"THIS IS A WAR that happened to my generation. How do I not know more… (Carlo Allegri / Associated…)
Reporting from New York — — For Ermin Bravo, it was the peanut butter that triggered the flashbacks.
Years after the war in Bosnia ended, Bravo, a film and theater actor, still couldn't touch the condiment, fearful of what it would evoke. "It was the only thing sweet from those [aid] packages we got, and we ate so much of it during the war," Bravo, now 32, recalled. "Until this shoot [reacquainted me with it], I couldn't eat it. It brought back too many memories."
"This shoot" was the filming of "In the Land of Blood and Honey," a drama about some of the darkest events of the modern era, directed by one of its shiniest celebrities, Angelina Jolie. Moved by survivors she met on goodwill missions, the actress has written, directed and produced a fictional story about Balkan atrocities, told mainly in Bosnian and related Slavic languages. It is her first time behind the camera, but she does not act in the film; instead, the movie stars people who lived through the horrors of the 1992-96 war.
PHOTOS: 'In the Land of Blood and Honey' premiere
The conflict claimed at least 145,000 lives and left countless thousands more injured, raped and otherwise traumatized. Barely noticed by many Americans while it was happening, the war has further receded from public consciousness in the decade since Sept. 11. Now Jolie is trying to rekindle interest in, and shed light on, that grim chapter.
"I'd been to the area, and I'd read about it. But when I started to really look at it, I thought, 'This is a war that happened to my generation. How do I not know more about it?'" Jolie, 36, said in an interview with the cast at a Manhattan hotel. "I was driven to learn more. And the more I learned, the more I was shocked and angry."
Unflinching in its emotional and physical brutality, "Blood and Honey," which arrives in theaters this weekend, stays away from the neat redemption of the Hollywood movies of which Jolie is often a part. But it remains to be seen whether the A-lister's celebrity will be enough to lure in fans of her mainstream hits, such as "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" or "Salt" — while at the same time not alienating more serious-minded filmgoers.
PHOTOS: 'In the Land of Blood and Honey' premiere
Centering on a romance between a young Bosnian Muslim woman named Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) and a Serbian army officer named Danijel (Goran Kostic), "Blood & Honey" contrasts a sweet if complicated love story with a gruesome litany of murder, rape and ethnic cleansing. Ajla and Danijel are together before the war starts. But when fighting breaks out in Sarajevo, they find themselves on opposite sides — painfully so, with Danijel an officer at the rape camp where Ajla is imprisoned.
A few members of Jolie's cast were able to escape the war — Kostic, now 40, traveled to London and Marjanovic, now 28, was raised in New York. But many of them lived through the atrocities they re-create on screen.
Vanesa Glodjo, 37, plays Lejla, Ajla's sister and mother to an infant boy. Lejla's son is killed when soldiers toss the baby off a balcony. She learns of the incident from neighbors who witness it, then lets out a primal scream that is one of the film's touchstone moments.
The story, Glodjo said, echoed something she experienced.
"My neighbor lost her only son. He was 26 and went to the [front]line and didn't come back," she said. "I remember it so clearly. She was a Serb and her husband was a Croat, and two Muslim mothers were comforting her."
She continued. "A month later, she was crying and we would hear through the walls. At five in the morning, just crying and wailing his name."
Though the lead actors play characters whose ethnicities mirror their own, Jolie switched some things up, most notably casting Ermin Sijamija, who was a Bosnian soldier during the war, as a cruel Serb soldier. At a news conference after the movie's New York premiere, Sijamija broke down, saying, "Every time I have to speak about the war, I feel an uncomfortable feeling. I was in combat. I saw my friends dying in my hands. I saw all the bad things."
On set, too, actors would sometimes spontaneously cry. Jolie would stop filming, and she or an actor would take the person to a private area to try to soothe them. In one difficult scene involving group rape, the male actors all helped the women get dressed right after the cameras stopped rolling, with the knowledge that some of the actresses were doing a lot more than memorizing lines off a page.
"We felt safe and protected," said Bravo, who plays Mehmet, a Bosniak compatriot of Ajla's.
Chatting with the actors in the Manhattan hotel, Jolie was a mixture of captain and den mother, reassuring one performer about his nervousness, chiding another about her penchant for snacking, encouraging a third to recount a detail about his filming experience the way a mother might implore her child to tell a favorite family story.