UCLA comes out to support Angelina Jolie's new film

UCLA comes out to support Angelina Jolie

From left. Kal Raustiala, director of the Burkle Center, Kathleen McHugh, director of the Center for the Study of Women, actor Rade Šerbedžija, Angelina Jolie, and actors Vanesa Glodjo, Zana Marjanovic and Goran Kostic on the red carpet.

The UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and UCLA Center for the Study of Women came together to sponsor the premiere of the famed actress's much-anticipated screenwriting and directorial debut.

“It's not a film about America and American intervention. It's one of the first films, the cast was saying, from an outsider that's not about outsiders. It's about the people from inside.” ~Angelina Jolie

UCLA Today

It’s uncommon to see close to 50 UCLA faculty and staff from across disciplines hitting a red carpet event, but that was the scene on Dec. 8 in Hollywood at the Los Angeles premiere of Angelina Jolie’s new film In the Land of Blood and Honey.

However, the excitement of the red carpet and the flurry of photographers and fans was heavily overshadowed by the story that unfolded on the silver screen and the issues it brought to light; namely the atrocities that occurred during the four year war in Bosnia that pitted neighbors against one another and resulted in a sharp ethnic divide and the horrific genocide of Bosnia’s Muslim population. It depicts the harsh realities of the Bosnian war, which resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people and some 2 million people forced from their homes. In addition, the film highlights the extreme brutality and humiliation experienced by Bosnian-Muslim women at the hands of Serbian forces.

The film, which was written, directed and produced by Jolie, chronicles the story of Danijel, a Bosnian Serb police officer, and Ajla, a Bosnian Muslim artist. The pair, who are romantically linked prior to the war and separated following a nightclub fire-bombing, is reunited by chance when Ajla is taken by soldiers from the home she shares with her sister and infant nephew and brought to a war camp that is under Danijel’s military command.

“This film is very much concerned with humanitarian issues in Bosnia related to the plight of Bosnian-Muslim women, and the systematic rape and sexual assault that were practiced upon many of them,” said Kathleen McHugh, a film scholar who teaches courses on media and trauma and directs the UCLA Center for the Study of Women (CSW), which co-sponsored the screening along with UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “This film was made so that this human rights crisis won’t be forgotten and to remind the world that the situation there is still very fragile. Women are frequently the most vulnerable in civil wars and they are the recipients of some of the worst outcomes of ethnic strife and violence. We were proud to sponsor this film because this war happened less than 20 years ago, and it happened very quickly. The situation disintegrated so rapidly that people went from living lives that were tense, but ok, to experiencing unspeakable conditions. It went on for a very long time before there was an intervention, and women were the particular victims of that.”

It is estimated that 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped while in captivity during the Bosnian war.

When the two campus departments were approached and asked to participate in the event, both eagerly accepted. In addition to faculty and staff associated with the CSW and the Burkle Center, there are a number of other UCLA scholars with research interests related to women’s issues, conflict resolution and Eastern Europe.

For the past decade, Jolie has been widely regarded for her humanitarian work. As a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she has traveled to more than 40 countries to bear witness to and actively support solutions for refugees, vulnerable children and aid in the advancement of international law efforts. The Academy Award and three-time Golden Globe winner was the first recipient of the Citizen of the World Award from the United Nations Correspondents Association and the Global Humanitarian Action Award. In 2007, she was selected by the Council on Foreign Relations for a special five-year term designed to nurture the next generation of foreign policy-makers.

“Angelina Jolie has the star-power needed to attract attention to important issues,” says Alexandra Lieben,” deputy director of the Burkle Center. “She has taken that role seriously and garnered respect for her thoughtful approach and personal sense of responsibility. She didn’t simplify the topic, as you might expect from a first time writer. Instead, she brought life to the human element of war and the complexity of such a devastating situation. It’s a tough film – but an incredibly valuable one - to watch.”

Lieben was impressed with the lengths that Jolie took to research the lives and experiences of the victims of the Bosnian War. This included consulting with war victims, foreign war correspondents, military experts, representatives from the United Nations and the local actors — all of whom bear the scars of this conflict —  that brought Jolie’s characters to life on the big screen.  

One such consultant was Wesley Clark, a retired American army general who has been a senior fellow at the Burkle Center since 2006. Clark was a key participant in the U.S. delegation that worked toward peace in Bosnia. Over the course of his 34 year military career, Clark rose to the rank of four-star general as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe. During the Bosnian War, he was sent to the conflict-ridden nation to serve as the military advisor to a diplomatic negotiating team headed by Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke. Extensive negotiations ultimately resulted in the signing of the Dayton Agreement, which finally brought peace in 1995.

As part of her effort to get as much feedback as possible, Jolie sent Clark a portion of the script and asked for his reaction. Clark, who had previously met Jolie while working at the Council for Foreign Relations, provided his comments, warned her that it would be controversial and suggested some other people who could provide further perspectives and details.

“The film is powerful,” Clark wrote in an email prior to the L.A. screening. “It brought back memories of terribly difficult times - of war, violence, lost friends, political manipulation and deceit, senseless prejudices and all the hatreds inherent in old, unsettled conflicts. The war was a key experience in learning the post-Cold War lesson that wars within states are highly destructive, regionally dangerous and potentially destabilizing. And above all, we saw the tragic human toll of such conflicts. Such conflicts must be resolved and — better yet — prevented.”

The day after the screening, Jolie, along with the film’s producer, Graham King; its two female leads, Zana Marjanović and Vanesa Glodjo; and two male leads, Goran Kostić and Rade Šerbedžija met with small groups of reporters at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to further discuss the film. It was an opportunity to delve deeper into the graphic depiction of war that had been witnessed the night before and to learn more about the actors who brought Jolie’s characters to life.

When asked about Clark’s involvement in the project, Jolie said she was pleased with the feedback he had provided and that she was impressed that he didn’t pressure her to change the focus to make it more about America’s role in the peace process.

“It’s complicated for everybody, and there wasn’t a push on his side to say ‘well, we should be seen as heroes or we should be seen as this, or you should be clear that we’ve gotten all the bad guys,” said Jolie. “There was none of that. It was ‘this is a very sensitive region’ and ‘approach it carefully and thoughtfully from all sides’ and ‘there are great people on all sides and it will be very complex’ and ‘be very patient’ and to understand that he has an obviously deep connection to the area.”

She added: “It’s not a film about America and American intervention. It’s one of the first films, the cast was saying, from an outsider that’s not about outsiders. It’s about the people from inside.”

For Oscar-winning producer Graham King, the film is about telling the story of genocide and how the world ignored what was going on. King, who is English born, remembers hearing his grandfather’s war stories as he was growing up.  He said that when Jolie sent him the script she was already well on her way to making it, having scouted locations and selected actors.

“I’m as guilty as anyone to turning a blind eye to what happened in the Balkans at that time, and when Angie sent me the script I said how can we not tell this story,” he said. “There’s parts of this movie where you see a Sarajevo sign and it just knocks you straight in the face, or it should, and then you see the mountains and you realize that Italy is just past those mountains and no one did anything about it. They just turned their back on it all, and how can that happen?

That’s a question that all of the actors had during that dark time. Each survived the battle — some from within, others from beyond the borders of the conflict — and were adamant that this story of war — their story of war — not to be forgotten.

“I think maybe it’s too late for us because we’ve been scarred by the conflict, but there are those kids, those younger generations, who have come and been born pure and innocent,” said Kostić, who, like his character, Danijel, came from a family with a long history of military service and spent the duration of the war living in London, England. “We have a duty to provide an environment and education. We should try at least to give them a great understanding of the place they have been born and the conflict of the past and make sure harder than we did so it doesn’t happen again. As Angelina says ‘we cannot make great leaps forward, but we can do it little by little by little until we get there.’”

Zana Marjanović, who played Ajla, was just 8 years old when the war started and she and her mother fled to Slovenia. Her father chose to remain in Sarajevo. They later moved to New York and Marjanović returned to live in Sarajevo as an adult.  “[Returning to Sarajevo] was this search for identity and learning my language, and getting to know the country and the city I was born in, but also it was a bit of spite,” she explained. “It was about going back and saying ‘ok, I’m going to go back now and I’m going to be able to decide whether I want to leave or not, and it’s not for you to tell me.’”

She said that she - like all of the cast- felt an incredible responsibility to dig deep as actors and give voice to the victims who survived the war and to those who didn’t. She relied heavily on the stories of family and older female friends, while the older actors relied on their personal experiences and memories of that time.

“It’s a great responsibility you feel as an actor, and as a person, to play such a role because it did happen,” said Marjanović. “It’s recent history and it’s my personal history. It’s about my country, so you can’t fail. You can’t make a mistake. You’re not allowed to because you’re representing people whose true story is somewhere in that film.”

Jolie said she had no ambitions to ever be a film director, and had initially never planned to show this script to anyone. For her, it was a way to express the frustrations she’d felt after more than a decade of traveling into post-conflict regions, working with refugees and hearing stories from those who had suffered inexplicable situations. She wanted to understand the psychology behind these actions, and had been interested in learning more about what had happened in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995.

“It was kind of a private meditation,” she said.  “I wanted to write a story and think about what happens to people, and how can these people that are decent people who would be considered just like us, normal people, be transformed. What happens? What takes this toll where they lose their humanity and begin to behave in a way that just seems impossible to understand. This conflict in particular, how neighbors could turn against neighbors. How is that possible?”

She hopes her film will inspire people from around the world to learn more about what happened in Bosnia. She wants to use it as a catalyst for dialogue, and a way for people to start to ask tough and probing questions.

“Maybe they’ll want to see what’s still going on there and see how they can help because there are so many people still in need there… I hope people are just inspired to learn more and everybody will have their own path in how they do that.”

She said that teaching her six children about the realities of war and encouraging them to ask questions is something that she and her long-time partner, Brad Pitt, have always been open about. “My children are from countries that were in war, and their birth parents probably suffered from war, so it is a very open discussion in our house and we want them to know the ugly side of war.” (The couple’s three adopted children, Maddox, Zahara and Pax, were born in Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam, respectively.) “We don’t want them to think it’s fun or just a video game, so we make them aware of it. When I go to these different countries we tell them why, so they’re quite educated on it.”

Jolie added that the moral support she received from the UCLA community was critical because the people who attended the screening are experts who research many of the complexities that were addressed in the film. She said that she respects their work and their opinions and that it was “very, very important” that they be in attendance and share their reactions to the film.

In the Land of Blood and Honey opens Dec. 23 in a small number of selected theaters.

Published: Tuesday, December 13, 2011