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The Psychology of Genocide: In the Land of Blood and Honey (1. Mar 2012)

By Edo Muric

This is an old blog post. Some of the views expressed in it may not be what I think today.
Though I have to return to this in order to see it in original Bosnian, as opposed to the German dub, it is clear to me that this film is a definite proof of Angelina Jolie's artistry and above all intelligence and emotional maturity. It is sad that I have to point this out, but the refusal to let the film speak for itself and misogynistic, media orchestrated prejudices against Jolie simply oblige me to say it. She made an elegant, beautifully acted, minimalist war drama, in style reminding me of Louis Malle's Au revoir les enfants (1987). 
Inadequately marketed as a love story set in the midst of a tragic war, this film could more properly be described as an almost abstract story of war raging between two lovers. A Bosniak girl Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and a Serb Danijel (Zoran Kostic) date before the war, only to meet again in a Serb rape camp where he is in charge and she is a captive. Soon he exempts her and becomes her protector, but the situation turns extremely complicated.  
When Steven Spielberg was making Schindler's List (1993), one of the motives he gave for starting the production when he did was that he wanted to confront the new wave of Holocaust denial in the media. He also cited the need to emphasize the horrors of another genocide taking place in Europe at the time, which, although obviously very different and on a smaller scale, shared many characteristics with the Holocaust, such as the use of death camps and the fact that in both cases it was the civilians who were the primary target of a strong, highly organised military machine. In his words, it was the "ethnic cleansing"* which he rightly saw as a "cousin" of the "final solution"*. Jolie's reasons seem to have been similar to Spielberg's. 
In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) is a disturbingly deep exploration of the psychology of genocide and probably the most important film on the subject of the Bosnian genocide made so far. Think of it as an elaboration on the episode from Schindler's List, when the notorious Nazi war criminal Amon Göth tries to deal with his repressed desire for a beautiful Jewish servant. Negotiation between his attraction and the idea of the fantasy of a racially inferior "other" turns out to be futile. But while the uniqueness of the Holocaust and evilness of the character (not to mention historical accuracy) prevented Spielberg from venturing more into the possibilities of such relationship and its outcomes, Jolie gives us a rounded image of a universal psychological mechanism which worked not only in the case of inter-ethnic romantic relationships destroyed by the Bosnian war, but also in the context of the entire genocide. 
Another strong component is the feminist angle, which translates the story into a critique of male macho fantasy - a tormentor who is also the saviour, a police officer of the patriarchy who has in his power a young independent woman. A genocide is seen as patriarchy's failure to accept its feminine side. This puts Jolie on par with other great contemporary absurdist female voices in cinema, such as Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay, especially Arnold whose recent Wuthering Heights (2011) also tells a feminist story by concentrating on male fear of the feminine itself. 
Refreshingly, Jolie chooses not to make a film which is primarily about the inaction of the foreign powers during the 1992-95 genocide. Treating the Bosnian war strictly as  
a problem of the West's refusal to protect the Bosniaks is actually pretty much condescending to the Serbs, especially because not all of them were in support of the genocide, although an overwhelming majority was supporting its political orchestrators. Also, the Serbs were not the only perpetrators*. 
As much as a genocide is tragic for the victims, in a different way it is also a tragedy of a society which perpetrated it, especially when a nation is later betrayed by its political and cultural leadership, which chooses to pander to its prejudices rather than to work in the direction of some kind of reconciliation. A society which hasn't had a catharsis is in a tragically perpetual hiding from the truth.  
Jolie's film is therefore a message for the Serbs, more than anyone else, because it points to the way of release from the psychological dead end of the genocide denial.  
Jolie presents the genocide as a series of interconnected crimes. Each new crime serves to normalise, legitimise the previous one, to inaugurate a state of mind in which hatred is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a business as usual - of covering up the crime with more crimes.  
In the case of the Bosnian genocide, Bosnia and Bosniaks were not seen merely as enemies, as a territorial rivals, but being a multicultural harmonious society, a Yugoslavia in small, Bosnia was a living proof that the ideology of "eternal hatred" which justified the destruction of the federation and a fight for an ethnic apartheid, an ideology which gave sense to self-destructive Ex-Yugoslav narratives*, was a big lie. That is why Bosnia had to be destroyed. Not only the people but the idea of the possibility of their existence. In the context of race as only arbiter of identity, Bosniaks were seen not as a separate nation but as "lesser Serbs" who, half a millennium ago, "betrayed" Ortodox Christianity, even though Bosnia was historically more rebellious against the Ottoman empire's occupation than Serbia. 
The revenge for that supposed "guilt" was traditionally seen as an ultimate form of redemption for Serbdom, which in the early 1990s was being re-arranged in the style of those very traditional tribalist ideals. According to the film, Bosnia's cosmopolitanism and generally modern Western orientation was another source of discomfort and narcissistic rejection by the more traditional Serbs. Some critics have noticed that Ajla's character doesn't change much over the course of the film. But it is precisely the message which Jolie is trying to send. Ajla is a modern independent woman both at the start and at the end of the story. It is the redemption of the Serb soul we are witnessing on screen. And it comes after a failure to fulfill the prophecy of tribal hatred, after a failed attempt to destroy Bosnia's cosmopolitan spirit.
Sadly, the waves of genocide denial and relativisation of the roles of the perpetrators and the victims in Serbia, which followed the release of Jolie's small masterpiece, are nothing else but a continuation of the old crimes. Jolie points out that it is actually the fear of realising the truth about ourselves and our actions which forces us to go on committing more of it. The only way to stop the cycle is to look ourselves in the mirror. It is in this sense that the film ends on a somewhat optimistic note, which I see as a great compliment for the Serb society. In the end, it was a fascist ideology which was at fault, not the Serb people themselves, who are neither worse nor better than the rest of us. To think anything else is to accept the defeat.