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Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Who's to be held responsible?

When Danis Tanovic appeared before the press at the Tokyo International Film Festival last fall, he drew a decent turnout for a first-time director, but no doubt it would have been packed if he had come after winning his Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Everybody loves a winner.

News photo
Director Danis Tanovic

But when it comes to war, as Tanovic sees it, we all lose. "Even if you win, you lose, by seeing things you shouldn't see, sometimes even doing things you shouldn't do, because you're obliged to," he said. "There's no return to Eden -- you don't have that innocence anymore."

The 33-year-old Bosnian director, a graduate of the Sarajevo Film Academy who spent three years with the Bosnian army filming frontline documentaries, may have lost something during the prolonged siege of Sarajevo, but as evidenced by the film, it certainly wasn't his sense of humor.

"I don't think you can create in the heat of conflict," Tanovic admitted. "In 1994, I was a very angry young man, [but] you can't create from anger, at least, not the good stuff. Emotions are important, but when you're dealing with a subject like this, you need time to pass, you need distance."

It's this time for reflection that has allowed the director to show a degree of sympathy for his Serb character, Nino, that might not have been possible when he was taking Serbian fire on a daily basis. For Tanovic, this was a matter of principle: "I really needed to make a film that's not anti-Serb, because if I did that, I think, I would become like those Serb nationalists who tried to erase me from the earth."

The film's clear-headed, balanced look at the absurdity of the conflict's fratricide is reflected by the fact that it won awards at film festivals in Sarajevo, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia. The clarity of the film's antiwar message was such that, despite the regional topic, "No Man's Land" also won awards in Cannes, Beirut, San Sebastian, Sao Paolo and, of course, Hollywood. "The biggest prize you can get," said Tanovic, "is seeing people understand and appreciate what you did."

This success is largely due to Tanovic's light touch when it comes to making a point ("I don't like propaganda; I like to make people think") and his sharp eye for caricature, particularly of the U.N. peacekeepers and the media. While this sometimes veers into cliche, Tanovic said he was conscious of this.

"A cliche is simply a truth that's been told too many times," he said. "I was using some cliches when writing the script, but we were also trying to use faces. . . . Because in a film you don't have time to go deeply into each character. So, like in my film, there's a huge, fat guy on the Serbian barricade -- in real life, he's a loan shark, a bouncer. If you see him, you don't need any explanation."

Similar reasoning was behind why Tanovic had his one of lead characters, Chiki, clad in a Rolling Stones T-shirt. Tanovic explains that early on in the war, the hastily organized Bosnian army had no uniforms -- he himself went to the front in an AC/DC T-shirt. But the director added: "When you see someone wearing a Stones T-shirt, you feel something warm about him immediately, some kind of rebelliousness. You can tell more about people by what kind of music they listen to than by what religious background they have."

Given the central role of the media in the Bosnian conflict (see Michael Winterbottom's "Welcome to Sarajevo") and the cynical eye with which Tanovic views them in his film, it was inevitable that someone would ask him what he thought the media's role should be in war.

"Bosnia was finally saved thanks to journalists," Tanovic conceded. "There were some brave people who stayed there for four years, reporting on what was happening, and finally NATO and the U.N. intervened. I mean, I don't know who they were saving, Bosnians, or their own image, which was blown to pieces during those few years. But they did it, and it was thanks to journalists.

"I mean, look at what's happening in Chechnya today. The Russians learned a lesson -- they don't allow any journalists in, so we don't know what's happening."

On the other hand, Tanovic decries journalism that is only focused on business at the expense of an ethical stance. "I'd like to ask you something," said Tanovic, addressing the room full of press. "Imagine we are doing this interview in Sarajevo in 1992, and we're on the frontline, and during the interview I got shot by a sniper. You're a journalist, you have a car and protection -- so what do you do? Do you continue your story or take me to the hospital?

"I know what most of you are thinking: You'd continue interviewing me while taking me to the hospital," he said with a grin. "My personal opinion, if I were a journalist, is I'd stop and take you to the hospital, because I think human life is worth more than a good interview or whatever. But that's my opinion -- we all have our truth."

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