In the Land of Blood and Honey

In its opening image—a panning landscape shot of Bosnian countryside—In the Land of Blood and Honey immediately frames the region through a stereotypical Western framework of a “utopian multi-ethnic society.” (Weine 1999: 1) Opening titles read:

“Before the war, the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was part of one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Europe. Muslims, Serbs and Croats lived together in harmony.”

Following the titles, Yugoslav rock band EKV’s song “Zemlja” (“Country”), whose opening lyrics are “This country is for us/This country is for all our people,” starts playing on the film’s soundtrack as a way to allude sonically to the plot’s attention to local detail. However, that attention to local detail soon gives way to an all-knowing cinematic vision in portraying the events that unfold. In particular, much of the narrative and visual positioning of wartime sexual violence in In the Land of Blood and Honey follows MacKinnon’s path of collapsing ethnic and gender identities onto one another: Serb characters are almost exclusively male and violent; Bosniak characters are predominantly female, and largely helpless subjects to victimizing.

The film’s introduction of its protagonist, Ajla, who is a painter, features an interesting visual doubling, as she is in the process of creating a self-portrait. This doubling will continue as a theme as Ajla struggles with painting a visual representation of herself (by extension, her portraiture traces how she retains a sense of self while the trauma in her captivity undoes that self image). Moreover, Ajla’s auto portrait created during her captivity is the film’s final shot. Her painted gaze breaks the fourth wall as if to charge the audiences with the ethical responsibility to witness the pain of those who are gone.

 The film’s first depiction of rape is a public spectacle that other imprisoned women are forced to watch. Right away, the emphasis is on the “we” of the women’s shared experience as opposed to separation.

.... forced spectatorship of .... .... the gathered women.
The camera effortlessly pans from ... .... the women’s confinement to ....
the captors' spaces. The all-seeing camera shows ...
... the men's dynamic body language ... ... vs. the women's constraint.

The film’s visual grammar conveys an all seeing and all knowing eye, as the camera effortlessly pans from the women’s confined quarters to Danijel’s office. Later on, the camera frequently pans across the Serb men’s faces during their strategizing meetings, implicitly calling attention to the dynamics between them, but also to its own ability to move through this space unconstrained. Immediately after one such scene, the film cuts to the static shot of imprisoned women eating lunch, and through the juxtaposition, calls attention not just to the men’s dynamic position versus the women’s stasis, but also to its unrestricted access to both areas by way of an all-seeing gaze.

The events in Blood and Honey are presented with a studied, detached reserve. The all-seeing camera gaze dissects the events from a cold distance that purports to reflect comprehensive understanding rather than a sense of traumatic immediacy. In its access to all aspects of the experience (or rather, equal embodiment of both the victims’ and perpetrators’ point of view), what I call the film’s humanitarian gaze appears to be imbued with impartial vision from Haraway’s all-knowing “above.” It is able to float above any and all spaces effortlessly, I suggest, precisely because it fashions for itself a privileged ethical position of an all-knowing, justice-driven objective observer whose dedication to humanitarian goals conceals an ideological slant.

Indeed, Angelina Jolie’s directorial approach here has been likened to that of an objective academic researcher. Thus, in her reflections on the film to the UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, Denise Roman states:

“I can now affirm that I consider Jolie a colleague in feminist research, with the film being a cinematic doctoral dissertation on the anthropology of war written on the bodies of women” (2012: 18).

What gets elided in such all-seeing cinematic construction are the ways in which Jolie’s film relies on static notions of objectivity, access and legitimacy that often accompany the Western humanitarian gaze without scrutinizing the ways in which such an humanitarian gaze perpetuates the status quo of global inequality—an ethical conundrum to which I turn in more detail later.

The film frequently features overhead shots, especially of the women’s confinement. Its floating, omniscient, seemingly unlimited field of vision—which implies uninterrupted availability of an objective perspective to the spectator’s gaze—is in stark contrast to Juanita Wilson’s visual approach in As If I Am Not There.

As If I Am Not There

As If I Am Not There’s events are depicted firmly from the female protagonist’s constrained point of view; the perspective often aligns with her, frequently through low camera angles. Samira appears in every scene, and the spectator is not privy to any knowledge that is not available to the central protagonist, least of all to that of her captors. Her confinement becomes the organizing logic of the film’s visual grammar. Moreover, the film’s visual language—point of view shots, extreme close-ups and camera embodying the victim’s physical perspective—draws the spectator in claustrophobically close to the events. Thus the film pulls the spectator inside the narrative viscerally and at times uncomfortably so.

The film opens with an immediate placing of the spectator into the visual language of traumatic recall. Samira is in the Swedish hospital in the present-day, having just given birth (and therefore, the majority of the film is structured as a traumatic flashback). In a quick succession of shots, we see Samira’s wet face in agony (only later will we learn what the image stands for). The following shot takes us back to Samira’s present, and to her taking a shower.

These close-ups convey a traumatic collapse of time-space locations, which frequently occurs in survivors’ memories of horrific trauma (Caruth 1996). This silent opening sequence lays the groundwork for the film’s persistent and claustrophobic positioning within Samira’s point of view. That point of view, however, should not be mistaken for a direct invitation to spectatorial alignment with her plight. Rather than a simple process of spectatorial identification, the film nurtures a complicated structure of immediacy in bearing witness, yet always already too late in the moment of doing so. For instance, the opening sequence and its quick visual flashback to a traumatic event positions the protagonist’s latency to trauma and the spectator’s lateness to bearing witness on equal footing—but not as identical points of view.

Even the film’s establishing landscape shots frequently show Samira or other camp women in the foreground, looking on. They are, therefore, devoid of perceived objectivity, by being framed as point-of-view shots in their own right.

Landscape shots channeled through the women’s point of view
Obstructed vision The doorframe narrows down Samira’s options and the spectator’s gaze.
Doorframes persistently narrow down the visual frame .
The women’s confinement depicted with a low camera angle.

Moreover, the film’s numerous shots of doors persistently depict them as points of confinement and obstructed vision rather than a way out of the situation. The camera frequently frames doors in a way that obscures vision and visually recalls Haraway’s partial vision. For instance, in one shot, Samira observes captured Bosniak men led away for execution, as the doorframe simultaneously visually conveys their doomed fate and reflects Samira’s (and the spectators’) obstructed vision (the executions take place offscreen).

In another similar shot, as soldiers lead Samira into the house where she will be gang raped, the camera similarly frames her through doors that reflect the narrowing-down of her options, as well as an obstructed cinematic gaze.

A doorframe is again prominent in the scene in which Samira tends to the severely injured young girl, as well as in the film’s final shot, in which Samira holds her newborn baby.

Moreover, during the women’s confinement in the camp, doors are frequently seen in the background, strictly from the women’s point of view, as reflected in the low camera angles. This creates a visual juxtaposition to Blood and Honey’s establishing overhead shots of the women’s quarters in the camp.

In further contrast to In the Land of Blood and Honey, As If I Am Not There depicts only the rape of its main protagonist, while the spectator, like Samira herself, does not know what happens to other women after they are led away (that not knowing is arguably more horrifying than graphic depiction). When they come back, the women do not talk about their brutalization but rather focus on caring for one another. Incidentally, this approach is reminiscent of how the women in the documentary Calling the Ghosts describe being led away to be raped and tortured, and later not telling each other what had happened as a way to protect one another.

This visual structure, embodying the protagonist’s point of view, is particularly visceral in Samira’s brutal gang rape scene, during which she eventually experiences disembodiment from her immediate physical trauma. She experiences a state of shock marked by an act of displaced spectatorship, whereby she witnesses herself being brutally violated.

The scene is established with a low-angle shot of Samira being led to the table where she will be brutalized.

At one point during the prolonged and unnervingly quiet rape scene, Samira turns her head and looks to the side, and the film cuts to a point-of-view shot of a fly on the wall.

The embodiment of Samira’s point of view

This shot/reverse-shot is repeated twice. Each time, the film briefly muffles the diegetic sound of groaning men, conveying visually and sonically the extent of Samira’s bodily and sensory disassociation. The scene also features a slow-motion shot through the window that depicts men playing soccer—an image meant to convey Samira’s dissociation from such a seemingly mundane activity.

Her disembodiment in the moment of extreme trauma is, in a seeming jump cut, then transformed into a shot in which she stands in the background while the men urinate in the foreground. At first it appears that Samira is put against the back wall and made to observe the men urinating. The following shot, however, reveals that the men are urinating on Samira, and that the seeing figure in the background conveys Samira’s experiencing the brutalization as an out-of-body event.

The latter shot is also visually tied to one of the film’s opening images, whose meaning is now revealed. In the rape sequence, Samira watches herself—the same way that the spectator is watching her being brutally gang raped—as if she is “not there,” conveying an experience of trauma referenced in the film’s title. Then the watching figure slowly approaches and wipes away blood from the brutalized Samira’s face.

During these shots, the sound is again muffled until it is suddenly interrupted by a male voice that says, “Get up. You have more entertaining to do.” Samira is then hit in the face, and the film cuts to a completely black screen that lasts several seconds. This is followed by a blurry panning shot of Samira’s arm. When the camera reaches her face—eyes closed—the lens refocuses, and then again cuts to black.

In traumatic disassociation, Samira watches herself being brutalized
The aftermath of brutality

With this unsettling sequence, As If I Am Not There resists a spectacular fetishizing of violence by pointing to the crisis of witnessing (Felman & Laub 1992) as a way to simultaneously overrule the split between the victim and the spectator, and double the gaze in a way that calls overt attention to the ethical dimensions of seeing the scene unfold. Rather than inviting the spectator to identify with the victim, the scene conveys what Dominick LaCapra has called “empathic unsettlement” (2001)—a process of bearing witness that does not privilege identification but rather the unsettling of identity and subjectivity as such. The film renders identification impossible here by depicting a victim disassociated from her own subjectivity.

Moreover, to evoke Wendy Hesford’s assessment of the ethics of witnessing in her analysis of Calling the Ghosts,

“although the film shows us victimized bodies, we also see bodies surviving their wounds” (115).

The same thing can be argued about As If I Am Not There, which ultimately focuses on survival more than on the spectacle of suffering. As noted before, the entire film visually conveys events from the female victim’s point of view, and embodies a perpetrator’s visual perspective only in a few rare instances. Even then, the spectator’s empathic unsettlement is squarely with the female protagonist, who is rendered vulnerable through this visual placement of the soldier above the civilians.

This disconcertingly immediate apparatus of vision collapses objective visual separation and places the spectator firmly within the brutalized woman’s experience of bodily disassociation. In this way, the narrative traces rape and torture in As If I Am Not There as having such a traumatic impact that they not only disassociate Samira from herself but also dislocate a sense of linear and literal storytelling by doubling the gaze. That is, we see a woman brutally assaulted, but we also see her seeing herself being brutally assaulted; the experience is so deeply traumatic that she is transplanted outside of her own body. With this, the film makes the spectator briefly embody, uncomfortably and claustrophobically, Samira’s traumatized point of view, all the while acknowledging such a devastating event’s limits of knowability. Since our own viewing of the scene cannot be firmly objective and decoupled from the victim’s disassociated point of view, the scene calls overt attention to the visual politics of witnessing. Here, trauma is simultaneously made knowable and unknowable. As the spectator briefly experiences the victim’s point of view, that point of view is impossible to fully grasp, since the victim herself experiences gang rape in a highly dissociated, out-of-body physical and emotional state.

Victims often perceive trauma as a break in temporal and spatial continuity, as time stopping, slowing down, or being otherwise interrupted, and with a temporal remove of the conscious assimilation of impact. It feels as if the traumatic injury is not happening to the person experiencing it—which it is not inasmuch as it displaces the sense of what a “self” is to begin with (Laub 1995). Wilson’s film depicts the ways in which bodily invasion and injury displace a sense of identity and break the continuity of unaltered subjectivity, most notably in the aforementioned gang rape scene, which marks the initial invasion of Samira’s body. However, while traumatic shock blunts Samira after she is brutalized, or after having witnessed the brutalization of others, at other times, she is compassionate and caring for her fellow prisoners, as well as calculating in her deliberate manipulation of femininity as a survival skill. Consequently, in As If I Am Not There, flat affect becomes a way to convey the enormity of bodily and mental injury that overwhelms the sense of “I,” precisely because the film saves it for the moments when the heroine suffers the most. At those points the spatial and especially temporal displacement signals to the spectator the enormity of an experiential break in the sense of the self that extreme trauma causes. With this intimate framing of the protagonist’s traumatized point of view, as well as in its calling attention to the act of spectatorship in the moment of extreme trauma, Wilson’s film, I suggest, largely avoids the pitfalls of depicting the events on screen with an observed detachment and all-seeing objective gaze. It persistently embodies the partial vision of the female victim’s point of view, as it points to her inability to fully grasp her own trauma at the time of its occurrence.

The differences in the visual languages of In the Land of Blood and Honey and As If I Am Not There that I discussed so far are not mere aesthetic variations. Instead, they carry important ethical implications. In the following sections, I show how these aesthetic and formal cinematic elements convey the films’ differing approaches to gender as either predetermined identity or as performativity. And their contrast also points to a troubling politics of recognition disguised under the veil of humanitarianism.

Engendering masculinity and ethnicity

The nameless captain in As If I Am Not There, with whom Samira deliberately develops an intimate relationship, claims in one scene that there is not much difference between Samira and him: they each do what they need to survive. Certainly, they live within a clear gendered and ethnic power imbalance at the time he says this. And he inadvertently admits to his power by claiming that Samira would “suck his cock” right there and then if that meant she’d survive. At the same time, the captain’s statement provides valuable insight into his own performance of masculinity, which by implication takes this extreme form out of necessity. His masculinity does not exist as an a priori violent inclination, nor does the film reductively assign it to how Serbian men “traditionally” are: violent and inevitably murderous as they seek to guarantee the perpetuation of their national greatness. Rather than depicting widespread masculinist violence as an inherent trait, the captain’s statement points to the complicated structures by which perpetuation of violence gradually becomes a way of belonging and not standing out for a man in dire wartime circumstances. 

With such attention on perpetrator trauma, As If I Am Not There points to its often unacknowledged presence, and moreover suggests potentially uncomfortable links between the traumas of perpetrators and victims. All are caught in the cycle of violence perpetuated for the sake of gendered norms interpellated under ethno-nationalist ideology. With this, the film poses a challenge to the problematic assumption that atrocities stem, simply and flatly, from a whole group of people’s inherently violent predisposition rooted in a burden to perpetuate heroic tradition. Rather, a culture of violence stems from the gradual (perhaps sudden, but always gradual) wartime recalibration of normative masculinity, that in this case converges on the practice of mass rape, which in turn becomes a norm by which both masculinity and ethnicity are socially measured. For the Serbian men in the camp, rape becomes an enactment of gender performativity by which they can confirm both their manliness and ethno-national belonging. The captain feels equally a captive of this vicious circle of masculinist performativity as Samira is a captive of his (and thus his words: “We are both the same, we’d do anything to survive”). Thus the film provides a telling commentary on the complexities that follow any occurrence of sexual violence, especially in its more widespread iterations and their relation to the individuals affected.

In Blood and Honey, the complicated assemblages that inform the performances of wartime masculinity are approached from the perspective of an Oedipal struggle that makes Danijel turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by his unit, and then compels him to kill his Muslim lover partly because his father refuses to accept their romance. Here, Elissa Helms finds that the film “fails to challenge conventional gendered narratives of collective identities and moral righteousness” (2014: 613). While Danijel is the camp’s commander, he does not rape any prisoners and puts Ajla under his protection. At the same time, Danijel does not do much to prevent other prisoners from being tortured and raped, and he seems to only passively disapprove of their treatment, or otherwise rationalize it as inevitable. His father, Nebojša, on the other hand, is an openly hostile, powerful Serbian general who rationalizes ethnic cleansing and war crimes with an expository dialogue about the greatness of the Serbian nation and its historical struggles. This focus on Serbian tradition as generative of violent attitudes towards ethnic others gives rape an aura of inevitability, which is further strengthened when Danijel himself finally succumbs to the violent impulse by killing Ajla. In an earlier exchange, that aura of tradition and inevitability is tacitly addressed by the couple, when Ajla asks Danijel if he always wanted to be a police officer (his profession before the war), to which he answers:

“Some of us don’t have a choice. For me all this was a part of a very long family tradition.”

The family tradition he is referring to here extends well beyond his profession; it is about the embodiment of violent Serbian masculinity, which Jolie’s film largely treats as inescapable. Try as he may to resist it, Danijel succumbs by killing Ajla, thereby fulfilling his father’s wishes and contributing to the project of ethnic cleansing.  In one expository conversation, Danijel’s father reminds his son about the greatness of the Serbian nation that extends back to the Kosovo battle (one of the founding myths of Serbian nationalism). The father then orders him to “finish cleansing” his area, and affectionately sends him off with: “Make your father proud”—as the latter two activities are implied to be one and the same thing, and overtly connected to securing the continued greatness of said nation.

Like the captain in As If I Am Not There, Danijel feels the pressure to conform to gendered expectations, and that translates into him perpetuating ethnic violence. The difference lies, however, in the fact that in As If I Am Not There, the perpetuation of violence is examined primarily through the lens of gender performativity without overt focus on Serbianness as such, while in Blood and Honey, the perpetuation of violence is squarely and unequivocally connected to ethnicity as the privileged site of explanation. Moreover, Danijel’s struggle is locked within a firm Oedipal framework of fathers and sons, heritage and familial-ethnic tradition. Says Danijel by way of explanation:

“I find this war very difficult to stomach. But my father… general Vukojević, thinks very differently of course.”

This larger-than-life father, general Nebojša Vukojević, is depicted as a character who acts out in a genocidal rage due to his own childhood trauma when Muslims murdered his mother and siblings during WWII. Moreover, his ethnic animosity has class overtones, as he resents Ajla’s, and “Muslim ladies’” soft hands, which indicate to him that they never had to “work the land” the way that his mother did.

As in the work of Catherine MacKinnon, Blood and Honey’s subtext is the inevitability of masculinist tradition when it comes to the Serbs’ infamy. Both accounts flatly homogenize an ethnic group in its entirety into an exclusively male, unambiguously heterosexual, violent and largely rural community. Indeed, rarely do such accounts leave room for variety within the group. Even Danijel, who morally struggles with such violence, eventually commits it himself. In Jolie’s film, ethnic identity is unquestionably assumed to exist prior to violence taking place, and is its catalyst.

On the other hand, in As If I Am Not There, ethnicity is a largely unspoken byproduct of the performative nature of violent masculinity. With that, Juanita Wilson’s film poses a rare instance where ethno-sexual violence is examined as a situational practice reiterated by men as a way to confirm their group belonging—be it ethnic or gendered, or, in most cases, a complicated combination of the two. While Blood and Honey gets uncomfortably close to the notion that Serbian masculinist violence is traditionally inescapable, in As If I Am Not There, that same violence is positioned as situational and performative, through the proposition that men perpetrate sexual violence in other to comply to the norms of warring masculinity. The situational exploitation of such forms of violent behavior becomes the driving force for its perpetuation, regardless of ethnicity—which is reiterated, even constituted, in its wake rather than existing as an unquestionably stable category ahead of the occurrence of violence. The captain articulates quite overtly his understanding that he participates in violence because it allows him to survive in a world where violent masculinist behavior has become the norm of those who (temporarily) stay on top. As If I Am Not There thus points to the incessant tightening of wartime gender performativity to such an extreme extent that the perpetuation of violence becomes generative of ethnic identity as such, rather than the other way around.