This is a war, and it is presented without a hint of panache of Saving Private Ryan or Thin Red Line. What we have is a bunch of guys, as regular as one gets, plodding through the night fog to relieve a front-line unit. This group does not even have the smoldering determination of A Band of Brothers: they are more like a bunch of working stiffs, sent by the local Communist committee to fix a cattle barn in the country. Same tired jokes, same kidding around Ö we donít even know which side they are on. It may come as a surprise to many in this country, but Serbs-Croats-Bosnians all speak the same language (some use different alphabets). The sun comes up, bright and glorious, and with it the Serbian flag over the fortifications. Oh shit. Within seconds they are dead. Is that how comedies open?
To be on the safe side, the Serbs send two soldiers to recon the "middle" trench, halfway between the Serbian and Bosnian front lines. The sergeant is experienced, but the nerd-like Nino had just arrived and doesnít even know how to suit up properly. The trench seems abandoned, and out of pure spite that passes for fighting spirit in todaysís wars, the sergeant places a "bouncing" mine under one of the dead bodies. The idea is that the mine will go off only when someone tries to pick up the body.
Unbeknownst to the Serbs, one of the Bosnians has survived. Stunned by the explosion, Ciki rolled into the trench and was now waiting for the Serbs to leave. Once detected, he opens fire and kills the sergeant. Nino is wounded, and Ciki does not have the nerve to finish him off. Now the dead man, Cera, is showing signs of life Ė but Nino cautions him not to get up lest he is blown to pieces. Letís do inventory: one wounded Serb, one wounded Bosnian, and another wounded Bosnian atop a deadly mine. All in No Manís Land.
This is the first feature by a young Danis Tanovic, and symbols abound. He puts together a very plain no-frills drama, a Balkan Beckett, where Godot is played by the Smurfs, as the Bosnians call UNPROFOR, the international peacemaking force wearing blue helmets. While in the trench the two fighters circle each other like two neurotic lovers, now sharing memories of a girl with big tits they both knew once, now breaking up and reaching for their weapons, the peacemakers are bogged down in the UN-style military-bureucratic quagmire. It takes Marchant, a young French sergeant (a lot of production money came from the French and the Belgians), to break through the red tape and try to bring the two men out. Add to this Jane Livingstone, an enterprising TV reporter, played by the alternately tough and frisky Katrin Cartlidge (her Claire Dolan is a must-see), and the cast is complete. Ultimately no one is in charge here. Jane has her ratings-hungry producers, and Marchand his hedonistic donít-rock-the-boat British general Ė and absurdities pile up at a clip, but is it a comedy? Hardly, considering the ending that I shouldnít reveal. A tragedy? Where are the high speeches then?
Tanovic is trying to make the filmís texture plain and unvarnished, and for the most time he succeeds, but the effort shows through: he sets up symbols, like the-man-on-the-mine or a chessboard in the Brit generalís office, and then he tries to pump them with life. Artistically, this is not as inspired as Emir Kusturitsaís Underground or even Goran Paskaljevicís Cabaret Balkan, and his humor is not as natural as that of, say, Faruk Sokolovic, another Bosnian director, who made a warm and funny comedy called Milky Way about Sarajevans trying to emigrate. In fact, Tanovic isnít even trying to be funny. The only obvious joke is the arrival of the German mine specialist. "He said heíd be here at 3:30." "What time is it now?" "3:30. But heís a German." Bingo, the specialistís jeep pulls up. The humor is strictly cross-cultural, even linguistic, where Serbs pretend they understand English, and the French pretend to agree.
Simple as the film seems to be, there is quite a bit of calculated playing-to-the-West showing through Ė hard to say whether this comes from Tanovic going to film school in Belgium or from the international financing (the list of producers is longer than the cast). There is no denying that the heart of this film is in the right place: it is perfectly pacifist, with neither side given a hint of advantage. Yet there is a documentary insert there, perhaps made at the producersí insistence, which explains the whole conflict in the high-minded PBS fashion with a liberal-hawkish twist. One can imagine the marketing mogulsí memos on how this perfunctory clip that sits like a thorn in the middle of the movie would take the film beyond the art-house circuit, straight to the malls, whose denizens had spent the Ď90s clicking between reality-based shows and financial channels and could not tell Slovenia from Slovakia if their lives depended on it.
So one cannot get rid of the nagging thought that every ounce of the effort that goes into making a well-meant film takes away from the film as a work of art. This is something that great directors from Eisenstein to Kusturitsa have struggled with. Tanovic has done his own struggling, and it shows. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesnít. Perhaps the success of No Manís Land will strengthen his hand with producers, and next time he will be more free to care about the film itself than about its politics.