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.

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Warriors aka Peacekeepers (1999) UNPROFOR Peace Units in Bosnia

Warriors is an almost three hour long TV  production starring Ioan Gruffud (Hornblower, King Arthur), Matthew Macfadyen (Robin Hood, Pride and Prejudice) and Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers). Unlike some other great TV productions it isn’t capable to get rid of the TV feel. At every moment we are aware of it having been made for TV. I don’t know how this was aired, probably on two consecutive evenings, watching it like I did in one go wasn’t the best idea. If there hadn’t been some famous actors I would have thought it is a documentary.

You may have gathered already that I didn’t like it that much but it still is an important movie. Many movies depict the absurd mandate that most UN troops have to follow. Unless directly attacked they are not allowed to fight. They are not allowed to take sides. Mostly, like in this case, they aren’t even allowed to evacuate people unless they are seriously injured. This means they have to watch innocent civilians getting killed.

The movie starts in England where we see the soldiers and officers on leave and get to know the main characters. From there we follow them to Bosnia where they are instructed about their mandate which doesn’t really pose any problems for them at the beginning.

Our three main characters will stay in the region for six months. Starting as mostly joyful men who want to make a difference they undergo some serious changes and at the end none of them is remotely comparable to the man he was before he was sent to the region at war.

It is one thing to be told to not interfere when there are soldiers involved but a totally other matter when you see how civilians are raped, butchered and tortured. All these young UN soldiers ask for, is to be able to evacuate those who might get killed. Their superiors stay firm, there is no helping that couldn’t be misunderstood. Soon enough they get proof of this. In a few instances, when no superior officer is around, the one or the other soldier attempts to help and each and every single time the consequences are fatal.

In one instance Lt. Feeley (Ioan Gruffud) assists an elderly Muslim couple whose dog is shot and whose house is plundered. He intervenes and chases off the aggressors only to find the couple executed, when he returns a few days later. Instances like these are numerous and the movie shows more and more atrocities towards the end.

The final part shows the three main protagonists back in England. None of them can cope. Having helplessly witnesses gratuitous acts of violence against children, women and old people has left them shattered. Two have a severe anger management problem and the third attempts to commit suicide.

If you are interested in the peace work of the UN troops and want to see in great detail how they operate, this is a good movie in this respect. There are others who show this very well too but not in so much detail. If you want to watch really good movies on the war in Bosnia I suggest you rather stick to Welcome to Sarajevo (see my review), Savior (see my review) and No Man’s Land (review upcoming).

I couldn’t find a trailer so I attached part 4 of the film.

Savior (1998): An Extremely Grim Movie about the War in Bosnia

Thanks to TPC who commented on my post “Welcome to Sarajevo” I discovered this movie and have finally watched it.

Oh – my – God.

Before even trying to attempt to describe this movie let me quote from a NY Times review by Stephen Holden:

As Mr. Quaid’s character, Guy, perilously makes his way through the war-torn countryside, the film portrays a land whose people, regardless of ethnicity, have been reduced to animalistic survival tactics by the violence that has devastated the region. The war has turned seemingly ordinary people into potential murderers, rapists and torturers. And the movie’s unblinking scenes of atrocities are among the most graphic and upsetting ever shown in a commercial film.

This sums up quite a lot. Savior is really heavy stuff and so depressing. The goriest battle scenes from any WWI, WWII or Vietnam movie can never get as depressing as this. Like the war in Rwanda. A tribal war.

Gritty realism is not all we see and I did have my problems with this movie. There is  a very Christian undertone all through it. Or not even an undertone, rather a loud drone. The character change of Guy (Dennis Quaid) is psychologically not very convincing. I can understand that he goes berserk after his wife and his son get blown up in a terrorist attack but from then on… He escapes with his friend (Stellan Skarsgard – not one of his better roles and far too short) to the French Foreign Legion and from there we follow him to Bosnia where he is fighting as a mercenary on the side of the Serbs. We see him commit atrocities until he and another soldier, Goran, get to drive Vera, a pregnant young woman back to her family. She has been raped by a muslim and is now being treated as if it was her fault. Her fellow Serbs hate, blame  and despise her for this. Goran is a brute and what we see him do to an old woman and later to Vera is almost not watchable. I tell you, not for one second do you want to imagine yourself in the situation of one of those women.

The illustration of women as victims in war movies does find its sad culmination point in Savior.

After Vera has given birth under the most inhuman circumstances something snaps in Guy and he seems to reclaim  his humanity. From then on he is “The Savior”. It is not very subtle that the filmmakers chose to show us repeatedly that Guy is wearing  a cross with a three-dimensional Christ nailed to it.

The bleak parts that deal purely with this godforsaken war are overwhelming. Maybe it would really have been too hard to watch if they hadn’t tried to gloss it over a bit. Be is as it may… This movie exudes such an honest try at showing the atrocities of this war that I really think it should be watched. What makes me extremely thoughtful is to think that if these atrocities had been invented by a script writer we would say: “What a sick mind!”. But this did happen… And not even so long ago…

A brief remark about the music. This movie has a very beautiful score, in parts traditional regional folk songs sung by mysteriously haunting female voices. Some of it can be heard in the trailer.

What do you think? Any people from ex Yugoslavia reading this? Is Welcome to Sarajevo the better movie?

I am not sure if Welcome to Sarajevo is better, but it is less controversial. When it comes to liking I must admit I am partial to Savior. I liked it much more than Welcome to Sarajevo. There is something in the character of Guy that I could relate to. Probaly his utter loneliness that encloses him like an aura. This cold sniper personality  he is wearing to shield himself and hide that he has been deeply wounded… I don’t approve of his acts, of course, but from an emotional point of view I think I get him.

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) or What would I have done?

I´m not normally sitting there watching a movie and asking myself constantly: What would I have done but I did while watching this film. Michael Winterbottom´s movie Welcome to Sarajevo is one of the very highly acclaimed war movies. It is based on a true story, Michael Henderson´s account of his stay as a war reporter in Sarajevo. Sure, war and journalism is a theme that is likely to be explored and Winterbottom is of course not the only filmmaker to have done so (The Killing Fields, We Were Soldiers, Full Metal Jacket, Generation Kill, Das Boot to name but a few,  deal with it to some extent). His second theme, war and children, has also been the center of many movies (Hope and Glory, Empire of the SunLa vita è bella aka Life is beautiful ). His major theme however is involvement. How much should we get involved? And in this specific context: Can a reporter only watch and stay outside?

Still somehow I didn´t like this much praised work and was glad when reading a comment on imbd from a person who lived through the siege of Sarajevo that he did not really like it since he found the setting unrealistic or rather the filmmakers had taken too many liberties with the setting. Funny enough that is exactly what I sensed and it spoiled a lot for me.

Winterbottom filmed shortly after the war, on site. We see a lot of destroyed buildings.  So much destruction is utterly depressing. Journalists live in abandoned hotels, meet in the evening in bars and discuss the days events and filming. Some pictures are really awful and the journalists  voyeuristic approaching of wounded, dead and dying people is shown in all its tastelessness. Intrusion without involvement.

The British reporter Michael Henderson (Stephane Dillane convincingly disenchanted and thoughtful) and the American Flynn (Woody Harrelson a bit of a sicko role as usual) were two of those vulture like creatures running to every scene whenever they heard a gunshot, firing, a bomb or screams. While Flynn appreciates the adventure quality of it all, Michael gets more and more weary. When they discover an orphanage that is located in one of the most dangerous zones of the city and he realises, even when he films the most realistic documentaries, the world just doesn´t give a damn, he´s had it. All through the movie we see original footage of the world´s then presidents. What they say combined with what we see would make great material for war satire.

Seeing those children, little babies, abandoned toddlers and older children Michael knows he can´t stay out of all of this. He wants to help and he does help. The journey he undertakes together with an American aid worker (Marisa Tomei – she´s such an endearing actress too bad her role is much too short) is the best part of the movie. Together with a few children and especially one girl whom Michael has promised a better life in England the escape the besieged city and try to get to Italy or England respectively. It´s an extremely dangerous and hazardous journey and you wish the whole time that they will make it. People like Michael truly make a difference.

Oh, by the way, what would you have done?