No Man's Land (15)

Review by Simon Bell

THE time: 1993 at the height of the Bosnian conflict. The place: A bombed out front-line trench between Bosnia and Herzegovina.

One Bosnian and one Serb soldier, Ciki and Nino, end up stranded in the same trench next to the booby-trapped body of another soldier. Into the farcical mess drops a French team of UNPROFOR peace officers and, a mere trip-wire's breadth behind them, the press corps who hope to turn the supposed incompetence into an international news showstopper.

When ordered to leave the three sitting ducks to their own devices, Sergeant Marchand, a UN French blue helmet, enlists the media to his cause. Signing up Jane Livingstone from Global News Network as his ally, the sergeant hopes the wounded trench-dwellers can be rescued from the inevitable.

Meanwhile the Bosnian and Serb soldiers squabble, at times with a disturbing violence, elsewhere with hilarity, over whose side started the war.

No Man's Land is a savage comedy that's as black as pitch. It explores the claustrophobic mental topography of a civil war that can consume the lives of thousands and is told with a disarming simplicity.

It won best script at the European Film Awards, picked up a Golden Globe for best foreign picture, took on and duffed up Amélie in the foreign film category at the Oscars and was top dog for its screenplay at Cannes.

This is all testament to the artistic vision of Danis Tanovic, who spent two years in the trenches, where his film is set, as one of the Bosnian army's official cameramen, capturing combat footage while still registered as a student at the Sarajevo Film School. (He fled the city in 1994, smuggled out by an RAF pilot in the back of his van.)

The film, of course, has a number of messages. One of which concerns how the press are controlled by spin to deliver an authorised memorandum of the true face of war. It's unfortunate, then, that it's fronted by a very unlikely Kate Adie: not even Channel 5 would allow a news reporter to spout scripts this stale. (Why do screenwriters always seem to stray so desperately wide of the mark when it comes to depicting broadcast journalism?)

But immediate questions are raised nevertheless: Are war reporters truthful and honourable messengers of man's wrongdoing to man, or purveyors of despondent misery for the sake of fame and TV audience figures?

Worthy of note is Simon Callow's bullish and arrogant British UN High Command, Colonel Soft, who sits in his cosy air-con'd office in Zagreb while his minions battle through the language and other, more obvious, barriers of no man's land.

This is a far more important representation than, say, Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), Michael Winterbottom's story of a British TV reporter who adopts an orphan - but probably not as involving as Roland Joffé's angry and intelligent take on the horror of Cambodia seen through the eyes of a New York Times scribe, The Killing Fields (1984).

Perhaps the film could be summarised by just one line of dialogue. At one point a soldier on the front-line looks up from his newspaper and sighs: "What a mess they've made in Rwanda!"