After the sensationalistic use of the Bosnian conflict in the recent splashy Hollywood production “Behind Enemy Lines,” the subject gets the gallows humor treatment in this smaller-scaled, but ultimately more chillingly effective feature debut by Danis Tanovic. “No Man’s Land” depicts the struggle between Bosnian Serbs and Moslems on a far more confined level, and while it may not be particularly successful in elucidating the causes behind the bloodshed, it employs a spare style to depict the absurdity of war and ethnic hatred (and the impotence of international peacekeeping operations) in a simple, but undeniably incisive, fashion.
The set-up of the film is starkly powerful. In 1993, a small group of Bosnian Moslem civilians is being led through the nighttime darkness to the front line, where they are to relieve and reinforce the current combatants; they go off course, however, and are suddenly attacked by Serb armor and artillery. Most of them perish, but Ciki (Branko Djuric) scrambles into the vacant reinforced trench in the middle of the territory between the two armies. The Serbs send two of their men to reconnoiter the trench: a grizzled veteran and Nino (Rene Bitorajac), a bespectacled new recruit. Ciki kills the older man, but not before he’s planted a mine beneath the body of Ciki’s apparently-dead buddy Cera (Filip Sovagovic). And Ciki and Nino are presently caught in a dangerous stalemate, each trying to get the upper hand over the other. Matters are complicated when Cera proves to be alive but unable to move lest he detonate the mine under him, and a disillusioned French UN peacekeeper, Sergeant Marchand (Georges Siatidis), decides to intervene against his superiors’ directives. Before long the arrival of an aggressive, ambitious journalist (Katrin Cartlidge) compels the involvement of UN higher-ups, particularly officious British Colonel Soft (Simon Callow), whose goal is merely to conclude the episode in a way designed to avoid any embarrassment to the so-called peacekeepers.
“No Man’s Land” is obviously designed to be a satiric examination of the pointlessness and idiocy of the Bosnian conflict and the partially religious, partially ethnic antagonisms that underlay it, as well as a comic indictment of the Keystone Kops nature of the UN mission to mediate the war. That it works as well as it does is, ironically, largely due to the modesty of its means. Since Tanovic has so few resources, he’s had to be imaginative in deploying them. This results in some striking moments, as the initial sequence, shot largely in darkness and only periodically illuminated by the light of matches and cigarettes. It also means that of necessity the story has been pared down to the essentials and highly personalized. Essentially it’s a duel between Ciki and Nino as representatives of their two sides; but it’s leaner and less pretentious than similar exercises of the past–like John Boorman’s 1968 “Hell in the Pacific,” featuring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. The other major characters are equally schematic. Marchand is the field soldier stymied by nonsensical rules, the aptly-named Soft the essence of UN timidity and obsession with image, and Livingstone the very model of the driven journalist in search of a story that will keep her on top. And the unfortunate Cera, caught between hopeless life and imminent death, clearly stands for the Bosnian people as a whole, dangling on the precipice of war.
Given all that, it’s inevitable that there should be a feeling of artificiality about the picture, but the bracing nature of the humor, the energy of the direction and the authenticity of the performances go far to mitigate its weaknesses. “No Man’s Land” is worth seeing not merely because it deals with an important subject, but because it does so with passion and intelligence. That surely distinguishes it from “Behind Enemy Lines.”