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Movie Review: No Man’s Land (2001)

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This highly acclaimed movie, winner of the 2002 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, deals with a group of soldiers who are crossing over to the other side in the darkness of night. The setting is the 1993 Bosnia-Herzegovina strife, and the men are in “no man’s land” engulfed in dense fog. They decide to wait out the fog and sleep off. Caught unawares in the morning, they are shot at. Both sides think that they are enemy. One of these men survives, injured, as he jumps into a trench. He (Tchiki – Branco Djuric) cannot traverse the trench, since it is booby trapped.

One of the two sides sends a scout party of two (one a veteran, cynical soldier and the other a greenhorn) to make sense of this bunch which was shot at. This is war. Being uncertain, the survivor hides. The scouts bring one of the dead men into that trench. The cynical scout puts a bounding mine under this dead man (“seeing as we have time, let’s have some fun”) which is made live, primed to explode three feet above the ground, spray 2,000 lead bearings and devastate a 50-yard radius, if the body is moved.

Tchiki kills the “cynical scout” and injures the greenhorn (Nino – Rene Bitorajac). Nino is not a hardened, ruthless soldier. He cannot stomach war and indiscriminate killing. He has no score to settle with Tchiki, although they are on opposing sides in the bigger conflict. A love-hate relationship develops between them. They find that they have known the same girl (named Sanja Cenjic) in the same town (Banja Luka).

These two want to get out of their “situation” alive and wonder how to save the body (Tsera – Filip Fuvajovic) on the mine, which is now found to be alive but injured.

The attention of the UNPROFOR is sought to the plight of these three men. That agency’s bureaucracy dilly dallies since it is not certain if they are soldiers. On its own initiative, the local UN peacekeeping soldiers (“smurfs”) pay a visit to the trench and a TV reporter (Katrin Cartlidge) eavesdrops on their radio and realises that she has a unique, “breaking news” story. Things go live on TV, including a quote that if the peacekeeping force does not act in a conflict, then it is taking sides. That, and the news coverage forces the Head of UNPROFOR to bring in a German UN Forces mines demolition expert.

Well, from here, the story climaxes, and becomes extremely chilling and pathetic. With a minimal interplay of certain individuals, the absurdity of war is brought out. Eventually, people kill each other for frivolous reasons and those who can make a difference are bystanders. And, each side avows that “we are not like them”.

The story is simple but profound (“Why do soldiers always carry photos?” asks Tchiki; the two lookouts at one post talk about “the mess in Rwanda”). The film is soft and un-opinionated but packs a strong punch. The narration is slow but gripping. Without realizing, one is engrossed in the suspense which builds up. This is also a study of human thought and behavior during war. The fellow facing a gun has to concede that the war has been started by him, since he does not have his gun. The insidiousness and game changing nature of mines and the destruction which they cause, has been portrayed well.

This movie has a smaller canvas and is more situational, but is in the same mould as All Quiet On the Western Front.

Rating: 4/5

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About Sanjeev Sandh