Wednesday, March 28, 2007

When Allegiance to One’s Country Contributes to That Very Country’s Erosion: Kusturica’s "Underground" (1995) and Tanovic’s "No Man’s Land" (2001)


At the heart of both Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) and Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land (2001), lies confusion and satirical comedy concerning the Bosnian – Serbian wars of the 1990’s and the history of political positioning of Bosnia and Serbia dating from WWII to the ‘90s. Neither film seems to logically explain the conflicts or give a clear depiction of the politics motivating the many states, including Bosnia and Serbia. Instead, we become spectators who see blatant corruption and bureaucratic incompetence, always skeptical of what knowledge we are gaining about the wars. Each film, after all, is likely holding back or deliberately working to shape a particular view and, with no direct experience to anchor us, we may be described as similar to those kept underground in Kusturica’s film – unable to know any other reality than that which readily appears before us in each film and unsure of what to make of much of what we see.

No Man’s Land specifically focuses on war turned into media hype and sensationalism, humanitarian organizations that seem to be more for show than action and the pointlessness of war, in particular warring ethnicities of the same regions. For example, the English reporter who seems so dominated by the need to “seek out truth” in many scenes, is also clearly catering to studio officials back home who are working to shape a particular view of the war through the footage she sends. She shows little real sensitivity to the situation, wanting to interview both the Serbian and Bosnian men in the trench about whether or not they are responsible for the conflict; both are insulted and unwilling to share any details of their involvement in the war as a result of her sensationalist and illogical approach at gaining answers. Perhaps the most infamous scene for illustrating the futility of the conflict comes early on as Nino and Ciki demand (at gunpoint) that each other admit that it was their group that started the war. Whoever has the temporary authority of the firearm has his way, until his rival’s opportunity to gain the upper hand (by possessing the gun, or knife) presents itself.

One moment in particular struck and intrigued me; it incited me to more accurately understand the isolation of every other group present, but outside the direct Serbian-Bosnian conflict. During a scene in which Cera’s situation on top of the bouncing mine is being assessed by the UN staff present on the scene, we begin to hear a strange musical soundtrack. It is one of the most clearly remembered instances of the long duration of the entrapment within the trench because it is the only moment that has a musical soundtrack accompanying it. Up until this point in the film, all we hear as soundtrack are the firing of guns, the sounds of tanks, or the bugs in the background. Perhaps at first we begin to pay extra attention to what we are viewing because the soundtrack signals to us that this is an important sequence. However, our perceptions are shattered as we see a UN officer remove his headphone and with it, the music disappears; the official could not have been more distant (and neither could nearly any of the UN officials with the exception of the one who first answered the call for aid) from the cause he was involved in – attempting to save a Bosnian life. I will not however, assert that No Man’s Land sides more strongly with either the Bosnian side, as we gain sympathy with Cera or the Serbian side, as there is no possibility of rescuing his life. It does not side with the media pursuing “the truth” nor does it side with the French UN officials who respond to the initial situation. It is a film which takes no sides and offers no hope for any involved, and yet it is also darkly humorous in many instances. Like Kusturica’s Underground, there is the sense that nobody really knows what is going on or why, yet everyone wants to be involved – either to assert that they are in the right, or to witness the senselessness.

The difference is that, in Underground, the people kept (literally) in the dark do not know that they do not really know what is going on; they place complete trust in Marko’s reports back to them about the outside world. They are controlled by the only media they know – Marko – and they want to be involved in the fight against the Nazis by manufacturing weapons for his distribution. The ending of Underground is especially intriguing from a critical or theoretical point of view. Unlike No Man’s Land which ends with a final look at Cera, unable to be rescued, lying in the trench, Underground ends with yet another drunken banquet, albeit a much more reserved one than witnessed throughout the film, where everybody who has died or had a physical limitation has been restored. At last there is no corruption, it is a utopian existence. But, one cannot forget the final shot, guests happily chatting and dancing while the land they stand on literally breaks apart from the rest of the country, as if to say: these people have lived a lie and opportunistically betrayed one another and thus have no country, no national unity. Yet still, there is an inescapable need to look back nostalgically at the unity that once was, even if it was proven later to be false. As was stated in class, the country was a lie, but was still lamented and nostalgically idealized upon its destruction. Perhaps this is because dealing with being considered a non-nation may be one of the most difficult things to do, to have no national unity, no definition of oneself in terms of where one came from.

Perhaps the final similarity between Underground and No Man’s Land is that both comment on the need to uphold one’s particular alliance with one’s own kind against some other evil, whether perceived or real. This becomes tragic when the very principle of upholding ones nation is precisely what is tearing it apart.

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