Angelina Jolie may be among our best hopes to end the cruel and vile practice of mass rape in conflict. She has a bully pulpit as a rich and famous movie star. But she also has life experiences that give her standing as an avenger.
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“The shame is on the aggressor” made headlines when Angelina Jolie used the phrase in her London keynote speech at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in June 2014. She merely stated the obvious, but it caught people’s attention because usually victims are shamed, sometimes to death. Mass rape was international news during the Bosnian War, and society’s response to rape can be seen in films about that war. Of those films, only Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey shames the rapist, as does the revised fairy-tale Maleficent, which casts her as an assault victim. As an actor, Jolie has also played aggressors and avengers. As a director, her film Unbroken seems to imply, with historic support, that the sadistic Japanese POW guard suffered parental rape.
Jolie developed the idea of shaming the aggressor in her film work for several years. We see a first hint in the thriller Salt (Phillip Noyce, 2010). Her character, Evelyn Salt, displays strength in the first scenes by enduring sexualized torture and then complaining about being rescued because it’s against regulations. She’s too strong to be shamed as a victim.
Shaming the aggressor comes to the forefront in her 2011 feature directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, about rape in the Bosnian War. The plot revolves around Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Muslim artist, and Danijel (Goran Kostić), a high-level Serbian soldier. They dated before the war. When Ajla arrives as a prisoner at a rape camp, Danijel rescues her and they establish a relationship. Is she being raped? She’s having a gentle experience compared to the women who arrived with her, but she is still a prisoner and he is an officer at a rape camp. We know from the first scene in the camp that he raped other women. Danijel ultimately murders Ajla because she betrayed him to Muslim fighters. Then we see something we don’t usually see – the rapist shamed. Danijel goes to the barricades operated by UN Peacekeepers. Falling to his knees he cries, “My name is Danijel Vukojevich. I am a criminal of war.”
The revolution in this scene becomes clear when we examine other films about rape in the Bosnian War. The most famous may be Jasmin Dizdar’s Beautiful People (2000), a satire listed in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. The film looks at interactions between Londoners and war refugees. In one segment, the victim of a war-related gang rape and her husband (Walentine Giorgiewa and Radoslav Youroukov) ask for an abortion on the day before the resulting baby is due. Instead, their doctor (Nicholas Farrell), whose own family is disintegrating, invites them to live with him. Other than naming the daughter Chaos, rape is never mentioned again.
Rape is not even mentioned in the segment dealing with shame. Pero (Edin Dzandzanovic), a refugee soldier, marries Portia (Charlotte Coleman), a British upper-class doctor-in-training. He makes a speech at their wedding reception, admitting that he killed women and children during the war. He does not admit to rape. He can be a child murderer and still marry the lovely young doctor, but he can’t be a rapist. Dizdar then cuts to the dancing and smiling gang-rape victim. Is the bridegroom a rapist?
By not including rape among his character’s admitted war crimes, Dizdar implied what Jolie articulated. Rape is a shameful act, too shameful to admit, and the shame falls on the aggressor. Yet until Jolie made In the Land of Blood and Honey and until she gave her statement at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, this obvious fact was not communicated.
Mass rape was exposed in Bosnia, so films about that war provide a microcosm into how we present this crime against humanity. The worst are those in the “she deserved it” genre. Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Lepa sela lepo gore), a popular Serbian film by Srđan Dragojević (1996), is part anti-war satire and part Hollywood-style adventure. Two childhood best friends, Milan and Halil, grow up to fight on opposite sides of the war. Eventually Milan (Dragan Bjelogrlić) and other Serbian soldiers are trapped in a tunnel by Muslim soldiers including Halil (Nikola Pejaković). We know the Serbs are heroic because they threaten but refrain from raping a female reporter (Lisa Moncure) accidentally transported into the tunnel with the soldiers.
During a flashback, Milan remembers a childhood incident with Halil (Admir Sehovic and Milos Djuricic). Hiding in bushes, they watched their Serbian teacher (Branka Katic) in an outdoor sex act with the postman. She’s in the open, close to the school where children can see her. After another five minutes of plot, the Muslims send the morally compromised teacher into the tunnel after being tortured with a vicious gang rape. Her clothes are torn; she can barely walk; her expression is blank; and she does not speak. The Serbs believe she is carrying a bomb in her vagina, so they shoot her. At the end, Halil, one of the rapists, dies a soldier’s death with no shame for having sexually tortured a civilian, his own teacher. He even joked about it.
A Polish film about NATO peacekeeping troops, Władysław Pasikowski’s Demons of War (Demony wojny według Goi, 1998), concerns a military team who enter hostile territory to save the passengers of a downed helicopter. One of the passengers, a female reporter named Nicol (Aleksandra Niespielak), is raped prior to the rescue. Her sexual assault is not an issue at any point in the rest of the film. However, in a conversation with her rescuer (Bogusław Linda), she absolves the crime by telling him, “I made my way through the university sleeping with the professors, passed the exams sleeping with the adjuncts.” Apparently we don’t have to worry about a slut who is raped.
In The Hunting Party (Richard Shepard, 2007), it’s the murdered rape victim’s partner who feels ashamed, perhaps for having been cuckolded. Richard Gere plays Simon Hunt, a TV reporter covering the Bosnian War. His Muslim girlfriend Marta (Kristina Krepela) is pregnant with their child. When her hometown is attacked by Serbians, Hunt goes there with his cameraman, Duck (Terrence Howard), and finds her obviously raped dead body. A couple of leering soldiers, possibly the rapists, laugh at his distress. When the Serbian leader known as the Fox (Ljubomir Kerekeš) walks by, Hunt tries to attack him but is held back. The reporter then appears on camera live and completely blows it, causing him to lose his job. Hunt’s life goes downhill from there.
So he convinces Duck and a rookie journalist (Jesse Eisenberg) to help him bring the Fox to justice. At one point, he rationalizes their mission: “My whole fuckin’ situation, every bad thing that’s ever happened to me, stems from that bastard. I was flying high before that war.” Hunt’s motivation does not seem to be the pregnant Marta’s rape and murder but rather the Fox’s effect on his own life. When they capture the Fox and release him into the village, unarmed and partially tied, the rapist experiences terror because he is about to be brutally punished, but he is not ashamed of his crimes. He’s only sorry he got caught.
One of the best films in the group is Predrag Antonijević’s 1998 Savior, about Joshua Rose (Dennis Quaid), an emotionally damaged American mercenary who saves Vera (Nataša Ninković), a pregnant Serbian rape victim. This film clearly addresses the error of shaming the victim for having been attacked. Rose keeps saying it’s not Vera’s fault that she was raped. Yet in her community, she is reviled, while a Serbian soldier (Sergej Trifunović) who raped Muslim women is honored. Vera’s father (Miodrag Krstovic) tries to avenge the death of the neighborhood rapist while offering a gun to his daughter so she can commit suicide. In this complex film, the role of savior and saved switches back and forth among characters. There’s even a scene with a cat as the savior. The film shows we cannot blame the woman for being a war victim, but it does not take the extra step of shaming the rapist. Rose simply shoots him when he tries to murder Vera for the crime of being raped.
The shame of the mass-rape victim is also addressed in Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams by Jasmila Žbanić (2006). This film is set well after the end of the war, so we don’t see the rapists, let alone make them atone for their crimes. The Muslim Esma (Mirjana Karanović) was impregnated in a Serbian rape camp. Her now teenage daughter Sara (Luna Mijović) thinks her father died a war hero. The truth is revealed when the impoverished mother cannot afford a class trip that is discounted to children of soldiers who died in the war. Much of the plot revolves around Esma trying to earn money for the trip so she can keep lying to Sara. She asks a wealthier relative for help, but Aunt Safija (Nada Džurevska) refuses and instead chides Esma for her lost opportunities, implying that Sara is not an acceptable member of the family and that Esma’s mother was fortunate to die before experiencing this shame.
In Sergio Castellitto’s Twice Born (Venuto al mondo, 2012), the rapists are briefly ridiculed but not shamed. Based on his wife Margaret Mazzantini’s novel, the plot follows a childless couple with ties to Yugoslavia. Gemma and Diego (Penelope Cruz and Emile Hirsch) arrange for the Muslim Aska (Saadet Aksoy) to be a surrogate mother. Because of the war, they cannot use medical procedures, so the three agree that Diego and Aska will have a sexual relationship to produce a baby. On the appointed day, before the act is consummated, the building is invaded by Serbian soldiers. Aska is gang-raped and kidnapped. Diego was out of the room but in a position to watch, unable to help. Along with him, we see the rapists as terrorists.
Diego, a photographer, decides to save Aska. He finds the camp where she is imprisoned as a sex slave and gains entrance by ingratiating himself to the rapists. They all have a lot of fun mugging for his camera. Diego eggs them on, making them look ridiculous. This may be the filmmaker’s primary view of the rapists, as clueless buffoons. We get a third view of them as businessmen when Diego arranges to buy Aska.
He takes her to a doctor, and we finally have an expression of shame. Upon seeing the extent of Aska’s injuries, the doctor says, “I am ashamed to belong to the human race.” Perhaps he’s right. We shame victims and tolerate aggressors. But the sexual viciousness of the Bosnian War was front-page news. Modern civilization finally had to confront the torture and humiliation of non-combatant women.
Juanita Wilson takes us into a rape camp in As If I Am Not There (Како да ме нема, 2010), based on the novel by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić, who interviewed mass-rape victims (also titled S.: A Novel About the Balkans). Samira (Nataša Petrović), an urban Muslim is teaching school in a rural town when Serbian forces imprison her in a concentration camp. Selected as a sex slave, she endures torture and degradation. Another sex slave, a preteen girl, dies after Serbian rapists express their Christianity by carving a deep cross into her back. Because Samira is educated, she is chosen by the Captain (Fedja Stukan) for a nonviolent relationship. When the war ends, prisoners are exchanged. As they say good-bye, the captain feels no guilt for operating a rape camp; he is only concerned about being punished. Samira tells him he doesn’t have to worry; the slaves are too ashamed to admit what happened to them.
Some victims, however, did reveal their experiences in court, and a few rapists were convicted. In 1993, for the first time in history, mass rape was declared a crime against humanity. Two documentaries about the rape victims who testified at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia are Calling the Ghosts: A Story About Rape, War and Women (Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Jelinčić, 1997) and the “I Came to Testify” episode (Pamela Hogan, 2011) of the PBS series Women, War and Peace (Abigail E. Disney, Pamela Hogan, and Gini Reticker, 2011). In 2008, the United Nations also declared mass rape to be a war crime.
But the UN has its own shameful history of rape in Bosnia. Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower (2010) is a fictionalized version of Kathryn Bolkovac’s memoir about her experiences as a DynCorp contracted monitor with the UN’s International Police Task Force in postwar Sarajevo. Bolkovac discovered that impoverished Eastern European girls were being lured into prostitution with promises of legitimate jobs. Once in Bosnia, the teenagers were imprisoned and tortured as sex slaves. Bolkovac wrote, “We had the evidence to arrest local police officers and IPTF members who were taking bribes from the mafia and raping trafficked women.” She describes management techniques that hindered her investigation. DynCorp fired Bolkovac for an employment technicality, but she won a lawsuit against the company.
In the film, Bolkovac is played by Rachel Weisz. The company is called Democra. A high-ranking contracted monitor has the fictional name of Bill Haynes (Liam Cunningham). Haynes objects to helping tortured and enslaved teenage victims, “These girls are whores of war. It happens. I will not dictate for morality.” As in Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, and Demons of War, he holds the girls responsible for the crimes committed against them. Later, in front of news cameras, he says, “I don’t want to make accusations against those girls, but I will assert over and over again, I run a zero tolerance program for that type of activity.” Haynes is not ashamed to allow enslaved prostitution of teenagers, but he knows enough to lie about it.
Of these 10 feature films about mass rape during and after the Bosnian War, only Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey shows any shaming of the rapist, although Bolkovac certainly made an effort. Perhaps this is an accurate view of mass rape in Bosnia since a low percentage of rapists were tried and convicted during the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. But these films are not particularly accurate in other ways. Half of them involve a pregnancy from sexual torture (Beautiful People, Savior, Grbavica, Twice Born, and As If I Am Not There). In all five, the baby survives and is loved. There are no abortions, no infanticide from women who have PTSD or who want to return to their families without proof of rape.
We know from victims’ reports that soldiers were not all willing participants. Some rapists apologized, saying they were ordered to do this. Others did not rape and asked prisoners to act like they had been raped. In the documentary Calling the Ghosts, one victim recalled the camp commander frequently asking her about being raped the night before. She assumed he wanted to further humiliate her. That may be, but he may also have been following up on his men. Perhaps they were not all enthusiastic criminals.
What happens to men who participate in such evil? Angelina Jolie provides us with an answer in her film Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014), which she produced and starred in the title role. The scene where Stefan (Sharlto Copley) drugs Maleficent and saws off her wings is acknowledged by Jolie to be a rape metaphor. Many reviews discuss this, but few address Stefan’s downward spiral, a primary theme of the film.
Along with the victim’s strength in Salt, with Danijel’s fate in her film about Bosnia, and with her statement “The shame is on the aggressor,” we see in Maleficent Jolie showing us the paths of the rapist and his prey. Maleficent transcends the crime against her and becomes stronger. It is eventually her kiss that awakens Aurora (Elle Fanning), while the rapist descends into his own hell. His face and demeanor become ugly. He refuses to go to his wife’s deathbed. When Aurora, the daughter he’s been trying to save for 16 years, arrives at the castle, he dismisses her almost immediately. And, of course, Maleficent regains her wings and vanquishes the rapist.
Jolie addressed sexual assault in earlier performances, although not in the direct trajectory of Salt, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and Maleficent. The early films provide compelling antecedents for her thinking about this topic. Her roles include victim, aggressor, and avenger.
As a victim, her characterization of Gia Carangi (Gia, Michael Cristofer, 1998) shows the former model dying of AIDS as she tries to buy illegal drugs. We see a drug dealer preparing to rape her, but unfortunately we don’t see what happens to him after attacking a woman with AIDS.
In Alexander (Oliver Stone, 2004), Jolie plays Alexander the Great’s mother, Olympias, a strong and therefore evil woman. She is victimized in an attempted marital rape by Alexander’s father, Philip II (Val Kilmer), while their young son (Jessie Kamm) watches. Alexander (Colin Farrell) continues the pattern when he commits marital rape on his bride, Roxana (Rosario Dawson). These two events are fiction, but there is a somewhat historically accurate homosexual gang rape of Philip’s bodyguard and former lover, Pausanias (Toby Kebbell), who took revenge by assassinating Philip.
Jolie won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Lisa Rowe, a verbal sexual predator, in Girl, Interrupted (James Mangold, 1999). As a patient in a mental hospital, she constantly accuses another patient named Daisy (Brittany Murphy) of father-daughter incest. The girl eventually commits suicide. In a blame-the-victim scene, a teenage patient, Susanna (Winona Ryder), is confronted by the wife and daughter of a middle-aged man (Mary Kay Place, KaDee Strickland, and Bruce Altman) with whom she had a brief affair. They, of course, blame her for the seduction of a man who is more than twice her age.
As Grendel’s mother in Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis, 2007), Jolie does seduce her victims, who are seen as weak for surrendering. Two characters offer insight into sexual stereotyping. Cain (Dominic Keating), a male slave owned by Unferth (John Malkovich), is badly treated, showing that slavery is evil. But Ursula (Allison Lohman), Beowulf’s female sex slave, enjoys bondage and complains when he wants to set her free. The only noble character is Queen Wealtheow (Robin Wright), a sex prize between King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and Beowulf (Ray Winstone). If she were in charge, this dysfunctional Danish town would be a nice place to live.
As an avenger in the TV mini-series True Women (Karen Arthur, 1997), based on the novel by Janice Woods Windle, Jolie plays Georgia Lawshe Woods, a plantation owner in post-Civil War Texas. She murders a Union officer (Terrance Mann) after he threatens both Georgia and her daughter (Shannon Woodward) with rape.
In one of her best early films, Foxfire (Annette Haywood-Carter, 1996), based on Joyce Carol Oates’s novel, Jolie’s character is a teenage drifter, Legs Sandovsky, who helps a group of high school girls avenge the sexual predations of a male teacher and football coach (John Diehl). After attacking the coach, they form a gang called Foxfire, while other girls in the school start a petition to have him fired. In response, the football team visits the Foxfire gang, threatening them and using the blame-the-victim tactic of calling them sluts. After the coach is fired, the team attempts to gang-rape Maddie (Hedy Burress), one of the Foxfires, but Legs rescues her and the girl gang steals the boy gang’s car. They’re arrested, with Legs incarcerated because football girlfriend Cindy (Michelle Brookhurst) lies about the attempted gang rape. But then Cindy shows solidarity by telling the truth, and Legs is released to continue her wandering life.
Perhaps these early avenging performances influenced Jolie’s later work with mass-rape victims. We know her experience with Cambodian refugees while filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001) initiated her humanitarian activities. There aren’t any refugee characters in the movie, but the DVD promotional documentary, “Digging into Tomb Raider,” implies she had a spiritual awakening with chanting monks. If you know her future, you can recognize the hints in her statement, “I’ve learned a lot about the world. It seemed so small and this girl (Lara Croft) packs up and her life is about exploring the world, understanding what it’s about, and so I got to do that and it changed my life.”
At the time, she was heading downhill with drugs and increasingly shocking public behavior. We know from subsequent statements that filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia was an epiphany. Whatever her despair, she was still a privileged movie star, the advantaged daughter of another movie star, Jon Voight. She later commented on meeting with humanitarian workers, “You go to these places and you realize what life’s really about and what people are really going through.”
So she started climbing out of the hole she had dug for herself, a process she may be exploring in her second feature film as a director, Unbroken (2014). It’s the true story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a juvenile delinquent who became an Olympic athlete and then survived torture in a WWII Japanese POW camp. Growing up in Torrance, California, he was a boy (C.J. Valleroy) with a lot of energy in a corporal punishment family. Jolie shows three scenes of Dad hitting the kids. Louis’s early athletic training was running away from the police, but he channeled his skill onto the track team, eventually earning a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team in Berlin. He didn’t medal, but he beat the record for the fastest final lap in his event. During the war, Zamperini survived 47 days adrift at sea, only to be rescued by Japanese and imprisoned in a POW camp with a sadistic guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), nicknamed The Bird. Jolie seems to use the relationship of Zamperini and The Bird to show two directions of childhood pain.
The historic Watanabe may have been a victim of parental rape. He had a wealthy mother and a father who mysteriously disappeared during his childhood. There is a possibility of brain damage. His right eyelid drooped just before he started beating prisoners, which could be a sign of concussive injury. Despite his wealth, Watanabe was refused a military commission. Instead, he became a corporal with the dishonorable assignment of POW guard. This is often cited as the reason for his sadism, but as Commander Fitzgerald (Garrett Hedlund) says in the film, “None of this explains his erratic behavior.” Child abuse could be the explanation.
In her book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand includes camp accountant Yuichi Hatto’s description of Watanabe as a sexual sadist. We see this in the scene where he whips Zamperini with a belt buckle. Like a rapist father, he arrives in the middle of the night, asking, “Why do you make me hit you?” Then he alternates between painful beatings and tender caring. In the climactic lumber-lifting scene, The Bird seems to have an orgasm after he attacks Zamperini.
While not acknowledging that the film is about child abuse, Jolie stated that she intended to bring post-traumatic stress disorder “into the camp.” She seems to use the differences between Zamperini and The Bird to show the way out from childhood pain and what happens when a grown child does not find that way. We should note there is a matter of degree. Spankings are not the same as parental rape and brain damage. If Watanabe suffered this level of abuse, was he physically able to change? He did change his behavior to elude capture as a war criminal for seven years.
Two characters in the Olympic stadium also make Jolie’s point about strength and weakness in the face of adversity. Jesse Owens (Bangalie Keita) overcame childhood racial abuse to become one of our greatest athletes. Adolf Hitler is represented in the film by a swastika on an empty podium. Like Watanabe, his sadistic cruelty is often blamed on thwarted career goals. In Hitler’s case, he was not accepted into art school, despite two applications and a talent for architectural drawing. However, his father Alois was extremely violent, attacking the kids, his wife, and the dog. His favorite weapon was a hippopotamus whip. The two sons were sometimes beaten into unconsciousness. When the older son ran away as a young teenager, seven-year-old Adolf became the preferred target. According to his sister Paula, he was beaten every day. Alois died when Adolf was 13.
Jolie’s first step upward from her own demons was contacting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to become a celebrity Goodwill Ambassador. She proved her commitment by traveling to areas of conflict and writing a book, Notes from My Travels (2003). Jolie also starred in a film about refugee aid workers, Beyond Borders (Martin Campbell, 2003). A tireless humanitarian worker, she was named the first UNHCR Special Envoy in 2012. Two years later, she and the now-former British Interior Secretary William Hague convened the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.
In her acceptance speech for the 2013 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she said, “I have never understood why some people are lucky enough to be born with the chance that I had to have this path in life and why across the world there’s a woman just like me with the same abilities and the same desires, the same work ethic and love for her family who would most likely make better films and better speeches, only she sits in a refugee camp and she has no voice.”
Angelina Jolie may be among our best hopes to end the cruel and vile practice of mass rape in conflict. She has a bully pulpit as a rich and famous movie star. But she also has life experiences that give her standing as an avenger. For the victims, she seems to understand despair and to know what it is to stand on the brink and rebuild a life. She is comfortable talking about sex in public, even about ugly sex. In her Summit keynote speech, Angelina Jolie aimed her weapons straight at the rapists, “The shame is on the aggressor.”