A moment for Angelina Jolie

The draw of a Hollywood premiere for a film written, directed and produced by Angelina Jolie is irresistible. True to her A+-list status, Jolie’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey” got the glam treatment at the ArcLight on Sunset Boulevard last week, complete with a red carpet for formally attired movie stars.

Before the screening started, Jolie offered a couple of minutes of thank yous, but the real signal that the tone in the room was about to change came before, when Jolie, one of Hollywood’s biggest female stars, was introduced by Michael Abramowitz, director of the genocide prevention program at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Abramowitz warned that the film, which is about the ethnic cleansing by Serbs against Bosnians that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, would be “incredibly difficult to watch,” and he recalled once witnessing Elie Wiesel imploring President Bill Clinton to “do more about what was happening in the Balkans.” And so, the glamour in the theater disappeared as the lights went down.

“Blood and Honey” is filled with familiar scenes of families torn from their homes, vivid depictions of concentration camps, and random violence as well as incredible bravery — but though the plot is similar and the people look the same, this story is not about Nazis and Jews, but rather a genocidal war enacted by Orthodox Christian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims.

The film is also the tale of a star-crossed romance between a beautiful Bosnian woman, Ajla, played by Zana Marjanovic, and an equally striking Serbian officer, Danijel, played by Goran Kostic. Both actors in real life are natives of the land in Jolie’s narrative, which is told in their native Bosnian tongue, with subtitles. Jolie had alerted us in her remarks that “the cast all are individuals affected by this war. All were from different sides of this conflict, and they all chose to come together and to work on this film together.” That accomplishment, in itself, is a sign of a uniquely sensitive director.

Zana Marjanovic stars as Ajla and Goran Kostic stars as Danijel in FilmDistrict’s In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011). Photo credit by Dean Semler.

“Blood and Honey” proved the most gripping and memorable film I’ve seen in years. I have not stopped thinking about Jolie’s remarkably intelligent depiction of very complex characters and her truly vivid understanding of this war’s violence against women, in particular. A first-time writer and director, Jolie has produced a remarkable work of art that challenges us to see what we might prefer to forget, and she leaves us unable to leave her vivid, exquisitely drawn imagery behind.

At the start of the film, the lovers are shown at a dance hall before the war, and it’s clear there’s a natural chemistry between them. Once Ajla is taken prisoner, she becomes one of the women routinely and violently raped as part of the war effort. Later, when Danijel becomes her captor, she survives the horrors taken out on her fellow prisoners by becoming his willing lover, even as their lustful relationship is charged, and inevitably changed, by the complex imbalance of power inherent to the situation. Meanwhile, he is an active leader in the violence outside their chamber.

It is, indeed, not an easy film to watch.

I left this film thinking of its similarities to the Holocaust. And then I immediately ran into a friend, Samuel Chu, an activist born in China, who told me he’d come to see “Blood and Honey” just after watching “City of Life and Death,” by the Chinese director Lu Chuan. That film is about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre — also known as the Rape of Nanjing — when the invading Japanese brutalized the Chinese. Chu said he was deeply moved by the parallels between “Blood and Honey” and China’s story.

And then there are the parallels to the current situation in Darfur, where women continue to be brutalized just for leaving their camps to gather firewood.

At the screening’s after-party, I spoke to the lead actor, Kostic, who in the film vividly reveals his character’s many-layered and always conflicted emotions. He reminded me that the events in the film were, in real life, taking place simultaneous to the release of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” shot in Poland, just a short distance away.

Kathleen A. McHugh, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, which was one of the presenters of the premiere event, spoke to me as well about her impressions of the film, which she had already seen twice. McHugh is a film scholar as well as a leader in women’s studies, and we discussed how Jolie depicted horrific rape scenes with tremendous empathy for the women: “The camera spends most of its time on reaction shots,” McHugh pointed out. “You saw people’s feet, but not the act. Everything is being used to de-eroticize rape.” McHugh added that “Hollywood has no trouble showing women in the worst circumstances being perfectly coiffed,” but these women are shown without makeup or enhancements and yet are allowed to be beautiful in their own right.

What is most important about this film, she noted, is not just the story it tells of what once happened, but also of what might.

“I got the sense that the reason Jolie made the film is that the situation is still very fragile,” McHugh said.

And the sad truth is, that’s not just a crucial point about the Balkans, but about the world as a whole — from Asia to Africa and perhaps places we don’t even know about now.

Jolie, with all her art and Hollywood clout, beckons us to remember. But it is, as Elie Wiesel implored his president, our job to stop it.