|"A Serious Film With
A Sense Of Humour"
14 February 2002
Danis Tanovic, Bosnian director of war "satire" No Man's Land,
denounces Hollywood's money-making ethos and "infantile" notions
of heroism, but says he still wouldn't mind winning an Academy Award.
By Paul Fischer.
The stunning new film No
Man's Land is a war film with a difference. Already internationally
acclaimed, the film, set in the brutal war in Bosnia-Herzegovina,
is the sardonic tale of two Bosnian soldiers Ciki (Branko Djuric)
and Nino (Rene Bitorajac), trapped in a trench between Bosnian and
Serbian lines. No Man's Land is the first feature by Danis Tanovic.
There seem to be so many production companies that made this film.
Born in Zenica, 1969, Tanovic finished civil engineering school and
He directed a short film Your Lover Called, and made a living
as a documentary director. Last year, Danis finished No Man's Land.
It has gone on to win a Golden Palm award at the 2001 Cannes
Film Festival, a Golden
Globe Award and an Oscar
nomination. Tanovic, who has been accused of being arrogant, was
in rare form when Paul Fischer spoke with him in the MGM boardroom.
Your film is very funny, despite its bleak topic where did that
We are the only region to have a good sense of humor, Bosnians.
I think it's a way of surviving. Humor gives you a distance.
So we laughed a lot during the war. It was our secret weapon.
So I thought why not treat a subject that was serious with a good
sense of humor. It eases up certain things. Because if
you make a film that is too difficult to watch, nobody is going to
Was it hard to get it made?
No, the hardest thing in this film was the weather condition.
We had ten days of rain in 36 days of shooting. Some days we
didn't shoot at all.
They all liked it. I swear to you it wasn't long. Within
six months we had money. It's almost an unbelievable story.
I wrote the script, I wrote a production house I thought could use a
good script and would recognize it. Three days later they called
me and said, 'We liked it, we'd like to sign a contract.' It all
just went like that. People just liked the script.
[While writing the script Tanovic lived in Paris. That is where
he is based out of, "For the moment". He was born and raised in
the former Yugoslavia. Sarajevo to be exact. He left in
1994 to Belgium to study film. He was 25.]
When you started shooting documentary footage of the war what were
your impressions? When did you realize that the war would make
a good subject for a feature film?
The war was never a good subject for a feature film. But frankly,
my deepest opinion is it's not the subject that matters, it's the way
you treat the subject that matters. I was sitting yesterday with
a journalist and I said to him, 'Look at this swimming pool. A
good film director can make one hour and a half film about a swimming
pool, if you know how.' I'm overdoing it of course, but it's not
a subject. There are a hundred or a thousand films about war or
about love, but you remember only a few. So in that sense war
is a good subject, but it's a subject that if you know how to treat
it, if you have something to say. I didn't want to make another
film where you're just going to blow 200 young soldiers away in the
first twelve minutes.
Although many people liked Saving Private Ryan.
I wasn't mentioning that particular film.
It was the first twelve minutes thing.
Well the first twelve minutes of Commando or whichever, Platoon, whatever.
Where there any war films that influenced you at all?
I think every film influences you in that way. It's even the worst
films which influence you more, because you say, 'I don't want to do
this. I think he made mistakes here and here and here.'
It's easier to see mistakes in a bad film than in a good film.
But if you asked me which war films, for example, that are American
which I really liked, it was Deer Hunter, definitely. For me,
personally, it's one of the best.
What directors influenced your decision to become a filmmaker?
I don't have that great opinion about film directors. Don't get
me wrong. It's not like painters. Painters make 50 paintings
and they show one. Film directors, they show everything they do
and it's very complex. And I can't say one film director who didn't
make one shitty movie in his life.
Don't you think it's because of the cost?
It has nothing to do with cost. You know when you are making a
film, there are 350 persons involved at least. And one of those
persons screw up, your film can be screwed up. You got wrong music,
it can be screwed up. You've got the wrong actor, it can be screwed
up. You have a second assistant camera which didn't a good job,
you know, it's like that.
||Meeting of opposites in No Man's Land.
So when you are shooting this film on a limited budget . . .
Why a limited budget? I had the budget I needed.
Well it's not $80 million.
You think $80 million makes a good film? You want me to. Tell
me five good films this year coming from Hollywood.
Well, I think it's a cute film, but if that's one of the best films
of this year then well this year.
Well, ah. . .
I love this ah. . .
Compare it to any other musical, it looks like shit so forget it.
What, I mean it's the only musical today, so yeah it's good.
[There then commences an arguemtn in which many films are mentioned
and debated, while at the same time at least one journalist thought
of getting up and walking out.]
Because you are making movies for two f*cking reasons, because A you
have something to say, or B you want to entertain people. I
didn't find C answer. Yes in fact I did. All of these
shitty movies are made for this C answer. They think they are
going to make money. Well go to Wall Street to make money.
You don't make movies for making money. You don't make movies
because it's cool. You don't make movies because you're going
to have hot chicks. Money for nothing and chicks for free.
Well, they give you money so that they can make money in the long
Who told you that?
You mean to tell me that if I give you $5 million to make a movie,
I don't expect to make a profit in return?
I never said my film is going to make a profit. I'm not making
films for that I'm sorry. I don't consider film as a jackpot
machine. If you do, then good for you, but not for me thank
So there was never any pressure on you while you were making this
film about the money?
Have you seen my film?
Yes I did.
Do you know why I made this film? Do you think it's for the
money I made it?
Probably not. No, I didn't make it for money believe me.
If I want to make money I'll go and work on Wall Street or in a bank.
There are good ways to make money.
Changing the subject before this gets out of hand. There
are a lot of impressive actors in this film. How hard was it
for you to cast this and to get those actors?
Most of these people are very well known actors. They used to
be stars in Yugoslavia, so I just choose the best that was there.
Or B, I do like Fellini. There were some guys I saw on the street
and I would just say, 'Wow'
What about Simon Callow?
Frankly Simon Callow was the only actor I didn't cast. They
asked me, 'Do you want Simon Callow' And I said yes and he came.
We had a dispute about the beard, he wanted to keep the beard because
he needed it but I didn't want it, but otherwise it was really good
The film makes some interesting comments about the role of the
media in the war. Was that something that was of particular
concern to you?
Uh-huh. That's also a problem, because you see, your business,
your job became a business.
What do you mean?
Journalism, it became a business and it shouldn't be a business.
What should it be?
First of all, I don't think you will agree with me that objectivity
does not exist. There is a God who is objective, if he exists.
We are all objective. So giving objective news does not exist.
You are always subjective, so you have to have position. And
when you have a position you have to take the right position.
So you have to be ethical and moral and for God's sake when we are
talking business we are not talking about ethical and moral, we are
talking business. So sometimes the truth gets a little bit lost.
So do you see why journalism shouldn't be a business? I don't
think you should be a journalist for making money.
Well, I can sure you that none of us in this room are making any
Well, good, you are making it for good reasons. Why do you do
journalism? Because you have to do something to say. That's
what I said about films, A you have something to say, B you want to
entertain people. All the other reasons are just not good enough.
In Behind Enemy Lines the Serbs are portrayed as incredibly evil.
It is a very black-and-white film.
Because you can do it and I can't. If I made this kind of film
I wouldn't be here.
Because people would tell me that I'm a propagandist.
Well, it's just interesting. . . the difference between how Hollywood
shows a war and how you showed it.
What did I show? I showed two guys and each one of them believes
that he is right. It's like that in any conflict. You
have conflict now. . . any conflict in the world you have two guys
who think they are right.
Well there are no heroes in this movie.
Well, there are no heroes in life. My mother was a hero, going
to bring 20 litres of water every day during the shelling so we could
wash ourselves, or going to give lessons to children every day.
Or my father was a hero going everyday to television to make a program
so people could watch something. In war everybody is a hero.
Just being there is heroism. That yee-ha kind of heroism just
doesn't exist. Just in your imagination and in infantile movies.
Nobody jumps and shoots. It does not exist, except in your wildest
The film is a rather scathing indictment of the U.N.
Because they were these guys who were there who lost their lives who
were seeing what was happening and they couldn't do anything.
There is a difference between the guys who are on the ground and who
lost their lives and the people who are sitting in the United Nations
buildings and going on the weekend with their families.
The film comments on the absurdism of war?
Killing each other. Why do we have to kill each other?
What's the reason to kill somebody else? Why do we have war
in the first place? For all sick reasons.
What's the situation like now?
Like the man on the mine. . . waiting to explode.
Are you an optimist?
It could be worse, so yes I am.
What's holding it together.
How can I explain it to you? Imagine that the people who helped
Bin Laden are walking free around New York. That's what you
have in Sarajevo. You have war criminals who were shooting on
Sarajevo who walk free, who go back into the city, ask to get their
apartments back and they expel refugees from Srebedneza whose
husbands were killed by those same people. And they can't go
back, these women and children, so they stay on the streets.
Because there was Dayton and they did anything to stop they war.
They equalized everybody. The aggressor and the victim, they
should all live together nicely. But it doesn't work that way.
You have to go and get those people that committed war crimes and
they are still walking around free. There are 35,000 soldiers
in Bosnia... they live on a space that is smaller than Los Angeles.
There is no desire to catch these people.
This film screened at the Sarajevo Film Festival. What was
Tough and great. Because I can't lie to them. I can lie
to you but I can't lie to them.
You have to understand something, you make a film and you go to the
best festival in the world, it's already amazing, to go in any category.
To go in competition is even more amazing. To win a prize, even
if you hope in your wildest dreams you can't expect things like this
to happen. What else, they're going to elect me president?!
Good! Of course.
What is your intended audience?
I think this film functions on a few different levels. I think
that a kid can watch it and somebody who doesn't know anything about
Bosnia can watch and then somebody who knows everything about Bosnia
can watch it. I think there are different. . . it's like what
I said, it's like the man on the mine. It's tough for a Bosnian
to take, but even if you don't recognize it you can still watch the
film and enjoy it.
What about specifically American audiences?
I don't think audiences are different. I've been from Brazil
to Japan. I've been to the Telluride Film Festival and people
just loved it. I think the biggest problem with this film is
to make people go to see it. Frankly, I will not be modest and
shy. I know I made a good film and it's been confirmed all around
the world. If there is one thing I learned with this film, I
was astonished to see Japanese laugh at the same places where the
French laughed and the same places where they laughed in America.
Frankly, you might think you are specific and special, but believe
me you are not. We are all the same, all around the world.
I haven't met somebody who was unhappy about seeing it. I'd
like to say this is a serious film with a good sense of humor.
I know people who survived the war and who are completely desperate
and lost. I survived the war and I tried to make the best of
it. It's nonsense to say. I tried to learn a lesson and
tried to show the world what I learned in my generation. There
are people who watch this film who find it deeply tragic and didn't
laugh for one second. And I had people who would laugh at moments
when they shouldn't laugh. In a sense we are all different and
all the same. It's again an absurd. . . which again tells you
that there is no truth. We'll see on the 7th of December how
it's going to be.
I like bedtime stories. My mother was taking me to the cinema
when I was a kid all the time. I was going to the theater all
the time. I was going to ballet all the time. I finished
conservatory for piano. I was all my life in art. My father
was a writer.
So then why film and not music?
I don't know. Because I like films. Even today there is
nothing more magic then when the lights go off and there is a whole
new world and if it's a good world than there is nobody happier than
I started filming documentaries because life was the greatest screenplay
writer than I could ever be. There are things that happen in
life that if you were to put in a feature film, nobody would believe
it. Especially in the war.
Would you make a film with a Hollywood studio?
What depends is what kind of project is it? For me the script
is a bible. I know there are film directors, like maybe Ken
Loach or Mike Leigh, they don't have a script they just invent everything.
For me I need this and then I do my storyboard. For me shooting
is just the technical part. For me, the most important thing
is the script. If the script is entertaining or has an important
thing to say these are two things. If it's a good script, yes
For me being a film director is one of the most complete jobs in the
world. You have to be a writer, you have to be a politician
to negotiate, you have to be a financier, you have to be see colours,
you have to be daddy to the actors, you have to know how to film,
you have to know how to cut, you have to know the music. And
then every f*cking person thinks he can make a film. I don't
understand why is that? I would never dare make an operation
on an open heart. You could try but then the patient dies.
And that's why you have so many films that die, they should never
be made. Because everybody thinks he can do it. I'm sorry.
I've been studying this f*cking thing for ten years and working it
every day. Being a film director is not just about walking down
the red carpet. It's a way of living. It's a way of being.
It's not even a job. It's a 24 hour job.
Check "coming soon" page for the UK release of No Man's
Read the review of
No Man's Land