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