“I first vomited, from the sheer force of my suffering,” Enisa Salcinovic says of her initial reaction to In the Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie‘s directorial debut feature film about the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Her reaction was so visceral, she said, because the film, which she watched in an exclusive preview for survivors of concentration camps, and victims of wartime rape and mass killings, so captured the trauma she experienced. “Angelina touched our souls,” she tells me several hours later, still clutching a wad of tissues tightly in her fist. Salcinovic is the president of the Women’s Division of Sarajevo’s Association of Concentration Camp Survivors. Of the 8,000 or so members, approximately one quarter are rape survivors.
The film portrays a romance between Danijel (Goran Kostić), a Serb man, and Ajla (Zana Marjanović), a Bosniak Muslim woman, which blossoms as the last nails are being hammered into Yugoslavia’s coffin. Torn apart by the war, they meet unexpectedly when Ajla is taken prisoner in a concentration camp and Danijel is her jailer. Since Jolie announced her intention to film, the plot has been a source of controversy in Bosnia, a country still struggling with the legacy of a war which pitted Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks against one another and cost an estimated 100,000 lives. The data on rape victims is not concrete: the United Nations estimates that “20,000 to 50,000 women and girls fell victim to what has been described as a ‘massive, organised and systematic’ use of rape as both a weapon of war and a form of ethnic cleansing”. The movie tackles questions that academics, activists, victims and a new generation continue to grapple with 15 years after the war’s end.
It has even exposed schisms between groups of female rape victims. Some activists, such as Salcinovic, laud Jolie for raising important questions about the still-taboo subject of wartime rape and ongoing marginalisation of victims. Others, such as Bakira Hasečić, president of the Women Victims of War Association, remain adamant that a “Hollywood outsider” could never be qualified to make a film about the war. This debate started last year when Jolie, primed to shoot the entire movie on location in Bosnia, was forced to relocate to Hungary when Hasečić lobbied the minister of culture of one of Bosnia’s two political entities, the Federation, to revoke the permit. Upon reading the script, he reversed his decision, but not before sparking a fierce debate between victims about who has the right to represent them.
Hasečić, who was not invited to the screening, continues to criticise the movie based on its trailer. “A love story between the captured Muslim and a Serb war criminal never happened during the war in Bosnia; it is impossible, a concept unthinkable, even as the idea that it displays,” she says. “And from the clips from the movie – and I could not even watch the full two minutes – what she has done is hard and disgusting,” she continues. “It became painful to watch, and still is. I felt like I was beaten, tortured and raped again, like I have once again returned to the camp. As if they raped me again. It is shameful!”
Survivors who watched the film acknowledge that it was painful, almost unbearable, to watch because of their personal identification with the plot. But this, they say, means the film is authentic. “I am Ajla,” Sadzida Hadzic, a member of Hasečić’s association, said following the screening. “This is what I went through in the rape camp in Vlasenica [eastern Bosnia] in 1992.”
“If the victims find themselves in the movie, they will agree with most of the things that they saw,” says Elmina Kulasic, who was just seven years old when she spent over one month in Trnopolje concentration camp, near the north-western Bosnian town of Prijedor. “For the victims, and for Bosnians in general, and even journalists, anyone who was in the country during the war, they will find themselves in [Jolie’s] movie,” she says.
But irrespective of the film’s resonance, many other survivors and activists say that the Bosnian government should not have given in to Hasečić’s original demands to halt the shooting because, they say, it gave her the exclusive right to speak for the victims, which she should not have. “No one has the right to say that they are the sole representative of victims,” Velma Šarić, founder and executive director of the Centre for Post-Conflict Research, which coordinated the screening, told me. “How the Federation government has allowed one association to dominate the discourse is just shocking. Who has the right to be a gatekeeper to people’s trauma?”
Belma Becirbasic, a journalist currently conducting research on war and memory as a Fulbright scholar at Columbia University in New York, says this downplays the experience of individual victims to their detriment, and could lead to government exploitation of their trauma. “A lot of women I know are not members of any organisations, and the pain and the trauma that they experienced is so strong, and it can only be intimate, personal and not collective,” she says. “But who can speak for them? The claim that Angelina has no right to tell a particular story about war rape is absurd. We can criticise the movie’s artistic dimension, its ideological dimension, but we cannot say she cannot tell a story about victims.”
Becirbasic says that by giving in to Hasečić, the Bosnian government essentially collectivised what should be individual memories of the war, which fosters a culture of collective victimhood to be used for ethno-national political purposes. “It means raped women are only embodied in national metaphors, which makes it easier to manipulate their experiences,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think this cements the trauma much more.” She says that allowing political interference actually took away victims’ sense of empowerment. “We can clearly see that politicians and clerics emerge as spokespersons for women victims, their stories and their rights, and that’s what I call the political exploitation of trauma,” she says.
Šarić and Becirbasic agree that rather than the question of whether Jolie can present a fictionalised narrative about war rape, the real discourse should focus on wartime rape itself, a topic they both agree remains taboo, which means women are still living in poor conditions. “Most of the women are completely marginalised, living below the poverty line, and many have not resolved their residential status. So they also face the stigmatisation of the community,” says Becirbasic.
What’s more, they say authorities do not help them, only meting out financial assistance through established associations, which means as few as 2,000 women have registered as rape survivors. “I have yet to see any campaign where anyone explains how to claim status as a civilian victim of war, or rape victim. Nobody wants to speak about it,” adds Šarić, who hopes that Jolie’s film will help bring these women’s struggles to the fore.
“Rape victims were recognised as civil war victims only 12 years after the war,” Šarić tells me when we meet in the Sarajevo neighbourhood of Grbavica. Occupied by Serbs during the war and notorious for rapes, the area lent its name to Jasmila Zbanic’s 2006 movie Esma’s Secret (Grbavica), about a raped woman who raises her child, which won the Golden Bear at that year’s Berlin international film festival.
“Only after the movie came out did Bosnian society start to talk about rape victims. Grbavica was a breaking point. Before then, there were sometimes sporadic efforts for others to do something. Zbanic’s movie changed the climate, it forced politicians to recognise the rights of rape victims, and I expect Angelina’s to do the same,” says Šarić.
What’s needed is an open discussion about the role of victim associations on one hand and the rights of women victims on the other. If it doesn’t happen, say Šarić, Becirbasic and other survivors who attended the screening, it could have dangerous implications for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future. “The process of victimisation helps ethno-national elites (Muslims, Croats, Serbs) to be resistant to critics, thus enabling rampant corruption and self-interest,” says Becirbasic. “Victimhood is the main historical narrative that fuelled the ethnic conflict in the first place – you can imagine how dangerous the consequence can be, and that doesn’t contribute at all to the reconciliation process, but on the contrary undermines it.”
Another survivor, who at 26 has just returned permanently to Bosnia, says the dialogue generated by Jolie’s film is essential if her country, which still lacks state-level government 14 months after elections, is to move forward. “The movie will force us think of the future. Do we want our grandchildren to have the same conflict or a similar conflict because we have not resolved these issues?”