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Wednesday, May 22, 2002

War and peace (keeping)

No Man's Land

Rating: * * * *
Director: Danis Tanovic
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: Serbo-Croatian, English, French
Now showing

The Bosnian conflict was such a twisted, convoluted affair that it's hard to believe a director could boil it down to a film of under two hours. And yet that's exactly what Danis Tanovic has managed to do in his award-winning feature-film debut, "No Man's Land," a grimly cynical look at the modern, media-saturated battleground and the Punch-and-Judy antics of halfhearted United Nations intervention.

News photo
Branko Djuric and Rene Bitorajac in Danis Tanovic's "No Man's Land"

While most recent war movies have reverted to old-school renditions of patriotism and heroic sacrifice, "No Man's Land" belongs to another tradition, that of "Catch 22," "M*A*S*H" and "Full Metal Jacket," in which war is seen through a filter of black humor, shell-shocked by its absurdities.

Tanovic opens his film with a blundering Bosnian patrol, lost on a mist-shrouded evening. They settle down for the night, only to realize at sunrise, to their horror, that they're sitting in a dead zone in front of the Serbian lines. They flee, but within seconds, all are cut down, except for Chiki (Branko Djuric), who rolls into an abandoned trench. We can tell what kind of guy Chiki is by both his Rolling Stones T-shirt, and the fact that he risks emerging from the trench to grab a discarded lighter for his smokes. (A machinegun is nothing next to a nicotine fit.)

The Serbs send two soldiers to search for survivors. They booby-trap a dead Bosnian soldier's body with a mine, and almost discover Chiki. He gets the drop on them, however, killing one Serb and wounding the other, a young and not very eager recruit named Nino (Rene Bitorajac). When a Bosnian barrage nearly kills Chiki and Nino, they both strip down to their underwear -- so neither side will know whose soldiers they are -- and start waving white flags.

Things are complicated when the booby-trapped "corpse," a soldier named Cera (Flip Sovagoric), regains consciousness. Chiki quickly tells him not to move, or he'll set off the ("made in EU") mine. Poor Cera asks for a cigarette -- the film's blackest joke is when he starts coughing.

The U.N. peacekeepers creak into action: Some French soldiers drive out to the trench and offer to return with help, but are ordered not to by their British commander. "I can't do anything, I don't have the authority," whines Col. Soft. "You can't expect me to risk my soldiers to save their soldiers." TV correspondent Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge) smells a story, though, and her unflattering coverage shames the U.N. troops into at least attempting to get the trapped soldiers out.

It's a delicate dance for all involved: For Bosnian Chiki and Serbian Nino, it's a question of whether they can overcome their hatred for each other long enough to cooperate and survive. For the U.N. it's a matter of looking like they're doing something, without actually doing anything. For the media, it's getting speedy feel-good closure on this story so they can move on to the next.

Cynical, yes, but with more than a grain of truth. Just recall how the U.N. declared Srebrenica a "safe haven," only for peacekeepers to stand by impotently as the Serbs marched the city's male inhabitants into mass graves. Or how a U.N. arms embargo on the region, reported as being a seemingly neutral and fair-minded move, was actually weighted against the Bosnians, who were building their army from scratch and fighting opponents well-armed from the Yugoslav army's stockpiles.

To his credit, Tanovic does show us a U.N. soldier with a conscience: "I'm sick of being a bystander," says French Sgt. Marchand (Georges Slatidis). "Doing nothing is not neutral." Similar rank-and-file frustration was expressed by the U.S. flyboys in the recent Bosnian war flick "Behind Enemy Lines." But where that film imagined a fantasy solution involving massive firepower, "No Man's Land" does a far better job at showing us how difficult it is for those peacekeepers caught in the middle, out-gunned and second-guessed.

While films like "Behind Enemy Lines" and "Black Hawk Down" focus entirely on combat, removed from any context whatsoever, "No Man's Land" is a more perceptive look at modern war, showing how "virtual" realities like media coverage and political considerations trump almost any battlefield reality. We live in an age where image is everything, and Tanovic's closing scene -- involving the "rescue" of poor booby-trapped Cera -- is a truly bitter, poignant reminder of that. (Stanley Kubrick would surely approve.)

Another current trend among war films has been to make a gesture toward humanizing the enemy (see "Pearl Harbor" or "We Were Soldiers"). The idea on offer is that any young man who dies for his country is doing a decent and noble thing, even if he's strafing wounded survivors of the USS Arizona.

Tanovic, however, takes the opposite view, that dying for ideology, nationalism or any other such vague rallying cry is nothing short of folly. While he's even sympathetic toward Nino -- a hapless pawn in a game launched by Radovan Karadzic, who appears in a news clip promising to exterminate Bosnia's Muslims -- Tanovic sees all too clearly how irrational ethnic jingoism can trump even the survival instinct. In the end, despite all the help of the U.N. and the foreign press corps, Chiki and Nino blow it. They have no one to blame but themselves.

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