Friday, 9 March 2012

Films that offend people!

In the land of blood and honey - U zemlji krvi i medaHollywood actress and UN good will ambassador Angelina Jolie has recently released her first director's cut In the land of blood and honey (U zemlji krvi i meda), which depicts the Bosnian war through the eyes of a Bosnian Serb soldier and a Bosniak woman, whom he saves from rape at a detention camp. It received a standing ovation at its premiere in Sarajevo (see here and here), and positive reviews for how it managed to depict the suffering of the war (see here), with particular focus on the issue of rape during that war.

However, her directorial debut has received a lot of fervent criticism and even scorn from my fellow Serbs (see here), many of whom have deemed it as "biased" and even "anti-Serbian". Not surprisingly, very few people went to see its premiere in Serbia (see here). But why has a film, written and directed by one of the most famous women in the world, caused so much offense in one Balkan nation?

Well, there are two main reasons why a lot of us Serbs disapprove of Jolie's movie: one, many of us feel that this film once again portrays us as the "bad-guys", the main perpetrators of ethnically-motivated violence and wanton destruction in that conflict; and two, because of that reaffirmation, it continues to divert attention from our own people's suffering during the wars of the '90s, which even at that time received very little press coverage in the Western media.

Many of us Serbs feel that the film revamps that deeply negative, media image about our people, which Western viewers had become accustomed to during the '90s, that we are a nation of cruel, sadistic, war criminals, hell-bent on ethnic cleansing, and as such, we were as bad as the Nazis of World War Two! Now, I don't deny the seriousness and the gravity of all those allegations of war crimes etc. against a whole host of Serb leaders, both political and military, all of which has coloured people's negative views on us as a people. However, it must be borne in mind that all this negative press from that time left us Serbs, both back home and in the diaspora, feeling dehumanised and demonised, but most of all, misunderstood by the world. Nevertheless, since the '90s, we have been trying very hard to overcome that negative image of ourselves in the eyes of the international public, and I think the successes of our sportsmen and women (the world-famous Novak Đoković being a fantastic example) have helped to showcase us in a much more positive light, and I hope we continue to impress the world in sport and in other fields. Of course, even I think we still have a long way to go until we have completely overcome that "bad guy" image, which is why many of us are not that keen to see yet another film, after many that have been released before (like Behind Enemy Lines), that reminds us of what brought shame to our name in the world.

However, what really offends and frustrates a lot of us Serbs about Jolie's film, whether we've seen it in full or just clips of it, is how it mainly depicts the suffering of one side of the war, i.e. the Bosniak side. This doesn't mean that we object to the production of any film that may portray the Bosniaks as the main victims; after all, they did suffer greatly during that war from 1992 to 1995, and we shouldn't deny that at all. However, what bothers a lot of us Serbs is how very little is known about the suffering of our own people during that conflict and others in the '90s. As a result of those wars, Serbia provided a refuge to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs from the Croatian, Bosnian and Kosovo wars (if my memory serves me right, it was about half a million refugees from Croatia and Bosnia altogether, along with over 200,000 internally displaced people from Kosovo). Of course, we Serbs are aware of war crimes committed by our own against others, and many of us do feel ashamed of all that. But we are also concerned about the fate of our own victims from those conflicts too, and it displeases us how even now very little is known about them.

Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt at Sarajevo premiere of In the land of blood and honey - U zemlji krvi i medaI'm a Serb myself, but I don't hold anything personally against Angelina Jolie — in fact, I've NEVER had anything against her; from my teens onwards, I've always respected her as a woman and as an actress, and likewise, I've always respected her fellow actor and partner Brad Pitt. At a conference in Sarajevo last month, she openly denied being anti-Serbian (see here and here), and I don't see any reason why she would be; why on earth would anyone in her position waste their time being anti-Serb, especially since she has so many better things to do with her life and career? (And no, I don't think the fact, that her father went to a Catholic church named after a controversial Croatian cleric (see here), has any bearing on her views on us Serbs at all!) She is a Hollywood actress, who works for the UN, and I think she's just doing her job as a UN good will ambassador the way she knows best, and that's through film. Also, she's a renowned feminist, and the film focuses on the rape of women during that war. And in her own words, her film is a criticism of the international community for its poor response to the crisis in Bosnia at the time (see here).

However, I remember when I first heard that Ms. Jolie was planning to produce her directorial debut about the Bosnian war, and even back then I was quite wary of the possible reactions to it (see here). By embarking on this project, she must've known she was straying onto some very sensitive territory. After all, she hasn't produced a mere documentary about the Bosnian war, but a fictional re-telling of the war in that country, whose traumatised nations have still not resolved all their disputes from that time not very long ago. And let's not forget that she is an outsider, albeit one working on behalf of the UN, and it's easy for people on the side portrayed as the protagonists of most of the violence to feel singled out for it. The side that feels singled out is offended by what they see as a "black-and-white" depiction of a war they were themselves involved in, and are thus resentful of the outsider for producing such an "unbalanced" film. After all, so many lives have been destroyed on all sides, and many people, Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats and others, are still traumatised by what they lived through. Along with that, there are so many accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity between all the sides of that conflict, that it doesn't surprise me how depiction of one side's view of the war is enough to offend the other side(s). But even if she had produced a film that focused mainly on the suffering of Serbs at the hands of Bosniaks or Croats, Sarajevo conference, February 2012such a film would probably also receive huge disapproval, the likes of which we're seeing now with this one, and likewise spark a backlash from Bosniaks or Croats for not depicting their suffering at the hands of Serbs. Perhaps if she had, she would've been "the darling" of us Serbs, rather than becoming a "persona non-grata" in Serbia (see this Facebook group)?

I haven't seen the film myself; I've only seen clips of it on YouTube. And I'm not really sure I want to watch it — not because I'm afraid that I'll be deeply offended by it, but because I'm not that keen to see such an emotionally-charged war movie wherever it's set on the planet! And although I have no experience in producing movies like Ms. Jolie has, my only constructive criticism here is it would've been better if she had set the film in post-war Bosnia rather than in wartime Bosnia. I think such a format would be much more palatable for people on all sides in Bosnia and the wider region, thus receiving greater acceptance from all, and I doubt it would've caused even half as much anger and hysteria as this film has caused among the Serbian public.

Generally speaking, there is a tendency among all Balkan nations to feel offended by another nation's sense of victimhood. On many occasions while surfing the net, reading messages on various Ex-Yu forums, comments under YouTube videos and discussion pages of Wikipedia articles, I've seen how easily offended, for instance, my fellow Serbs can feel when they hear Croats accusing them of war crimes against them, and unsurprisingly, the same is the case the other way round! And it's not just the recent conflicts that cause heated disputes; even different interpretations of distant periods of history can rouse offense, such as the Serbian and Bosniak view of Ottoman rule in the Balkans! And as we can see with the reception of Jolie's In the land of blood and honey, even films by outsiders can offend local nations, and not just some YouTube comments!
Related articles:

    • You can also see this article on Britić here. Dead link as of 1st March 2014

    Anonymous said...

    Hello Alan

    I haven't seen the film myself, but I have heard from friends not particularly sympathetic to the Serb point of view on the war that the Serb characters were cardboard stereotypes. But that misses the point, and so do you when you suggest the film should have been set post-war or that it's time for a film about the suffering of Serb victims instead.

    The subject of the film is the actual experience of rape at the hands of people once considered friends. Three or four years ago I heard an excellent two part Radio 4 programme about the aftermath of the wartime experience of rape - the ongoing trauma of the victims and the tragic consequences inflicted on the children too. But that is not what Jolie's film aims to examine.

    There are still plenty of people who deny and minimise the reality of the Bosnian war rape camps and it is hard to think of any prominent Serb/Serbian politician who has made any meaningful gesture to acknowledge, let alone make up for what was done.

    I certainly question the way Jolie made the film and failed to engage with someone like Bakira Hasecic. She appears to have done a considerable service to a lot of rape victims on an individual basis by providing some sort of catharsis. The argument against her is that she failed properely to engage with the issue of the collective experience of rape used systematically as a weapon of war. If Jolie's Serbs are cut-out villains, that's a price that Serbs should be happy to pay for the privilege of being able to "move on" and ignore the mess left on the floor. They feel ill-done by having to hand over Karadzic and Mladic but think that now that's done everybody should be satisfied.

    I'm afraid the people who suffered during Oluja will not find a ready ear for their story until the representatives of the Serb community are unequivocal in their condemnation of what was done in the name of that community. They have been used too often as an excuse for ignoring anyone else's suffering.

    I respect you and your honesty and willingness to respect the truth and I have no hesitation sympathising with the suffering of innocent Serbs that you have described.

    But let's face it, you are a public rarity, and as long as that's the case the public attitude to Oluja will be pretty much what it was back in 1995 - "Sad for them, but aren't these the people who weren't bothered when it happened to someone else?". And most Serb opinion still seems to be not really bothered about anyone else, only the fact that the poor long-suffering Serbs are being blamed again.

    It's always going to be difficult to rouse the sympathy of the general public for the victims of Oluja however much they continue to suffer today while others subjected to far worse continue to suffer the mockery of their political representatives. If a film was made about the elderly people killed by the police following up Gotovina's triumphalist forces, would you honestly be surprised if people responded by saying, "Terrible. But did all this come out of nowhere?".

    Be honest - you're a contributor to Britic. After visiting here I've taken occasional brief looks at Britic, and though much of it is normal emigrant community stuff, there's also a persistent undercurrent of self-righteousness.

    When I hear the representatives of the Serb community in the UK call on Dodik for a plaque on Vilina Vlas to commemorate the women who threw themselves out of the windows or ask Tadic to support a memorial in honour of the victims of Omarska outside the mine I'll be more convinced that the time is right for the international film industry to acknowledge Serb collective suffering rather than the suffering of so many others.

    Sorry, I'm afraid your post has made me more and more angry the more I think about it, it just caught me by surprise.

    Balkan Ⓐnarchist said...

    Hi Owen, it's nice to hear from you again after all this time! To be honest, I was getting a little worried!

    I'm sorry to hear that you were "caught by surprise" by this article, and even angered. You know I detest the ongoing denial of war crimes and suffering of others that Serb nationalists engage in. Sure they're by no means unique in doing that, but that's not the point. I have noticed all too often myself how "not really bothered" such Serbs are about anyone else's suffering, and I am personally disgusted by it and wish it could change.

    I understand what you mean about how outsiders might view the suffering of my fellow Serbs during Oluja, and it truly breaks my heart as it is very close to me. But even I know that such a response is very likely given the earlier actions of the leaders of the short-lived RSK. That's why I honestly feel that in order for justice to be served for our victims and others, and that genuine reconciliation between the traumatised former Yugoslav nations may come about as a result, we must acknowledge the suffering of others, especially those who suffered at the hands of our leaders and their followers.

    As far as In the land of blood and honey is concerned, I understand the point of Ms. Jolie's film, and I personally don't believe she has any negative intentions towards us Serbs. In fact, I really found the attacks on Jolie by my fellow Serbs quite unpleasant and morally low. Nevertheless, have a look at this interview of hers on B92 here (from 1:58 to 11:46).

    As for my contribution to Britić, it's meant to be an open forum for all us British Serbs, and that's what it is, and I'm glad to contribute. Do I agree with everything published on it? No. Does everyone approve of everything I publish on it? Certainly not! And like you yourself said here a few years back, "The first step towards everything is communication." ;-)

    Owen, you know I believe that we should see things from as many angles as possible so we can get a bigger picture, not to mention look closer at things so we can get an even clearer picture. That's what I try to do with this blog. However, even I know that many people in the Balkans would rather just see things from their own point of view and dismiss everyone else's, which I find dishonest and rather arrogant. So I see what you mean by calling me a "public rarity".

    I hope I have re-assured you here! :-)

    Anonymous said...

    Hello Alan

    I wish that other Serbs generally could bring themselves to come to terms publicly with their communal responsibility so that then there can be proper respect for the Oluja victims. I remember the Croatian Helsinki Committee reporting at the time on the deaths of elderly couples and individuals in the homes that they hadn't wanted to leave. Those deaths were murders just as cowardly and contemptible as every other systematic act of terrorism committed during the Yugoslav wars. The bullies who committed them were no better than any of Arkan's men, Seselj's thugs and all the other vile bodies up to Mladic, Karadzic and Milosevic and they deserve equal contempt. But it's the people who suffered who should command our respect and sympathy, not the shroud-wavers who want to use what happened in Oluja to "move on" and proceed with their own agenda.

    You certainly deserve to have a voice to speak on their behalf and I hope you will. I'd encourage you to, because I know that you're an objective voice and we haven't heard enough (any other?) objective voices speak on their behalf. But that's another matter from pushing the international film industry to decide they need to be the subject of a film that is more likely to be abused for nationalist justification purposes than it is to provide the sort of cathartic experience that Jolie's film appears to have.

    And I do admire you for putting your feet where your mouth is by writing for Britic!

    Max said...

    NATO propaganda portrayed Serbs as "the new Nazis"...Who are the Serbs? Branded by some as Europe's new Nazis, they are seen by others—and by themselves—as the innocent victims.The successful demonization of the Serbs, making them largely responsible for the Yugoslav wars, and as unique and genocidal killers, was one of the great propaganda triumphs of our era. It was done so quickly, with such uniformity and uncritical zeal in the mainstream Western media, that disinformation had (and still has, after almost two decades) a field day. “The media did more damage to us than Nato bombs.” (Radovan Karadzic)…NATO propaganda portrayed Serbs as "the new Nazis." Serbia’s earliest defeat came in the PR war. Early on, Serbia’s enemies engaged Ruder Finn, an American public relations firm, to get their message out. James Harff, director of Ruder Finn’s Global Public Affairs section, boasted about his success against Serbia.“Nobody understood what was going on in (former) Yugoslavia,” he said in an October 1993 interview. “The great majority of Americans were probably asking themselves in which African country Bosnia was situated.”"Our work is not to verify information," said Harff. "We are not equipped for that. Our work is to accelerate the circulation of information favorable to us, to aim at judiciously chosen targets. We did not confirm the existence of death camps in Bosnia, we just made it widely known that Newsday affirmed it. ... We are professionals. We had a job to do and we did it. We are not paid to moralize."..........

    Anonymous said...

    You miss the point, Max, presumably deliberately, that the death camps did exist and the international public were right to be shocked that in the heart of Europe, at the end of twentieth century, the atrocities of the Nazis were being committed all over again. You seem to think people then were as naive as you expect us to be now. No, we already had an idea what was happening, what the ITN reporters did was show us that Omarska and the other Prijedor camps were real, that they were places of visible suffering and that what was being denied was probably even worse in reality. And none of us in the UK had even heard of Ruder Finn, we were getting Srja Trifkovic and Pauline Neville-Jones thrust down our throats on Newsnight instead, but we still had the ability to form a judgment for ourselves. It's a fool who doesn't realise that the people he's trying to fool aren't being fooled, or someone who's been on a media studies course that isn't fit for purpose.

    Anonymous said...

    I would like to add to the conversation a certain point I consider quite important. It is commonly said, and I must say I agree with this, is that one of the biggest mistakes of post-WWII Yugoslavia was that the Yugoslav peoples were not given a chance to democratically and freely discuss the bloody events during the war, especially, but not limited to, the Ustashe-perpetrated genocide against hundreds of thousands of Serbs, as well as the much smaller, but still significant atrocities committed by Chetnik forces against Croats and Muslims.

    The peoples were not given a chance to engange in a democratic manner and to try to reconciliate and move forward. In the 80s, it was shown just how problematic this was. The issue was abused by politicians like Milošević who used it to instill fear into the hearts of the Serbian people, to make them believe that something like this will happen again soon unless they take up arms against their potential enemies. We know what happened next. Milošević's actions bred hatred, and in turn other dangerous nationalists like Tudjman in Croatia emerged, and then the violent wars happened as an inevitable consequence. Wars in which the Serb forces were responsible for 70% of the crimes everywhere, and for 90% of the crimes in Bosnia which suffered the most (all of which are verifiable facts).

    Now, if we look at the wars of the 90s and apply the same principles that should have been applied to World War II - that is, that people should freely discuss the wars and the bloody events to reach some sort of catharsis..Then how should we react to people being offended by a movie that depicts the suffering of a people against which 90% of all crimes in the bloodiest war of the Yugoslav Wars (the Bosnian War) were committed?

    Especially if we take into account that the Bosniaks were, along with the Macedonians, the biggest supporters of keeping Yugoslavia intact, and that they took efforts towards proposing solutions that would ease tensions..All of this at a time when Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were all highly engaged in nationalism in one way or another?

    Anonymous said...

    Of course, once Slovenia and Croatia declared independence (which is, it is important to note, something that the majority of Bosniaks were opposed to)..What option did they have left?

    I hope my post hasn't offended anyone. It seems so common to be labeled something you're not by people who either purposefully or non-purposefully misunderstand your intentions.

    Even here in Slovenia, my countrymen are still having troubles dealing with their past, even though there weren't any war crimes here and the things that happened were of a different nature. What I'm referring to are the so-called "Erased" , almost 30 thousand people who were bureaucratically deleted from the register, losing all rights they were entitled to. This was done on a an ethnic basis to "non-Slovenes" (mostly Bosniaks), using the excuse that they didn't get their new papers in order as soon as they should have. The "Erased" have now luckily been successful at the European Human Rights Court, but none of the perpetrators has been held responsible yet for this bureaucratic act of ethnic cleansing.

    In any case, what I'd like to say is we should openly discuss issues instead of resorting to untruths, or to half-truths as that will not solve anything. I have recently read this:

    It's one of the most objective and comprehensive analyses of the wars in the 90s out there. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the topic.

    It was written by highly qualified and non-political individuals. There are 11 controversies dealt with and each of these projects has two co-leaders. In each of the project, one of the two is a Serb, for reasons that are explained in the text. I think that any statement of this report being biased is completely unfounded.

    Seriously, for anyone interested in this, I would highly recommend reading it. And the last project is about possible ways to reach reconciliation.

    Cheers from Slovenia

    Balkan Ⓐnarchist said...

    Hi Anonymous commentator from Slovenia! Thanks for adding your point to this discussion and feel free to comment elsewhere.

    I certainly agree with your observation regarding the lack of transparency re: WW2 in post-War Yugoslavia. I also believe that an open and honest discussion about any period of history can have a very cathartic effect on people both individually and collectively.

    Obviously, Jolie's film is not meant to relate the entire war in all its complexities; rather to depict the story of a small number of characters in that war. But even that seems to ruffle some people's feathers! After all, she is an outsider making a film about a war that still affects people there today, and it seems to some of my fellow Serbs out there that she's taking sides, based on the narrative of the film, and thus promoting a negative image of us. I, however, don't think her intentions are negative towards us Serbs or any other Ex-Yu nation. Like I said in the article, "She is a Hollywood actress, who works for the UN, and I think she's just doing her job as a UN good will ambassador the way she knows best, and that's through film."

    I'm glad you pointed out the Scholars' Initiative. As you can see, I already have a link to the Scholars’ Initiative: Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies on my list of links. I also think that that's a great project, and all power to those taking part!

    Pozdrav iz Engleske!

    Unknown said...

    This is against humanity, killing human being, raping woman children, forcing brother to rape his sister for what? for national identity and religion, if everybody start thinking like those new serbian nazis then the extinction of homosapians is soon, as far as your view, i would like to say you behaved like a biased serb like those nazi serb army who killed raped, because you did not watch the movie as you mentioned but you started giving advice, serbians should ask for forgiveness, still serbian government diplomats are putting diplomatic pressure to linger the proceeding of international war crime tribunal. nasty politics. I have many identity- I have religion identity, cultural identity, social identity but my first and foremost identity is I am human being. Hope you and the world leaders understand that try not play dirty politics because at the end the profit from this dirty politics is ZERO. Be a human and try to find out the truth of the war and let your fellow serbians know it. Because it seems the whole serbian media politician made you serbian people's eyes ear closed like Mahatma Gandhi said. I am an Asian and I seem to have far better information then you do. Be a human and walk in the path of truth.

    Balkan Ⓐnarchist said...

    Unknown, thanks for reading my article and sharing your views here, and feel free to comment elsewhere.

    First of all, however, I strongly reject your assertion that I "behaved like a biased serb like those nazi serb army who killed raped", which to me makes absolutely no sense. If you've read any of my other articles at this blog, you would certainly have realised by now that I most certainly do not behave like a "biased Serb".

    Secondly, you stated that "serbians should ask for forgiveness". Let me make my point very clear: I do not think innocent Serbs should apologise for crimes they are not personally responsible for in any way, shape or form. By the same token, I don't think innocent Croats should apologise to us Serbs for crimes committed against us by only a handful of them. I strongly reject the collectivisation of guilt for crimes committed by any side during the wars.

    Nevertheless, let me remind you of the late Milan Babić, the once prime minister of the short-lived Republika Srpska Krajina, which my hometown belonged to during the Croatian war. Please read his statement of guilt here, and tell me what you think.

    As for your claim that "still serbian government diplomats are putting diplomatic pressure to linger the proceeding of international war crime tribunal", let me remind you that this is 2012, and things have changed since the last year. The two remaining war crimes suspects, that Serbia was obliged to hand over to the ICTY, were finally handed over, thereby fulfilling its cooperation with the Hague tribunal.

    Putting aside our disagreements, let me tell you where I agree with you. You stated regarding yourself that "I have many identity- I have religion identity, cultural identity, social identity but my first and foremost identity is I am human being". The same here with me; I'm just like you! I have an ethnic and regional identity as well, and I also have faith, though I'm not religious. But above all, I'm a human first!

    And finally, you advised me to "Be a human and try to find out the truth of the war and let your fellow serbians know it". Well, that's what my blog is all about! Showing how much of a citizen of the world I am, showing how much I know about both the distant and recent past in the Balkans, and letting everyone, whether they're from Europe or Asia (like yourself) or anywhere else, know it!

    Unknown, I hope I have re-assured you with my reply. Best regards to you, wherever you are!

    PS: I am a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi as well, by the way! ;-)

    Anonymous said...


    I've read some of your other articles too, and while I don't agree with everything, I must say they're on the whole very objective, fair and realistic. Good work.

    If only the majority of people in every ex-YU country took such an honest attitude towards the past and the injustices commited in their names,, then people might start to walk on an actual path towards reconciliation.

    Anonymous fron Slovenia :)