“No Man’s Land” (in Bosnian: Ničija zemlja ) is filmmaker Danis Tanović’s much acclaimed first feature film, for which he also wrote the screenplay and composed the music. Released in 2001, the film is set in 1993, during the second year of the Bosnian-Herzogovinian war against the self-proclaimed Republic Sprska and the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia.
The latter two, during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, were the respective unrecognized geopolitical entities envisioned, led and militarily supplied by the Balkan states of Serbia and Croatia, in the attempt to sever Bosnia-Herzegovina between themselves, each claiming to have ethnic authority over the land.
But while a percentage of Bosnian-Herzegovinian inhabitants were Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats, the majority of Bosnians were, and still are, a native Slavic-speaking Muslim community, which emerged during the four centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans until the late 19th century.
The three ethnically-based Bosnian communities had managed to coexist relatively in peace under the Yugoslavian federation led by statesman Josip Broz or “Tito”, but after his death, and the surfacing of a wide-spread nationalist climate in the Balkans, a fratricide conflict ensued, with countless tragic consequences. One of them being the siege of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, which lasted 4 years and is to this day the longest siege of a capital city in modern history warfare.
Among the people whose life was deeply affected by the siege was Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanović, who in 1992 was forced to interrupt his studies at the Sarajevan Academy of Performing Arts. As soon as the war broke out, Tanović, with the aid of a crew, proceeded to witness and document the conflict from the very front lines.
The audiovisual material thus gathered was subsequently featured in a number of films and reports of the Sarajevan siege and of the Bosnian war in general. Years later, Tanović directed “No man’s land”, which was followed by many critically acclaimed feature films, such as “Cirkus Columbia” (2010), “An episode in the life of an Iron Picker” (2013), and “Death in Sarajevo”(2016).
In military terms, a “no man’s land” is a portion of territory between boundaries of opposing forces, which has been left unoccupied for strategic difficulties or purposes. In colloquial language, it tends to mean an unclaimed or unowned portion of land, or, figuratively, an area of intellectual activity which is deemed ambiguous or indefinite.
All the above definitions, for a reason or another, make an extremely fitting title for the film.
Čiki (Branko Durić) and Nino (René Bitorajac) are two wounded soldiers from opposite sides of the conflicting Bosnian forces, who find themselves accidentally trapped in a trench, which neither of them can leave. Regiments of both armies are monitoring opposite sides of the field which the trench divides, and for both soldiers leaving it would mean being shot by one regiment or the other.
The two soldiers gradually face the transition from a confrontation based exclusively on weapons and physical, life-menacing threats, to a confrontation based on language. In their already difficult attempts to relate, the two find out that a comrade of Čiki, Cera (who had been thought dead) is in fact alive.
But while previously thought dead, a Bosnian Serb comrade of Nino had placed the unconscious body of Cera on an S-mine, which will activate once the body is even slightly lifted, with the intention of blowing up any Bosnian who would have collected what had been thought as Cera’s corpse. Therefore, while in the trench, the very much alive Cera cannot move in the slightest way.
In this harrowing situation, in which the contradictions and paradoxes of every war and maybe of every human being emerge from the soldiers in a vivid, coarse and realistic way, the media makes its way to the trench, as does the UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force), with all the ethical ambiguity that surrounded its role in the Balkan conflicts.
The ending of the film leaves one with a certain feeling of loss, impotence and anguish, yet, with them, also the knowledge of having witnessed a work of art whose creative authenticity and mastery is undisputed. For “No Man’s Land” Tanović went on to win several dozens of awards, including the Oscar and the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, the Prix du scénario at Cannes, and numerous others.
During a dinner lately, I asked its older guests what their perception of the Balkan conflicts was while they were happening since I’d been precluded from having any by the blissful unawareness of what was my early childhood at the time.
Didn’t the guests live in Europe, not far from the Balkans? What did they think, what did they feel, when the war broke out? Did the conflicts affect them somehow? What was the media coverage like? Were there debates on television? On the radio? On newspapers? How often? What were they about? What use did they have, if any?
The response to my queries, which, at times, do have the bad habit to be blissfully distasteful for convivial events, was that: “One had the perception that after Tito’s death, the life of Yugoslavia, as a federal country, could not last. We read the newspapers, we saw the news, we thought, we talked, we discussed. We tried to be as conscientious as possible but regarded the matter as something that didn’t really affect our lives. Nobody, not one of us, had any idea of the scope of the atrocities being committed there”.
Indeed, only those who witnessed them seemed or seem to have one.
During a ceremony in the early nineties, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, author, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel directly addressed US’s then-president Bill Clinton, by saying:
“Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.”
Interestingly, one of Wiesel’s later speeches at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in 1999, rotated around the theme of indifference.
“What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means <<no difference>>. A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.
Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.
Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment”
While watching Tanović‘s film, I found myself wondering what the etymology of “trench” could be.
I later found out that various assumptions have been formulated on the matter throughout time. “Trench” could come from the Old French “trenche” – “a slice, cut, gash, slash” – which in turn could come from the latin “truncare” – “to maim, mutilate, cut off”. Trench could also come from the German “trennen”, “to separate”.
After this brief research, I could not desist from thinking about the most infamous case of trench warfare, that is World War I, and how one of the soldiers enrolled in the Italian infantry, Giuseppe Ungaretti, wrote, while fighting in the Karstic trenches, what would become some of the most loved and most acclaimed poems of Italian literature, such as “Brothers”.
And if I could not desist from thinking about that, much less could I desist from thinking about what had been the slogan of the Federation of Yugoslavia, that is “brotherhood and unity”, and how, watching the film, Čiki and Nino felt like two little twin brothers squabbling over who was born first.
“What’s your regiment
In the night
Leaf barely born
In the tortured air
of man facing his own frailty
– Giuseppe Ungaretti