happens with the film, as a Bosnian, I want to thank [the author].’ ’’
The movie tells the story of Ajla (Marjanovic), a Bosnian Muslim artist, and Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Bosnian Serb police officer, who are a couple before the war, but are forced apart when the conflict begins. They reunite when Serbian troops, under Danijel’s command, force Ajla out of the apartment she shares with her sister and infant nephew. When Danijel becomes Ajla’s captor and protector, their motives and allegiances become ambiguous, filled with distrust, guilt, and longing for the past.
During the filming, which mostly took place in Hungary, rumors spread that Bosnian women were protesting the movie because they believed the story was about a Bosnian prisoner who falls in love with her rapist. Jolie shakes her head vigorously and explains that those stories are unfounded.
“It was one person who hadn’t read the script and had misinformation,’’ she says, rolling her eyes. “It was blown completely out of proportion.’’
And, while she concedes that the film could open painful wounds for some people in the region, for most, Jolie and Marjanovic say, it is likely to be an affirmation that their suffering did not go unnoticed.
“Obviously, the violence gets to you,’’ says Marjanovic, who was born in Sarajevo and returned there after the war. “But the film is so beautiful and so personal and it engages people,’’
“Art has always been a way to discuss and heal,’’ Jolie adds.
But because the film is dominated by disturbing scenes, Jolie, who travels everywhere with her partner, Brad Pitt, and their six children, had to come up with creative ways to shield her young family from seeing anything inappropriate.
“Brad came to the set most days - doing a lot of photography - after he took the kids to school,’’ she says. “The kids did come out to the set a few times, but it was difficult because they had to be kept out a lot because of the nature of the film.’’
The film was translated into BHS (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, a.k.a. Bosanski/Hrvatski/Srpski), formerly known as Serbo-Croatian. Jolie had people from all sides of the conflict work on the translation to ensure balance. Since she does not speak BHS, she relied on the actors to help determine whether the words flowed naturally.
Two versions of the film were shot, one in English, and one in BHS with English subtitles. Jolie hopes most markets will opt to show it in BHS (as Boston will), but understands that version might be a tougher sell.
“I love being shown films in the authentic language, but I know some people are not open to films with subtitles, and we want them to see it so they can understand the history,’’ she explains.
Jolie previously directed “A Place in Time,’’ a 2007 documentary in which she captured the daily lives of people in 25 countries in a single week. She says she “much preferred being behind the camera’’ to being on the screen, but is not ready to declare a career change. That said, she has a few ideas in the works for future directing projects.
After visiting military hospitals in Afghanistan, she began to “explore a story’’ about the effects of war on the Afghan people, particularly women, she says.
Asked if she ever considered less grim subject matter, she says she wrote a script after her mother died of cancer five years ago that is “gathering dust on the shelf.’’
“I was thinking about her, so I wrote something about women and cancer,’’ Jolie says.
When it is pointed out that “women and cancer’’ is not exactly a sunny topic, Jolie laughs. “Of course it’s not light, but it’s not historic and it has a happier ending,’’ she explains. “I don’t think I could write comedy. I have to write about what moves me and heavy things are what move me.’’
Judy Abel can be reached at email@example.com.