Victory In The Trenches

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In 1993, in the No Man's Land between their lines, a Bosnian (Branko Djuric) and a Serb (Rene Bitorajac) are trapped in a trench, exchanging anger and the occasional gunshot. They are aware that the Serbs have booby-trapped one of the dead bodies in their refuge with a spring-loaded bomb. If he is moved, it will explode. But the inert soldier (Filip Sovagovic) is not dead. Now we have a situation--and the makings of a very good movie.

The U.N. peacekeepers are called. The blue helmet closest to the scene, an earnest Frenchman (Georges Siatidis), wants to do something and disobeys orders and moves in. His superior (Simon Callow) prefers to play chess and dally with his mistress at headquarters. Meanwhile, a TV journalist (Katrin Cartlidge) hustles out to the trench and starts broadcasting live reports to the world about the anguish she finds there. Naturally, many of her competitors join her.

What writer-director Danis Tanovic has created in his first fictional feature is a miniature version of the entire conflict in the former Yugoslavia--the implacable hatred of the combatants, the idealism of the peacekeepers warring with the dithering cynicism arising from the complexities of the problem they're trying to solve, the impotence of journalism to do much more than a sob-sister act.

No Man's Land sometimes has the air of the well-made play about it--clean lines of conflict neatly laid out; characters that develop on a predictable basis; metaphors that are easy to read. What lifts it out of that category is this simple fact: a living human being, someone clutching a tattered picture of his wife, someone who also develops a terrible need to go to the bathroom, is lying, totally immobilized, on a bomb. All the hubbub around him--all the arguments and sound bites--cannot disguise the fact that he is essentially a living dead man whose fate cannot help engaging our pity and terror.

Sovagovic plays him with a sweet, hopeful patience. Indeed, all the actors in No Man's Land are wonderfully alive, fractious and unpredictable. Their performances also help break down the schematics and turn this into an emotionally potent, powerfully thoughtful and finally tragic experience.