The actress Angelina Jolie was 16 when the war in Bosnia began. She paid little attention at the time. Now that war is a subject of "In the Land of Blood and Honey," Jolie's debut film as a writer and director. To make that film is authentic as possible, she needed to educate herself about and especially complex conflict, one by her own admission she didn't really understand at first.

So she called in a number of people as consultants, including our own Tom Gjelten. He has the story of how the Hollywood star dealt with the Bosnia challenge.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Angelina Jolie made her first trip to Bosnia before she started filming and with only a vague idea of what she was after.

ANGELINA JOLIE: I wanted to understand. And I was very moved by the people from this part of the world. And I was so young and I felt that this was my generation, how do I not know more? So...

GJELTEN: So she met with Bosnians and heard their stories firsthand. She read books and consulted with some of the key characters from that conflict, like U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke. She talked to journalists who covered the war, myself included. And, perhaps most important, she cast her film entirely with actors from the former Yugoslavia, all of whom brought their own war experience to the project.

Among them, Alma Terzic, five years old when the war began.

ALMA TERZIC: I was a little child, and for me, was - everything was so huge, the bombs and the guns. And I remember the smell. Some details that just stuck in your head and you want to move it, but they just stay with you.

GJELTEN: Alma plays a Bosnian Muslim woman in the movie. The film depicts the brutality Bosnian Muslims, especially women, suffered at the hands of Bosnian Serb forces. Alma herself is a Muslim, though in her own case, the most traumatic experience in the war came when soldiers from the Muslim-led Bosnian government broke into her house and forced her father to go with them to fight the Serbs. Alma, her mother, and her sister were left on their own.

TERZIC: When three women is alone, and we don't have food, and I remember how hungry we were, and my mother just - her hair going white, after they took my father.

GJELTEN: Vanesa Glodjo, a Sarajevo native, plays a Muslim woman stranded in Sarajevo during the war, as she, in fact, was. Seventeen at the time, Vanesa endured days of shelling. Her building had a basement where people took shelter, though Vanesa strangely wanted to be outside when the mortars began to fall.

VANESA GLODJO: I was so afraid of basements, because I didn't know like what is happening. So as soon as the shelling starts, I go out - which is completely, of course, not rational.

GJELTEN: Or maybe it was rational, considering what happened one time Vanesa did not go outside when shelling began.

GLODJO: I got wounded in the house. Half of my house was gone, destroyed, behind my back. And just one shrapnel went through my leg, through the muscle.

GJELTEN: At the premiere of Jolie's Bosnia film last month in New York, the main actors spoke with me about how their own war experiences informed their performances. Goran Kostic plays a Bosnian Serb soldier, torn between his affection for a Muslim woman and his loyalty to his father who, in the film, led the Serb forces into combat against the Bosnian Muslims - not too far from Goran's own circumstance.

GORAN KOSTIC: My dad was, at the time, a Serbian officer in the Serbian army, in the rank of general.

GJELTEN: In fact, you came from a military family.

KOSTIC: Yeah, of course, that was my destiny, really, to become a soldier myself.

GJELTEN: The character Goran plays in the film heeds his father's wishes and fights along with him on the Serb side. Goran, the actor, did not follow his father's military lead. He moved to London instead and escaped the war. But Goran had no trouble identifying with the Serb soldier and the dilemma he faced.

KOSTIC: Because it was easy to look at it and think about myself and say, there are so many similarities here that I can easily play that, really. Or I can easily get into that emotional landscape that was happening between my father in real life, and the father in the film itself.

GJELTEN: Ermin Sijamija had precisely the opposite acting challenge. He plays an especially brutal Serb soldier. But in real life, he fought with his fellow Muslims on the Bosnian government side.

ERMIN SIJAMIJA: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: A fellow actor interprets for him.

SIJAMIJA: (Through Translator) I was in the war. I was in the fight I was in combat. I saw my friends dying in my hands from the bombs.

GJELTEN: Because she had not herself been in Bosnia during the war, Jolie had to rely on the accounts of others. And, as every outsider learns when visiting the Balkans, this is a region of conflicting ethnic identities and rival histories. The people are proud, and they can be stubborn. All this became clear to Jolie at the start of filming, when she was approached by a group of Serb actors.

JOLIE: And of course they were all six foot four, and my first day and I'm nervous and trying to direct them. And they're saying, miss, we need to talk to you. And they said, first of all, we never say sir. You have us saying sir through the whole script. Serbs don't say sir. And we don't drink tea. We never drink tea.

And, you know, I had this whole thing about Turkish coffee; and of course that's politically incorrect in the region, which I didn't realize. So I said it's Turkish coffee. And they said, no, it's Serbian coffee.

GJELTEN: Jolie says her actors helped make her film more authentic. Still, there was much she had to figure out on her own. Jolie did not know the details of Alma's father being dragooned to fight on the Muslim side, nor, she says, did she know exactly what Ermin had gone through as a Bosnian soldier.

JOLIE: He's the silent guy through the entire film. The entire production, he never spoke. I heard he'd been in the military, but I never wanted to ask him 'cause I knew it was painful. So I didn't sit him down and drill him about it. I just - I had a feeling, and I could tell by the way he, of course, did the military scenes that he was familiar with weapons. But I never wanted to ask.

GJELTEN: The war in Bosnia ended with a peace agreement more than 16 years ago, but the argument over its origins persists. No one - no journalist, no writer, no filmmaker, ventures into this territory without controversy. Emerging with a story that offends no one is virtually impossible.

JOLIE: Any time I could get them all to agree, I knew it was the middle ground. So we would go back and forth until everybody agreed. And that was the complexity of it, was just a constantly, you know, somebody whispering into your ear, we don't do this; and then somebody else saying, they absolutely do that. And you think, ugh...

GJELTEN: Jolie says she's been more concerned over how her movie would be received in Bosnia and Serbia than in New York or LA. Those local audiences are the ones who will tell her if her portrayal of the conflict was, in their view, fair and accurate.

Her multi-ethnic cast, in the end, was happy with it. The film has already been shown in Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, and was well received there. A screening in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, is scheduled next month.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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