No Man's Land Review
God knows I’ve had cause to be rude about the Oscars in general and the Best Foreign Film Oscar in particular on more occasions than I care to remember – but once in a while they get it spectacularly right. Right up until the ceremony, conventional wisdom had it that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie was such a dead cert that the other nominees might as well give up and go home – but somehow No Man’s Land managed to get through not only the arcane selection procedures (as a French co-production with a substantial chunk of its dialogue in English, there were at least two potential areas for disqualification) but also won over the Academy voters.
And rightly so, as No Man’s Land is to Amelie (a film that mimics the surface of the masterpieces of Renoir, Vigo and Carné but replaces their heart, soul and humanity with winsome cuteness and clever-clever special effects) what Catch-22 and The Good Soldier Svejk are to the novels of Barbara Cartland.
It’s one of those rare films that’s deceptively entertaining on the surface until it becomes all too painfully clear that far from being a light, ironic black comedy, it’s a passionate, deeply angry film about some of the worst injustices of the past decade, and its fundamental moral point – that doing nothing to prevent atrocities can make you as morally culpable as the people who committed the atrocities in the first place – is as resonant today as it was nearly a decade ago, when the film is set. Indeed, I watched it less than a month after the resignation of the Dutch government over the ineffectiveness of their peacekeeping forces in the Balkans, making it as urgent and up-to-the-minute as any news bulletin.
I don’t want to give away any major spoilers – this is the sort of film that revels in pulling the rug out from under its audience’s expectations – but the basic situation of No Man’s Land involves a prank gone horribly wrong, resulting in three soldiers – two Bosnian, one Serb – stranded in a trench between enemy lines with one of them forced to lie on a mine designed to explode with devastating force once pressure is released from the detonator, not applied.
Not too surprisingly, this creates a certain amount of tension, which isn’t helped by the fact that the Bosnians and the Serb utterly loathe each other – their conversation (if that isn’t too low-key a term) is laced with constant bickering about why they’re in this mess and who started the war in the first place. Meanwhile, their compatriots on both sides of the trench decide that the best thing to do would be to ring the UN peacekeepers and get them to sort the whole mess out.
And this is where the film shifts from black comedy to the kind of farce where, as one critic once memorably wrote of a Joe Orton play, you feel the uncomfortable sensation of choking with laughter on your own vomit. The film pulls absolutely no punches in its depiction of an organisation riven with pointless bureaucracy and meaningless mission statements, where multiple languages cause absolute chaos - this last point being especially ironic as the two warring sides have no trouble communicating with each other.
The bulk of the UNPROFOR team is French, the mine disposal expert is German and they’re presided over by Simon Callow’s hilarious Colonel Soft, a supposedly tough-talking and plain-speaking bearer of the stiffest of upper lips who, despite maintaining a convincing air of command and control, quite clearly doesn’t have a clue what to do. Small wonder that the fighters on the ground dismissively call them “the Smurfs” and only called them in the first place to pass the buck onto them. No-one speaks more than two languages, and frequently they only know one – and it’s usually not Serbo-Croat, making it next to impossible to communicate meaningfully with the warring factions aside from crude mimes of guns and explosions.
All this is observed by crusading journalist Jane Livingston (Katrin Cartlidge), who senses a major story but is powerless to do much about it – her intended interviewees are either banned from speaking to her, refuse to speak to her (in unbroadcastable language and gestures) or talk pre-rehearsed soundbite bollocks, and even when she does manage to put usable material together, there’s no guarantee that it won’t be distorted by her editorial team and end up as a jumble of pointless clichés, however laudable her original motives.
This is the film that Three Kings wanted to be, but while the latter was finally sunk by sprawling over-ambition and irrelevant subplots, No Man’s Land sticks to its central theme as tenaciously as poor Cera has to stick to the mine, adding layer upon layer to the surrounding chaos to create – insofar as this is possible in a single film – an all too convincing explanation of just why events like the Srebrenica massacre (where a single day saw the deaths of more than double the number of people that were killed on September 11) were able to occur, despite the alleged “protection” being offered by the UN. The film never refers explicitly to this, but we’re shown footage of Bosnian Serb leader and alleged Srebrenica perpetrator Radovan Karadzic in a context that makes it all too clear what happens when people are happier spending time paying lip service to the concept of peace instead of actually enforcing it on the ground.
If I’ve made No Man’s Land sound like an attack on the UN, I should make it clear that the film blames the “peacekeeping” process as a whole rather than the work of the individuals charged with carrying it out, many of whom, most notably Marchand (Georges Siatidis), are shown as being dedicated to the point of heroism - not that they receive any thanks for it. Indeed, he’s virtually threatened with court-martial for deserting his post purely so that he can find out what the hell’s happening on what’s technically his watch.
Writer-director Danis Tanovic is himself Bosnian, and has spent his film-making career up to now making a series of distinguished documentaries about his country in general and the last decade in particular, including 300 hours of front-line footage for the Bosnian army archives. This is his first fiction feature, but it’s hardly a debut – he’s saying exactly the same things that he’s been saying in his documentaries, but in a more accessible form.
This is emphatically not the work of a beginner – his direction is consistently assured and inventive, making particularly effective use of the Scope frame to underscore the divisions between the various factions, and he brings it in at an admirably tight 98 minutes. It’s a lot more disciplined than the other Balkan films I’ve seen about similar subjects – brilliant though Underground and Pretty Village, Pretty Flame often were, they were so anarchic that pertinent points too often got buried by the surrounding chaos.
If it’s ultimately not quite the masterpiece that The Battle of Algiers so undoubtedly is, the fact that it’s worthy of the comparison speaks volumes. No Man’s Land is the kind of film that exposes most contemporary cinema as being self-indulgent navel-gazing – and I’m hugely impressed that its UK distributors have decided to open it against the new Star Wars film. It’s a huge gamble, but it’s entirely in keeping with its take-no-prisoners stance – and its all too graphic, ruthlessly unsentimental adult realism is the perfect antidote to George Lucas’ antiseptic computer-generated children’s fantasy.
Comfortably the best film I’ve seen this year, and better than anything I saw during 2001, No Man’s Land should be compulsory viewing for anyone tempted to over-generalise, glibly take sides or rely on the judgement of the international community when it comes to contemporary conflicts. Much the same story could be transplanted to the West Bank, Afghanistan or even conceivably Belfast and remarkably little would have to be changed – the basic moral argument would still ring as loudly and clearly as it does here.
Tanovic’s next project is apparently about September 11, which suggests a Hollywood career is probably not on the cards – but it’s a cheering sign that he clearly has no intention of selling out in the future. Europe needs more film-makers like him – and more films like this.