No Man's Land

a film by Denis Tanovic

The winner of this yearÕs Academy Award as the Best Foreign Language Film is a highly-effective, deeply-felt film that, despite moments of ironic humor, is painful to watch. It deals with a difficult subject with the unflinching, uncompromising honesty that is both compelling and terrifying. Written and directed by Denis Tanovic, who was born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, the film seeks to express his horror at the breakdown of civil society he witnessed and his revulsion at seeing his country enveloped by war and his countrymen ruthlessly killing one another.

Like the 1993 Macedonian film Before The Rain, which was also produced by Noˇ Productions, the company that brought this story to the screen, No ManÕs Land presents a relentlessly pessimistic vision of impotence in the face of hate and cruelty that leaves a first impression of complete hopelessness. As the images settle in, however, (and particularly the devastating final image) that impression changes and a different sense can emerge. The bleakness of the filmed story provokes a reaction that canÕt help but be tinged with refusal of and rebellion against that dark parable.

The film contains all the pivotal elements of classic tragedy. The two protagonists are at bottom good-hearted men. They love their families, are loyal to their friends, try to be brave in spite of their fears, struggle to do their duty. But they are brought down by their tragic flaw - a short-sighted, distorted view of the world, an ignorance and lack of sensitivity, that lets them get sucked into the insanity that is war. Like Stephen CraneÕs classic novel, The Red Badge of Courage, the film is less an exploration of the politics involved in the conflict it depicts than it is an attempt to portray, in a visceral and immediate way, the horror of the war - on a very personal level - into which the conflict devolves.

In a statement about the film, Tanovic has said, ŅCharacters in this story look quite alike. They are simple people, almost anti-heroes, caught in the jaws of war. A man on one side could easily be found on the other. Only his name would be different....But the point of the film is not to accuse. The story is not about pointing at those who did wrong. The point is to raise a voice against war.Ó And it is an effective and affecting voice that Tanovic raises.

Using startling juxtapositions of the blackest kinds of gallows humor with suspense, action and repulsive images of violence and death - some taken from archival footage from the Bosnian war - Tanovic launches an all out assault on our complacency and security, and most especially on our desire to believe that everything will work out for the best.

To convey the brutality of the situation, Tanovic treats the audience with merciless directness. The powerlessness of the forces of reason, the weaknesses of faculties of trust, honor and empathy in the face of the madness of war are displayed with an offhanded realism that is more powerful than any attempt to dramatize could be.

This aspect of the story is personified by Sergeant Marchand (George Siatidis), head of a patrol for UNPROFOR, the UN force whose poorly-defined, shakily-supported and tentatively-enacted mission reflects the inability of world powers to mount an effective strategy to control the violence. Marchand has all the right instincts - his intentions are good - but the realities of the situation on the ground demonstrate the futility of intention - and even. sometimes, of action.

Marchand's courageous and insubordinate "rescue mission" founders between the rock of bureaucratic/political stupidity and the hard place of the intransigence of those who are the target of his altruism. This dilemma leads to a "resolution" which is a blackly humorous condemnation of the violence, the pettiness, the stupidity and the brutality of human beings that expresses itself most clearly in our wars. Marchand's conclusion that "neutrality" is an adsurd fiction, and that to do nothing is to be complicit in everything that is done is a conclusion worthy ot the existentialists at their most profound.

But Tanovic's script is spare. His characters don't philosophize, they simply express themselves, often in the platitudes of "patriotism" that contrast sharply with the total lack of regard in which they are held by their respective "comrades" in the opposing armies. The banal, simplistic bickering in which they engage calls to mind the absurdist arguments so common in the work of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco - but with more pointed and specific consequences.

The work of his actors is competent and totally appropriate to the film as a whole. These are not exceptional characters, and the film is in no way a "character study. Their very "ordinariness," their identification as "everyman" sets the stage for what is much more an exploration of human character than individuality. The lead actors were deservedly nominated for awards at a number of international film festivals and prize competitions.

Branko Djuric as the Serb, Tchiki, and Rene Bitorajac as the Croat, Nino, set just the right tone of indifference to political issues, which yet does not preclude their embrace of slogans and the rhetoric of blame. Their tentative recognition of their mutual predicament and the common humanity they share provides an element of tension and suspense around which the plot of the film revolves.

As Sergeant Marchand, for whom involvement is a way of rebelling against the status quo, George Siatidis projects an inviting earnestness coupled with a world-weary Gallic cynicism that creates an effective second perspective toward the action. Katrin Cartlidge, who plays international news-reporter Jane Livingstone, effectively personifies those whose passion about the suffering and commitment to "the truth" are somehow confusingly interwoven with their own material self-interest.

No one is spared in Tanovic's bleak, black view of war and the situations it spawns. Like such giants of satirical literature as Mark Twain and Evelyn Waugh at their most acid, Tanovic evokes a world gone mad, populated by self-destructive fools who don't even notice that the madness is of their own devising.

But as in classic tragedy, the reaction need not be despair. The "cathartic" effect of tragedy lies in its ability to present bleak and bitter circumstances, full of suffering, and yet let us find nobility - if not in the characters, then in ourselves. The fact that Tanovic is able to move us to the low point that he does testifies to the fact that we are not willing to accept the kind of madness he is exposing, that we are conscious of the destructive ironies and dangerous absurdities of the kind of thinking and action we witness here.

It is in the reaction he is able to provoke that Tanovic achieves his goal. He gives us a felt-experience of the insanity of war, and seeks to provoke us -as he has been provoked - to raise a voice against it. No Man's Land should take a place with Lewis MillhouseÕs 1930 All Quiet On The Western Front and Kubrick'sŹPaths Of Glory as human documents of a high order in the continuing battle against our own darkest nature.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z