by John O’Leary (CD-News Program Coordinator)
The well-established genre of the war movie is not short of landmark entries. A slew of Vietnam movies in the late seventies and eighties brought the harrowing topic to the point of exhaustion, and the Second World War has been so vastly oversubscribed that the all possible thematic avenues have been explored numerous times over. Cinema as a cultural tool is a powerful healing device, helping society come to terms with the brutality of fighting and dying. In the years before “Apocalypse Now”, for example Vietnam was a taboo subject for the American media, by presenting the insanity of war in such a visceral fashion; the US began to speak openly the catastrophic event.
It is surprising that the Bosnian War, a relatively recent and grotesque episode in European history, has been virtually ignored by mainstream cinema. The war itself was particularly disturbing, sanguinary and nationalistic fight fought in the heart of Europe, where EU political elites unceasingly congratulated themselves on their vision of peace, without intervening to prevent bloodshed.
There is one notable exception to the paucity of films representing this area; ‘No Man’s Land’, the winner of the ‘Best Foreign Language’ Oscar at the 2002 awards. The film was lauded at the time for casting a revealing light upon the complex historical and ethnic background to the conflict and not refraining from the direct presentation of atrocities and war crimes. Creating a balanced portrayal of the events of the war is difficult when the trauma is so fresh in the common memory. The first time director Danis Tanovic created a remarkably self-assured portrait of the ironies and absurdities of the war, which successfully transcended ethnic bias.
In the film, as we find two soldiers caught between the front lines, one Bosnian and one Serbian. A standoff develops when a third man becomes trapped, lying upon a live land mine that will obliterate the area if he is moved. An uneasy détente forms among the men as they await help from the UN. Their innate hatred for one another makes it difficult to achieve any kind of peace, the endless bickering to apportion blame does little to solve their dilemma. They ultimately decide that working together is probably the least lethal means of gaining their safety, while the collected media stands idly by, commenting on UN impotence.
There is no better example of the healing power of cinema then Tanovic himself; he fled Sarajevo in 1994 after two years of being a fish in a barrel into which Serb artillery lobbed mortar after mortar. “When the war started, there weren’t enough guns to go around,” says Tanovic,. I got a gun – we were given one between five of us, I think – but I gave it to my friend who needed it more than me”. If anyone has reason to feel aggrieved for past indiscretions, it’s a man who was harried and hunted from his own home.
And while “No Man’s Land “is really about presenting its political goals in a mature manner, it still manages to hold our attention by telling a very personal and engaging story from the front lines. Although the subject is the black madness of war, “No Man’s Land” affirms the biblical principle that all men are sinners who are constantly at war with themselves and others, concepts which rise above local pride. These are common themes which can be appreciated by both sides, regardless of cultural heritage.