Why Labeling Angelina Jolie's Hard-Hitting Film About Rape in Bosnia a "Vanity Project" Is Sexist

Why Labeling Angelina Jolie's Hard-Hitting Film About Rape in Bosnia a "Vanity Project" Is Sexist
Angelina Jolie directing her first film, "In The Land of Blood and Honey"
(Courtesy AFP/Getty Images)

Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which opens Friday, is set during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. Stressing the mixed ethnicity of the former Yugoslavia and aghast at the notion of people killing and raping their compatriots, it’s about a pair of star-crossed lovers in Sarajevo. Ajla (Zana Marjanovi?), a Bosnian Muslim artist, meets a Serb cop, Danijel (Goran Kosti?), at a Sarajevo nightclub and they’re starting to cozy up to one another when a bomb explodes.

When they next meet, Ajla has been rounded up with other women who are to be raped repeatedly by Serb soldiers as part of the ethnic cleansing program. Danijel intervenes to save her, however, and eventually installs her in a room where she can practice her art and the two can have sex. But Danijel's father, a nationalistic Serb general, is suspicious.

This may sound like a recipe for a Bosnian-Serb “Romeo and Juliet” with more mature lovers, but Danijel’s random killing of Bosnian refugees for sport scotches that theory. “At times Danijel seems a somewhat more benign version of Ralph Fiennes' Nazi in ‘Schindler's List,’ testing the limits of his affection for his personal refugee/plaything while using the refugees scurrying below his window for target practice,” Justin Chang writes in his Variety review.

While Jolie’s Hollywood celebrity as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees opened doors for the actress when it came to getting permission to film in Bosnia (and Budapest), inevitably it’s also factoring into assessments of the movie. Chang, for one, says it “seems to spring less from artistic conviction than from an over-earnest humanitarian impulse.”

One word that has cropped up in several of the early reviews is “vanity” — the deadly sin that Jolie has to exorcise, apparently, before she can be regarded as a bone fide filmmaker. Some, but not all, critics say she has succeeded.    

“It’s clear within the first few minutes of ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey,’ a blunt and brutal look at genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s, that this is a serious piece of work and not simply a vanity project for its debuting writer-director,” Todd McCarthy writes in the Hollywood Reporter.

“In making a United Nations extra-credit project about the Bosnian War that pointedly criticizes the U.S. role in a conflict now safely in history's rearview mirror,” says Karina Longworth in the Village Voice, “she has produced a sanctimonious vanity commercial for her own good intentions.”

“The film is not some celebrity vanity project, but an astute, dramatically gripping work set against the horrors of the Bosnian War,” Caryn James notes at indiewire.com.

The "vanity" issue is sexist. Presumably because they aren't actresses in the public spotlight, Michael Winterbottom, John Moore, and Richard Shepard weren't accused  of vanity when they directed their Bosnian War films, "Welcome to Sarajevo" (1997), "Behind Enemy Lines" (2001), and "The Hunting Party" (2007), respectively. Nor was Clint Eastwood when his "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima" were released in 2006. The Chinese director Lu Chuan wasn’t accused of vainglory for depicting the mass rape of Nanking’s women by invading Japanese forces in 1937 in “The City of Life and Death,” which opened here in May. But then he didn’t play Lana Croft and isn’t married to Brad Pitt.

Whether vanity was a consideration for Jolie, she was sufficiently outraged by learning, after the fact, of systemic rape in the Bosnian war to be able to transcend the limitations of being a glamorous A-list star by getting the picture made. Having starred in “Beyond Borders” (2003), a disappointing drama about aid workers set in such global hotspots as Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Chechyna, and to greater effect as Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart” (2007), Jolie has maintained a level of commitment to films that depict human suffering in times of famine or war. The unflinching approach she has taken “In the Land of Blood and Honey” and the film’s mostly appreciative reviews so far suggest she has evolved in terms of her humanitarian consciousness. Choosing not to act in the film and to include in the cast a number of women and men scarred by the conflict is scarcely narcissistic.

Jolie, 36, clearly expected that she herself — and not just the movie — would be reviewed. “Maybe people will see this film and judge it differently, in a negative way, because I made it,” she told the New York Times’s Larry Rohter. “But at the same time, I don’t think I could have gotten it made unless I had a strong career.”

She believes the movie, which cost a reported $13 million, “might not have been made at all, especially because of this subject matter, which in Hollywood is famously difficult.” Using her celebrity purposefully is important to her, she told Rohter, as opposed simply to being famous for fame’s sake. “I’d like it to be good for something. When you’re young, and somebody sits you down for an interview, you don’t know what to say or why you’re there, because you haven’t formed yourself. I still don’t completely know what to say or do, but I at least have some focus, purpose and direction as to what can be put out in the world that is thoughtful and helpful — as opposed to just what you’re wearing.”

Given that the film has no stars and addresses the rapes of tens of thousands of women during a war scarcely on Americans’ radar since it ended 16 years ago, Jolie’s involvement in it is undoubtedly its strongest selling point. Landing as it does during a season packed with spectacular entertainment movies, it needs her to promote it.

“The people felt as though the world had forgotten them,” Jolie said of the Bosnian war victims in an interview with Janine di Giovanni in Newsweek. “It was a time of great pain, and I wanted to depict how courageous people were — without offending anyone. It was made to remind everyone of the war — but only a small group of people will probably understand.”