Director: Danis Tanovic
Writer: Danis Tanovic
Stars: Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac, Filip Sovagovic
“NO MAN’S LAND tells you everything you never wanted to know about war, making you shake your fist at the sky and shout ‘there’s got to be a better way’.”
No Man’s Land may be subtitled but it is by no means foreign in the conventional sense of the word. Bosnian writer-director Denis Tanovic’s winner of the Golden Globe for best foreign film and favored nominee for an Oscar asks a question close to the bone. “Why war?” What’s war got to do with the problems we face coming together as a world of neighbors?
I’m hoping, of all the films you have an opportunity to see this Oscar season, that you will seek out No Man’s Land. There is no other film so relevant to the challenges of getting along in today’s world. Clearly, foreign no longer means distant. No Man’s Land may take place halfway around the world in the fields of Bosnia but its enemies are neighbors. They know each other. The two men caught in the film’s ‘no man’s land’ —— a trench between enemy lines —— speak each other’s language!
That’s funny. Oddly, No Man’s Land is funny. It may be the funniest, real war film you’ve ever seen. But beware, humor has a way of opening us up, taking us deeper and deeper into the true emotional core of something we don’t like to look at too closely. From the film’s opening scenes of a Bosnian relief squad lost in a fog following a guide who doesn’t know where he’s going, we chuckle along with the soldiers at the absurdity of it all. As day dawns, we’re amused for a moment to find the Bosnians still lost, blinded this time by the sun, scratching their heads wondering where they are. Then we find them —— in the crosshairs of Serbian guns. Blam, swivel and find. Blam, aim and fire. We are stunned to see single shots kill Bosnians like rabbits in the grass. Background the humor, horror leaves us shaking our heads in despair, holding back tears of wonder and frustration.
Then we drop in behind Serbian and Bosnian front line troops complying with a certified cease-fire. The gift of No Man’s Land is its ability to open our hearts to a simple fact. Nice, normal, ordinary human beings kill and get killed in wars. We experience more amusement as we observe neither side wanting to deal with the murders that just took place due to bad luck and bad rules. Serbian soldiers hang back not wanting to risk their own lives checking out whether the Bosnians they’ve shot are dead. The Bosnian soldiers decide to simply wait to see if “anything changes…see if the dead walk” as they put it. It’s a cease-fire after all. See what I mean, funny in an odd sort of way. Neighbors killing each other without any real desire to do so.
Through a set of circumstances best left discovered by seeing the film, a Bosnian and Serb end up together in a trench dividing the two front lines with a third Bosnian lying atop a spring-loaded helicopter mine. All three are wounded. This ‘No Man’s Land’ incident gives rise to a drama that —— if it weren’t so tragic —— would have you laughing in the aisles. Perhaps the last film to broach this level of absurdity in war was Catch 22. No one knows what to do. No one wants to rock the boat. No one wants to act. In order to wave white rags of truce, Serb and Bosnian strip to their skivvies to avoid being identified by either side and shot. Ironically, both sides react with heavy fire and bombing!
To whom can these men appeal, we might wonder? Both sides want these men to disappear because they represent a violation of the cease-fire. In peacetime, no one wants to be accused of pulling a gun. In frustration, a French UN peacekeeper acts against orders from headquarters to sit tight, moving in to offer help. But when he arrives at the trench, he finds a situation virtually unsolvable by ordinary means. The global press moves in, waves a flag of its own and leaves the true issue untouched. Our only hope lies with the two men who speak the same language. We long for the intimacy that has developed between the two men to prevail, rising above the madness of rules, regulations and contrived enmities. For heaven’s sake, they’ve shared the same girlfriend before the war. But oddly, now, help is straining their relationship to the breaking point.
One man holds out hope that the other will form an alliance with him, see that they are in this together. He believes there’s a solution in sticking together in spite of their differences. Two men against the world. But the other feels sure that there is no way out. Only personal survival counts. He takes no side, trying to hide inside the shadow of authority. They betray each other, each in their own turn desperately taking matters into their own hands and making matters worse. Although it would be easy, even just, to assign blame for what happens to a lack of trust, that’s fundamental to war. The culprit in No Man’s Land is the fact of ‘no man’s land’ as an area beyond will, force or logic. If ever there were a time to shake one’s fist at the skies and cry…or cry out, this is it.
As I sat waiting for the next film to show after “No Man’s Land” at the Telluride Film Festival, a man approached from my left looking for his seat to my right. At the same time, a man a few seats to my right decided to go for popcorn. They met just at my knees. Each looked the other in the eye with clear intent that they had the right of way. Pulling my knees in as far as possible didn’t help. But all of a sudden, we started to laugh. We recognized where we were. We were caught in ‘no man’s land’. The popcorn man backed up, taking his seat so the other could pass. Unfortunately, there’s no backing up in “No Man’s Land”. Only forward motion was considered acceptable, resulting in something worse than no motion at all.
When knowing —— even caring about “the other” —— fails to prevent stupidity, defensiveness and denial of responsibility, we must all give thought to what it really, really means to be at war and also, how intimate war is. What’s left behind in “No Man’s Land” when the credits roll and the lights go up leaves a brain twister that doesn’t go away easily. “What would I have done?” or better yet, What could I have done?”