Ermin Sijamija was at home in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War when he got a phone call from a former high-school classmate.
The caller said he was a Serbian sniper who was shooting Bosnian Muslims from a perch above a local crossroads. He told Sijamija that he had just spotted him walking in the area.
“Today I saw you but didn’t kill you,” the sniper said. “But tomorrow will be somebody else, so be faster please.”
Sijamija helps re-enact the ethnic conflict that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in Angelina Jolie’s directing debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” The cast includes many actors who experienced the brutal war first-hand in the early 1990s.
“It was very emotional,” Jolie said at a recent press conference in New York, where she was flanked by Sijamija and six other cast members. “I was asking them to remember painful things.”
Jolie, who has met many war refugees in her role as a United Nations goodwill ambassador, said the first day of filming was the toughest. That’s when she shot a scene in which a Serb soldier rapes a Bosnian woman in front of other female prisoners who have just been rounded up and stripped of their coats and jewelry while standing outside in the freezing cold.
“It was shocking for everybody,” Jolie, 36, recalled. “As soon as I called cut, Ermin hugged (the actress who played the rape victim) and made sure she was OK. Then all the other men picked up all the clothes and redressed the women. That set the tone.”
Jolie, who was a teenager when the 3 1/2-year war started in 1992, said she was ignorant about the conflict before writing and directing the film, which opens Dec. 23 in New York and Los Angeles. She became interested in the subject through her UN work.
“The more I learned, the more I was overwhelmed by the guilt of how little I knew,” she said. “I was shocked by how long this went on.”
Jolie shot two versions of the film, one in the Bosnian language and the other in English. She said she wanted to broaden the audience to include people uncomfortable with subtitles.
“So we worked twice as hard and did everything twice,” Jolie said.
The movie centers on the relationship between Danijel (Gordan Kostic) and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Serb policeman and Muslim artist who date briefly before the war. After the ethnic battles break out, Ajla is imprisoned by soldiers under Danijel’s command.
Danijel, whose father is a ruthless Serbian general (Rade Serbedzija), protects Ajla from abuse by her captors and conducts a secret affair with her. But their relationship is strained by the war and eventually unravels.
In the film, the Serbian general pressures his son to become a more hard-line soldier. Kostic’s father was also a Serbian commander, but he offered far different advice when his son asked him whether he should return home from London during the war.
“He said, ‘Stay where you are,’” Kostic remembered. “Search for your happiness somewhere else.”
Marjanovic lived in Slovenia with her family during the war. She said her parents and grandmother didn’t want to move too far away because they thought the war would end quickly.
“They were in denial,” she said. “That’s when you start to grow up very fast as a child and form your own opinion. You see things better than adults do.”
Vanesa Glodjo, who plays Ajla’s sister, was wounded in the leg when her Sarajevo home was shelled during the war. One night, about 30 Bosnian fighters hid out in her family’s fortified cellar before leaving to protect the city. Only 10 survived.
“I carry some enormous feelings inside,” she said.
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)