NEW YORK - Angelina Jolie said that when she first began work on "In the Land of Blood and Honey," her stark drama set during the 1990s war in Bosnia, she didn't approach the project because she wanted to direct.
"I had been haunted for years from traveling in the field by lack of intervention, by the trauma people face in post-conflict situations, and my frustration in seeing the pain and wondering if we could have prevented it, if we could have done something before," Jolie said.
"This led me clearly to Bosnia because it was a war of my generation to my generation, and it was one that I felt a responsibility to learn about because I didn't know, and the more I learned, the more I was overwhelmed by the guilt of how little I knew, and was shocked by how long this went on and what was going on."
Dramatizing some of the most horrible incidents of the war that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia and turned Sarajevo into a city under siege for four years, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" focuses on a young couple - Ajla (Zana Marjanovic, left), a Bosnian Muslim artist, and Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serb police officer - who are reunited in the midst of the Serbian military's ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population.
As Muslims are rounded up and executed or forced to submit through torture and rape, Ajla finds herself perilously clinging to the one person who can protect her: Danijel, now a Serbian Army officer. His relationship with Ajla also poses a moral conflict for Danijel's father, a Serb general who orders genocide.
The film is brutal and unflinching in its depiction of war's effects on civilians and soldiers, from the mother who witnesses the callous murder of her own child, to the army officers who rationalize their cruelty as preserving a way of life for their own children.
The film's cinematography by Dean Semler (an Academy Award-winner for "Dances With Wolves"), with its immediacy and cool colors, also accentuates the claustrophobia felt by those trapped in a war zone - ironically, existing not very far from Bosnia-Herzegovina's peaceful, placid European neighbors.
It marks the first time the Oscar-winning actress has written and directed a film.
"It started with me questioning what if it was me and my family? What would I do?" Jolie said. "How long would it take, what would have to happen before I broke?"
Jolie, who for the past decade has been a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said she was particularly affected by one survivor's stories of degradation by her Serbian captors, including being used as a human shield.
"She said, 'Somehow even though it wasn't the most violent, it broke her'" when soldiers took the old women and made them dance naked in front of them," Jolie said. "It was the moment that broke her mentally and she never could recover from it."
That scene - where women prisoners are ushered into a party by soldiers, and witnessed by other prisoners outside - is recreated in the film.
Jolie said that experience was particularly hard: "As a director I didn't want to ask women to do that - I felt I was torturing them," she said. "I think it was much harder for the men who were there because they had to participate and laugh at these women and act in a way that is not in their nature.
"They didn't want to be these people, but they knew if they did that it was in fact a gift they were giving to these women, because they were going to show the horrors
"They acted in a way that is very aggressive, which I feel is very noble of them to do on behalf of the women."