Monday, 5 March 2012


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


Barbara Sullivan said...

Hmmm....this is interesting, and has made me decide to watch the Jolie film, despite the warning of anesthesia. (They've been advertising it on my On Demand service as a film that's better to watch at home because it's "intimate"!)

Without having seen either film, I have two working ideas about the general question you raise: first, I wonder if the intent WAS to reproduce this feeling of relentless shock, and thus leave viewers changed irretrievably, with a hard truth lodged in their subconscious at least when they do things (like vote, for example) that affect our mutual future.

The second theory is related: maybe the real thorn in the storytelling side is the tellers' identity. Maybe these films are about rendering their shock. Being stunned from afar, and after the fact, is a very different thing from having it happen to you in the moment, and I think it produces a different--perhaps less complete--story. I think of the work of Elie Wiesel or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example.

Anyhow, thanks for making me wonder and think this morning!

formerly a wage slave said...

Keith, Thank you for this.
Maybe the problem is that the Bosnians are not telling their own stories. It's altogether a different matter if it is your own story and you leave something out.

On the other hand, another issue you raise, can't get such a quick (though I don't think it is really simple or simple-minded, only simply formulated) response. Isn't the problem equally how to get one's head around such events? (So, that it is equally a problem for a participant and someone listening to the surviver.)

Are there films which have successfully dealt with that kind of evil?

(All to be read with the warning label: "for what it's worth".....)

formerly a wage slave said...

Maja, Please forgive me, or excuse my lapse! I guess I got this post in my gmail box, and it looked like it came from Keith! Sorry!

By the way, I just watched August Diehl's "The Counterfeiters." The film is about an actual counterfeiter who was Jewish and worked as a counterfeiter in a concentration camp. The director worked with a survivor, Adolf Burger, who knew and worked with the man. In the "extras" included with the DVD, both Burger and Diehl made the point that the medium of film (a popular or dramatic film, not a documentary) doesn't allow the story to be told 'neat"--if I may use that term. Changes were made, and they were made consciously. Moreover, Burger has been telling his story for many years, and he has adjusted the format of his story-telling in order to reach his intended audience.

At the risk of being unfair, I wonder whether well-meaning "liberal" movie stars are not simply naive about the medium they are using. No one can have a more genuine wish to communicate than an actual survivor.

Wikipedia on the film I just mentioned:

formerly a wage slave said...

Sorry, I've made another mistake. I put an actor's name as if it were the director. The director of that film was Stefan Ruzowitzky.
Best wishes,

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