NEW YORK - Angelina Jolie is dressed in elegant black, her arms bare, the Roman-numeral tattoos, the Arabic tattoos, prominent on her thin, sinewy arms.
It is a quiet Sunday, the week before the Hollywood Foreign Press Association selected In the Land of Blood and Honey as one of its five Golden Globe contenders in the foreign-language category.
And Jolie, holding court at the Waldorf Astoria, is here to talk about said film.
It's her first screenplay. It's her first time as a director. And it's hard stuff: Set in Sarajevo during the grim, early-1990s conflict that was the Bosnian war, In the Land of Blood and Honey - opening Friday at the Ritz Five - is in Serbo-Croatian, with subtitles. It is about a Serb police officer, Danijel (Goran Kostic), and a Muslim artist, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), who meet before the violence starts and who take to each other as men and women often do.
And then the bombs go off, the bullets fly, the atrocities mount. He becomes an officer in the army, and she becomes a captive - one of the many Muslim women rounded up, stripped of their possessions, and then stripped of their clothes and raped.
"My idea was that these people meet before the war, and we see the possibilities of their relationship," Jolie explains. "If the war didn't break out, they might have been married today with kids - who knows? There were a lot of couples of mixed backgrounds, of different cultures and religions, before the conflict. . . .
"And so, for them, they didn't want to go into this darkness, they didn't want to be a part of this war, they didn't want to be captor and captive . . . but they're forced into that, and then there's an element of survival, and then there are the questions: Are they going to somehow save each other? Or help each other? Or go against each other?"
Jolie, 36 now, was a teenager, a Hollywood brat, when the former Yugoslavia erupted in violence in 1992, triggering devastating campaigns of "ethnic cleansing" and carnage. It wasn't until 1995 that NATO forces, led by the United States, intervened. The fighting had claimed an estimated 100,000 lives. Millions had been displaced from their homes.
"I was 17 when war broke out, and I was busy being a 17-year-old," Jolie says, acknowledging that she was barely aware of what was transpiring in Eastern Europe.
But toward the end of the conflict, in 1995, "I remember being conscious of when America got involved, when it started to be more in our headlines," she says. "But I didn't even fully understand it then, and I haven't really fully understood it growing up. . . .
"That was one of the reasons I wanted to make this film. This film could have been about any war . . . but I particularly chose this conflict because it was one that was so recent, and so horrible, and is just not really understood."
Jolie, cited by Forbes magazine as Hollywood's highest-paid actress in 2011, is a longtime champion of humanitarian causes. She is a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and has seen things firsthand, in Africa, in Asia, that have shaken her, profoundly, and inspired her, too.
And the actress and her movie-star partner, Brad Pitt, have been actively involved in philanthropic projects in the United States and abroad.
"I didn't make this film because I wanted to be a director," Jolie explains. "I never wanted to be a director. I never wanted to be a writer. I always wished I could write - I love writers - but when I sat down to do it, it was an experiment. Having seen a lot and thought a lot about intervention, and lack of intervention, and violence against women, and what war does to people - people in refugee camps, or in post-conflict situations - well, I wanted to do something, so that was the impetus to write.
"And then when I wrote it, I thought I would show it to people from the different sides of this conflict, and if they were OK with it, maybe we were heading in a good direction."
(In December, on the day following this interview, Jolie was sued in a U.S. court by a Bosnian author claiming she plagiarized his 2007 story. She denied the charges in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: "It's par for the course," she said. "It happens on almost every film. There are many books and documentaries that I did pull from, such as work by journalists Peter Maas and Tom Gjelten. It's a combination of many people's stories. But that particular book, I've never seen.")
Jolie cast her film with actors who, like the characters they play, hail from opposite sides of the Bosnian conflict. A harrowing scene in which a busload of Muslim women, handpicked to service the Serb troops, are lined up and sexually assaulted was shot on the production's very first day.
"It was tough," Jolie recalls. "There were people that went off crying, or silent, but there was a lot of love. . . . As soon as we called, 'Cut!', people would reach out to each other and talk and make sure the other was OK. . . .
"Having to re-create something like this, it was very sensitive and very personal, but it was also very cathartic. The men, immediately after it was over and we called the cut, they helped the women get their things back on, and apologized, and made sure they were OK. And so, it was beautiful."
Jolie says that she has been inspired by her experience behind the camera. She cites two directors with whom she has collaborated in recent years - Clint Eastwood, who guided her to a best-actress Oscar nomination for Changeling, and Michael Winterbottom, for A Mighty Heart - as models whose styles, philosophies, and on-set deportment she hoped to emulate.
And so, will she try this directing business again?
"I'd love to," she says, smiling. "But I don't have the confidence yet. . . . I did this one because its themes mean a lot to me - they are universal themes. So, I don't know if there'd be something else that I care about as much to try to do. Or be good at.
"But I did have a great time behind the camera," she adds. "I much prefer being behind the camera than being in front of it. My kids, when they came to the trailer for the first time, said, 'Mom, why does it say Director on your door?' And then, when lunchtime came, and I didn't have to go in for touch-ups for hair and makeup, they thought, 'Oh, this director thing is great. Mom can hang out!'
"Nobody's touching me, nobody's looking at me," Jolie says, smiling again. "It was great."
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