“No Man’s Land,” Danis Tanovic’s 2001 film about the Bosnian/Serbian conflict, is better known for an award than its subject. Yes, this is the film that won (stole) “Amelie’s” Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2002.
And I know I’m diving into dangerous territory here; “Amelie” and “No Man’s Land” are wildly different films, apples and oranges, etc. But since Oscar set up the grudge match, and I have now seen both, I’m going to offer my voice to the debate.
On a foggy night, a relief party of Bosnian soldiers stumbles through a field, led by a guide who knows the territory, but only in daylight. They settle in for the night, but as the sun rises, they realize that overshot the frontline and have been sleeping in the battlefield. A Serbian tank shows up and kills most of the party, but one man, Ciki (Branko Djuric) manages to survive and ducks into a mid-field trench to plan his next move.
Meanwhile, over at the Serbian side, two soldiers, the new kid Nino (Rene Bitorajac) and a bomb expert (Mustafa Nadarevic) are sent to investigate the trench and plant landmines under the bodies of dead soldiers. Of course, Ciki ambushes them, killing the expert and wounding the newbie. More troubles arrive when 1) the soldiers are stuck in the trench because neither side wants to stop shooting, and 2) that booby-trapped soldier, Cera (Filip Sovagovic), proves to be very much alive.
At this point, I felt sure I knew where this was going; the opposing soldiers find common ground, bond, put aside their differences and go home better people. Granted, I’ve seen that movie and while it’s not terrible, it’s predictable; but behold, “No Man’s Land” goes where we haven’t been before, a story of a battle that is the story of the war.
Yes, Ciki and Nino form a truce of sorts, they bond over shared memories of the same girl, and they work together to tell their respective comrades what’s happening. Their story even gets them U.N. help, thanks to a French soldier, Marchand (Georges Siatidis), who doesn’t want to sit around and do nothing while men die. Also in the mix is a journalist, Jane Livingston (Katrin Cartlidge), who wants the story but also wants to see a happy ending for the soldiers trapped in the trench.
What started out so simple has ended in international chaos; all sides converge at the trench, and when the blood feud between Ciki and Nino, the main characters, explodes, it feels small against the larger drama the powerhouse nations have dragged them into. Tanovic, who also wrote the screenplay, isn’t the subtlest storyteller, but the message is clear: When the big boys enter the field, the soldiers get lost to the forest.
“No Man’s Land” is something of an enigma; what does it say about a film where the subtext is intriguing while the finished product, despite a haunting ending of the war machine marching on, is empty. Conflicting forces seem to be at work here, a desire to be both grand and intimate, and neither course is entirely successful. I walked away wanting to like it more than I did, but in light of recent events, I am drawn more to the political allegory than the human story. Like the rest of the world, I came to “No Man’s Land” for the battle, but ended up lost in the war.
And as for the “Amelie” question, my heart says “Amelie,” because in the darks days of 2001, that made everyone smile; my brain votes for “No Man’s Land,” a dark, thoughtful war movie that, despite its flaws, makes us think about where the first battle of World War III is going to be fought.
Folks, it’s a draw.
“No Man’s Land”
Written and directed by Danis Tanovic
Branko Djuric (Ciki)
Rene Bitorajac (Nino)
Filip Sovagovic (Cera)
Georges Siatidis (Marchand)