INTERVIEW: Soldier with a Camera; Danis Tanovic Treads "No Man's Land"

by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE

(indieWIRE/ 12.05.01) -- For two years, Danis Tanovic was "a solider with a camera," on the frontlines of the war in his home country, the former Yugoslavia. He shot over 300 hours of footage for the Bosnian army's film archive, as well as documentaries like "Portraits d'Artistes Pendant la Guerre" about artists during Sarajevo's siege. "No Man's Land" (opening Friday in New York from MGM/UA) is Tanovic's first fiction feature, an amalgam of details from the filmmaker's experiences on the battlefield, combined with an incisive, satirical, and taut script (which won the award for Best Screenplay at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival).

A winner of 15 international prizes, from Audience Awards from San Sebastian to Sao Paulo, Tanovic's drama finds three soldiers caught in between the Serb and Bosnian trenches at the height of the Balkan war in 1993. The fact that one of them lays on a landmine, which may explode at any moment, gives the film a continued sense of tension and provides a narrative device that would make Syd Field proud. Written in 14 days, shot over 26, and cut in 12, Tanovic simply says, "I knew what I wanted. I'm a professional. What's the point of cutting a film over an entire year?"

"The one negative criticism I've heard is that the relationship between tragedy and comedy is so perfect that it becomes suspicious. I take it as a complement."

indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman spoke with Tanovic about his transition from documentary to fiction, the details of war, and sound design.

indieWIRE: This is your first fiction film. How was the transition going from documentary to fiction?

Danis Tanovic: Natural. I don't think there's so much difference between making documentaries and feature films. I think it's even harder to make documentaries. When you make feature films, you have a script, which is a bible. The final result should be as it was written down on paper. And in documentary, you can write whatever you want, but life brings you situations where you have to be fast thinking, fast moving.

iW: Was working with actors a different experience?

Tanovic: I started doing documentaries in the first place because of the war. I always wanted to do feature films, and I studied directing when the war started, so I was working with actors before, in film and in theater. So I think it's easy to work with actors when you have a script that is clear, when they know what and why they are doing it.

iW: The script won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes. How was your writing process?

Tanovic: It was quick; I wrote it in two weeks. But I was thinking about it for a very long time.

iW: Your movie reminds me of this Billy Wilder film; it's called "Ace in the Hole" aka "The Big Carnival" where Kirk Douglas plays this journalist who gets caught up in this media circus surrounding some guy stuck in a mine shaft. It's this small incident that grows bigger and bigger.

Tanovic: Well, it's our world. Even my film started small.

iW: But it was truly an international production.

Tanovic: It is. And I enjoyed it. It's a pleasure to work with other people from different countries. In the set, we were speaking five languages.

iW: A "war film" has a certain timeliness right now. What are your thoughts about bringing this film to the U.S. right now?

Tanovic: There are people who are saying it's the right time and others who say it's not. We'll leave that to December 7 to see how it's going to go. The thing with "No Man's Land" is not to see it, but how to make people to go to see it. The one negative criticism I've heard is that the relationship between tragedy and comedy is so perfect that it becomes suspicious. I take it as a complement.

iW: What was the process like going from making documentaries about the war to making a fiction film about it? What were the specific details you borrowed from your experiences?

Tanovic: It's full of different details that you don't even see. The cigarettes that Chiki smokes are rapped in newspaper. You don't see it, but Bosnians see it. Most of the time, I used the real details, because it was natural.

"It's true that I lived through war and suffered the experience, but Dante wrote about Hell and he was never there. So I don't think you have to have the experience to write about it."

iW: And what about the Rolling Stones T-shirt that Chiki wears?

Tanovic: First of all, I love the Rolling Stones. And it gives you this rebel image. And I think of the Bosnians as rebels who didn't let themselves be killed. Also, when you see a guy with this T-shirt, it gives you a smile. It's very urban. And when I was in the war, I had a U2 T-shirt, because there were no uniforms.

iW: How do you see your filmmaking moving away from the war experience? It seems like it would be difficult?

Tanovic: It's not a subject that is important, but the way you treat that subject. This is another film about war, but the way I'm treating it is different. You have millions of love stories, but there are only a few that you remember. I'd like to believe that I'm capable of having my point of view on another subject. And secondly, it's true that I lived through war and suffered the experience, but Dante wrote about Hell and he was never there. So I don't think you have to have the experience to write about it. It's good, of course, but there's a lot of imagination involved.

iW: I remember specifically the sound design, the buzzing of flies, for example.

Tanovic: I didn't want music. I didn't want to use the Hollywood system where you put in violins to make you cry. I only put in music in the beginning and the end, and the rest of the music is just coming from radios or walkman in the story. So I needed sound. Maybe you don't notice this, but each time one of the characters shoots a gun, on two frontlines [in the background], everyone starts shooting. Because that's what it's like in wartime; without even seeing what they're shooting, everyone's shooting, because you have to because it's war. Some audiences were laughing, because they realized what I was doing.

iW: There's this great juxtaposition between the horror of war and this beautiful, quiet, perfect sunny day.

Tanovic: When you look at any conflict in the world, and you see dead people and mutilated bodies and then you see nature surrounding them, it doesn't fit, it just doesn't fit.