By André Crous
No Man’s Land is a small yet devastating film about two soldiers from opposing sides stuck in a trench on the battlefield (no man’s land), somewhere near Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. The central action of the film takes place over the course of a single day, and in these few hours of sunlight, we get a very human take on the story of war and especially the lives affected by it.
One night, under thick fog, a group of Bosniaks forming a relief squad are led to their base, but the guide gets lost and they end up falling asleep. At daybreak, they discover that they are sitting ducks and when the Serb forces arrive in their tanks, the Bosniaks have to run for cover. Čiki (Branko Đurić), who wears a Rolling Stones “Tongue and Lip” T-shirt all the way through the film, initially appears to be the only one to survive, and he ends up in a trench halfway between the Bosniak and the Serb camps – in no man’s land.
When two of the Serbs are sent to the trench to make sure that all the Bosniaks had been killed, one is killed by Čiki and the other, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), a young inexperienced soldier, is injured. Nino and Čiki, both speaking the same language, Serbo-Croatian, have a heated discussion about the origin and the development of the war, and Čiki, his gun pointed straight at Nino, finally has to agree that the Serbs started all the madness. Many such admissions are made under duress, and Čiki doesn’t fail to remind Nino who has the gun.
But they are both stuck in the trench together for two reasons: Neither of them can be sure that the other side will respect a cease-fire if they are rescued or return to camp; and a bouncing bomb had been placed under a Bosniak soldier, who turns out not to have been dead, and unless a deminer saves the soldier, Ćera, his friend Čiki insists that they all stay in the trench. Since he has the gun, there is no use arguing.
Tanović’s script is light on action but heavy on tension and very incisive dialogue that clearly captures the human face of the drama of warfare. These are two people who often don’t know what to do next, but when one of them sees an opportunity to establish power over the other, he goes for it. Caught in the middle is Ćera, who can’t move for fear of setting off the bomb underneath him and blowing them all to pieces.
When UNPROFOR (the United Nations Protection Force) is called in to mediate and resolve the situation, we realise very quickly that they are out of their depth, somewhat willingly, and refuse to get involved because they are in Bosnia strictly for the purpose of delivering humanitarian aid. A French sergeant, Marchand (played by Georges Siatidis, who is fascinating in this role), is clearly frustrated by his superiors’ lack of compassion but manages to secure media exposure (and pressure on UNPROFOR), when he meets Jane Livingstone, a news correspondent out in the field.
Livingstone’s overly dramatic character, and her news broadcasts, are perhaps the only weak spot in the film and suffers from the film’s small budget, but her purpose is clear: Her presence at the scene compels the UN to protect lives instead of merely sustaining them, but she will also go to great lengths to interrogate all the parties implicated in the story without really grasping anybody’s point of view. From the outside, the whole setup seems like internal madness, but the subtitles
provide the viewer with a very fine understanding of the different reasons for the soldiers’ actions.
The film shows the inadequacy of the UN and especially UNPROFOR during the war. This is understandable, given the international forces’ infamous timidity when faced with the situation at Srebrenica in 1995, which they allowed to happen because of such administrative restrictions as a mission of non-involvement.
No Man’s Land advances in a way that gives us a sickening feeling of inevitability, and a situation that is grim because we see people doing things they know to be wrong, but which they must do to save face or to obey the orders of their callous superiors. The humiliating effects of these decisions are visible in the close-ups of Ćera’s face. The film contains almost no extradiegetic music and makes important points in a subtle way, by means of a photo in someone’s hand or a story about a girl in Banja Luka whom both Nino and Čiki had known.
Tanović is a Bosniak himself, but his film treats the two sides with equal respect and is certainly one of the most poignant war films of our time. A comment by one of the men in the relief squad at the beginning of the film (“A pessimist thinks that things can’t get worse; an optimist knows that they can”) becomes more and more relevant to the situation the men find themselves in. These are not heroes: They are men caught in a war, and they don’t want to die. No Man’s Land‘s acknowledgement of this basic truth makes the film stand out from the crowd.
Country Bosnia, Herzogevina
Director(s) Danis Tanović
Screenwriter(s) Danis Tanović
Directors of Photography Walther van den Ende
Running Time 95 minutes
Original title Ničija zemlja
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩