Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us are extremely under-informed on the details of the Bosnian War thanks to the cursory western media coverage, which was complimented by the mostly hands-off approach from the UN. This movie doesn’t shy away from exposing the atrocities of ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against women that occurred, but it does so through an intimate story rather than an epic tale of war.

This is no place for a history lesson, and I would certainly not be the one to supply it, but some basics are required to somewhat understand what’s going on. The reign of Yugoslavian President Tito lasted until his death in 1980. Although much criticism is directed his way, he was able to guide a society that allowed the co-existence of Bosniak Muslims and Orthodox Serbs. You might recall that in 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics. Not long after that, the republics began skirmishes that eventually escalated to a complicated civil war lasting from 1992-95 (The Bosnian War).

 The film focuses on two people: Danijel (Goran Kostic) and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic).  They are dancing cozily in a nightclub when a bomb shatters their date and their lives. Danijel goes on to become a mid-level military leader of the Serbs, while Ajla and her Muslim family and friends have their way of life ripped apart. Some are even executed. Ajla ends up as a prisoner at the camp Danijel commands. He manages to protect her from the brutal rapes (by soldiers) by staking a claim on her and putting the order out that she is not to be touched.

Ajla is an artist and Danijel is a soldier and their earlier dance evolves into their own personal war of wits, mistrust and psychological escape. Danijel is clearly not of the mindset to be a brutal killer within a war, yet Ajla constantly observes his every movement and interprets even the slightest change in his approach to her and the war. She does what she needs to survive and he uses her as an escape from the atrocities of his day job. The end result of this relationship is both shocking and inevitable.

 Danijel’s father, Nebojsa, is a senior level military leader who shows up in time to provide us with a brief history lesson dating back 600 years. He takes much pride in the Serbs ability to conquer and persevere. Nebojsa is played by Rade Serbedzija, whom many will recognize as the villain from The Saint (1997) and Boris the Blade in Snatch (2000). This is a powerful and frightening character, and we quickly understand why he doubts his son’s fortitude. The moment he finds out about Ajla, we are immediately hit with a feeling of dread for her.

After the screening, we were fortunate enough to have a discussion panel sponsored by the World Affairs Council. One of the panel members was a former officer in the Bosnian Army who spent time in two separate concentration camps. Viewing the film was very emotional for him and he said it captured the realities as well as a movie possibly could. Of course, we never lose sight of the fact that what we see on screen are not “real” bullets, not “real” rape, and not “real” blood.

 Most of us are aware of the humanitarian efforts of Angelina Jolie.  She brings that same caring perspective as a first time filmmaker (writer, director, producer), working diligently to tell a story that exposes the realities of war and how humanity can dissolve into horror. It’s not a perfect film (it runs a bit long), but it tells a powerful story that we may prefer to pretend never happened.   Just like the Bosnia and Herzegovina citizens, we can’t help but wonder what took NATO forces so long to get involved. Capped by an understated and haunting Gabriel Yared score, the film is a brutal reminder that war is the ultimate sacrifice and punishment for real people and real families.

note: don’t miss a quick cameo by Brad Pitt (I believe he knows the writer/director/producer pretty well)

note: The Turkish meaning of Balkans: “Bal” = Honey, “Kan” = Blood

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in learning more about the atrocities of war from the vantage of two people with little choice in their situation OR you would like to see the first step of a fine new filmmaker, Angelina Jolie.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you would just as soon avoid any more harsh realities of war and the subsequent loss of humanity

watch the trailer:

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