Sunday 20 September 2009

No Man's Land (2001)

Director: Danis Tanović
Stars: Branko Đurić, Rene Bitorajac and Filip Šovagović
It's 1993 and we're in the middle of the Bosnian war, literally. The fog is intense and an inept guide unwittingly walks a Bosniak (or Bosnian Muslim) relief squad right up to the Serbian lines before stopping for the night. When daylight arrives it's a turkey shoot and they're quickly massacred, but of course the Serbs have to know for sure. They send out an experienced soldier and a bespectacled rookie to check and they end up in the same abandoned trench. The Bosniak gets the drop on the Serbs, taking down the one who knows what he's doing and leaving a great setup for a human story in the midst of war.

The Bosniak is Čiki and he's been shot in the shoulder. The rookie Serb is Nino and Čiki has shot him in the stomach. Because Čiki's the one with the gun, it's Nino who gets to strip and parade up and down above the trench waving a makeshift white flag. Unfortunately the response is that nobody can tell whose side he belongs to, so they shell the trench just to be sure. It's while they're sheltering from the onslaught that they find that they can't agree on anything, not even on who started the war. They're both used to the beliefs of their own side and have even witnessed atrocities committed by the others.

There is a third live man in the trench too, one of Čiki's relief squad called Cera, not that anyone knew that for a while. He'd been knocked senseless by the Serbian assault and, believing that he's a corpse, the experienced Serb soldier sets him up as a booby trap on top of a bouncing mine. Bouncing mines don't explode when they're depressed, they explode when the weight is lifted off them, at which point they bounce into the air and fire off ball bearings at great speed to shred apart anything within a radius of fifty yards. The catch is that Tsera isn't dead, but all three of them will be, very quickly indeed, if he gets up.

This is a great way to tell a war story and Danis Tanović, who wrote and directed, demonstrated an astute talent for cutting through the crap. The trench is a tiny encapsulation of the country as a whole, with both sides working through the same old cycle. Čiki and Nino hate and distrust each other from moment one, but when stuck in the same place can't help but find common ground: it turns out that Nino went to school with one of Čiki's old girlfriends. Yet this doesn't suddenly make them the best of friends, far from it. While they hint at it on occasion, they're unable to see above their own level and can't let things lie.

Tanović also resists taking sides. He was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina but he isn't trying to poke blame at either side in isolation. He has no love lost for the leaders of either side, of course, but that's hardly surprising. Radovan Karadžić, currently being tried as a war criminal, gets some screen time in British news footage, but surprisingly French President François Mitterrand isn't seen in much better light. Through his film Tanović suggests that Mitterand personifies the policies that made the war worse: humanitarian aid, a prohibition on further weapons and inaction in situations like the one at the heart of this film.
If anything, beyond the obvious anti-war sentiment, the real message here is one espoused by the closest thing we have here to a real hero, a French UN sergeant called Marchand who is fed up of sitting by and doing nothing while men kill each other. 'Neutrality does not exist in the face of murder,' he says. 'Doing nothing to stop it is, in fact, choosing. It is not being neutral.' So, while people like Karadžić are easy targets, Tanovic takes a deeper and more thoughtful approach to his barbs, suggesting not just that the UN forces made the situation worse but that the UN soldiers on the ground didn't like it any more than he did. Marchand becomes a hero because he's the only one who steps outside the rulebook but in the end he doesn't change the outcome, merely causes far more money to be spent in getting to the same place.

It's a powerful and thoughtful film. No wonder it won awards for the Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, where it beat no less a film than Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie. The more the years go by the more having this separate category seems to make no sense. I'd take both Amélie and No Man's Land over the Best Picture winner, A Beautiful Mind, any day, and that's not to suggest that that was anything less than a great movie itself. Of course I understand how much of an audience the Oscars would lose if they were honest enough to just reward the best films of the year, many of which would not be in English.

While the story is enough to succeed on its own, and it won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, there's much more here. Technically it's excellent, the cinematography and the music standing out for special attention. The acting is universally good, not just that of Branko Đurić and Rene Bitorajac as Čiki and Nino respectively, but trickling all the way down to the one actor I recognise, Simon Callow, who is blissfully bureaucratic as UN Col Soft, as if he were appearing in an episode of Yes, Minister. Filip Šovagović has the most thankless task as Cera, spending almost the entire film on his back and unable to move. Katrin Cartlidge is excellent as a British journalist, continuing a trend of challenging films, perhaps to make up for her start in Liverpool soap opera Brookside. Georges Siatidis brings much depth to his role as UN Sgt Marchand.

It always comes back to the story though, which is universal in its reach but joyfully astute in the little details. We get little digs at the German habit for extreme punctuality; Col Soft's habit of taking his secretary everywhere with him, even to the trench; and the UN getting upset at journalist for daring to listening in on their radio frequencies. There's the fact that English is the fall back language for most in a world of many tongues, though one Serbian soldier simply and memorably answers Yes to every question thrown his way when it's in English. There's insight into life as a soldier; when Čiki finds himself in the trench with cigarettes but no lighter, he rolls back up over the ledge to get one even though it could easily cost him his life. There's solidarity among soldiers, nobody volunteers and everyone resists the media. Best and most telling of all though is a single line, spoken by UN Capt Dubois to Col Soft: 'It's the first time that both sides have asked me for the same thing and I don't know what to do.' Great stuff.

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