No Change In No Man’s Land

Film, Exhibition & Curation student Paulina Kowalczyk reflects on a screening of the Tanovic classic in No Change in No Man’s Land (submitted Nov 2012)

In 1992, the main street of Sarayevo became infamously recognized as Sniper Alley. Along one of the most strategic boulevards in newly proclaimed Bosnia and Herzegovina, day-to-day life was replaced by day-to-day shootings. Territorial struggles, that took a place in Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and finally led to the breakup and an announcement of few different declarations of independence, were deeply rooted in the desire to constitute ethnically homogeneous states. National animosities and ethno-religious tensions resulted in a four-year long conflict between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnians, which destroyed a faith in freedom and separated the country into areas of different influences. The most mystery shrouded and at the same time dangerously unpredictable were those events that took place in no man’s land.

In 2001, Bosnian director Danis Tanovic decided to deal with the history of those areas of his homeland that were supposed to be left uncontrolled and remained independent. Consequently, he challenged the heroic ethos of war with his satirical point of view. That is why his directorial debut was able to do both – let viewers think and smile, as serious issues were presented with a proper sense of humor.

No Man’s Land starts with a significant opening scene that is able to interact with an audience and kept under pressure. It is not only the nervous feelings related to the strongly limited visibility in an open space with a really dense fog during nightime, but also the burden of war carried by soldiers which leads them into the unknown, both physically and psychologically.

Moreover, the film, indeed, provides viewers with a deep study of people‘s behaviour in extreme situations. The main characters – Bosnians and Bosnian Serbs soldiers – are enemies, but in No Man’s Land nothing is so obvious. They find themselves trapped in a trench, in a situation which clearly forces them to change attitudes, as the third of them is grounded by a land mine underneath him. How does it happen? According to the director’s vision, it is all because of war which affects human‘s behaviour to such an extent, that boredom and stress can be avoided only by the weird sense of humor. This is how Tanovic is able to confuse spectators – by changing their way of perception. He does not use the cliche of war brutality, but proves that unfamiliar situations modify people’s behaviour. As film goes on, cinephiles gradually forget about the heavy issues introduced by the movie due to the fact that they are presented in a light way. From my point of view, the first part of the movie seems to be an intimate, almost theatrical tragicomedy with a penchant for the absurd one. Tragic and comic elements are interacting with and completing each other. At some point, the main characters start an argument which is supposed to clarify who is more responsible for changing Bosnia into a theater of war. There is no answer, absurdity is on the surface.

However, the second part of the movie is even more, in my opinion, caricatural and full of stereotypes. As hopeless as the situation of soldiers is, it becomes an excuse to depict political mechanisms and the nature of mass media. The number of characters, or stereotypes, is increasing significantly and relatively. The French desire for using their own language, journalistic sensationalism, German punctuality and the helplessness of negotiators interact with bitter observation of indifference to the tragedy of war. The unoccupied land is crowded, but nothing could be more wrong than thinking that this is an opportunity to change anything. The director’s vision is sharp, full of distance – war is more about the individuality than collectiveness.

According to Andrew Higson, a national cinema is basically focused on identifying a few simple texts – based questions about locations, authors, consumption patterns and quality. Taking those points into consideration, No Man’s Land can be recognized as an example of national cinema. In one of the interviews given after an Oscar nomination for his movie, Danis Tanovic admitted that he tried to make a feature film adequate for his homeland’s history which would be able to familiarize cinemagoers with the nonsense of war. Regional differences, religious tensions and liberational struggles built the socio – political frame within which the drama took place.

The two parts of the movie describe different realities, that are trying to cooperate and co – exist together, but it’s simply impossible mostly due to the fact that the mentality differences are too deep. Consequently, the attempts to give a helpful hand failed. War is cramped, absolute and ruthless. This is how Tanovic illustrated his no man’s land. As a place where nobody is able to hide, individuals are visible and can be easily caught. Even though there is a crowd, change is not coming.