News & Politics

Angelina Jolie Film Illuminates Rape as a War Crime—but Politics are Murky

Jolie shows bravery and directorial skill in tackling a brutal subject, but there's naivety in her political perspective.

Throughout history, men have used rape as a weapon of war. But until fairly recently, the combination of shame and the low status of women conspired to keep this horror out of the history books. History was truly ‘his’-story and not hers. With shifting attitudes in the 20th century and the mass rapes of the Balkans and Rwanda, the subject began to receive more international attention. Definitions of rape have changed and expanded, and it is now widely agreed – at least officially in the Geneva Convention -- that wartime rape of a systematic nature is a crime against humanity.

"In the Land of Blood and Honey" is Angelina Jolie's take on the Bosnian War, when Orthodox Christian Serbian, Catholic Croatian and Muslim Bosnian populations in the Balkans erupted into conflict. Neighbors turned against neighbors, and women of all ethnic groups were affected by rape. Jolie's film deals with the mass attacks on Muslim Bosnian women by the Serbs in what came to be known as "rape camps." This war and its violence, which unfolded in a region little known to most Americans and fed by centuries of bloody conflict, still confounds us.

War rapes happen in exotic places, but they have also occurred in our own backyard, reminds UNC historian Crystal N. Feimster.

Soldiers raped women during the American Civil War. Records are scant on the Confederate side, which may simply indicate an unwillingness to prosecute rape. However, extant courts-martial and other documents testify to the rape of southern women by Union soldiers. All the disparities of race and class were in play, with black soldiers receiving harsher penalties than white soldiers, and officers excused for what was punishable for privates. Poor white women and black women were more likely to be raped than upper class white women. It is particularly awful to imagine black women, many already violated by slave owners, raped again by their supposed liberators. The case of a Pennsylvania soldier, one of the rare perpetrators to be charged, is recorded by Thomas P. Lowry:

“He entered the home of Mrs. Jane L. Young, knocked her down with his fist, and ‘did then and there, feloniously and against her will, attempt to commit a rape on the person of ‘Sally,’ a negro woman in the employ of said Jane L. Young.’” (See Lowry, ‘The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell”).

The threat of sexual violence became official policy in 1862 when Union General Benjamin Butler ordered that any Confederate woman in New Orleans showing “contempt for his troops” was to be treated “as a woman of the town plying her avocation" (i.e. a prostitute). Whether or not this was taken as an official authorization of rape is unclear. This much is clear: President Lincoln ignored pleas to cancel the decree, which allowed the Union army to apply it beyond the city. As Feimster explains, this “ensured that the threat of sexual violence and the fear of rape were common to southern women and central to how they experienced the Civil War.”

When soldiers rape and degrade women, they do so in the belief that they are inculcating fear and submission. But they are also expressing and passing on divisive hatred – of the strong and abiding variety -- that tends to deepen the potential for further conflict. The women, of course, often have little to do with the causes and politics of the conflict, but they pay a heavy price, often in the form of children whose heritage becomes a special social burden.

The themes of systematic brutality, degradation, ethnic enmity, and fear are all part of Jolie’s directorial debut in “Blood and Honey.” In the film, a Bosnian Muslim woman and a Serbian Christian man find their carefree date interrupted by the outbreak of the war. Cut to: a Serbian prison camp where Muslim women are held in sexual bondage. He is the jailor and she the captive. A relationship develops -- "consensual" is not the right word since Danijel's offer to make Ajla "his" mistress saves her from the systematic rape of his comrades. This strange human bonding/bondage mixes dark power dynamics and the constant fear of violence with what may be real affection. Does Ajla find any enjoyment in her sexual experience with her captor? Initially, probably the answer is “yes”—if only as a refuge from the stark abuse and deprivation that reigns in the camp. Danijel is usually tender, and even spares the lives of Bosnians to please her. But whatever solace and pleasure they find in their union gradually dissolves as both become increasingly unable to compartmentalize. His role in the brutal war that is destroying her family and friends haunts her, and her status as Muslim and potential to betray torments him.

Some are disconcerted by the suggestion of a “love story” in this scenario–but I put this in quotation marks because “Blood and Honey” is really a survival story. Ajla’s physical survival is connected to her ability to sexually please Danijel (and even that does not prevent her from being raped by another soldier while his back is turned). His emotional survival is linked to Ajla’s perceived redeeming love for him. Like a little boy, he requires constant reassurance that she cares. Does she? Maybe. We don’t get much inside her head, and so the possibility that she is playing a role and enduring sex that is completely loathsome is arguable. But the complexity of human beings would point to a more nuanced attitude.

The script is a weak point. The characters are not fully developed – Ajla herself remains something of a cipher throughout the film. Expositions are clumsy, and the film’s ending lurches abruptly into melodrama where it might have concluded with power. But Jolie’s emerging talent as a director is evident in the performances,(especially Gorin Kostic's as Danijel), in the riveting intensity of the film, and in her compelling treatment of daunting subject matter. She has brought us a film that looks into the face of an infinitely disturbing topic that demands more acknowledgment and greater understanding. And she has done so in a way that emotionally connects with the audience.

The murkiest part of the film is the politics. Jolie is a well-meaning humanitarian, whose UN efforts are well-known and who has joined the Council on Foreign Relations. But the Council has hardly been a reliable source of enlightened foreign policy, and Jolie’s rather simple (and by now familiar) humanitarian call in the film, “Something should have been done by the U.S. sooner,” rings true to the heart, but what about the head? In thinking the problem through, many humanitarians at the time found great difficulty imagining just what should be done, and by whom, on whose behalf. Should we try a diplomatic solution? Might a military intervention make things worse? The region is notoriously complicated and American involvement hardly gave it an easy claim to moral authority. What was all too easy was for the U.S. to build a case for advancing its realpolitik interests around atrocities committed against minorities and women. But what if our allies were committing atrocities, too? This was the case with the Croatians. They, too, had rape camps, and so to intervene with the Serbs without doing the same with the Croats hardly made moral sense. Our intervention with the Serbs became a foreign policy imperative not because they were wiping out Muslims and raping women, but because the Saudi Arabians were beginning to intervene themselves, and we did not want to see Al Qaeda forces entering the region. Military actions were then sold to the public as a "humanitarian" mission, and may have led to even more ethnic cleansing (see David Gibbs on why military action may not be the best way to address a humanitarian crisis here).

We have seen the “woman card” played in Afghanistan, too, where the treatment of women has been used as a justification for U.S. foreign policy that has little to do with their protection. Well-meaning people can easily become the dupes of cynical foreign-policy operatives, and if Jolie is going to take on a political subject of such head-splitting complexity, she must do so with her eyes wide open. In some cases, the most useful thing an artist-humanitarian can do is to seek the truth – however elusive and labyrinthine it may be.

 

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor.
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