Monday, February 10, 2014

Film Atlas (Bosnia-Herzegovina): No Man's Land

Country: Bosnia-Herzegovina
Title: No Man’s Land / Ničija zemlja (2001)
A Bosniak squad becomes lost while on a nighttime mission to relieve their front during a standoff in the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. The next morning, when the fog lifts and the sun comes out, they discover they’ve camped in middle of no man’s land, the fatally-exposed fields between enemy trenches. All but Ciki, who crawls into an abandoned trench, are slaughtered. Two Bosnian Serbs are sent in to investigate: a hardened veteran who booby-traps a corpse with an illegal bouncing mine and Nino, a bespectacled, bald-headed rookie. Ciki ambushes the pair, killing the older man and taking Nino hostage. A groan alerts them that Ciki’s friend Cera, the man with the mine underneath him, isn’t actually dead, but he’s now stuck lying on his back lest he get them all blown to hell. Ciki and Nino waste time blaming and threatening each other, at one point almost getting chummy over the realization that they have a mutual acquaintance, and eventually forming a plan to get help. Merchand, a French sergeant with UNPROFOR (the U.N. peacekeeping forces) bypasses official channels to come to their aid, but runs into resistance from his superiors. He manages to pressure them by allying with Jane Livingstone, an English reporter covering the war. After hours of waiting, Ciki and Nino are literally at each other’s throats, but finally a German mine expert arrives. He does not give them good news. Meanwhile, UNPROFOR high command flies in by copter to diffuse, not the bomb, but the PR disaster. Ciki and Nino unleash their frustrations in violence, distracting attention from the trench. The film ends on Cera, still lying on the mine, now alone, with night falling and both sides intentionally misinformed to think they should shortly shell no man’s land.

No Man’s Land is a smart, tightly-paced and deeply pessimistic depiction of Balkan conflict, which uses a single incident as a metaphor for the animosity, absurdity and inefficiency of the Bosnian War. Through Ciki and Nino’s accusations and arguments we come to understand how fully indoctrinated they've become to their respective causes and how narrowly they've restricted their points of view, carrying on an antagonism that long predates open violence. In contrast to other films about opposing soldiers reluctantly becoming friends during prolonged isolation (None but the Brave, Hell in the Pacific, Enemy Mine, Into the White), director Danis Tanovic’s work is a much grimmer portrayal of how entrenched (if you’ll pardon the pun) mistrust, hatred and vengeance can be. Their xenophobia is not about to be melted away by a temporary truce or the brief necessity to cooperation. This is the war, after all, that gave us the phrase “ethnic cleansing.”

Tanovic’s film suggests that, on one hand, those killing and being killed are too physically and emotionally involved to effect a peace or make levelheaded decisions, but that, on the other hand, those with "objective distance" are equally unproductive thanks to apathy, bureaucracy or a superficially high-minded neutrality. This is sardonically played out in UNPROFOR’s pecking order, where men are portrayed as increasingly ineffective and insensitive the further removed they are from combat: Merchand’s colleagues in the field sleep on the job or zone out under headphones (at one point the music bleeding into the film’s soundtrack at a comically inopportune moment), his commanding officer skims girly mags in the safety and relative comfort of the barracks while the colonel back at cushy HQ gets the real thing in the form of a bimbo secretary. Similarly, though the journalist unmistakably has her career to think of, she also clearly cares about the soldiers' lives, while her bosses in the main office are far more concerned with boosting ratings.

In addition to the underlying ethnic, political and religious differences that characterized the Bosnian War, No Man’s Land plays with differences in other configurations as well, including clashes in experience, personality and sense of humor (one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variation occurs when Ciki, rifling through a dead enemy’s wallet, briefly comes across the photo of a naked man). Most noticeably, however, is the film’s focus on language barriers. The soldiers speak Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, while UNPROFOR primarily uses French, the reporters English and the mine expert German. Miscommunications, non-communications and poor translations abound, constantly undermining (again, excuse the pun) any chance of achieving full understanding. The film ends, notably, with the colonel heartlessly deploying disinformation to sweep the incident under the carpet.

No Man’s Land is unusual for a war film in that it takes place in less than 24 hours, is shot almost exclusively against pleasant greenery in bright sunlight and forgoes scenes of battle, large armies and high stakes. And yet it has a lot to say, unobtrusively using its humble resources to tell a story that draws us in and makes us think. This was Tanovic’s debut film and it won Bosnia-Herzegovina its first foreign film Oscar, a feat he recently came near to reprising when his latest movie made the short-list for 2014.

My Favorites:
No Man's Land

Major Directors:
Danis Tanovic

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