Tuesday, October 4, 2016

2001 Winner, No Man's Land

No Man’s Land

Director: Danis Tanović
Distributed by: United Artists
Released: September 2001
Countries:  Bosnia--Herzegovina (also Slovenia, Italy, France, Belgium, and the UK)

One of the most interesting aspects of the American Civil War is the shared heritage and culture of the two enemies.  Guys who went to West Point and fought in the Mexican War together, men who often thought of each other as brothers, were opposing officers of the Union and the Confederacy.  In the ranks, there are stories of Rebels and Yankees singing Christmas hymns together and exchanging tobacco and coffee during lulls in the war.  The war was the war, but it seemed like deep down, they were all Americans.

The Bosnian War of the 90’s was not that war.  The history of the region region is complicated, but it breaks down to the Bosniaks hating the Serbs and the Serbs hating the Bosniaks.  The Serbs under Milosevic were especially brutal in this war, but neither side was innocent of war crimes.  It is this hateful atmosphere that is the backdrop for No Man’s Land.

At war in the trenches
Essentially, this film takes place in one setting—a trench in between the fronts of the Bosniaks and the Serbs, a “no man’s land,” if you will.  In the fog of war, a Bosniak and a Serb get caught in the trench together, knowing that with the confusion taking place, their own people might shoot at them if they try to leave.  There are Serbian land mines all over the place as well.   So this Bosniak--we’ll call him Oscar (because I would never be able to pronounce or spell his real name)--and this Serb--who we’ll call Felix--are stuck and must learn to work together or die for sure.  The question is, can two opposing men share a trench together without driving each other crazy?

Simon Callow: A Room with a View
Add to the mix the fact that the Serbs had taken one of Oscar’s Bosniak dead buddies and stuck him on a land mine as a booby trap and you have a real awkward situation on your hands.  Now, the reveal that the guy on the booby trap isn’t really dead—what next?!

As I watched this movie, I really thought maybe Oscar and Felix would start finding that, gosh, you know, deep down we’re all human beings living on the same rock, and we had better all learn to get along or else.  At one point during a conversation, it turns out that Felix’s wife was once in a bowling league with Oscar’s sister-in-law (or something like that): really an “Isn’t it a small world?” moment.  Maybe things will work out?  Adding to the farce is when the UN steps in to help.  Simon Callow, who you may remember from a supporting role in 1985’s A Room With a View (okay, maybe not—he’s also the villain in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls) plays a UN observer who does about as much good as the UN ever does—none.  All in all it is a farce.

Simon Callow: Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.  Now do you know who I mean?
Truth be told, for awhile I wasn’t sure if this was intended to be a comedy or a drama.  It certainly has the feel of a M*A*S*H or even a Dr. Strangelove, sort of a zany satire on war.  Closer in tone, perhaps, is Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory from 1957, giving us a sort of philosophical morality play.   

Ultimately, there isn’t anything funny going on here.  This is war, and Serbs and Bosniaks don’t like each other, period.  And this war was a particularly ugly one, with genocide and rapes and all sort of nasty stuff going on.  Without giving the ending away, there are no Christmas carols sung, nor tobacco or coffee exchanged between these guys.  The war was the war.

The Title:  Ničija zemlja.  That’s Bosnian. 

The Culture:  Interesting that this movie came out in September 2001.  The Bosnian war dominated the news in the late 90’s and the treaty to end the war was hashed out at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.  The U.S. was a main player in ending this war, and thereby, ending the war crimes against the Bosnian Muslims.  This film, if nothing else, reminds us of the destruction of that war.

Agenda Danger:  Written and directed by a Bosnian, I thought this played right down the middle, with everyone having a mix of humanity and stupidity.  Except the UN, who are portrayed as useless, at least in this instance.

Best Picture that year:  A Beautiful Mind.

Rating:  Worth a look if you like war movies, especially the anti-war kind.

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