Three men--two Bosnians and a Serb--are stranded in a trench between the lines of battle: no man's land. One of the men is lying atop a land mine. If he gets up, the mine will blow. He is a Bosnian who has been placed there by Serbs who thought he was dead and wanted his comrades to be killed too, when they came for the body. But he wasn't dead, only sleeping.
Of such blunt, unappeasable ironies is No Man's Land composed. An international coproduction directed by the Bosnian Danis Tanovic--and funded with money from Slovenia, Belgium, France and Italy--this sharp, caustic anti-war film has been compared to Catch-22, but its absurdism is on a much smaller scale, often virtually subliminal. The basic conceit, of the man on the landmine, is treated as human tragedy, but the events surrounding it are presented with mildly acerbic shadings. A "global" new network turns the situation into a media event, while United Nations peacekeepers, trying to intervene, are pulled in different directions by competing and self-interested commands.
These differences in tone reflect an imbalance in the film's structure. For the first third--the strongest stretch of the film--we are stuck in that trench, observing the desperate machinations and rhythmic curtailments of the enemies who have found themselves thrown together. You fear that a milk-of-human-kindness parable is in the offing, wherein the antagonists' differences dissolve in the recognition of their shared humanity. A comic colloquy follows, in which the armed Bosnian (played by a comic actor beloved in Bosnia, Branko Duric) debates the disarmed Serb about which of their nations is responsible for the conflict. Each thinks the other's is. The comedy derives from the resemblance of their argument to a schoolyard fight--"You started it!" "No, you started it!"--and it is resolved when the Bosnian points his gun at the Serb and says, "Now--who started it?" "We did," the Serb grudgingly admits. The minor satirical point is clear: Those with the weapons get to invent the truth.
We cut abruptly to a military outpost where a British commander distances himself from the dilemma. What keeps either side from charging the trench in no man's land is that they fear they'll kill their own soldier by accident. The commander is reluctant to mediate this uneasy status quo. The commander is crisply played by Simon Callow, who has one boot in realism and the other in surrealism--the same territories, roughly speaking, the film as a whole tries to skirt. Callow's first scene points back to Dr. Strangelove, as if he's combining elements of Peter Sellers' smarmy president and Sterling Hayden's crazy general, with subtle shades of Robert Duvall's psychotic Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. In the end, though, the film lets him off the hook. When he shows up at the site of the disaster, he suddenly seems genuinely authoritative, and the film appears to validate his final take on the problem as a necessary evil.
A similar turnaround attends the treatment of the media. At first, members of the media are shown as courageous warriors, belligerently asserting the public's right to know and demanding accountability. Then, when the U.N. moves in, they become exploitative sensationalists, targets of satire for their gross insensitivity. The primary media figure is a British reporter played by Katrin Cartlidge (perhaps best known as Emily Watson's confidante in Breaking the Waves), and her skill and tact as a performer keep the character from becoming as shrill as it is written to be. Still, these shifts create an odd schism in the movie--as if it wants to satirize the military, the U.N. and the media, but for some reason can't do all three at once.
The reason may be the movie's commitment to a kind of allegorical satire. By treating the Serbian/Bosnian conflict through the lens of this single, microcosmic event, the movie bids to make it more "universal." When the journalist sums up the episode as emblematic of the "absurdity of war," the movie treats her comment as a ludicrous piety. Yet it's not far removed from the message of the movie itself, which avoids presenting political causes in favor of showing human effects, and ends up as a fairly abstract war-is-hell fable.
But the causes of these conflicts, complex as they are, are known to history. The slaughter of Bosnians by Serbian imperialists is one of the best certified manifestations of genocide in the murder-rich 1990s. In that light, is the colloquy about "who started it" really so amusing--as if all wars were to be boiled down to such petty bickering? The film invests so much energy in striking an inexplicable pose of neutrality, it emerges as a strangely cautious, tame satire, for all its local power--a toothless "anti-war" film.
In a brief montage of media soundbites, the film broadly presents some of the political contexts of its allegory. We glimpse Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, saying that some unnamed policy will endanger Bosnian Muslims. Then a voice says Karadzic soon made good his threat--referring to the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But why--especially if the question is "who started it"--is there no parallel reference to Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian nationalist? One might speculate that it's because Milosevic has just been brought to trial (while Karadzic is an indicted war criminal), and the film hesitates to second-guess international justice.
Still, the film's courage seems somewhat undermined throughout by its comparative reticence--especially by contrast to such savage, Rabelaisian films on similar subjects as Emir Kusturica's Underground or Goran Paksaljevic's Cabaret Balkan, or the relentless, uncompromising Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, by Srdan Dragojevic. The conflict between Bosnia and Serbia could certainly become a test case for the "absurdity of war"--though probably not without more acknowledgment of the war's magnitude and scale. It comprised a nationalist conflict between regions so geographically and culturally contiguous that the differences between them were largely products of crazed ideologies.
There were many ethnic Serbs among the Bosnians, even among those massacred--unlike in, say, Slovenia, the first republic to secede from Yugoslavia (and the only one listed in the credits as a financer of this film), which housed no Serbian minority; and the matter was complicated by Croatian religious nationals laying waste to the Serbian heritage in Bosnia as Serbian imperialists "ethnically cleansed" Bosnians. To note these circumstances might have helped to put across the film's we-could-all-be-brothers motif, by at least suggesting where the perceived differences lay, and what made them seem so "absurd" to many. But the film can't even commit to wholesale critique of the U.N.--even though in 1991, after recognizing Bosnia, the U.N. imposed on it an arms embargo, at the request of the government in Belgrade, that later enabled the massacre.
One of the great anti-war movies, Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937), promoted a humanistic internationalism on the eve of World War II. Today, this dimension of the film looks poignantly hopeful, in light of our knowledge of the terrible strife that followed. If that film had been made after the war, it might have seemed disingenuous. I suppose it should be heartening that No Man's Land tries for something of this same spirit, nearly a decade after the genocide, while many conflicts still ferment in the region. But it seems likely that the international interests in the film's financing produced some of its definitive compromises.
In its own right, the film is compelling and sometimes moving. But in light of the urgency of its historical background, it's stunted by its humanist allegorical drive. In passing, we see a soldier in the film reading a newspaper, and he remarks, "Things sure are a mess in Rwanda!" This is presented as a joke. The soldier doesn't register that things are a mess here too. Maybe things are a mess everywhere, and maybe what links the horrors of Rwanda and Bosnia is that they are "absurd." But to follow No Man's Land all the way, you have to accept that all genocides are pretty much alike--and that's not the way to stop them.