Like many Bosnians of his generation, Danis Tanovic, director of No Man’s Land, grew up watching movies about World War II in which “our” guys—the partisans—always beat the Nazis. The movies were often delightfully clumsy—implausibility and continuity problems abounded—but they provided comfort. In Tanovic’s favorite, Valter Brani Sarajevo (“Valter defends Sarajevo”), the hero, Valter, kills a large number of Nazis, eliminates a Nazi spy, and single-handedly changes the outcome of the war by preventing the retreat of the German army from Greece. Valter Brani Sarajevo ends with a Nazi pointing at Sarajevo from one of the surrounding hills and saying: “Das ist Valter.” This scene, Tanovic says, makes his heart “as big as a house.”
But the good guys don’t win in Tanovic’s film, nor do they change the course of war. At its center is an empty trench between the Bosnian and Serbian positions. Two survivors from a Bosnian patrol who got lost in the fog end up in the trench—Ciki (Branko Djuric) is wounded, while Cera (Filip Sovagovic) wakes up to find himself on top of a land mine. Soon an unlucky Serbian soldier (Rene Bitorajac) joins them, and a frightening, hateful tension fills the trench, which becomes a microcosm of the war.
No Man’s Land is in many ways a film of a veteran. Between 1992 and 1994, the 32-year-old Tanovic was in Sarajevo under siege and shot some 300 hours of frontline footage for the Bosnian army archive. He was a student of the Sarajevo Film Academy at the time; in 1994, Tanovic went to Belgium, where he enrolled again in film school. “Belgium is like America,” he says. “They have money and they deal with the form; they don’t care about the content.” After he graduated, he moved to Paris, where in the fall of 1999 he submitted a script to Cedomir Kolar, a producer he met at a party. Three days later, Kolar responded, and a week later Tanovic signed a deal that led to No Man’s Land. So far, the film has won a prize for best screenplay at Cannes and has drawn raves on the festival circuit. Tanovic is not fazed by his rapid rise to fame.”Success is a funny thing,” he says. “The world changes; you stay the same.” The biggest reward for him was the reception in Sarajevo: No Man’s Land was shown on the opening night of the Sarajevo Film Festival (established under siege as an act of resistance) to an enthusiastic, supportive audience of 4000. It was Tanovic’s homecoming to the country that has inspired him and the city that has defined him. The spirit of Valter, it seemed, was still alive.
Although No Man’s Land was financed with money from Belgium, Italy, the U.K., and Slovenia (where it was also shot), Tanovic insists that his film is thoroughly Bosnian. “Nobody asks if Hemingway’s books written in Paris were French,” he says. And its background shows in details that are decodable only to someone who had the experience (at least vicariously) of the Bosnian war. The cigarettes the soldiers smoke, for instance, are packed in pages from a book—a common war practice. The star, Branko Djuric, a popular actor in Bosnia, speaks in the familiar inflections of an urban Bosnian and wears a Rolling Stones T-shirt throughout. (The filmmakers asked for permission to use the Stones logo, Tanovic says, and received a kind letter from Mick Jagger, who promised to show up at a premiere. He hasn’t yet.) No Man’s Land exudes clarity and revelatory simplicity of the Hemingway sort. Tanovic skillfully frames the plot in a specific historical context, including bloodcurdling footage of Karadzic threatening the Bosnian Muslims with genocide—a threat that he would carry out.
Yet Tanovic refuses to preach or explain the war in Bosnia to the Western viewer. He feels no need, he says, to lecture anybody about who the victims were. “Whoever wanted to know,” he says, “could know about what was going on in Bosnia. But a lot of people simply didn’t want to know anything.” He is particularly critical of the role the UN has played in Bosnia. “They let an internationally recognized country be raped, while providing a little food and preventing it from defending itself.” Their hypocritical neutrality, according to Tanovic, was effectively a political stance. “Can you,” Tanovic asks, “be neutral in relation to the destruction of the World Trade Center?”
Like No Man’s Land, Tanovic’s other films (mainly documentaries, including one about the razing of a neighborhood in Brussels) are in one way or another about Bosnia, he says. He doesn’t know whether his films will deal with the troubles of the world in the future: “I change every two weeks,” he says, “but I know I’ll make movies for as long as I have a story to tell.”
There are offers coming in droves, but Hollywood doesn’t scare him, nor is he impressed. “It is a specific project that might attract me—I could work in Hollywood or Bollywood,” he says. After touring the U.S., Tanovic is off to Japan and Brazil. Then he goes to Sarajevo to conduct a workshop at the Sarajevo Film Academy. While in Sarajevo, he might go to the spot from which the Nazi pronounced “Das ist Valter,” look at the city, and remind himself that the good guys—and Tanovic is one of them—do sometimes win.
J. Hoberman’s review of No Man’s Land