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Where hate never dies

When `Lagaan' failed to make it at the Oscars, one wondered how good its rival film was. TIMERI MURARI writes on what made `No Man's Land' worth the award.

`No Man's Land' is a vivid portrayal of the tragedy involving Serbs and Bosnians.

I KNOW most people were disappointed that "Lagaan" didn't win the Oscar for the best Foreign Film. However, it didn't stand a chance against a film like "No Man's Land". "Lagaan" was flabby, soft and sentimental, about ancient enmities, an obscure game (for Oscar voters anyway) and, in the end, quite fake. How could a village pick-up team beat an English team when our test cricketers can't, I had to ask myself.

"No Man's Land" is lean, powerful and frighteningly honest. It's more powerful than the "Thin Red Line', and made such American war films like "Platoon" and even "Apocalypse Now" overblown paeans in praise of war and heroics. This is a film about irrational hatred which the characters try to unravel and escape but finally succumb to. It is, like all great films, universal in that the story applies equally to Bosnia/ Serbia, Kashmir and Afghanistan, Pakistan/ India, Israel/ Palestinian, LTTE/ Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland and every ragtag war on our planet. If every jihadi (whatever his cause) saw this film, he'd come to realise (if he had any intelligence) how futile his war is, lay down his AK-47 and take up the ploughshare.

Danis Tanovic, a Bosnian, wrote and directed the film. Two years ago he won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film festival and, on the way to the Oscars, won a slew of other festival trophies. His cast are Serbs and Bosnians, professional actors, who bring their own bitter experiences to the screen. The film wastes no time in telling its bitter and tragic story. It has two messages — 1. Can hatred ever be reconciled? 2. Does dying for a cause make any difference when such hate blinds us?

The film opens early dawn. In the mist, we see five Bosnian men moving to relieve their comrades at the front line facing the Serbians. They chat and joke with each other, even sharing cigarettes as they wait for the mist to lift. It's a very short scene but we are drawn to them through their humour and gossip. We gather also that their guide could have lost his way in the mist. When the mist lifts, they move out over a rise into open ground. Machine guns and mortars open up. They've strayed into Serbian territory. They're cut down in the open field by the Serbians.

Chiki, a tall, humorous man, is wounded and dives into a trench. His friend Eera, hit by a shell, lies in the open ground nearby. Everyone else is killed. Chiki hauls Eera into a gully, only to discover that he's dead.

The Serbs send a grizzled veteran and a young recruit, Nino, to check out what has happened. With orders to kill any survivors. They enter the trench, with Chiki hiding in a hut. The veteran, who has invented a special spring mine, plants it under Eera's body so that, should he be moved, everyone around will be killed. Chiki steps out from hiding and kills the veteran, capturing Nino.

Chiki and Nino are now trapped in a no man's land, hating, mistrusting, and threatening each other. At times, it looks as if they could be friends, they both knew the same girl in school, they have an equal sense of grim humour and even share a cigarette. But their irrational hate lies within each other. They play tricks and get a turn to hold a gun on each other. "Who started the war?" Chiki demands, putting the gun to Nino's head, and forcing him to admit: "We did." Then when Nino gets the gun, he repeats the question, forcing Chiki to admit the "We did."

Then, to Chiki's horror, Eera groans. He's alive and well, just knocked unconscious. But he's lying on a mine. Chiki cannot move him without killing Eera and himself.

The Serbs and Bosnians inform the UN force that these two men are trapped in the gully. The UN commander, a British Colonel, wants nothing to do with the situation. But a compassionate French officer on the ground, disobeying orders, goes into rescue them in his armoured carrier. He's also goaded into action by a pushy TV woman journalist; desperate for a good "live" story. The French officer disarms the two antagonists and calls up an expert to diffuse the mine under Eera. The UN commander, forced by the live coverage of the event, visits no man's land by helicopter in order to et the UN out of the worsening situation. He arrives with a very sexy secretary in tow.

But meanwhile, Chiki and Nino have moved past any rational thought. They're determined to kill the other. Chiki grabs a gun from a UN soldier and kills Nino. Another soldier reflexively kills Chiki. The mine expert, after trying his best to get at the mine, reports that he cannot diffuse it. It's too dangerous. The UN commander orders the pullout and when the journalist enquires about the man on the mine, he lies blatantly that the mine was diffused and the man has returned to his unit.

The UN soldiers and the TV crew move out, the French officer the last to leave the gully, reluctant to abandon Eera. The UN commander cynically says to the French officer: "Leave him. It makes no difference."

The last we see, as night falls, the camera rising up, is Eera waiting for his death with no hope of rescue. The image of Eera alone, lying on a mine, knowing he's going to die, and the sound of the helicopter fading away, is one of the most powerful endings in recent cinema. We know his dying (and Nino's and Chiki's deaths) will make no difference. Hatred does not die either.

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