May 2, 2002

Darkly Brilliant

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This is when I knew that No Man’s Land would be fucking brilliant: about half-way into the film a Bosnian soldier, sitting on the front lines of the Bosnian-Serbian War of 1993, peruses a newspaper and snickers at a headline. “What a mess in Rwanda,” he remarks.

It is this kind of dark, biting, almost sadistic humor that is sprinkled throughout No Man’s Land. Written and directed by Bosnian documentarian Danis Tanovic — who is better known for being the official film archivist for the Bosnian army — it tackles the topic of the war from an absolutely absurd but eventually witty angle.

Two soldiers, Tchicki (a Bosnian) and Nino (a Serbian), find themselves in a quandary. They’re stuck in a trench; one has a bullet in his shoulder, and the other has one in his abdomen. And just 50 yards on either side of them are the frontlines of their armies. But they can’t escape to safety because Tsera, a wounded Bosnian soldier, is lying on the ground in front of them with a mine under his back: if he moves an inch, he dies. (This becomes hysterical when Tsera tells Tchiki that he has to use the toilet. Tchiki tells him to piss in his pants, to which Tsera replies, “No, it’s the other.” Luckily for Tsera, the movie is only 97 minutes long.)

Sitting together in the trench, Tchiki and Nino reluctantly try to make small talk. The only problem is that their version of small talk involves debating who started the war, the Bosnians or the Serbs. When Nino refuses to accept responsibility on behalf of the Serbs, Tchiki takes a gun and points it in between his eyes. “Who started the war?” Tchiki asks angrily, and Nino finally relents.

No Man’s Land is quite amusing, even comical at times. Tanovic is marvelous in wrapping a horrific subject in a blanket of black sarcasm. But as Tanovic is spoon-feeding us the laughs, he also packages in a weighty critique of the war itself. The back-and-forth between Tchiki and Nino proves the absurdity and triviality of the war, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. A wonderful digression about a UN peacekeeping soldier (Georges Siatidis) who’s trying to heroically save the stranded soldiers and the parasitic journalist (Katrin Cartlidge) who’s trying to make him talk on camera also makes it obvious that Tanovic disagrees with international treatment of the war.

In all honesty, No Man’s Land probably cost less to produce than what I’m paying Cornell for my diploma. Most of it is set in a green valley that looks like it could be your backyard (that is, if your backyard has tanks and heavy artillery). But it doesn’t need any bells or whistles. With clever humor, No Man’s Land neatly reveals the naked truth of a futile war. Now if someone could just make a movie this funny about Rwanda.

Archived article by Shiva Nagaraj