Wired for war
There are times when it's easy to forget Angelina Jolie is still an actress. In the dozen years that have passed since she won an Academy Award for Girl, Interrupted, Jolie's acting career has become almost secondary - in her mind, it seems, as well as everybody else's - to everything else.
From her humanitarian work for the United Nations, meeting refugees in more than 30 countries around the world, to mothering the six children she and Brad Pitt have together, the 36-year-old has become a virtual cottage industry for the celebrity-obsessed media. Even her right leg - seen provocatively protruding at the Oscars this year - gained its own Twitter account.
So it's something of a surprise to find Jolie free of the circus that shadows her when we meet in Berlin to discuss her directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, a searing drama about Bosnian war atrocities. Dressed in beige heels and a cream sleeveless dress (that makes no attempt to hide her numerous tattoos), she enters the suite of the city's famous Hotel Adlon without a publicist to monitor her answers. Due to meet German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle later in the day, she's just come from a meeting at the White House with US President Barack Obama, following a screening of her film at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
'When you meet with a politician, a lot of times, it's good to know what is at the top of their agenda, to get a sense of what's happening in the world,' she says. In the case of Obama, they discussed Libya, which Jolie visited last October in the wake of the Arab Spring. Also on the agenda were 'humanitarian needs' in Bosnia - where Jolie has just been made an honorary citizen - as well as Serbia and Croatia. 'Sometimes I go into the field, so when I meet politicians they want to know what I saw,' the star says, as if meeting a world leader is no more taxing than a trip to the shops.
It's little wonder her acting career feels almost like an afterthought, her recent choices a largely uninspiring mix of cartoons (Shark Tale, the Kung Fu Panda films) and action movies (Salt, Wanted, The Tourist). Only collaborations with Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) and Clint Eastwood (Changeling) have come anywhere near to stretching her. She makes no apologies for this. 'I think Hollywood responds to what the people want ... and these days, a lot of people want escapism more because of what they're going through at home.' Indeed, given the subject of In the Land of Blood and Honey, it would be foolish to accuse Jolie of frivolity.
Set during the Bosnian war that tore apart the Balkans in the 1990s, to say Jolie's film is hard-hitting is like saying a punch from Mike Tyson will sting a bit. At its core are Daniel (played by Goran Kostic), a Bosnian Serb police officer, and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Bosnian Muslim artist. After a first encounter in a nightclub is cut short by a bomb blast, they meet again months later following the outbreak of war - only this time Ajla is in a prison camp, and Daniel is in the Serbian army. And so they begin an uneasy relationship, Daniel protecting her from the other guards, while other women are mercilessly abused.
It is hardly the easiest subject for a directorial debut. What prompted her? 'The Bosnian war was always one I felt I should know more about because it was my generation. But I never did,' she says.
'When I travelled to the region, I couldn't quite understand it. It was the one of the conflicts I couldn't quite get my head around. As somebody who was travelling through Europe at that time and not paying enough attention, I felt a responsibility.
'And then I went to the region and I met with victims of war, and I spent time with them, and I was moved by them. A lot of what they told me is in the film.'
This being Jolie, the film has drawn acclaim and acrimony in equal measure: it was nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign-language movie - the film is in the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian language, though an English version was also shot for certain countries including the US - but Jolie and several of her cast have also received death threats, both in the mail and online.
Then there is the lawsuit she faces, after Croatian journalist James Braddock alleged that the plot was based on his 2007 book The Soul Shattering, which he claimed to have shown to the film's co-producer Edin Sarkic. Jolie claims not to have read the book. 'Even now, releasing it, it's been tense,' she admits. 'It's a difficult film, it's a difficult film to get out - it's not easy. There's a lot of heaviness.'
Filming in Hungary and Bosnia-Herzegovina, even from a purely practical point of view, can't have been easy. 'There are much harder jobs and there are much harder things to do,' she says, downplaying it all. But how did she manage the sheer juggling act of directing and parenting? Jolie smiles. 'Well, Brad and I always take turns working, so he's a great dad and he was on duty with the kids and taking them to school.' Together now for seven years, since Pitt split from wife Jennifer Aniston, the couple recently announced their engagement.
Jolie, who has been through two short-lived marriages to actors Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton, didn't ask Pitt to produce the film even though he has considerable behind-camera experience with his company Plan B. 'I had to figure it out for myself,' she says. 'But he was always there. I think when you're a couple and you live together, you influence each other without knowing it. He was always supportive.' So much so, he even volunteered to play an extra - the victim of a sniper shot. 'He happens to be really good at taking a bullet,' she laughs.
Responsible, caring, dynamic - it certainly shows Jolie in a markedly different light from when she rose to fame as the daughter of actor Jon Voight. Estranged from her father, who split from her mother when Jolie was two, her liberal childhood spilled into her later years, with experiments in S&M, bisexuality and drug use. When she married Thornton, they famously wore vials containing each other's blood around their necks. And then there was that lingering kiss between her and brother James Haven at the 2000 Oscar ceremony.
It's almost entirely at odds with Jolie as she is today, following more than a decade as a UN goodwill ambassador (she was recently promoted to special envoy).
'It's what we should be doing with our lives. We can't just sit around and not be a part of the world we live in. There are so many displaced people, so many stateless people, so many people trafficked, so many people raped, so many children without schools, education and parents. Knowing that, we have to all be engaged in the world.' She takes a breath. 'I'm just glad I had the opportunity to do so.'
In the Land of Blood and Honey is now on limited release at The Grand Cinema, Elements