No Man’s Land (2001) An Outstanding War Satire

Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land is without any doubt one of the best war movies I have ever seen. The actors are outstanding, the story is different and manages perfectly to convey the tragic absurdity of war. It also very funny, unless you have never heard of black humor or satire.

The movie starts with a group of Bosnian soldiers on their way to the front, bickering and teasing each other and lost in the darkness and the fog. They try to find the way for a while but it’s useless. After some more bickering and sharing of cigarettes, they stop and go to sleep. Horror on horror, when they wake up they realize they are in between the front lines and very close to the Serbs. The fun is definitely over now and as soon as they start to run, the Serbs open fire. Ciki is catapulted by an explosion into an empty foxhole, in the middle of No Man’s Land.

He hides in the foxhole until two Serbian soldiers arrive to investigate if there are any enemies around. They find Cera, who has also been catapulted into the foxhole and, thinking he is dead, they booby-trap his body.

After a while they finally discover Ciki who shoots one of the two Serbs. Two enemies are now trapped in between their lines, together with a unconscious man, attached to a mine, whose every move could make the thing explode.

What follows is one of the most comic farces I have ever seen. Trapped in between enemy lines, they start to quarrel and fight, all the while the poor Cera moans because he needs to go to the toilet, is uncomfortable and thirsty, wants a fag… Ciki keeps on asking him if he is OK which is, considering the circumstance, in a grotesque way funny as well.

A lot of the humor stems from the dialogue. Although they find themselves in the most dire circumstances they still argue and quarrel like a family at the Sunday dinner table; petty grievances, teasing, sulking, all included. Considering they might end up being killed it’s tragically comic. On top of that, the three are really endearing characters.

The movie also criticizes once more the inefficiency and cynicism of high command and the ultimate uselessness of the UNPROFOR troops who, as usual, aren’t allowed to do anything. On top of that a group of sensation-seeking journalists appears and makes matters worse.

Both camps send people into the foxhole which becomes a sort of neutral zone. Journalists are there, de-mining experts, UN troops and what not. Everybody wants to give their opinion, no one is capable of helping.

If you want to know whether poor Cera will be saved, you will have to watch the movie.

No Man’s Land is outstanding and manages like not many to make a very profound anti-war statement.

One word of caution: Should you just have stopped smoking you shouldn’t watch this movie. I have hardly every seen such a lot of smoking going on in any movie. Even a lifelong non-smoker like myself started to feel a certain urge after a while.

I almost forgot to mention that No Man’s Land is a Bosnia & Herzegovina/FR/IT/Slov/UK/BE co-production.

Shooting Dogs aka Beyond the Gates (2005) An Unspairing Look at the Genocide in Rwanda

What a shocking movie. Incredibly good but so sad. I have seen the outstanding Hotel Rwanda a few years back but Shooting Dogs, that is less flawless from a cinematographic point of view, is even better. It is a UK/German co-production starring German, British and African actors.

The story, that is based on true events, takes place in a school compound in 1994. A young British teacher (Hugh Dancy) and an elderly British priest, father Christopher, (John Hurt), are responsible for the school. It is a school to which as well Hutu as Tutsi children come. Early on arrives a troop of UN soldiers who also stay inside the school gates while outside the world as they know it falls apart.

The beginning of the movie is slow and shows with great detail the almost idyllic, if somewhat chaotic life in the city of Kigali, in Rwanda. The moment the Hutu president is killed, the situation changes drastically. The Hutu majority fears that the Tutsi minority wants to overthrow their government and be in charge of Rwanda again. Out of fear and wanting to control a situation that gets out of hands they start what can only be called a genocide. They systematically kill every Tutsi that they can find. To say they “kill” them is an understatement and gives the wrong impressions of the atrocities that happened in Rwanda. The people are not only killed, they are butchered with machetes. Old people, young people, men, women, children and even babies are literally chopped up.

The courageous priest opens up the gate and lets a few thousand Tutsi find refuge inside of the school gates. They are guarded by the UN who are only spectators in what becomes more and more atrocious. They have a very strict mandate which states that they are not allowed to intervene. They watch the butchery without doing anything. Only if they were shot at, would they be allowed to act. The commanding officer (Dominique Horwitz who has an outstanding role in Stalingrad) is helpless and ashamed but there is nothing he can do. The irony is, if the events would be called “genocide”, he would be free of his mandate and could intervene. But no one officially calls it a genocide.

In the beginning we do not see many of the horrible acts but towards the end the movie gets more and more graphic and I could feel the fear that these hordes must have instilled in those threatened by them. They seem so mindless. A mass of violent men, slaughtering, raping and butchering innocent people. And no one helped the Tutsi.

There is a scene that I found particularly profound in which a journalist, talking to the teacher, compares her reaction to the horrors in Bosnia with her reaction to those she sees here. She explains that she cried all the time in Bosnia when she saw dead people but that she was somewhat unfazed by the dead in Rwanda. The young teacher argues that she is probably numbed but she admits that it is more awful than that. “No,” she says. ” It is worse than that. I constantly think, they are only dead Africans.” This is such a shocking confession but how true. I wonder how often Europeans and Americans did think like that during the war. “It’s only Africans”.

When things get worse, the French Army sends soldiers to get the Europeans out of the compound and to the airport. The priest and the young teacher stay until the UN troops get the order to leave as well. At that moment the teacher leaves but father Christopher stays.

This movie is really highly watchable. It is sad and moving and the most touching is that the people who took part in the making, the people in charge of costumes and the settings, the electricians and carpenters, were all Rwandans who lost most of their familiy members in this genocide in which far over 800 000 people were killed.

This is one of the saddest chapters in the history of the 20th century. It should not be forgotten. There is no such thing as “only Africans”.

This movie saddened me a great deal and left me speechless for a long while.

Under Fire (1983) War and Journalism or Whose Side Are You On?

I don’t take sides, I take pictures (Nick Nolte as Russel Price in Under Fire)

The least you can say about Under Fire is that is an extremely interesting movie with four fascinating character portraits played by four outstanding actors.

Under Fire belongs to the war movie subgenre of War and Journalism. There are quite a lot of movies in this sub-genre and a great many are from the 80s. The Year of Living Dangerously, Circle of Deceit, The Killing Fields, Salvador, Missing and later movies like Welcome to Sarajevo (see my post).

The movie opens in Tchad. The photographer Russel Price (Nick Nolte) and the mercenary Oates (Ed Harris) meet and discuss their work. Oates points out that Price isn’t much better. He is profiting as much from every war there is as Oates is. None of them is more interested in politics than the other. When they part we know that they will meet again.

Before Price departs to the latest war zone, Nicaragua, we are introduced to two other journalists, Claire (Joanna Cassidy) and Alex Gazier (Gene Hackman). Claire and Alex are a couple but she breaks up with him before leaving to Nicaragua and we already sense she will be romantically involved with Russell.

At first when arriving in Nicaragua, Price isn’t interested in background information. He wants to know if the beer is good and what the food is like. Fortunately the movie nevertheless fills us in on the basics. We hear that the revolutionaries, headed by a guy named Rafael, fight the government of president Somoza who is supported by the US and a few other details. Claire and Price meet the French agent Jazy (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a dubious character, that seems to be in favour of the rebels, they also meet the president and his press officer.

While they are in Nicaragua – falling in love, getting to know the country – something happens to Price. He meets Oates again and sees him kill one of the revolutionaries in cold blood. This makes Price understand his own actions and how cynical they are.  He becomes aware that he cannot stay out of this anymore. It bdawns on him, that the Sandinistas are right, that the government is corrupt and supported by the US who are afraid of a communist Nicaragua. In order to support the revolution, he takes a fake picture. He serves the rebels but triggers a flood of violence during which Alex is killed by the president’s soldiers (this is based on a true story). He takes a picture of this as well and triggers a reaction in the US…

What I really liked about this movie is how subtle it portrays the different people. Nolte, Hackman and Harris are very convincing, each takes another position, stays for another point of view. The cynic mercenary Oates is probably the most stringent character, the one who will make you the most uneasy, although Jazy isn’t a bad example of double standards either. Claire was the least convincing character, she rather served as a enhancer for the others.

Apparently the movie has been considered to be problematic in the US because it openly takes position for the Nicaraguan revolution. I think this is great and daring. It is an ugly chapter in US politics and many efforts have been made to forget about it as soon as possible (Noam Chomsky has written quite eloquently about this).

The movie is visually extremely convincing. John Alcott, Kubrick’s cameraman, has filmed it documentary-style.

The topic of War and Journalism always makes me uneasy. I think we should be informed but I cannot understand how people can take pictures like vultures of dying and dead people and stay uninvolved. Maybe it is not so much journalism as photo journalism that I find problematic. I am really glad for movies like Under Fire. They are valuable and important and illustrate how everything is linked, how one deed leads to another.

There is a trailer on iMDB.

Here is just a video with scenes from the movie and the original soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.

Full Metal Jacket (1987) One of the Most Important But Ambiguous Vietnam Movies

In the hand of another filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick this wouldn’t have become the breathtakingly awesome movie this is. Full Metal Jacket is a visceral experience if there ever was one, a movie whose images will burn themselves into your memory forever. Not an unworthy beginning to a new year of blogging. But also a very controversial one.

As probably most of you know, Full Metal Jacket is like two movies in one. The first part, is the boot camp part, the second the combat part.

During the boot camp part the new recruits are transformed into killers, men who belong to a brotherhood. The drill instructor Gunnery Sgt Hartmann (R. Lee Ermey) is by far one of the most obnoxious war movie characters. But what a performance. Try saying one of the numerous bits he utters without stammering. This part also introduces us to Private Joker (Matthew Modine), an aspiring, cynical journalist. Private Joker symbolizes the controversies around this war. We will see him later, in combat, wearing a peace button and simultaneously a “Born to Kill” slogan on his helmet. Another of this movies memorable characters has his major part in this sequence, Gomer Pyle (Vincent d’Onofrio), a fat and clumsy recruit who winds everybody up because they are punished for his failures that are endless. His final scenes bear all the traces of other Kubrick movies like A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

Once in the combat zone in Vietnam, we meet other colorful characters, one of them Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a pure killing machine. At the beginning of his stay Joker is bored like hell. He is a journalist with Stars and Stripes. The guys basically hang around and wait for something to happen and instructions on what they have to report. The Vietnamese they see are either hookers or Vietcong. Any others don’t seem to pass their radar.

The last part is an intense combat part in the cit of Hue. They come under fire and some of them are killed by a sniper hiding in one of the bombed out buildings. As there may still be many people who have never seen Full Metal Jacket I will stop here. It should suffice to say that the last part is intense and not easy to watch.

What struck me most in this movie are the pictures and the colours. Smoke and fire, burning red heaven, bombed out buildings  and palm trees. Apparently the parts in the buildings were filmed in the docklands of London. I don’t know about the rest of the movie. The music is interesting as well. There is a mix between songs of the era and original score that would do any horror movie justice.

I have left out many important, visually powerful and interesting moments. I just wanted to give a short introduction to one of the most extreme and most important war movies that has ever been made. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should watch it.

Full Metal Jacket is also one of those movies that is focussing on the themes War and Journalism and Women in War Movies. Believe me, if you haven’t seen it, we got some interesting elements on both in this movie. If you have seen it, you know what I mean.

I don’t think it is the best Vietnam movie. At least not for me. Of the combat Vietnam movies I consider Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and maybe even We Were Soldiers to be superior. Why? I think, it is fantastic from a cinematographic point of view, but as an anti-war statement I always found it a tad ambiguous. Pretty much like Apocalypse Now.

What do you think?

Escape from Huang Shi aka The Children of Huang Shi (2008)

Believe it or not but Escape from Huang Shi is an Australian, Chinese, German co-production telling the true story of a British journalist. What a combination. This gives the movie a very authentic feel, especially due to the fact that we hear as much Chinese as English (and some Japanese).

If anyone has liked the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as much as I did (I think it is one of the best movies ever. One could almost call it a martial-arts fairytale), he or she will be pleased to see Michelle Yeoh and  Yun-Fat Chow in the same movie (however no joint scenes).

But this is not the only pleasant surprise of this quite enjoyable movie.

The story is similar to Welcome to Sarajevo, only this journalist here, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who is really good in this), is doing something even more courageous. He stays in the country to help the orphans.

It is absolutely incredible what some people are capable of doing even when facing adversity at its worst. This is a story of someone who was capable of overcoming his own fear, of reinventing a life for himself and a group of orphan boys and creating a home for them.

George Hogg, a young British journalist, arrives in China in 1937 finding the country being invaded by the Japanese. Air raids, floods of refugees on the streets, he´s afraid and thrilled at the same time hoping for the story of his life. He gets it only not the way he had hoped for. He soon sees himself in great danger and is led by an Australian nurse to Huang Shi. She leaves him there to struggle with famine, the depressions and aggressions of some 60 orphaned boys who have seen the worst and the insecurity of a life on the border of a war.

In wonderful pictures we see him overcome the urge to escape and help those children transform the barren land around them into a fertile garden. He is assisted in this  by a mysterious tradeswoman Madam Wang (Michelle Yeoh) who sells more than just seeds, by Chen (Yun-Fat Chow) the leader of a communist partisan group and of course the Australian nurse (Radha Mitchell) he is secretly in love with.

When the Japanese and the air raids start to approach Huang Shi, Hogg must make a decision. He wants to flee and take the children on a journey over 500 perilous miles across the snow-bound Liu Pan Shan mountains to safety on the edge of the Mongolian desert. This seems almost impossible to achieve.

The movie reminded me a little bit of  The Painted Veil (no, it is not a war movie). Same beautifully filmed landscapes. And those sumptuous  and, for us exotic, Chinese interiors of the time. The story is already quite captivating but the beauty of those landscapes alone would have been enough to enchant us.