No Man's Land
Director: Danis Tanovic. Cast: Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac, Filip Sovajovic, Georges Siatidis, Katrin Cartlidge, Simon Callow, Serge-Henri Valcke, Mustafa Nadarevic, Sacha Kremer, Bogdan Diklic, Tanja Ribic. Screenplay: Danis Tanovic.

Danis Tanovic, the writer, director, and musical composer of No Man's Land, has clearly lavished abundant stores of imaginative energy on this seriocomic parable about the conflict between the Bosnians and the Serbs in the early 1990s. That No Man's Land is the multitasking Tanovic's first film increases our expectations for a personal, intimately textured film, and the roll-call of producers and funding sources that precede the film—over half a dozen benefactors, hailing from Britain, France, Bosnia, and Slovenia—further substantiates that No Man's Land was not an easy film to make but succeeded in swaying a global retinue of passionate artists and sponsors that the world deserved to see it.

Having finally seen the film, which arrives to home video and DVD with the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film to its credit, I feel simultaneously grateful for what it offers us and disappointed that it doesn't offer us more. Filmgoers on many continents, and nowhere more so than in the United States, have evinced the same stubborn neglect of Balkan-themed dramas, no matter how well laureled and ecstatically reviewed, that most of them exhibited as passive and uncomprehending viewers of the groundstrikes and slaughters on TV news. Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain, Emir Kusturica's Underground, and Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo were all major attractions at international film festivals and critical smashes that nonetheless died at the box office. No Man's Land, despite its Oscar victory, has suffered the same fate; the droves who have flocked to Amélie, a loser in the same Academy category, patently prefer urban fairytales to mordantly stylized visions of the real world. But Tanovic's understandable desire to penetrate the fiercely maintained ignorance among many Western audiences about Balkan politics—a major reason why No Man's Land feels so urgent, and why its central plot points have an inherent pull on the viewer's consciousness—has unfortuantely arrived at the expense of much aesthetic piquancy or dramatic grace.

The film's story orbits around a bunker where two Bosnian men and one Serbian, all of them soldiers, are stranded—not because their location is unreachable (quite the opposite) but because the opposed armies entrenched on opposite sides of the trench are too frightened, too cautious, and too proud to rescue their respective enlistees. Imagine a war movie where Private Ryan is waving a rescue flag less than a mile from his compatriots and they still refuse to save him. Meanwhile, the bunker itself is host to the severe, sometimes violent nationalistic disputes of the castaways, as well as to a more pressing dilemma: one of the Bosnians, injured but not dead, is lying on top of an unpinned landmine that will detonate and consume the entire perimeter if he budges even an inch.

All of these martial stalemates and ethical briarpatches are the stuff of compelling narrative. Isn't it true that, in a regional upheaveal as longstanding and bloodstained as the former Yugoslavia's, the only parties likely to elicit concessions are the ones who are toting, however briefly, the bigger guns? Isn't it inevitable that the "protective" and "humanitarian" efforts of the United Nations are bound to descend into their own bureaucratic impotencies and internal rivalries long before they achieve any stable arbitration? How is the foreign press supposed to cover these events, especially if the exploitation of personal suffering is the only reliable spark of interest to a media-glutted viewership that resists historical and systematic analysis? And how can we watch No Man's Land without reflecting on the bounty of other, simultaneous theaters of conflict—the Israelis vs. the Palestinians, the Spanish vs. the Basques, the Russians vs. the Chechnyans—in which this narrative would feel equally appropriate, equally dismaying?

No Man's Land elaborates the evolving tale of the stranded soldiers and their would-be saviors with enough variety and intelligence that the movie's audience is likely to learn something, to feel something, to glean some impression of foreign conflict that will make it seem infinitely less foreign, less abstract. But perhaps Tanovic relies to much on the indisputable moral claims and challenges of his story to remember that he isn't just telling a story, he is making a film. As filmmaking, No Man's Land feels sedate, overfamiliar, conveying a story that demands attention within a dramatic structure and aesthetic environment that feel alarmingly—customary. Dialogue often rests on the level of "Save yourself!" and its equally reflexive response, "No, I won't leave you!" The performances of the three leads, rather than humanizing the beliefs and motivations of their characters, are all rather anonymous. In fact, the most interesting performances are those of Georges Siatidis, an earnest and diplomatically impatient UN Guard who tries to resolve the standoff, and Katrin Cartlidge (also seen in Before the Rain) as a British TV-news reporter; both alone and in their scenes together, Siatidis and Cartlidge inject their physical gestures and line readings with enough shifting layers of emotion that—shockingly—the rescue effort becomes much more interesting than the plight of the soldiers themselves. The man on the booby-trapped mine, by contrast, could hardly be less palpable as a human personality, and therefore remains calcified as a Big Metaphorical Statement in a film that frequently loses the battle against narrative schematics.

Meanwhile, Walther Vanden Ende doesn't do much with his camera, allowing most of the scenes to endure in statically composed frames that feel like proscenium arches. Except for an opening scene within blue-gray fog that recalls Giancarlo Giannini's woodland forays in Seven Beauties, No Man's Land doesn't do much with color or light effects besides the rather generic contrast of the idyllic meadow with the "War Is Madness" shenanigans among the characters. Welcome to Sarajevo, despite the distracting enlistment of Hollywood stars like Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei, still maintained a tauter stylistic edge of anything-can-happen docudrama that eludes Tanovic; nor does his film wholly embrace the poetic non-realism of Manchevski, Renoir, Beckett, or so many of the other artists to whom Tanovic has been precipitately compared. It is surprising in a film so indebted to a single artist's vision that the eventual product feels so anonymous, and if I would still recommend that people watch No Man's Land, I do so out of the conviction that any artistic engagement with global predicaments is more rewarding and constructive than no engagement at all. No Man's Land is a good yarn but a less-than-great film; I eagerly awaited its debut, and I'm glad I saw the movie, but I am still waiting for the picture I was hoping and expecting to see. Grade: B–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign Language Film

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign Language Film

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Best Screenplay
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Foreign Language Film
European Film Awards: Best Screenplay
César Awards (French Oscars): Best First Work
Satellite Awards: Best Foreign Language Film

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