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Film as a medium for reflection: No Man’s Land (2001)

no-mans-land-dvd-coverEarlier this month we screened “No Man’s Land” a 2001 film by Danis Tanović. The synopsis: Bosnia and Herzegovina during 1993 at the time of the heaviest fighting between the two warring sides. Plot: Two soldiers from opposing sides in the conflict, Nino and Ciki, become trapped in no man’s land, whilst a third soldier becomes a living booby trap (more in the event description).

Our film events are intended to incite discussion that is relevant to our personal lives. This month, the approach was ‘checking our sources and believes’. Everyone has opinions, beliefs we hold deeply – but where do these come from, how do we form them, why do we maintain them, and what would make us change them? – are things we don’t usually ask ourselves [1].

In this film, deeply held opinions and the problems these beliefs exacerbate, are central to the plot. These are examined through parody that ridicules the absurdity of beliefs that end up being ‘skin deep’.   We discussed after the film:

Cindy: No Man’s Land had a huge impact on me when I first saw back in 2004. No different today. The parody that incisively critiques the failings of our system and our very own human nature works on many levels. The film takes us into a thin slice of the life of 6 people in particular, whose ethics and identity are shaken by conflict: Three soldiers in a trench (one is a booby trap) on the one hand and a UN general, a UN Sargent and a reporter on the other. The interplay between the characters made me think about “the volatility of identity”. One the one hand, shaped by culture (and related place, history, tradition, values, peer-pressure, etc.) and on the other shaped by memory. In the film, they brought out both of these aspects shaping culture and put ‘identity’ itself into conflict.

Brief examples: the Bosnian and Serbian soldiers talking about a common friend, Sonjia (a conversation that brought the two men together, in memories) and then the intervention of the UN officials (which exacerbated the individual – and polar – interests of the soldiers – leading to the death of both). Another example was the ethical and identity dilemma of the UN Sargent who refused to just sit around doing nothing but who in the end colluded with the General to ‘hide and lie about their (in)competencies’.

The second to last scene is symbolic, where the Sargent’s image (expressing distress and disillusion in his face as he turns his head towards the trench, where the booby trap man still lay) is reflected on window of the reporter’s van – just after she said “a trench is just a trench – they are all the same”. This double hit of despair summed up the seemingly debilitating position that individuals have against huge organisations and systems – however, I see it as a wake up call to not let these massive systems cripple our will to act; to not be passive victims of a system but to critique it, openly (like the film), and deal with our issues, starting perhaps at the personal level – that of identity!

No mans land blog quote

Cliff: Great film for provoking discussion and excellent structured discussion after for exploring our own beliefs/values; however time was limited for me and i couldn’t meet the aims of the structure; seems like a day school would have been better. What stood out for me was the values held by all the actors which hold the mechanism in place and perpetuate the factors which are the ingredients of a war situation.

I/we are “better” Humans than you/them and because of that “they” are deserving of punishment/domination/poverty (relative and otherwise) etc.

From the acceptance that taking orders are a valid way to deal with situation’s, to the lies told to maintain privileged positions, to the career journalist’s manipulating to advance their personal interests. I believe we’re all affected by these values, it’s just a question of ”to what extent’, we just don’t get that our well being depends on the well being of others – our interdependence. Until we change our social structures which imbue such values from the cradle: whether at churches, schools, sports teams local/national etc always adopt some sort of “us and them” mentality. It is better to start from where these problems stem from rather than deal with the symptoms. Looks to me like our competitive economic systems are the main player and we need to scale down competition and reduce its role to where it’s functioning harmonises with the well being of all.

Asako: I like your comment!

The social structure that imbues ‘us and them’ mentality seems very common in many cultures. Why it is so popular and strong, I agree the competitive economic system is responsible, and also that it seems to respond to/feed into our desire (or need?) that we all share – desire/need to belong and connect.

As well as scaling down competition, I guess it’s also important to have and publicise various alternative systems (such as sub-schooling for kids) that are practical and work well alongside the ‘mainstream’ system, available for those who want to be off/cannot adopt the mainstream, so we know the current competitive system, however strong its grip seems, is not the only way and the path is not narrow even though we entered into the system when we’re very young and have remained in it for a long time.


But I am still left wondering… do we hold on to our opinions because it is easier to just regurgitate them than to question their origins and our motivations for holding them? Is it really that hard to challenge the ‘bone marrow’ of our identity? To be continued…

[1] Questions inspired by M, Gelb’s book “How to think like Leonardo da Vinci“.



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