You wouldn't expect there would be "a fairy tale" associated with a film about Bosnia, but that's exactly how writer-director Danis Tanovic describes the experience of getting his first feature film made.
Within days of pitching his blackly absurdist "No Man's Land" to French-based Noe Productions in the fall of 1999, the company had him signed to a deal and several co-production partners lined up. Six months later, filming began in Slovenia.
The film is Bosnia's official entry for the foreign-language Academy Award. Los Angeles film critics named it best film in the same category, and it stands a good chance of receiving a Golden Globe nomination today. This is on top of 15 film festival awards, including one for best screenplay at Cannes (where it was also one of the top-selling films in the separate market), and it continues to run successfully in markets as diverse as France, Lebanon and Scandinavia.
That "No Man's Land" has begun its roll-out in the U.S.--it opened last weekend in Los Angeles and the weekend before in New York--is entirely coincidental. But with the nonstop media coverage of the war in Afghanistan, and national attention so focused on patriotism, the timing is fortuitous for such a small film.
The protagonists of Tanovic's film resemble orphans, each cut off from his mother base and at each others' throats. Their aggression and stupidity are more powerful than the outside world's efforts to save them. Tanovic's take on the war is marginally absurdist, darkly comic and stridently cynical. A thread of cynicism runs through his conversation, and he has little time for ignorance or apathy about the war in his homeland.
"We were victims. [But] we didn't want to make a pamphlet film, one that said: 'Hey, we're the good guys.' We wanted to make something that could last longer than six months, to make a film that people would see in 20 years and still enjoy and understand," he said.
The story revolves around a Bosnian (Branko Djuric) and a Serb (Rene Bitorajac) trapped in a trench in no man's land in Bosnia. Another Bosnian soldier--previously thought dead--is a human booby trap: A Serb has placed a spring-loaded mine beneath him.
Despite its bleak subject matter, there is an element of black humor played out in "No Man's Land." Early in the movie, a soldier makes a remark about the difference between pessimism and optimism: A pessimist thinks things can't get any worse, while an optimist knows they can.
"I have become known for that phrase," said Tanovic, adding that he was in the "optimist" category: "I know things can get worse."
In subsequent scenes, the warring soldiers--a Bosnian and a Serb--force each other at gunpoint to admit that their respective sides "started it," like two children fighting on a school playground, and almost as if to illustrate how history is usually written to reflect the victor's version of the truth.
"In any war, the other side always thinks they are right. And in any war, there are good guys and there are bad guys. But I can't, and don't want to, teach people what happened in Bosnia. There are books and magazines and documentaries they can learn from. I think audiences would be insulted if the movie took on that educational tone. I'm not simplifying things, but I'm can't take responsibility for teaching people what it's all about."
The film takes an unexpected turn, further illustrating that Tanovic has a unique perspective.
"Why make a film where everybody knows how it will end? You play with your audience, and take them to where you want them to be without them knowing where they are going.
The sense of futility that pervades the film means that even the rescue efforts of the United Nations backfire.
He doesn't let the media off the hook, either. War journalists "are just looking for the scoop. They should be very ethical people, but they not always are. In looking for another angle, they sometimes lose the truth. Journalism, like moviemaking, has become a business when neither one of them should be. When movie-making becomes that for me, I will start to do something else."
It's likely that Tanovic will retain his purist sensibilities, even with the success of "No Man's Land." The movie cost $2 million to make, and Tanovic can't predict how far the timing of its release will affect the way U.S. audiences respond.
"I don't think it will be a blockbuster," he said. "And as far as the Oscar entry is concerned, do I expect anything to come of it? No. Am I hopeful? Yes."
Fundamentally, however, he wants to show "the absurdity of war, of us killing each other all the time. It's my voice against wars. We have people who have committed crimes on us, just as there are people who permit crimes and who should be stopped."
"It is crucial for people to know what is happening in the world, that we don't go around killing people like that," he said. "I still have family in Bosnia, and have recently given lectures in Sarajevo about why and how I made this movie."