LONDON – An article written by Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie provoked headlines around the world when she chose “not to keep my story private” and revealed she had undergone a double mastectomy to lower her risk of breast cancer, which was high due to her genetic inheritance. The impassioned letter, published in the New York Times, did not fit the stereotypical celebrity image. But Jolie’s act of extraordinary courage didn’t seem out of character at all to me. I already knew from my own experience that she was a woman of tremendous strength, focus and perseverance.
In the spring of 2010 I was working in Bosnia, tracking the movements of a war criminal not yet caught by the international criminal court, when I heard that Angelina Jolie was in nearby Foca. This was not the kind of place for one of the most famous women in the world to be roaming. It is an eastern Bosnian town with connotations of evil, since it was the scene of some of the most gruesome war crimes of the 1992-95 war. It is still an unpleasant place to be. Jolie was there with her partner, Brad Pitt, scouting for locations for her directorial debut. It was to be a film about the rape camps during the Bosnian war, and she had written the script.
Over the next few days the Bosnian press — sensitive at the best of times to depictions of their heartbreaking three-and-half-year war — had a field day.
They leaked the news that Jolie’s movie plot was about a Bosnian Serb commander running a rape camp, akin to the Foca camps, and a beautiful Bosnian Muslim woman who falls in love with him. But this is not the plot of “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” not by a long shot.
I read more, and realized that the film was trying to show how, before the war, cultural and ethnic divides were practically non-existent in the former Yugoslavia, and how Jolie wanted to portray a country shattered by conflict. But still, I went to see my first screening of the film in a defensive mood: I was waiting to pick it apart with a fine-tooth comb. It seemed obscene to me that Hollywood stars should get their hands into the Bosnian conflict, which was still raw, still bleeding. It had broken my heart in two, and I was only a reporter.
I remember emerging from Jolie’s film for the first time on a cold winter morning, stunned. My first thought was that I needed a whisky. I don’t drink whisky and it was only 11 a.m. The scenes were so realistic, so close to the war that I had lived with, so emotional, I excused myself and went home to ruminate and eventually cry. My two colleagues did go out and down that whisky.
I’ve since watched “Blood and Honey” three more times, each time having more respect for Jolie’s attention to detail and her determination to get everything right. As a veteran reporter from the Bosnian war, I went into the screening room a cynic, and emerged wondering how a woman who was 17 at the time of the war, and who admits she knew nothing about it at the time, could put her finger so clearly on such a complicated conflict.
When I met Jolie some time later, shortly before the release of her film, I was equally amazed at her knowledge of the region, and the care she had put into acquiring skills to direct an entirely Bosnian cast, some of whom did not speak English. She had studied and read books on the Balkans like a diligent schoolgirl, taken notes, enrolled in a course in humanitarian law. She filmed “Blood and Honey” twice, once in Bosnian, once in English. She cast the actors to perfection: from the young, cheeky and tragic soldiers, the defenders of Sarajevo, to the leading lady who opens the film as a young woman and ends it scarred and emotionally battered by war — and her Serb lover.
Most important to me was the background of Sarajevo, a city that means so much to me. And while “Blood and Honey” is a bleak story, it is also a love story about a city that never fell, that never sank to its knees.
She used actors who had been through the war, actors who had lost family, actors who wore their older brothers’ uniforms. She was intensely sensitive to others’ reactions, and as she later told me she spent a lot of time listening to people. She knew in some ways she was taking on an impossible task and she wanted to be prepared.
By the time “Blood and Honey” came out, Jolie had been working at the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) as a special envoy for nearly a decade. She had seen her share of horror and not through a jeep’s rear window. Jolie was a traveler who put on a backpack and took a torch and rain gear, who drove on bumpy roads like the rest of us. She listened to people in the same way — with empathy and compassion — as Audrey Hepburn did in her role at the United Nations decades before.
Jolie’s desire to capture the Bosnian war on film came out of her direct experience of working with refugees. She wanted to make a film that would recount the horror of the war that took place in the last decade of the 20th century in a city three hours’ flight from London, and how it eroded Bosnian society. She wanted to show how the multi-ethnic culture had been destroyed (as Syria’s is being destroyed, right now). She wanted to show how war came home to families — to women, to children.
The details in “Blood and Honey” were things that perhaps no one else would notice. But for a small group of us who reported the war and remained loyal to the country that once was Bosnia, they were important: the black war humor; the longing for cigarettes and fresh fruit; even the love story at its core.
Yes, love. Because as anyone who has lived through war knows, love and war are interlinked on a primitive level, even if one does not want to admit it. Adrenaline, emotions, fear, death, attraction, longing, sadness, love, sorrow, the need to connect with another human being — they all go in the same basket. And somehow, Jolie — who was born and raised in Los Angeles and could have had a career never setting foot in African refugee camps or interviewing women who had been raped in war — got it.
She also had a keen sense that by tackling the Bosnian war she was putting her head in the lion’s mouth. She had sent me a note asking me not to judge the film without seeing it, and that we were on “the same side” — meaning the side of the good; the side of the civilians who suffer during time of war, who lose their innocence, their lives, their work, their homes, their dignity.
Her humanitarian work had, in some ways, prepared Jolie for “Blood and Honey.” I was living in the Ivory Coast in 2002 when she arrived en route to Sierra Leone on one of her first missions. A group of U.N. friends held a small dinner for her, nothing fancy, at a friend’s house. Her Bosnian cast, who were at first shocked to hear that Lara Croft was coming to direct a film about Bosnia, adored her with a fierce loyalty. They were amazed how down to earth, how motherly, how kind, she was to them. Most of all, they appreciated the fact that she did not want to leave the Bosnian war forgotten.
At the New York premiere in December 2011 they were tearful as they described what it was like to work with someone who was so involved with a film that depicted their lives.
Perhaps the proof of her loyalty to the project was that the afternoon following the world premiere in Sarajevo she held a small private lunch for a select group of us who had reported the war, at the Holiday Inn, our old wartime home. She wanted to know what she, and we, could do to move forward from the war, to make Bosnia a better place. “Let’s look to the future,” she said.
Over cappuccinos and sandwiches, she carefully noted all of our suggestions — from micro-climate tomato farms to peace reconciliations — in a little book. I remember thinking what a brilliant listener she was. She asked questions about what concrete work could be done. Her questions were intelligent, razor-sharp. Then Jolie left with Pitt to rejoin their kids in Paris. But not before leaving the most hard-core cynical group of reporters on earth convinced that, once in a while, Hollywood produces the absolute real thing.
Janine di Giovanni is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the author of “Ghosts by Daylight.” She is writing a book about Syria.