Welcome To Dystopia

A Review of NO MAN'S LAND (2001)
Director: Danis Tanovic

Oscars 2002 was one of the memorable years for Hindi cinema, when Lagaan made it to the nominations for Best Foreign Film, standing its ground shakily among stalwarts like Amelie. While a lot of us know about Lagaan, what with the high PR and photo-ops (and even a book), it was a little-known contender from Bosnia-Herzegovina that came up trumps: Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land.

No Man's Land is the story of two enemy soldiers, Bosnian Ciki (Branko Djuric) and Serb Nino (Rene Bitorajac) who happen to discover each other in the same trench. Both men cannot move out as they could be attacked by both sides, so they trade insults while they wait for night to fall. To add to the tension, Ciki's friend Cera, who has been presumed dead, regains consciousness. However he cannot move as he is on a bouncing mine, which can explode destroying everything within a 50 mile radius. So Ciki and Nino are forced to team up to save their lives as well as Cera's.

What could have been a dark, depressing war movie a la Saving Private Ryan is surprisingly funny, especially the tension between Ciki and Nino. At the beginning, Ciki has a gun, so he constantly threatens and berates Nino, and Nino can't do a thing because he has no gun. Sample this gem:

Ciki: So, tell me. Who started this war?
[Nino is silent.]
Nino: [long pause] We did.

Then, when Ciki lets his guard down, Nino grabs a gun and points it at him.

Nino: [chuckles] Now, tell me. Who started this war?
Ciki: [long pause; looks down] We did.

Then, when both of them have guns:

Ciki: YOU started this war!
Nino: No, YOU did!
[the argument continues, annoying Cera, who starts to weep]
Cera: Will you both shut the f**k up?

Despite the funny exchanges, the despondency of war still looms ominously. You find yourself willing the men to continue talking, to do all they can to ease the depression, to help you forget that this is a war which has claimed several lives and, any moment, can claim lots more.

There is also humour in the Bosnian and Serb camps, as well as the UN's French headquarters, supplied by overweight soldiers and hungover commanding officers, and the High Commanding officer of the UN has a young female secretary whose face is not seen as frequently as her shapely legs beneath a tiny skirt. (This is where the film temporarily shows a danger of evolving into another Hollywood war flick.)

A courageous French sergeant who tries his level best to help the two stranded men, is confronted by a very annoying, brash English reporter who wants to be in the thick of the action and almost gets him court-martialled. Finally they are allowed to film the rescue operation from a distance.

The humour continues when the forces go to rescue Ciki and Nino. Ciki does not want to leave Cera behind, and will not allow Nino to leave either. Nino is furious, and attempts to stab Ciki with Ciki's own knife. Soon the UN forces are forced to call a German mine expert to help defuse the mine. However, all hopes of a happy ending are dashed when the Peacekeeping forces figure out that there is no way to rescue poor Cera.

A reluctant Ciki and Nino are hoisted up, but Ciki is still smarting from Nino's stab attempt. He grabs a gun and kills Nino, and the UN soldiers are forced to kill him out of self-defence. At the end of the encounter, everyone sadly moves away, leaving Cera to die. The movie ends on a long, disturbing take of Cera, still lying on the mine in helpless hope, pain and fear with a photo of his beloved in his hand.

You are left shaking your head at the pointlessness of war, of the sheer waste of time of the soldiers, peacekeeping forces and civilians whose lives are on the line. You feel for the men in the trenches who lie there for days at a time, not sure of ever seeing their loved ones again. For the innocent civilians who are caught in the crossfire. For all the people who pick up the broken pieces of their lives and try to move on. As you take in the bleak landscape, lush yet barren, you can hear in your head strains of Vedran Smailovic's exquisite cello weeping at the sheer stupidity of it all.

The message is clear: War Doesn't Work. Ever.


Anonymous said...

Interesting set of observations. I note, though, that you haven't once used the word "satire" during your review of 'No Man's Land'...

"Nuit et Brouillard" by Alan Resnais is another compelling variation on the war movie theme. Definitely watch it if you get the opportunity. Of course, there are hundreds of such auteur-driven brutal depictions of battle, but this was the documentary that started it all...

Subhangi said...


Thanks for the feedback.That was a good point you raised, my not using the word 'satire'... I never really thought of it as one. The fact that the UN forces and the soldiers seemed sort of dysfunctional seemed as a normal way to trying to maintain their composure and not let the trying circumstances get to them. What do you think?

karthik said...

Subhangi , nice post . Havent seeen the movie but these are my views .I dont profess to be an expert on the unbderlying reasons for war but as Nietzsche says maybe its because of man's "will to power". He says that will to power is Man's most fundamental instinct . Maybe this is the reason socities work the way they do , the reasons why wars happen at all . He talks about that being the driving force behind any form of creativity (To surpass oneself and rise above the surroundings)

Just an idea.Feel free to shoot it down if you wish to.

Subhangi said...


That's a sensible idea all right. Thanks. :)

karthik said...

Are you familar with Nietzsche (Considering that Fountainhead is among your favorite books and Rand was influenced by him atleast in the beginning)??

Subhangi said...


No, I admit I'm not familiar with Nietzche, and I wasn't aware Ayn Rand was influenced by him.

Subhangi said...


Continuing from my earlier comment ... was Nietzche the brain behind the theory of objectivism?

karthik said...

Not at all . In fact , the philosophy which he articulated was not related to objectivism at all . It was more complex and did not reduce things to absolutes In fact , Nietzsche talked about living life without the constraints of absolutes and morals . Rand criticised his philosophy (preface to The Fountainhead) but appreciated his exalting of man as a heroic being . You can get a more comrehensive overview on him by visiting http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche

That is my problem with Rand . She deals only with absolutes. Getting through but Atlas Shrugged was just impossible . It was too plodding and regressive. I mean, aspiring to be the best is all OK but she reduces everything to a set of one dimensional formulae. As someone said the only truly Objective person is a dead one .

Agent Knight said...

Wow, good entry.