"A Serious Film With A Sense Of Humour"

Submitted by Paul Fischer on Thu, 02/14/2002 - 23:53
No Man's Land

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. 

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. 

Born in Zenica, 1969, Tanovic finished civil engineering school and music school. 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 come from?

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 watch it.

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.

There seem to be so many production companies that made this film.

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.

Director Danis Tanovic
Director Danis Tanovic

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.

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.

Bridget Jones.

Well, I think it's a cute film, but if that's one of the best films of this year then well this year.


Okay, yes.

Well, ah. . .

I love this ah. . .

Moulin Rouge.

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 term.

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 you.

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.

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.

Meeting of opposites in No Man's Land.
Meeting of opposites in No Man's Land.

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 work.

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 money.

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.

How so?

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 dreams.

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 that like?

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?!

Academy Award?

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.
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 why not.

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.