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Jolie Behind the Camera: Activist Actress Navigates Land of Fame, Foreign Policy and War
The Washington Diplomat / February 2012

By Larry Luxner

When one of the world’s most beautiful actresses offers you the opportunity to quiz her about her latest movie, you don’t say no — especially when that actress is Angelina Jolie and the subject is ethnic bloodshed in Bosnia.

Of course we grabbed the chance, and ended up talking not with a glitzy, shallow tabloid star but instead a Hollywood activist who sits on the Council on Foreign Relations, speaks out on behalf of Women for Women International, and actually knows a thing or two about geopolitics and world history.

Our resulting Jan. 10 encounter was part of Jolie’s three-day Washington media blitz to promote her directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” She squeezed us into her crazy schedule — in between a well-publicized Jan. 9 screening at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, with longtime partner Brad Pitt at her side, and the couple’s surprise appearance Jan. 11 with President Obama at the White House.

Several hours before our meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Georgetown, Jolie’s publicist informed The Washington Diplomat that we’d have exactly 22 minutes — from 3:48 to 4:10 p.m. — to participate in a roundtable discussion with Jolie and supporting actress Vanessa Glodjo, who portrays a Muslim woman named Lejla in this painful love story. Then from 4:12 to 4:28 p.m., we’d meet with the movie’s stars, Zana Marjanovic (Lejla’s younger sister Ajla) and Goran Kostic (Ajla’s Serb lover, Danijel).

We waited for the Oscar-winning actress and her cast, along with what seemed like half the Washington press corps, in a swanky guest suite stocked with roast-beef sandwiches, veggie dips and $10 glass bottles of Voss mineral water from Norway.

Eventually, this reporter and two others — one from the Washington Post Express and the other representing the online Huffington Post — were ushered into a small interview room and seated as promised at a round table, the only other prop in the room a movie promo poster depicting bloodstains splattered all over a map of the Balkans.

The 36-year-old glamour girl walked in a moment later with a cheerful, “Hi, I’m Angie” — as if we didn’t know — and sat down. The three of us immediately began peppering her and Glodjo with questions about what’s already become one of the year’s most talked-about Hollywood productions.

Given our readership, we asked Jolie her opinion of “celebrity diplomacy” and its effectiveness in bringing positive change to the world — whether it’s Madonna fighting hunger in Africa or Sean Penn calling attention to the plight of earthquake victims in Haiti.

“Reporters can do a lot to educate us, and we can do with that education what we want,” replied the actress-turned-director. “I’m led simply by what I care about, and I feel very grateful that I’ve been able to travel the world and meet survivors of war. So it’s not just out of sympathy, but out of a deep love and admiration and respect for people who survive conflict. If people see it that way and not as charity, they’ll understand that this is about strengthening the world we live in.”

In 1992, the year fierce fighting broke out between Serbs and Muslims in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia, Jolie was a rebellious 16-year-old punk — more interested in tattoos and drugs than ethnic cleansing. The science-fiction flop “Cyborg 2,” released in 1993, was the first film to feature her in a starring role, but since then, she’s gone on to win an Academy Award, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and three Golden Globe Awards.

In 2001, while filming “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in Cambodia, she developed a passion for worldwide humanitarian work. Jolie’s appointment that year as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has since taken her to several dozen countries including Iraq, Libya, Kenya, Turkey and Afghanistan.

In a Dec. 6 interview with the New York Times, Jolie says she decided to write, direct and co-produce (but not star in) this film because her real interest is foreign policy issues, and that “being a part of international affairs that way, working toward solutions and being part of a good dialogue with good people, felt like a nice evolution to me.”

“In the Land of Blood and Honey” is the story of Ajla, a carefree Bosniak girl who meets Serbian military officer Danijel in Sarajevo right before the war begins. Ajla eventually ends up in the prison camp Danijel oversees; what could have been a real romance turns into a brutal struggle for survival against a backdrop of rape, torture and senseless killing. At one point, Danijel, tenderly holding Ajla in his arms, whispers to his lover, “Why couldn’t you have been born a Serb?”

Shot in the local language with English subtitles, the film shows in graphic detail how that war — which killed some 100,000 people and left another 2 million homeless — came to define modern-day genocide, defying those who said that 50 years after the Holocaust, Europe would never allow such a thing again.

According to the Times, Jolie consulted a range of Washington experts for historical accuracy, including former NATO Commander Gen. Wesley Clark; foreign correspondent Tom Gjelten, who covered the Balkan wars for National Public Radio; and the late Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the Dayton peace accords that ended the war in 1995.

“We tried really hard not to make it black and white,” she told The Diplomat when asked how Bosnians reacted to the movie. “Some Serbs were very supportive. Unfortunately, there are people who deny that it happened. Some people even deny that the Holocaust happened. But there are many moderate people too. We show the ugliness of war, but we don’t ignore the fact that there’s humanity on both sides.”

The movie, budgeted at only $13 million, was shot entirely in the Hungarian cities of Budapest and Esztergom, and opened last December to generally favorable reviews. “Hungary was a wonderful place to work,” Jolie said. “We went there because Sarajevo, thankfully, does not look the same as then. It’s been rebuilt. I was very surprised with not only the technical skill but also how supportive the city [of Budapest] was, and its studios. There was a high level of professionalism. We had such a small budget, but it turned out to be high quality. The Hungarian crew was wonderful.”

Jolie decided to use local actors from various parts of the former Yugoslavia, many of whom — like Glodjo — had suffered as a result of Bosnia’s civil war.

“I am a non-political person, but I know what I lived through, and what I loved about this film is that it completely involved me emotionally,” said Glodjo, who was wounded by shrapnel in the head, leg and hand when a mortar hit her house during one particularly fierce battle. “It really told our story, a story that actually hasn’t been told. I recognized that the scriptwriter — even though at the time I didn’t know it was Angelina — cared about each character, and that’s what I adored.”

Glodjo added: “The opening in Sarajevo was fantastic. People went out of this film completely moved, and they thanked Angelina for speaking about the war. It’s amazing how much we needed to show this to the world.”

Marjanovic agreed. “The fact that Angelina is the one directing, it will definitely help put the spotlight on events that happened in Bosnia during the war,” she said. “So it’s important that she’s the one who made this film.”

We asked Marjanovic what it was like to work under Jolie — who according to Forbes is tied with Sarah Jessica Parker as Hollywood’s highest-paid actress, with 2011 earnings of $30 million.

“Angelina and I met the first time in Sarajevo,” recalled Marjanovic. “We said hello, and she said, ‘I feel like I know you, because I’ve been watching you.’ And I thought, ‘That’s interesting, because I feel like I know you.’ We sat down, took out our notebooks and pens, and started working right away. The whole time, we were constantly trying to figure out what our next project should be. It’s such a motivation to see such a wonderful actress who is so concerned with where the world is going. And it’s amazing how much she knows about Bosnia, how many people she spoke to from all sides of the conflict, including journalists that covered the war.”

Jolie told The Diplomat that, contrary to some published reports, her film was her way “to learn more about a part of the world I knew so little about” — not an attempt to make a broad political statement.

“At 36, I thought, why do I know so little about this conflict? This was for my education. I didn’t intend on it ever becoming a movie,” she explained. “As a director, I knew that they all were extraordinary actors and had a range beyond my own understanding. It wasn’t for me to tell anybody how to do anything, just to make sure the environment was right and not get in the way.”

Despite her best efforts to remain objective, the filming of “In the Land of Blood and Honey” infuriated people on both sides of the conflict, even though part of the underlying message seems aimed at the United States and the West for essentially turning a blind eye while atrocities took place only a few hundred miles from tourist centers like Rome.

Early on, Jolie approached Serbian media tycoon Zeljko Mitrovic — a one-time ally of the widow of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic — about using sound stages and studio sets owned by a company he controls, Pink Films International. But he refused, saying in a press release that “previously, I had great admiration and affection for Angelina Jolie both as a person and as an artist, but unfortunately she’s full of prejudice against the Serbs. I do not wish to be part of something that for the umpteenth time presents the Serbs as eternal bad guys.”

More trouble ensued when erroneous reports surfaced from Sarajevo that Jolie’s movie was about a Bosniak woman falling in love with her Serbian rapist. That led to protests by the Bosnian Women Victims of War association, though Jolie disputes published reports that the Bosnian Ministry of Culture had revoked her filming permit and then later reinstated it.

“We were in Budapest filming while this was happening, but from what I’ve learned, it’s something Bosnians are not proud of because this was actually blown out of proportion,” she said. “It was a simple bureaucratic matter of a few documents that were missing. The permit was never taken away.”

One of the stars of the film is Rade Serbedzija, who plays Danijel’s father, a vengeful Serbian general with a long memory of Muslim atrocities against Serbs (back in 1994, this same actor played a disillusioned war photographer in another movie about ethnic cleansing, Macedonia’s highly acclaimed film “Before the Rain.”)

Kostic, whose character is torn between protecting Ajla and earning his father’s respect, said reaction to Jolie’s melodrama has been mixed back home.

“Some say the film is anti-Serbian, others say it’s not pro-Bosnian enough. It was difficult to satisfy everyone,” he told us. “It’s a harsh and difficult film; you know that from the very beginning. It was a very courageous decision for Angelina to go with a local cast. We know it’s going to be a commercial success in the States, but hopefully it will also initiate discussion about things that tend to be forgotten.”

Indeed, said Jolie, “this is one of the most complicated places in the world. No one piece of art is going to be the entire view. It’s just a slice of a few people’s stories — that’s all it is. We hope it makes people think and broaden their minds, but of course it’s unable to cover the whole Bosnian conflict because no one film or book can do that.”

Nevertheless, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated “In the Land of Blood and Honey” for a Golden Globe — and Jolie is already thinking about her next project: a war movie about Afghanistan. She’s already been to that tortured country twice, most recently last March, when the veiled actress spent two days visiting refugee camps and meeting internally displaced people struggling to reintegrate into society 10 years after returning from exile.

“A lot of actors think that if they spend time in acting class, it’ll teach them something,” Jolie told us, just as her publicist indicated that our time was up. “But in order to recreate real situations and express real emotions, you must live a full life. You have to know what it is to be a real human being.”

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