No Man's Land (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I lived in Hungary during the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Hungary has a long southern border with Yugoslavia. Sometimes, in the south of Magyar, the Balkan war seemed so close that it hung in the air palpably. I would get back to my room at night to watch the CNN war reporters, whose daily recap stories would be dominated by hillside cannons firing down upon innocuous, often unsuspecting towns and villages which were not very far my hotel in Pecs or Szeged, perhaps closer than Budapest, where I began the day. Sometimes I would see CNN images of Serbian cannons destroying a Croatian village, but at other times the ethnic roles would reverse. Those villages across the border looked exactly like the villages in Hungary that I had been driving through all day. It was literally not possible to tell them apart unless there was a visible sign betraying the language of the inhabitants.

Then my mind would drift while I watched the repetitive news. I'd imagine that I was having a cup of coffee in a Hungarian living room, and my girlfriend's grandmother was pulling bread from the oven when unexpected cannon fire shattered their roof and blew the house to smithereens. That's exactly what happened to the people in those villages. That's what the war in Yugoslavia was all about - maybe that's what war has always been about - bombs landing in people's kitchens while they bake bread and tickle their children.

Yugoslavia was a beautiful country before the struggle. It included quaint medieval towns, generally pleasant weather, spectacular mountains, and a beautiful seacoast. The Serbs and Croatians and others had lived together in comparative normality under Tito since the end of WW2. In those 45 years, two full generations, the Serbs and Croatians intermarried, played sports together, worked together, and went to school together. The artificially cobbled country even managed to establish a middle position between the west and the Soviet Bloc, and the Yugoslavians were the darlings of the American public when they defied the Soviet boycott of the 1984 L.A. Olympics. But their old ethnic wounds continued to fester behind closed doors, and when the opportunity arrived, the ancient conflicts began anew. Expatriate Serbs and Croatians who were best of friends in the United States, roommates in the NBA for example, ended their lifetime friendships when the war began, each siding with his ethnic group's part in the struggle.

To the west, it seemed like the war between Lilliput and Blefescu in Gulliver's Travels. If you have forgotten, the people in that story seemed like exactly identical people to Gulliver, but they were fighting a bloody war over whether to crack their eggs on the wide end or the narrow end.

I'm sure that Serbs must think that Croatians are radically different from them, but of course the two groups are completely indistinguishable to the rest of us, just badly groomed Eastern European guys in cheap suits. They even share the same language, which is co-eponymously named Serbo-Croatian.



This film is about their insane war, fought against a backdrop of spectacular nature, and between guys who played high school basketball together. When one of the combatants captures an enemy, he ends up talking with him about the people they went to school with, just as any of us might do at a reunion.

Oh, yeah! What happened to her?

She left the country.

I don't blame her.

Nobody from the west is really interested in the conflict, not even CNN and the UN peacekeepers, but the world's attention does become focused on a specific human interest story, as so often happens in real life. One of the fallen, presumed dead, has been planted on top of a land mine. The idea was that when his comrades would try to move the body, they would all be blown into yet more smithereens.

I know I used the word before. Hey, Yugoslavia was poor in many ways, but rich in smithereens. They had the world's smithereen monopoly for a while there.  In fact, when the dinar collapsed, the country was briefly on the smithereen standard. I now regret having left Eastern Europe without so much as a single smithereen.

Only one major problem with the whole "bring out your dead" scenario - the guy on top of the land mine wasn't dead. He's feeling much better, as the Pythons would say. In fact, he's thinking about moving around a bit. Oh-oh.

No Man's Land is the blackly comedic anti-war film that won the best foreign film Oscar, in a major upset over the heavily favored Amelie. The director's acceptance speech was perhaps more touching than the film itself in the way it demonstrated what a different world this film and its director inhabit from the one we know. The film's approach certainly demonstrates the difference between Hollywood and Bosnia, but his appearance at the trite ceremony heightened our awareness still further. He loped to the podium without a shred of poise; he hunched over the mike while he muttered in incomprehensible English, and he came to the glamorous Oscar night in a suit that looked like he got it from Goodwill. It appeared that the total amount of money this man has had in his life wouldn't pay for one of Tom Cruise's haircuts. My daughter and I laughed out loud (Ok, cruelly, I admit) as the guy approached the podium, but my wife (who was born and educated in Eastern Europe) didn't see the humor. I think she thought he was kinda stylish by the standards of the former Soviet Bloc. Or maybe she was in shock at the sight of an Eastern European guy without an oversized hat.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1

  • also a full-screen version

In a pointed yet strangely endearing way, he managed to open our eyes for a few minutes and made us realize that the celebrity gossip that dominates Oscar night is just the empty, fantasy part of filmmaking. This poor penniless shlub threw his heart and soul on film in a representation of the absurd and forlorn state of his homeland, once so serene and breathtaking, and he did an excellent job.

Helluva screenplay. If Jonathan Swift can read it from wherever he is now, he is nodding in approval. 

Assuming he can read Bosnian.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4.

  • It won the Oscar for best foreign film, and won first place at Cannes for Best Screenplay.

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: it grossed nearly a million dollars in the USA, which is not so bad for 35 screens. Obviously, it found a small but devoted following.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Excellent movie, but not everyone's cup of tea. Eastern European black comedy. Anti-war film with sub-titles.

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