Directed by Danis Tanoviæ, starring Branko Djuriæ, Rene Bitorajac, Filip Šovagoviæ, Georges Siatidis, Simon Callow and Katrin Cartlidge.
At this year's Academy Awards there was much consternation when Jean-Pierre Jeunet's adored 'Amélie' was beaten to the Oscar for Best Foreign Film by a little-known Bosnian movie called 'No Man's Land'. How on earth, critics wondered, had the Academy opted for a bleak war movie over the delightfully surreal French gem. Well obviously most of these critics hadn't seen 'No Man's Land', because if they had, they'd realise how infinitely better it is than Jeunet's whimsical nonsense.
June, 1993. The war in Bosnia has been raging for over a year, with no end in sight. Bosnian and Serb soldiers continue to pulverise each other's front lines, aeon-old hatreds spilling over into the most grotesque physical carnage. A group of Bosnians try to find their way back to their camp in the midst of dense fog and darkness. Danger is everywhere, and they know it. With just a few hundred yards separating the enemy lines, one wrong step will almost certainly result in instant death.
As the sun comes up, the vagaries of war intervene and the soldiers are discovered. Pummelled by a deluge of Serbian fire, the Bosnians are forced to flee into an unclaimed area between the rival factions - a veritable no man's land within the vortex of violence. Wounded but fit enough to take refuge in a deserted trench, a soldier called Èiki (Djuriæ) appears to be the only survivor. Meanwhile, Serbian chiefs – eager to ensure the death of as many Bosnians as possible – dispatch two soldiers to check the trench. With Èiki hiding, the Serbian soldiers find no survivors and, newly relaxed, decide to set some traps. They set a mine and cover it with the body of a dead Bosnian – so that when the body is moved the mine will explode and obliterate all in its path.
This last act is the axis on which the rest of 'No Man's Land' revolves. Èiki emerges from his hiding place, kills one Serb and wounds the second – a young soldier named Nino (Bitorajac). Suddenly, Èera (Šovagoviæ), the Bosnian soldier lying on the mine, regains consciousness. Aware that any significant movement by the prostrate Èera will signal the end for everyone, Èiki and Nino agree to a personal cease-fire in a bid to find a solution to their predicament. And despite festering distrust and mutual loathing, they manage to alert the front lines to the situation.
Here, the film becomes something of a satire which is every bit as barbaric as the war it chronicles. Before long, a temporary armistice is brokered while intermediaries from the United Nations Protection Force for Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR) try to avert a disaster. The media vultures converge too, giving director Tanoviæ room to espouse on the inhumanity and venality of the press, and of the diplomatic impotence wrought by bureaucratic red tape. But the impact of the piece is never diluted, thanks to an excellent script and watertight direction.
The performances on show here are also worthy of unbridled praise. The scenes between Èiki and Nino are as fatalistically humorous as you are likely to encounter in any film this year. The difference here is that Tanoviæ doesn't pile one the charcoal comedy in deference to his audience – it emerges as a wholly natural exposition of humanity under the most physically, mentally and emotionally draining circumstances imaginable. Plus, he makes sure to emphasis the point that if one side commits an atrocity, it could just as easily have been the other.
Ultimately, there are no fairytale endings here. In a war where over 200,000 people died, where tens of thousands of women and young girls were raped, and over two million people were forced into exile, there simply can't be. An intelligent and expertly-judged microcosm of the inanity of war, 'No Man's Land' is one of the most powerful films to emerge in the last decade. For once, The Academy got it right.