Thursday, January 12, 2012


Refugee comes from the french word refugier, which literally means to take shelter. Shelter is hard to come by in the new film by Angelina Jolie, her debut effort as a director. This film explores the nature of becoming a refugee in your own homeland, being forced to flee for safety while watching friends turn into murderous foes.

Angelina's film begins with an image of Sarajevo from above, she allows us access to her characters world from a perched view, watching the landscape create a narrative of it's own. While we get settled inside the screen, into the lush landscape, we are pulled into her created reality by the words that appear on the screen. Jolie explains that the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was home to some of the most ethnically diverse populations that ever co-existed. Croatians, Serbians, Muslims and Yugoslavs all shared this land, spoke the same language, and embraced cultural differences. In 1980, when the Communist Leader of Yugoslavia, Marshall Josip Broz Tito, died the Serbians began to witness the simultaneous collapse of Communist governments across Eastern Europe. This collapse bolstered the Serbian nationalist movement to seek power across the Republic while splintering Yugoslavia's other republics to assert their independence.

The film explores the early origins of the conflict and it's ultimate descent into madness. We first met Ajla (Zana Marjanoić) standing in front of a painting, a face. She shares her small apartment in Sarajevo with her sister, Lejla (Vanesa Glodio) and newborn baby. We learn that Ajla has come back to Bosnia to help her sister care for the little one. The moment of calm and happiness erupts in the next scene when Ajla mets her lover, Danijel (Gornan Kostić), at the neighborhood bar. One minute they are dancing and whispering sweet nothings we never hear and, the next, a bomb explodes and the entire building collapses into smoke. The screen shuts to black and all we hear are the sounds of terror. This is what we are left with before the world falls a part.

Several months later, bombs alert a sleeping Ajla and Lejla to the onslaught of terror that has yet to grace their doorstep. The next morning, their apartment building is taken over by the Serbian Army. Everyone is immediately evacuated, forced to be paraded outside in the freezing weather. The men and boys are scrambled together and are forced to the side of the apartment building, Jolie doesn't allow us access to their slaughter but instead lets us witness the trauma on the faces of their widows left behind. The soliders then precede to pick out some of the younger women from the crowd left standing, pushing them all towards a van, the destination unknown, while the others stand aside to watch. Ajla is selected and the separation from her sister begins the first of many political, physical and emotional schisms throughout this film.

The horror that enfolds in the center section of Jolie's film is not for the fient of heart. Most of the story follows Ajla in a Serbian Army camp, where the women are used as sexual toys and house maids. They live in constant fear of repetitious rape and several of the women speak of their wish to die rather than endure the mental and physical deterioration. Jolie is very retrained in her cinematic license and mostly chooses to use sound and dialogue as vehicles for experiencing pain. One scene in particular stood out to me, mostly because of the subtlety of action. The scene takes place in the middle of the night, the camera sits to the right of Ajla, wide awake and shaking. From behind her, she hears a solider enter their sleeping quarters as he takes one of the women out of her bed and carries her away. The only sounds are Ajla breathing, the man's boots, and the woman struggling in the background. Jolie, refrains from calling melodrama to the moment of sheer terror, instead allowing us to be a silent witness along with her protagonist.

This film follows the four year conflict in it's entirety. Jolie sets out to explore the nature of war on all kinds of relationships; between lovers, friends, relatives, and strangers. Over the course of the conflict, over 100,000 people were killed, over 2 million were displaced from their homes, and between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, mostly while being held in captivity. Over four years, over 360 shells were fired every day and citizens became caged in their own homes with fear of sniper fire outside the walls of safety.  It was after the Bosnian conflict that the UN officially ruled that raped was a crime against humanity, on it's own accord. Jolie wants these issues to forefront her film. She wants her audience to leave the theater having learned something, She forces, repeatedly , the issues of international amnesia and insists that all conflicts that involve violations of human rights are international crises. She insists that we must sit up and pay attention. This is a tall order but is something that haunts every corner of her film; in television sets, newspapers, and radio reports which litter the background.

Zana Marjanoić, is stunning as Ajla. Her journey through this film is something that astounded me. I don't want to illuminate on the plot of the film, as I think the audience needs to experience it for themselves. Jolie's command of space and the world in which her characters inhabit is something that should be praised. She brings to life a beautiful story of love, loss, depravity, and the silver lining that sustained hope provides. This film demands to be seen.

 Ajla at the window, she spends much of her time in the camp looking out her window

 Hearing the men in the courtyard below allows her outside access through her window

 Danjiel and Ajla, the first time they meet again in the camp

 Jolie at the helm

 Ajla and Lejla watches the soliders coming into town 

 The lovers remain separated by differences but secretly long to be together

 A firing squad 

 The world the captured women inhabit at the Army Camp

 Using the women as shields in a fight against the resistance

 Trying to escape

Jolie at the helm

No comments:

Post a Comment