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Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando

No Man's Land/Interview with director Danis Tanovic

The Balkan conflict provides the backdrop to the Hollywood action film Behind Enemy Lines but in No Mans Land (opening December 12), Bosnia moves to the forefront. KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando speaks with director Danis Tanovic about this year's Bosnian Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film.

When it comes to Bosnia, western films have taken a rather somber, politically correct approach, as in Welcome to Sarajevo. Or they've simply used the recent conflict as a plot device in action pictures like Behind Enemy Lines. But Danis Tanovic wanted to show a Bosnian perspective in his film, No Mans Land. Tanovic lived through the war and remembers feeling the need to do something when the conflict began.

DANIS TANOVIC: I went to police station and I asked what can I do and they told me listen we have a lot of guys like you but we dont have any weapons. So we dont know what you can do. So I was patrolling with some guys and there were five of us and we had one gun and we all pretending to be very dangerous fighters or whatever. So after a few days I took a camera and just started filming what was happening because it was madness.


And it's madness that Tanovic conveys in his film-- the same kind of dark, comic insanity that Joseph Heller wrote about in his novel Catch 22 and that Robert Altman captured in his film M*A*S*H. In No Mans Land, Tanovic reduces the Balkan conflict to a single bizarre incident.

FILM CLIP TV ANCHOR: For those of you joining us now we have breaking news from the front lines where two men are stranded between the two armies.

In no time at all, the two men--one Bosnian, the other a Serb--begin arguing and try to assign blame for who started the conflict.

FILM CLIP Bosnian and Serb argue about who started the war.

The ironic humor that runs through their petty bickering is typical of the Balkan personality, says Tanovic.


DANIS TANOVIC : I can definitely compare it to Jewish humor, and both those humor came out of, it was kind of secret weapon, when youre in a situation like we were in Bosnia and Sarajevo especially and we didnt have any weapons to defend ourselves where the world was just hypocrite about everything that was happening there we had a siege for four years, people killing everyday, then you need a way out and for us the way out was humor, its a very good weapon, and then humor gives you distance between you and the problem.

The humor also makes the film more universally appealing and the characters more accessible. You may not understand the complex political and social events leading to the Bosnian conflict but you certainly can identify with the human frailties of the stranded men. Since they're literally trapped in a ditch for the entire film, Tanovic worried that the movie would become too claustrophobic. So he looked to the American western genre for a way to open the film up.

DANIS TANOVIC: So we were trying to open up toward the sky, toward the landscape wherever we could. I wrote somewhere that I wanted to mix this beautiful nature and wild colors of nature with the grayness of the war.

And its that grayness and the contrast between the gray mood of the war and the vivid colors of the landscape that Tanovic wanted to emphasize in the look of his film.

DANIS TANOVIC: Youll understand what I wanted to do if I tell you what the feelings was when I saw first grenades that fell on Sarajevo, you would have these beautiful nature and then these black holes and you know the colors of the nature in the spring and the summer, its just full of living colors and then suddenly you would see these black holes. It was like if you put a black and white photograph on a Van Gogh painting and it just doesnt fit in there and that was what I was trying to produce.

Tanovic also produces a vivid metaphor for his film. In addition to the Serb and Bosnian soldiers caught in no-man's land, another soldier lies nearby atop a sprung mine.

FILM CLIP Nino: No, move him and mine go boom!

DANIS TANOVIC: When I was writing I wanted it to be a metaphor of Bosnia, metaphor of Bosnia and whats happening there because I feel that my country is like a man lying on a mine and cant move and we all pretend hes alive and everything is fine but its not and frankly I feel the world is similar to that.

The characters quickly discover how ineffectual the outside world is in helping them. When both sides agree to call in the United Nations, even that global organization seems reluctant to help.

FILM CLIP BRITISH GENERAL: It seems from your report that these men are stranded between the two front lines but we dont even know if theyre actually soldiers or not. What do you expect me to do, you cant expect me to risk the lives of our soldiers to save theirs. I hope I dont have to remind you captain of the precise purpose of our mission here in Bosnia. Yes but you know captain that theres nothing I can do without the approval of the general assembly of the United Nations, I dont think the general assembly of the United Nations is going to convene it self over the fate of two unknown individuals.

The worlds interest has a tendency to wane say Danis Tanovic as other conflicts arise. The international communitys attention has shifted from Bosnia to Afghanistan and the process will repeat itself. But Tanovic points out that problems still remain in his homeland. So global concern may move on but somewhere a body still lies on a mine waiting to be rescued.


No Mans Land opens December 21 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas.