by Amy Corbin
From Film Quarterly Autumn 2006, Vol. 60, No. 1
Although conflict in the Balkans has been out of the headlines for several years, Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001) stands out among other recent war movies for its strong indictment of the intertwined nature of war, global power, and media. The Bosnian-French-Italian-Belgian-Slovenian-Eurimages co-production remakes the subgenre of war satire and subtly questions conventional narrative structure. Its multiple countries of origin point towards its many differences from both contemporary U.S. and Balkan war movies: its point of view is not anchored in any one national perspective, but sees a local ethnic conflict from a roaming vantage point, moving between two soldiers from opposing sides stuck in a stalemate, hamstrung U.N. officials, and an intrusive TV journalist. Though produced in October 2000, the film was released in the U.S. in December 2001, in time to be nominated for and win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. Tanović, a Bosnian and first-time feature filmmaker, has created a quietly original film that captures the ironies and simulations of contemporary wars more thoughtfully than the in-your-face realism of Black Hawk Down (2001) and its U.S. imitators.
To bring out the fundamental elements of the war satire and show the ways in which No Man’s Land distinguishes itself, some brief remarks on another distinctive war satire, David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999), are helpful. The two films have many parallels, beginning with what I call the “missing war”—soldiers inactive, journalists desperate for a scoop, and the rest of the world watching the conflict through over-saturated TV coverage.1 Three Kings juxtaposes comedy and action melodrama to make a political statement about the absurdity of the (first) Gulf War. Similar to M∗A∗S∗H (1970), the comedy turns on the lack of combat: American soldiers aimlessly shoot a nerf football or a cow while they wait for action. Then the film finds its narrative trajectory and its characters find their moral compass when they observe the suffering of the Iraqi people and help a group of dissidents escape. The initially innovative film becomes more conventional as American characters become the heroes, rescuing the victimized locals. Here the film switches gears from postmodern satire to action melodrama, performed through heroic actions, “in the nick of time” rescues, and dialogue which creates emotional connection between characters. Narratively and stylistically, then, Three Kings is based on juxtaposition and transition between the comic and melodramatic modes, suggesting that the comic mode is a reflection of U.S. consumer capitalism, while the melodramatic mode reflects true humanitarian values.
No Man’s Land also features dry humor and the lack of combat but right in the middle of a very dirty, real war. Geographically speaking, this is literal: a Serbian and a Bosnian soldier are trapped in a trench in no-man’s-land, between the front lines of the opposing armies. The comedy is not in juxtaposition with more serious moments, but felt as a grim irony underneath every action. In part, this reflects a Balkan tradition of bitter humor as a survival mechanism,2 but No Man’s Land is distinct both from the dark comedies set during wartime and the serious war dramas because it is actually a (semi-)comedy on the battlefield—a hybrid of these two genres. For U.S. audiences, it is also significant that in a film about international intervention, there is no U.S. protagonist to lead us into the foreign conflict and therefore the film de-emphasizes the role of the U.S. in global power relations. The characters are actors on a world stage: they switch languages with ease, understanding that their lives are constantly about crossing borders. To use a film metaphor, Tanović represents the Bosnian war as an ensemble cast of nationalities rather than a star vehicle.
The plot outline mimics the political story of the conflict it depicts, progressing from an extremely personal and localized incident to one of global involvement. When two soldiers, the Bosnian Ĉiki (Branko Djurić) and Nino (Rene Bitorajac), find themselves caught in the trench, the situation seems awkward but not tragic—until they discover another Bosnian soldier who was presumed dead, but now comes to consciousness. They realize that Ĉera (Filip Ŝovagović) is lying on a “bouncing mine,” a particularly heinous American-made weapon which explodes not when an object presses down upon it, but when the object releases pressure. Now in addition to being trapped in the trench until nighttime, Ĉiki is bound to try to save ?era, whose death seems inevitable. Long scenes in the trench follow, in which Ĉiki and Nino argue over who started the war, physically injure each other, and get to know a little about each other’s pasts. The sense of entrapment and waiting is communicated through a sliver of blue sky and trees (the world outside the trench) at the very top of the frame and by a restrained, almost completely diegetic soundtrack of birds and insects chirping. The landscape robs the conflict of any epic quality, forcing it into dirt and stripping it down to essentials.
The sense of endless waiting contributes both to the film’s deconstruction of the war genre and to its dark comedy. Over and over, characters expect something to happen and it never does. When Ĉiki finds a gun and shoots Nino, Nino falls to the ground, filmed from a high-angle shot suggestive of Ĉiki’s point of view. (Tanović often films from various subjective angles to underscore his point that wars always have multiple points of view, especially one with so many nations involved.) The camera then switches to a low-angle shot from Nino’s point of view looking up at Ĉiki with the gun, the blue sky behind him. As Nino closes his eyes, bracing for the impact that will end his life, the camera again lingers on him from a high angle and waits, but no gunfire comes. He opens his eyes, only to see the same low-angle view of blue sky with no Ĉiki, who has silently disappeared. There was no climax, neither in violence, dialogue, nor action (one could imagine a dramatic gesture of Ĉiki putting down the gun and making a show of sparing his life). The incident trails off rather than ends, our curiosity about what happened only answered with another cut to a long shot of Ĉiki who has moved to another part of the trench. For Tanović, the agony of war becomes pain that is drawn out over hours: Ĉiki and Nino killing time, Ĉera forced to have a bowel movement in his pants, and finally his implied slow death when every other human is forced to abandon him in the trench. In this way, No Man’s Land defies any association between the action genre and the war genre. For to equate the two is to say that war has a narrative, which is to say action that leads to a climax and a resolution. Tanović rejects this assumption, instead showing how war is about the tension of waiting for something to happen. The fact that the “something” we wait for throughout the film (the mine exploding) never happens, underscores his point that it is not a narrative but rather an ongoing and unpredictable series of events. The only reason it “stops” is because the media and the world community decide to focus their attention on a new story.
In this sequence, the irony arises from our (and Nino’s) expectation of action and the film’s denial of such an expectation. The very “missing”-ness of the combat is a source of humor at other moments. We leave the trench for a moment to witness soldiers lounging at the front lines listening to upbeat music on the radio. One is reading the newspaper and deadpans to the other: “What a mess in Rwanda!” Another element of Tanović’s satire is the unnatural and sometimes comic situations war creates. After Ĉiki shoots Nino, he forces him to strip down to his underwear and get on top of the trench waving a white tee shirt to let the armies know their whereabouts. Tanović cuts back to the same soldiers on the front lines as they see Nino hobbling around and ask each other: “Is he ours?” “It’s not written on his boxers,” another replies. The casual dialogue and understated editing, which juxtaposes a point-of-view shot through binoculars of Nino looking clownish with medium shots of the poker-faced soldiers, creates a sense of absurdity as the status quo. In contrast to the pop culture-saturated humor of Three Kings, in which the American soldiers initially laugh because they are removed from human suffering, until the film “teaches” them compassion, the humor of No Man’s Land is born of men immersed in suffering. Laughter helps them navigate a war that does not make sense, one between fellow countrymen. No Man’s Land never becomes a true comedy: it is not laughter the film evokes so much as a grim smile.3
With the introduction of the U.N., the film reaches a new level of absurdity. The French Sgt. Marchand (Georges Siatidis) learns of the trapped men and decides to investigate. When he requests a mine expert, his superiors forbid him from acting until their hand is forced by Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge), an aggressive “Global News Channel” journalist (with a little behind-the-scenes help from Marchand). Thus begins No Man’s Land‘s critique of global media and the representation of war. Global significance is bestowed upon a local conflict either by politicians of dominant countries (who are absent in this film) or the media. In this case the world begins to care because Jane is able to seize on the human-interest potential and make a random accident into a “story.” The U.N.—without the power to narrativize itself—must play catch-up.
So in the presence of cameras, the commander of U.N. troops in Bosnia flies in by helicopter and tries to cast himself and his organization in the role of “hero” by bringing the mine expert. When it becomes clear that successful resolution of the crisis is impossible (the mine cannot be defused), the best thing the U.N. can hope for is to win the public-relations battle. They drag out a fake body on a stretcher, pretending it is ?era’s and telling the journalists he is heading to the hospital for treatment, while the mine expert sits silently in the trench with ?era, out of sight of the media. This performance of power wins the war on the international TV screen, but not on the ground. The juxtaposition of waiting in the trench and the artificial performance of action is part of Tanović’s strategy of countering the satisfying narrative flow of a Hollywood war movie. The subject of war is a good fit for classical narrative because it has two opposing sides and a naturally adversarial structure, which allows for conflicts, a climax, and a resolution. No Mans Land repeatedly negates the war narrative: first, by presenting two adversaries who are paralyzed and unable to fight, and then by revealing the creation of false narratives to hide the inability of powerful institutions to make progress.
Related to Tanović’s deconstruction of war narrative is his refusal to designate a true hero. Sgt. Marchand seems a potential hero in contrast to the blundering and bureaucratic U.N. After receiving orders to stay put, Marchand is restless, asking “why the fuck are we here?” He answers himself sarcastically: “To stop the killing, except we can’t get into dangerous situations or use force.” Marchand’s decision to go into the trench and then get the media involved is based on common sense and humanitarian values, the reactions of a man who insists on a rational response to an irrational situation, but he is undermined by the indifference of global politics and the brutally simple reality of the mine. If a hero is a character who acts, Marchand is ultimately prevented from playing this role due to the insane situation in which he tries to intervene.
As a representative of the media establishment, Jane Livingstone seems to have more power to affect change than Marchand. Like Marchand, she is somewhat at odds with the institution to which she belongs, but Tanović gives her less moral clarity than him. Her motives seem to be both noble and self-serving, while the network headquarters is concerned exclusively with being competitive in the media marketplace. Cuts to the network headquarters in London when colleagues give Jane instructions reveal their ignorance of the conditions on the ground. Their impossible demands and the instant communication between Jane and headquarters expose the structure of global news: technology masks the very real geographical distance between the reporter on the ground and the editorial staff, distance that represents the gap between lived experience and consumption of images. Jane and her reality are just images to the network. This is graphically illustrated by shots in the newsroom in which employees talk to Jane’s picture on multiple T.V. screens.
Ultimately, though, the geographies of power override physical proximity. For all her good intentions and on-the-ground reporting, Jane will always be more closely tied to her colleagues at network headquarters than to the two soldiers. She attempts to act as a translator, funneling information to viewers (both the assumed TV audience within the world of the film and us watching the film) in a format that is recognizable and dramatic enough to hold our attention, for the purpose of alleviating suffering. But her very strategy of shaping events into a climactic plot structure makes her a metonym for Hollywood and Western media. When Jane approaches the trench, she tries to speak English to the men, asking “how they feel” and trying to bribe them with cigarettes. She is startled by their anger towards her: when Nino understands the questions she is asking, he throws the cigarette back and flicks her off. Jane’s position high up in the frame reaching down towards Nino in the trench with the cigarette and Nino’s head barely above the bottom of the frame, is a perfect visual enactment of their power relations and the way in which Jane is simultaneously part of their reality and on a different plane. While she is aware that publicity is a tool to leverage a humane reaction to the situation, her attempt to make the soldier’s ordeal into a melodrama seems like an insult to their suffering.
Language barriers also separate those who operate on a global stage from Ĉiki and Nino, the provincial players locked in their private conflict. One of the film’s most wrenching ironies is that Ĉiki and Nino are closer to each other than to anyone else, like squabbling siblings. The U.N. officers try different languages with everyone they encounter, always settling on English as the common one. Jane and Marchand frequently switch between English and French. But everyone who tries to converse with Ĉiki and Nino is met with incomprehension while the bitter enemies speak the same language —theirs is the only fluent communication in the film. When Nino tries to translate U.N. instructions for Ĉiki with his tiny bit of English, Ĉiki snaps: “I don’t need a translator.” Language keeps them figuratively in the trench even when they physically leave it.
The power of No Man’s Land comes from blending elements which are traditionally opposite (the comic and tragic modes, two sides in a war) in order to expose the real conflicts of our times: the global versus the local and the real versus the mediated. The final sequences stage these conflicts in powerful visual terms. As everyone converges on the trench, it is as if there are two plays occurring on the same stage. The foreigners roam in a crowd—blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers (constantly made fun of as “Smurfs”) trying to rein in the swarming journalists—while Ĉiki and Nino, who have been escorted out of the trench, are each framed alone, glaring at each other in a series of shot-reverse shots. At one moment Ĉiki yells at the crowd surrounding the trench: “You’re [U.N. soldiers] all the same! And you vultures [journalists] film it. Does our misery pay well?” The two soldiers share disdain for the journalists and the U.N., as well as the common experience of war and the trench, but at the same time they will always be separated by their hatred. An abstract hatred based on ethnicity—which was almost overcome during a few conversations early in the movie—has evolved into personal hatred due to the small acts of violence each man has inflicted on the other. While the world will move on, Ĉiki and Nino (and the groups they represent) remain inextricably tied to each other.
The simmering glares and cross-cutting between Ĉiki and Nino finally burst into violence when Ĉiki shoots Nino and is himself shot by a U.N. soldier. The only real action sequence in the film is shown with a quick series of medium shots, isolating each move that escalates the violence. The sound of camera shutters is overlaid with the gunshots, underscoring the connection between media and modern warfare. Tanović then contrasts the physical witnessing of a violent act with the mediation of the same act: a medium shot of Ĉiki’s lifeless body is bathed in the amber light of early sunset, followed by a grainy video duplicate of the same shot, as if through the lens of Jane’s cameraman, who nods when she whispers “Did you get it?” She is split at this moment: horrified and moved at the spectacle of death, but never forgetting her quest for newsworthy footage. The video shot is followed by a series of silent reaction shots, including the network employees watching their wall of TV screens. The deaths puncture through the invisible barrier of images, producing real emotion in those who are culturally or geographically removed from suffering.
However, it is just a moment and the professionals (Jane and the U.N. commander) get right back to business. As they pack up to leave, Jane’s cameraman asks her if he should film the trench and she replies: “A trench is a trench; they’re all the same.” If she had agreed, she would have discovered Ĉera still lying there and would have gotten the truth of the situation as well as the much sought-after “story.” With this move, Tanović suggests that the narrativizing tendencies of the media—building up two sides, showing conflict and resolution, creating pathetic victims in need of rescue—are vastly ill-suited to the realities of war. The news waits for (or creates) a climax in the action; it cannot stick around if the plot is going nowhere. Ultimately, the words Jane uttered earlier for the camera in a dramatic tone are still true: “The absurdity of war continues. How will this all end? Stay tuned.”
The last moments of the film mirror the beginning, a comic episode of Bosnian soldiers who could barely move because of a thick fog. This time it is sunny and clear but there is a new and more tragic sense of paralysis. The camera switches to an overhead shot of ?era’s body, his stomach moving slowly up and down as he breathes. We hear insects chirping, reminiscent of the long scenes in the trench. The camera stays on him for so long, moving slowly upwards, that a viewer expects some sort of movement—might he move just so the mine will explode and his agony will end? No, he stays still and eventually the shot fades to black. The black screen, with its return to the haunting female voice heard at the beginning of the film, suggests that the camera is incapable of capturing a real ending for the film (and the war). True war is the breakdown of image and narrative—and yet in contemporary times, “wars” are created based on these very fictions.
AMY CORBIN is a Ph.D. candidate in the Film Studies program at the University of California Berkeley, working on how popular American cinema constructs its landscapes as culturally or racially distinct.