Early one morning in Bosnia, June 1993, a group of Bosnian soldiers find themselves lost in the fog between enemy front lines. As the sun comes up, Serb soldiers discover the Bosnians and attack, and Ciki, one of the Bosnian soldiers, seems to be the only survivor. He manages to hide himself in an abandoned trench in the middle of "no man's land. "
When the Serbian commander sends two of his soldiers to check the trench, Ciki hides and the two Serbs find nothing, but before they leave they set up a booby trap: they lay one of the dead Bosnian soldiers on the ground over a spring mine. As they finish the job, they notice that a rifle that was there minutes before is now missing - they realize someone is hiding in the trench. Cornered, Ciki jumps out of his hiding place, kills one of the soldiers and wounds the other: Nino.
For a short time, Ciki and Nino are left alone in the trench. Then, to their astonishment, Cera (the Bosnian soldier lying on the mine) regains consciousness. He's wasn't dead, just knocked unconscious, and if he moves, the mine will explode, killing all of them. Although Nino and Ciki are distrustful of each other, they decide they have to work together to find a way out of their dilemma. They nearly kill themselves in the process, but finally manage to attract their respective sides' attention. Both the Serbians and the Bosnians call the local United Nations UNPROFOR base for assistance.
Sergeant Marchand, a UN French blue helmet, receives a call about the situation from his superior in Sarajevo. Upon arrival at the trench, however, high command orders him not to intervene in the potentially explosive situation. Frustrated, Marchand decides to disobey orders and see what he can do to help. He obtains the assistance of a mine squad, but is forced to turn back when his superiors threaten serious action if he doesn't resume his post. As Marchand leaves the trench, the tension between Ciki and Nino grows. They almost kill each other.
On the way back to his post, Marchand meets Jane Livingstone, an international TV journalist who already knows all about the situation. Jane intercepted Marchand's radio communications with his superior and threatens to expose their "non-intervention" course of action. Marchand is soon back at the trench, only this time he's shielding Nino, Ciki and Cera from the press. He arrives just in time to stop Nino and Ciki yet again from killing each other.
UNPROFOR troops and the mine squad gather and the world's press circles as "no man's land" begins to look more like a circus than a battlefield. At UN High Command in Zagreb, it's a difficult situation for Colonel Soft, who has watched the situation escalate on the news. Soft decides to fly in to gain kudos with the media, and hopefully avert an embarrassing disaster.
Back in the trench, the mine expert examines the still booby-trapped Cera, but tells Marchand that the situation is hopeless - there is nothing they can do. Colonel Soft arrives and quickly concurs there is nothing to be done but come up with a strategy that will save UNPROFOR's honour.
Ciki and Nino are finally forced to emerge from the trench, leaving Cera lying on the mine. The stress of the situation once again heightens the tension between them - for the last time. In a frenzied culmination of the day's events, the absurdity of their situation takes its final toll.
As night closes in on No Man's Land, Cera is left alone atop the mine to await his fate…
THE DIRECTOR'S NOTES
by Danis Tanovic
I remember that strange feeling when war started in Bosnia, when I would see a black bullet hole in a building or a crater made by a shell in a field. Imagine if someone imposed a black and white photograph on a Van Gogh painting, and you will partly understand what one feels when seeing this. The disharmony was a kind of a visual shock. It turned me cold and left me feeling bitter and helpless.
This shock is something I have reproduced through my film. On one side, a long summer day - perfect nature, strong colours - and on the other, human beings and their black madness. And this long, hot summer day reflects the atmosphere of the film itself. Movements are heavy, thoughts are hard to grasp, time is slow, and tension is hiding - hiding but present. When it finally explodes, it is like fireworks - sudden, loud and quick. Panoramic shots of landscape become unexpectedly mixed with nervous details of action. It all lasts for a moment or two, and then tension hides again, waiting for the next opportunity to surprise. Time slows down again.
I wanted this film to be full of all different kinds of contrasts and disharmonies, but I wanted the outcome to be that disharmony and hate are unnatural, that they bring no solution. I read somewhere that love brings harmony to a conflict without destroying either side. Hate does the contrary. If hate were the ruling principle, there would be no opposition left in the world. But because fire and water exist, love must be the principle that rules the world.
Characters in this story look quite alike. They are simple people, almost antiheroes, caught in the jaws of war. A man on one side of the front line could easily be found on the other. Only his name would be different.
I am not trying to deny responsibility for the atrocities committed in the Bosnian war. I would never do something like that, because there were victims on one side and people who committed crimes on the other. But the point of my film is not to accuse. The story is not about pointing at those who did wrong. The point is to raise a voice against any kind of war. It is my vote against violence of any kind.
THE PRODUCERS' NOTES
from Noé Productions
For years - to be precise, from the time of Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain - we had been looking for a project that would say something about the absurdity of the wars and the destiny of the former Yugoslavia.
In September 1999, Bosnian director Danis Tanovic deposited a script in our office. He didn't call, he didn't insist - we knew nothing about him except that he came from Sarajevo and was a Belgian film graduate. We read his script and were fascinated. The script was No Man's Land. We signed a deal with him in October 1999.
The next step was to give the script to Marco Müller, director of the Locarno Film Festival and in charge of film production at a Treviso based company, and Marion Hänsel, director, actress and producer from Belgium. In one afternoon at the Sao Paolo Film Festival where they were both on the jury, they decided to co-produce the film. The two production companies, Fabrica (Italy) and Man's Films (Belgium), were on board.
Simon Perry, at that time the director of British Screen and the European Co-production Fund, came next, during a producers meeting in Paris. His support was essential for making the film possible. Our co-producers from Before the Rain (1994), Cat Villiers and Judy Counihan, came as the only natural choice for the UK co-producers. The film was getting a real European structure. The full support of the French Pay Television (TPS) reassured us even more in our choice.
The final step was our decision to shoot the film in Slovenia. A former Yugoslav republic, it had all the elements necessary for this film: it looked very much like Bosnia, and the crews are among the best professionals in Europe. The country is peaceful, and the language, though not the same, is easy for most people coming from other Yugoslav republics - mainly the director and actors. The Slovenian co-producers, Dunja Klemenc and Igor Pedicek from Studio Maj and Casablanca, through the Slovenian Film Fund, also invested in the film. Once the co-producers had been identified, the support of Eurimages was an essential factor in the successful structure of this international production.
We now had all but the cast. The choice of Slovenia helped very much in the casting process. All three lead actors came either from Slovenia or neighbouring Croatia. Bosnia was so close that we could take the small parts and some extras from Sarajevo. The director went several times to Brussels and cast his "French" characters from among the young actors of this co-production country. The choice of Katrin Cartlidge was somehow natural, already a friend to most of the producers after an unforgettable experience on Before the Rain. As for Simon Callow, also a producers' choice, the director happily agreed.