Set during the most intense period of the Serbian-Bosnian conflict in 1993, “No Man’s Land” won the 2002 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film over Academy favorite “Amelie.” The film stands as “Amelie’s” biggest competitor come March 24 at Oscar night.
Such praise could not be more deserved, as director Danis Tanovic’s second movie and first international release is nothing short of a masterpiece. A mix of drama, war and comedy, “No Man’s Land” is a film that both amuses and moves the audience. The film is, at its essence, a parable, but that didn’t intimidate Tanovic’s determination to hit specific points and make jeering accusations of the forces in that specific conflict. Using tongue-in-cheek humor and very self-aware references to Greek tragedy, “No Man’s Land” shows us how fickle hatred is.
In the beginning of the story, a Bosnian scout troop gets lost in the fog and ends up in the field right between the Serbian and Bosnian trenches: in other words, “no man’s land.” After Serbian soldiers pursue him, Chiki (performed by Serajevo native Branko Djuric) escapes, though badly wounded, to an abandoned trench in the middle of the field.
As he scavenges around for cigarettes and medical supplies, two Serb sentries are sent to investigate and see if anyone has survived. Nino (Croat actor Rene Bitorajac), one of the sentries, is a newcomer to the war and watches in awe and confusion as his partner and superior sets a trap for the Bosnians. He takes a “bouncing mine” – an American-made cluster-bomb typically set underneath something heavy and designed to detonate when that weight is lifted, destroying everything within a 50-foot radius – and sets it under one of the Bosnian’s bodies, so it would go off when his comrades tried to take him away.
However, Chiki launches a surprise attack, shooting the superior officer and wounding Nino. A power struggle ensues as Chiki figures out a way to make it out of the trench alive. The struggle intensifies when they find out that the body counter-balancing the mine is in fact alive and is one of Chiki’s good friends.
After that, the UN becomes involved, along with the media. The movie ends up as a scathing indictment of the UN as incompetent, bureaucratic and generally unhelpful in the conflict. That point was made in the news media during the war, and the film’s “news reports” provide its only moments of tedium.
The UN conflict comes around only at the second half of the film; how that plays out is too beautifully ironic and wonderfully filmed to be described in a review. For the first half, the audience is entertained and captivated by the interaction between Chiki and Nino, which is at times humorous, thought-provoking and always tense. Occasionally, we feel that the situation they are in is almost an impossibility, but the harsh realism accomplished by the film negates that dismissal.
There is no soundtrack to drown out the constant sound effects of both characters, and the acting is so good that the audience is totally immersed in it. The tension, as thick as the conflict it parables, is ever present even without a knife or gun being pointed at someone’s head. When UNPROFOR shows up in their gallant white tank, headed by the idealistic yet bogged-down-by-bureaucracy Sergeant Marchand (Georges Sitiadis), it is the first time any degree of hope comes through. All these other emotions are shown successfully underneath a hilarious script that abounds with sarcastic remarks and always plays with language barriers.
The movie’s true strengths, however, come towards the end, when all hope has dwindled. It is all too predictable in films of this genre for enemies in shared situations to find common ground, come to grips with their differences and end up friends. However, “No Man’s Land” ends up with Nino and Chiki literally at each other’s throats, and the violence that ensues portrays the hatred in the conflict as truly unbreakable.
The film does not provide any redeeming stories of camaraderie, a larger understanding of things or anything else similarly unrealistic and campy. Tanovic’s point is clear: war is a self-propagating entity, and this conflict has deep-rooted causes that no morality play can ignore. The futility of trying to intervene in the conflict and solve anything is shown exquisitely in the tired faces of the actors playing UN troops and is epitomized when the German mine expert comes into the scene.
When he cannot find the mine under the body, Marchand helps guide the expert by showing him what kind it is. The expert’s face shows utter disbelief and shock in the two seconds between getting the mine in his hand and uttering, “Is this the mine?” This is the most telling moment of the entire film, when the poor man with the explosive beneath him has his fate sealed and the movie begins its shocking conclusion.
Towards the end, as well, we see Tanovic’s parallels to Greek tragedy and comedy. The film almost runs in real-time (with a couple lapses here and there), its 98 minutes spanning less than a day. Marchand sarcastically remarks as the UN commanding officer arrives by helicopter at the scene, “Here comes the deus ex machina.” By mixing both stark drama and sometimes dark comedy, the movie blends elements from Greek tragedy and comedy.
But in the end, the Deus ex has not truly solved anything, and we begin to believe that our would-be tragic heroes Chiki and Nino really are what the French UN troops call them – “maniacs.” But it is clear that these men are merely pawns whose extremism and hatred have been fueled beforehand and who are put in a drastic situation.
“No Man’s Land” clearly deserves this year’s Academy Award for foreign language film. Where “Amelie” is very cute, “No Man’s Land” is a powerful, moving film that shows a story that deserves to be told – not the one in the actual plot, although the premise is fantastic, but that of the obscure “conflict back in Eastern Europe in the nineties” that no one seems to remember. Do everything you can to see this movie. It is one that will stick with you for some time to come.