War and Peace

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Review of 'No Man's Land', director Danis Tanovic

Sometimes you see an image so often that it becomes familiar and meaningless, and the scenes of wars we see on television are one example. During the civil war that consumed Yugoslavia in the 1990s, a television reporter would talk to camera in front of armoured personnel carriers full of UN peacekeepers, the sound of shelling going on behind them. But it does not take much to make an apparently familiar situation seem new.

The action in 'No Man's Land' takes place almost exclusively in a deserted trench between the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Muslim front lines, where two soldiers from the opposing sides have ended up, not knowing how to get out. Rather than towns being bombed or people driven out of their homes, we simply have two representatives of the opposing sides, forced to talk because each is reluctant to kill the other outside of combat. And they can do this because they share the same language--indeed a short time before lived in the same country--and even discover that they have a mutual friend. But they are still sworn enemies.

I felt for a moment when watching this film the strangeness that people in Yugoslavia must have felt seeing places and people they knew transformed by the context of war. In 'No Man's Land' we are shown war from the ground up, from the point of view of stranded soldiers who panic because they fear for their lives. At a couple of points they argue over who started it and which side did what. But mostly they are trying to get out alive, even if that means working together in order to do so. They are neither bloodthirsty monsters nor reluctant participants.

The UN peacekeepers have no peace to keep. Their commanding officers are cynical and the soldiers at a loss for what to do. The television crews are hunting for the next exclusive, the dramatic scene to capture ratings from their competitors. The portrayal of the UN soldiers will not make comfortable viewing for anyone who thought they could help to resolve the conflict. And you do not have to have read or seen that much about the war in Bosnia to care about the characters or understand what is happening, because the story focuses on a few individuals, without turning them into some typical embodiment of the Bosnian Serbs or Muslims.

At times this is a weakness in the way the plot is set up. There is a limit to where you can take the brief relationship that develops between the two soldiers. The film is too realistic to have them look up into the sky and suddenly realise the errors of war and nationalism before embracing in common brotherhood. But the flipside to this it that it is not too hard to work out how the situation is likely to end up, thus narrowing the scope for dramatic tension. Despite this, I found 'No Man's Land' to be a thought-provoking film that avoids some of the traps other depictions of the Bosnian war have been caught by, mixed in with moments of irony and humour.