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No Man's Land

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: No Man's Land

Starring: Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac
Director: Danis Tanovic
Rated: R
RunTime: 98 Minutes
Release Date: December 2001
Genres: Foreign, Suspense, War

*Also starring: Simon Callow, Katrin Cartlidge, Georges Siatidis, Filip Sovagovic

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

I remember finding myself in possession of a Eurailpass one summer about 20 years ago, determined to get my money's worth by zipping through Europe at a pace which would put even the "If- It's-Tuesday-This Must-Be-Belgium" crowd in awe. Just for the fun of it I took a train up and down the length of Yugoslavia chatting with the locals in sign and sharing their yeasty bread. Aside from noting at one point a difference in the language on the signs, the letters changing from Latin to Cyrillic, the people looked about the same, talked what appeared to me the same tongue, and appeared friendly enough to one another. After Marshal Tito's death, the apparently artificial union of the Yugoslav people fell apart and suddenly its citziens looked at one another not as members of a national group but as people with ethnic hatreds--with hostilities that had long, long histories so far back that Americans, living in a country independent now for just 225 years, would think dated back to the Jurassic Age. In the early nineties, the Bosnian Serbs began a pogrom, which they justified on the grounds that a similar procedure of persecution was directed against them, oh I don't know, in 1399? 1458? Whatever. The mass killing of Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs seemed to them perfectly justified and by 1993 full-scale war was in progress between the two groups. UN forces moved in to try to separate the two sides and enforce a peace.

But cease-fires and even peace treaties are only scraps of paper as we know from the Middle East situation today. While Bosnia appears relatively at peace today, such as not the case in 1993, the period covered by Danis Tanovic's noir comedy, an antiwar picture (has any recent movie been pro-war?) and one which makes its point with some solid M*A*S*H*-like dry humor rather than with the ineffectively impotent raillery as in last year's flop about the conflict in Northern Ireland, "An Everlasting Piece" and with only those explosions and that gunplay necessary to communicate to the audience the absurdity of the whole mess.

If wars are absurd in general, the Bosnian conflict must be one of the most ridiculous, because the groups who hate each other may have historical reasons for their enmity but given their common language and enjoyment of a country so beautiful that has for decades a mecca for tourism by jet-setters and sun- worshippers alike, they simply had no territorial or ideological rationale for conflict. In the principal situation set up by director Tanovic, a Bosnian Serb and a Bosnian Muslim (misidentified by a review I'm looking at now as "a Bosnian and a Serb" as though they came from two, separate independent states), Ciki (Brnko Djuric) is a Muslim and Nino (Rene Bitorajac) is a Serb who both become trapped with each other, stalemated by a balance of power, in a situation that could generate a play by Jean-Paul Sartre. Most of the black comedy of the film comes from the interaction of these two, and you can imagine the mine field (so to speak) of possibilities if you'll only imagine yourself trapped in a room for what could be days, maybe weeks, with a person you don't trust, with whom you try to communicate--even discover that you share a common friend--and yet dread the idea of falling asleep in his presence!

The story takes root when a small contingent of Muslims get separated from their unit in a thick fog. When all but two of them are gunned down and killed at the crack of dawn by a Serb unit, one Muslim, Ciki, hides in a cave while two Serbs, Nino and a fellow soldier, investigate the trench. They discover a Muslim, Cera (Filip Sovagovic), apparently dead and use him to arrange a booby trap. They lay his body across a small mine in such a way that if any moves him (or indeed if the "dead" Cera himself were to move), everyone within thirty meters would be killed.

After spending considerable time developing his principal characters as though they were part of an intimate, 3-person play, writer-director Tanovic broadens the palette to bring in a contingent of UN forces, notably a French Sergeant Marchant (Georges Siatidis) who is frustrated by the UN's policy of neutrality and enforced inaction; a British mid-level officer Soft (Simon Callow); an ambitious CNN-style journalist, Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge) and her cameraman (Primoz Ranik).

Eliciting an animated portrait of Keystone Kops, "No Man's Land" is a panorama of know-nothings and idiots, bumblers and stooges, higher-ups who appear to be putting in their time awaiting their pensions, and just two competent people who seem to care about the situation, the French sergeant and a German expert in mine-defusion. The ambitious journalist is looking out for her career, the English officer would rather be back at HQ playing chess with his leggy blonde assistant, and the Bosnian soldiers, well, they all seem like such cretins it's difficult to figure out just what they would rather do than sit in a trench.

This is a fresh movie loaded with twists and shifts in the balance of power between the Serb and the Muslim. Filmed largely in Slovenia, which is to the northwest of Bosnia, "No Man's Land," which won the best screenplay award at Cannes, drew an audience of 4,000 to an open-air presentation of the film at the recent Sarajevo Film Festival. It deserves to be widely seen elsewhere as well.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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