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Trench Warfare 

A Bosnian and a Serb between enemy lines in No Man's Land

With corpses strewn on the field before him, with parked artillery surrounding him, and with an international incident developing several hundred yards away, a Serbian soldier on watchdog duty gasps in horror at something he reads in the newspaper.

"What's wrong?" asks his colleague.

"What a mess in Rwanda!" he replies.

It's a deadpan moment worthy of a Robert Altman satire, and indeed, the new Bosnian import No Man's Land can easily lay claim as a foreign cousin to Altman's M*A*S*H, the 1970 anti-war classic that was set during the Korean War but was obviously a thinly veiled diatribe against the Vietnam War. Yet writer-director Danis Tanovic doesn't take Altman's roundabout manner in reporting the skirmish -- he doesn't need to. Born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and a former film archivist for the Bosnian army (for whom, according to the press material, he "filmed over 300 hours of footage shot on the front line of Sarajevo"), Tanovic is intimately familiar with his subject matter, and his knowledge has produced a trenchant movie about trench warfare.

Or rather, a peculiar form of trench warfare. It almost sounds like the set-up for a bad joke: Did you hear the one about the Bosnian and the Serb? Well, they both get stuck in this trench, see. . .But for Ciki (Branko Djuric) and Nino (Rene Bitorajac), it's no laughing matter. One of the only survivors of an ambush, Ciki the Bosnian is forced to hide out in the trench; he's soon joined by Nino the Serb, who's been sent to the foxhole to eliminate any potential survivors. Their situation, already an explosive one, is made even more tense by the fact that one of Ciki's comrades (Filip Sovagovic) is also in the trench with them, resting on top of a mine that will blow them all to smithereens if he even shifts his weight, let alone stands up.

No Man's Land could easily have been staged in the somber, stone-faced manner that the topic clearly warrants, but Tanovic elected to throw in as much natural humor as possible, not only in the occasional wisecracks tossed out by his embittered, embattled protagonists but also by the circumstances surrounding the PR circus that quickly forms. Here's Sergeant Marchand (Georges Siatidis), a compassionate Frenchman working for the United Nations, who's specifically ordered by his superiors not to get involved in the affair because none of them want to take responsibility should anything go wrong. Here's British correspondent Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge), whose genuine concern for the horrors around her is hard to gauge in the context of her determination to land a juicy story. And finally, here's the loathsome Colonel Soft (Simon Callow), a UN official who plays the PR game with the polished skill of a sleazy politician.

Absurdity is piled upon absurdity. When a Serbian officer is informed that someone has been spotted in the trench but that it's impossible to determine whether it's friend or foe, he orders that the trench be bombed, "just to be sure." And the fact that a former classmate of Nino's also happens to be an ex-girlfriend of Ciki's only brings them closer for a nanosecond; the familiarity quickly passes, and the fleeting realization that their similarities probably outnumber their differences is quickly lost in the torrential downpour of irrational fear and hatred that fuels the conflict. Yet the film's most potent piece of insanity comes at the very end, a final shot that remains entrenched in the mind long after we've reentered the relative normalcy of our own comfortable lives.

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