Angelina Jolie’s screenwriting and directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey shares more than the obvious with Steven Galloway’s novel The Cellist of Sarajevo. Yes, both narratives are about genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In both narratives the Western writer speaks through voices of Bosnians. But there is another, uncanny similarity.
It is easy to imagine why Westerners, as they become intimately familiar with horrors of war, feel the stories they hear, all of them, become equally important to tell. Watching Jolie’s movie, one is struck by the thought that she couldn’t bring herself to omit a single awful thing that had happened in Bosnia. The realistic portrayals of mass rape, murder, humiliation, mass killing, torture, concentration camps, snipers, all follow one another vertiginously. It seems that Jolie felt responsibility to tell the story of all the horrors she had heard about and that she was beholden, responsible, to those whose stories she had shared. It ends up feeling too much, so much, that one ends up anesthetized by the shock.
Galloway, through helped artistically by choosing a narrower slice of the story - sniping in Sarajevo - seems also, at times, unable to omit. He takes us through the deadly intersections of Sarajevo with what can at times border on geographical monomania. He wants us to make sure we know every single corner, every single deadly stretch of the street. And so the tight string of his story occasionally slackens.
Yet, how is one to pick – between the responsibility to those whose stories you tell and the quality of the art you create? Is this trade-off even necessary? We can say no, yet still understand the pressure of feeling beholden to those in whose suffering the story was conceived. It seems that it was the very sensitivity of Jolie that cornered her to tell more than a viewer can possibly handle. And it seems that, while implicitly choosing whether to awe the Western film reviewers, or the Bosnian survivors, she chose the latter. And who can blame her.
Jolie, A. (2011). In the Land of Blood and Honey.
Galloway, S. (2008). The Cellist of Sarajevo. Knopf Canada