In the university semester just finished (the last of my undergrad degree) I took a course on post-war European cinema. However, rather than focus on the biggest names and greatest films of the era, the course interestingly chose to consider films as reflections of both history and society.
One of the films that I was exposed to was Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land (2001), which is set in the Serbian-Bosnian war of the mid-1990s. The term No Man’s Land of course refers to the area in between opposition trenches on the battleground. Here, it also takes on a stark new meaning. Serbian soldiers, believing one of their wounded Bosnian enemies to be dead, set up a land mine underneath him. In an example of the unimaginable coldness and barbarism of modern warfare, their hope is that when his colleagues come and retrieve the body, they will be blown sky high. As it turns out though, the soldier is not dead and comes-to atop the live mine. In the bottom of a trench he is in the ultimate metaphorical No Man’s Land, caught somewhere between life and death. He is joined in this trench by a colleague, and a raw Serbian soldier, on his first day on the job. A majority of the first half of the film takes place solely in this restricted environ, down a trench. The three verbally spar and back and forth power plays ensue. There is a heated argument about who started the war and the entire situation is designed to function as a microcosm of the war proper and a comment on the futility of all wars. This first half of No Man’s Land functions better as a reflection on the nature of the Serb-Bosnian conflict than as a piece of actual filmic entertainment. The back and forth banter between the soldiers is enlightening, especially for someone like myself whose knowledge of the conflict is sadly limited. But it does not always make for entirely riveting viewing. It does at times feel a little too uneventful, like a few dudes sitting in a hole talking the whole time.
From around the midway part of the film, the role of the UN peace keeping mission and the media is focused on a lot more, as they both get involved in the unfolding situation. I thought this would weaken the film further, as the main thing I thought it had going for it was the claustrophobic setting of a single trench and the manner in which it forced these two combatants into close quarters. However, the change actually enhanced the film. The interactions between all these parties, especially between the media and the UN really works, making the film more dynamic and enjoyable, whilst still retaining the thought provoking strengths of the earlier segments. If anyone comes out of this anti-war piece looking the silliest, it is the heartless anti-interventionist and bumbling UN force. This depiction of the UN really does work, and remains pertinent to this day. As Libya has more recently shown us, these are fundamental issues concerning peacekeeping missions and similar. Just when, if ever can they go in and intervene. Equally as interesting is the examination of the role of the media in a warzone. It is simply so intrusive on the media’s part, but in the end it feeds a market that laps up footage from the ‘ground’ and interviews with combatants. The film shows both the positive and negative aspects of having the media around in these kinds of situations. They can be manipulative and there to tell cheap stories. But also, the best kinds of media in horrible situations are able to shed light on atrocities, and help force the relevant authorities to take action.
This, like many, is a film of two halves. Don’t be turned off by the slightly too ponderous first half, as the second is quite a phenomenal piece of work. And closes with an ending that you will definitely not find in a Hollywood war film, that’s for sure.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
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