No Man’s Land

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

NO MAN’S LAND

5/10

Bosnia-Herzegovina / Slovenia / France 2001 : Danis Tanovic : 98 mins

In the old days, No Man’s Land wouldn’t have been eligible for the award commonly known as the ‘Foreign Language Oscar’, but actually called ‘Best Picture not in the English Language.’ Because, as with its widely-touted Czech rival for the 2001 prize Dark Blue World, a fair amount of the dialogue in this Balkan-war drama is in English (the film doesn’t even have any alternative foreign-language titles, apart from the Slovenian Nikogarsnja Zemlja.) English is these films’ European lingua franca, the tongue in which everyone has at least a smattering – though No Man’s Land‘s main French character does gallantly persist with initially asking parlez-vous Francais when he comes up against any language barriers.

Unlike Dark Blue World, however, No Man’s Land did make the final Academy shortlist of five – and went on to upset odds-on favourite Amelie to take the prize, just as it had done in the Golden Globes. It’s not hard to see why – the film takes a recent conflict and deliberately boils it down to its barest, most digestible components. The protagonists are Tsiki (Branko Djuri) and Nino (Rene Bitorajac) – one a Bosnian Serb, the other a Croatian, stuck in a trench in no man’s land between the opposing lines. They violently argue, reach a temporary ceasefire, attract the attention of the United Nations Protection Force – and the world’s media – before falling out again, with fatal consequences. Complicating matters is the fact that another Croat fighter, Tsera (Filip Sovagovic), is also in the trench, injured, alive but unable to move because the Serbs have placed a booby-trap land-mine beneath him.

No Man’s Land is at its strongest in the early stages, when the focus is fixed firmly on the trench and its immediate surroundings. There’s a tense, absurdist comedy in the feuding between Tsiki and Nino and the hapless Tsera that’s almost Beckettian in its morbid economy. Director Tanovic keeps his camera close in on the trench’s inhabitants – it’s a hot day in the Balkans, we see the sweat on their faces and hear the buzz of flies on the soundtrack.

But having skilfully set his scene, Tanovic disastrously decides to break off and cut to scenes in different locations, devoting more and more time to new characters such as intrepid journalist Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge), harrassed UNProFor representative Sgt Marchand (Georges Siatidis) and his supercilious commanding officer Colonel Soft (Simon Callow). We cut to a TV news report which sums up the Balkan conflict in a dead sequence of pure exposition, and the film itself ends up stranded between two different ‘lines’ of approach: it’s never sure whether it wants to be a war-is-hell psychological chamber piece or an Ace in the Hole media satire.

Though the performances from Djuri, Bitorajac, Sovagovic and Siatidis are never less than fully committed, this can’t outweigh the fact that the film’s symbolism becomes increasingly heavy-handed, right up to the unsatisfactory climax and a colossal downer of a fade-out image. There’s nothing wrong with reducing a conflict to a one-on-one situation, but Tanovic isn’t enough of a writer to work within these limitations and still do justice to such complex issues. For all its faults, Ibolya Fekete’s freewheeling Chico is a much better cinematic treatment of this particular conflict – there’s nothing here that Three Kings didn’t do with much more wit and invention, not to mentional visual oomph.

No Man’s Land‘s Oscar triumph over Amelie can, in retrospect, be attributed to two factors – a post-Sept-11 drive towards ‘issues’ movies ahead of fantasy escapism (as with Beautiful Mind beating Lord of the Rings for Best Picture), and a general anti-Miramax sentiment among academy voters who felt they’d been steamrollered for too long by the Weinstein hype-machine. It’s ironic, however, that the Slovenian-filmed No Man’s Land should end up being the beneficiary of these hidden agendas – because Slovenia’s own entry was the superb Bread and Milk, a darker, funnier, wiser, and all-out better production by far.

11th May 2002
(seen 6th May, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

by Neil Young
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