No Man's Land
review by Carrie Gorringe, 21 September 2001

26th Toronto International Film Festival

No Man's Land opens with a shot of a Bosnian relief patrol trying to break through the stalemate of trench warfare though a nighttime attack on a Serbian hilltop position. The attack fails and the survivors retreat to the trench. When two Serbian soldiers enter the trench in order to do a recon mission, gunfight breaks out. After the gunfire has stopped, all that remains is one wounded Serbian soldier, and two wounded Bosnians, one of whom is trapped in a horrendous, and seemingly insurmountable, situation. The Bosnian soldier, Ciki (Branko Djuri), and the Serbian soldier, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), alternate between gaining an advantage over the other and exchanging empathy along with cigarettes. During the uneasy course of their trench-based détente, a French sergeant (Georges Siatidis) who is attached to a United Nations peacekeeping detail, takes the initiative and tries to halt the rapidly degrading conditions that are unfolding in the trench, finding his way blocked at every turn by both the military and UN bureaucracy. Assisting the sergeant is a Christiane Amanpour wannabe (Katrin Cartlidge) who at first seems more interested in feeding scoops into the insatiable maw of her twenty-four-hour news network than in providing in humanitarian assistance. The head of the UN peacekeeping forces, a presumably updated, but no less intolerable, version of Colonel Blimp (Simon Callow) seems more interested in playing all types of games with his secretary than in solving this particular crisis. While on the telephone with the officer, the sergeant is told that he must obtain approval from some of his superior officers before talking to the General, and this may take some time; several of them are at a conference in Geneva on media relations! Playing to the media, rather than discovering and controlling the root causes of the problem, is perceived by those at the top to be the best way to proceed; it's certainly less bloody and controversial -- or is it? As the UN peacekeeping bureaucracy is prodded and threatened into doing something, the situation in the trench swings wildly from near-destruction to uneasy camaraderie and back again.

Before directing No Man's Land, director Danis Tanovic worked as a frontline cameraman in the Bosnian army, and the difference between the look of No Man's Land, and the typical Hollywood version of war (Steven Spielberg's recreation of the events at Normandy in Saving Private Ryan being the most remarkable exception to date) is immediately apparent . Like the great photographers of World War Two -- such as Robert Capa and Abe Rosenthal -- Tanovic and his cinematographer, Walther Vanden Ende, freeze the images of war into cold relief. The audience is never allowed to avoid the point that those images have been bought with gallons of blood (even in Rosenthal's famous picture of the American flag being raised on Mount Suribashi after the miserable battle to regain Iwo Jima, the image of heroism contains both strength and weariness, reaction and action).

No Man's Land also incorporates, as expected, the now calcified, if accurate, observation that war is an insane act, usually undertaken at the first act of provocation by politicians who are greedy, insecure, sadistic, ideologically fanatical, or all of the above, but takes the argument into a more detailed, hence psychologically tidy, realm. On the surface, No Man's Land is to the war in the Balkans what Remarque's book, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Kubrick's film, Paths of Glory, were to the depiction of World War I: a scathing indictment of the destruction of life by thoughtless generals, and of bureaucratic corruption. But Tanovic is also interested in the microcosm of war and how it is instigated on an individual level, when tribal identity morphs into chauvinism and when multiplied within a given populace, is as much to blame for warmongering as the inflammatory rhetoric of any number of politicians and generals. Remarque's book, and Lewis Milestone's 1930 adaptation of it, use a right-wing schoolteacher as a singular symbolic representation of this mindset, but Tanovic's recasting of this symbolism - allowing the same words of hate to pour forth from both sides on a wider scale- makes the hatred appear less an exception than a rule; no one is an innocent here. It's hardly an original observation on the state of human psychology in the midst of combat, but No Man's Land cuts through any sense of redundancy by coating a traditional anti-war narrative framework with sardonic humor and an outcome that is kept in flux until the final frame. As one soldier explains to the other the difference between a wartime optimist and a wartime pessimist, the explanation at first might seem trite; the setting, and the circumstances under which it is spoken, are not at enough of a historical distance for comfort. The twentieth century has seen one too many "wars to end all wars," and any illusions of the potential for human perfectibility can't be rectified by filtering it through the morass of outrage and pity. To paraphrase eighteen-century English politician David Burke, the heedless and naïve pursuit of a well-meaning, "better" way to conduct political life does not automatically lead to liberty; rather, the refusal to contemplate possible outcomes of attempting to create utopias might just lead to greater evils than the ones just eradicated.

The source of Tanovic's attitude, and, consequently, the film's attitude toward war, is immediately traceable to the often sad conditions that have been central to the development of Central European history. Always cursed by geography, a problem which has been abetted by totalitarian and/or incompetent leadership, Poland, Hungary, et al. have all too frequently been the battleground and/or plaything of whatever set of conquerors have been on the march at any given time; consequently, attitudes towards war and oppression in these countries are reflected in the countries that make up that region as a blend of anger, black humor and detachment -- a useful mentality for surviving the inevitable. There is no potential for optimism while living in this state of ironic flux. In No Man's Land, the pitiless nature of truth must win out if humanity is to conquer its own worst tendencies.

Click on the titles below to read the reviews.


Written and
Directed by:

Danis Tanovic

Branko Djuric
Rene Bitorajac
Filip Sovagovic
Georges Siatidis
Serge-Henri Valcke
Sacha Kremer
Alain Eloy
Mustafa Nadarevic
Bogdan Diklic
Simon Callow
Katrin Cartlidge
Tanja Ribic
Branko Zavrsan
Djuro Utjesanovic
Boro Stjepanovic
Aleksandar Petrovic
Zvone Hribar
Ales Valic
Tadej Troha
Marinko Prga

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
acompanying parent
or adult guardian.




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