Danis Tanović: Triage, 2009 and No Man’s Land (Ničija zemlja, 2001)

reviewed by Maria Hristova © 2012

“There is no pattern to who lives and who dies in war… In war, people die because they do.” So begins Danis Tanović’s 2009 film Triage, a moving account of trauma and suffering caused by armed conflicts. The movie, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2009, is the director’s second take on war. His first one, No Man’s Land (Ničija zemlja, 2001),about the Bosnian War of 1992-1995, brought him immediate international recognition with the 2002 Oscar award for best foreign film. Triage takes up the topic of war once more, but from a different perspective: the film explores the consequences of violence on the human psyche and the global spread of ethnic conflicts and genocide from Africa to the Middle East. 

The title Triage comes from the eponymous 1998 novel by Scott Anderson. According to Tanović, the project of turning the book into a film dates as far back as 2002. When first approached with the offer, the director admitted, “I loved the material, I loved the book. It was […] telling everything I would think of war. But at the time I didn’t feel like directing it, so I said I would write the screenplay.” [1] Triage refers to a process of prioritizing patents based on the severity of their injuries. It is often employed in field hospitals where high numbers of patients and lack of medical supplies and equipment makes the performance of complicated procedures impossible. Under such conditions doctors are obliged to choose whom to treat and whom to leave to die. Thus the title already shifts the attention from the horrors of the battlefield and death toll to the impossible choices forced on the survivors.

Both film and novel explore the themes of death and violence in wartime and the trauma they cause. The screen version opens with Irish war photographer Mark (Colin Farrell) regaining consciousness in an unknown field hospital. Through a series of flashbacks we return to 1988, when Mark and his best friend and colleague, David (Jamie Sives), went on a last assignment to Kurdistan to report on the armed conflict between Kurds and Iraqis. On their journey deeper into the Kurdish territory they meet local doctor, Ahmet Talzani, who will later save Mark’s life. After Mark’s recovery and return to Ireland, it becomes apparent that David is missing. Mark’s unusual behavior and degenerating physical condition necessitate the intervention of his wife’s grandfather, Joaquin Morales, a noted psychiatrist. The character, superbly played by Christopher Lee, gradually unravels the traumas that haunt Mark, including the tragic secret behind David’s disappearance.

Structurally, the film is divided into two spatial parts—the first is centered in Kurdistan, the second in Dublin. The Kurdistan segment is grounded in Talzani’s character, played by Branko Đurić, and his field hospital within the Kurdish rebel territory. It is there that the two photographers first witness the merciless practice of triage. As more and more injured are brought in, Talzani is forced to make increasingly horrifying decisions about each patient. A small piece of paper signifies the fate of each man: yellow for life, blue for death.

triageĐurić is unforgettable in his performance of Talzani, as a doctor whose fatalist view of history affords him no hope for the future, but who, nevertheless, feels compelled to do all in his powers to help his compatriots in their fight for independence. The conditions in his field hospital—a series of caves with no running water, no air ventilation, and an unstable supply of electricity—are hopeless. The Kurdish rebels have no one else, however, so he stays and perseveres. Talzani is called upon to be both savior and executioner of his people.

triage Viewers, familiar with Tanović’s previous films, will inevitably recall Đurić from another stellar performance as Čiki in No Man’s Land. This connection between the two films, while superficial, still invites a further comparison and might help place Triage within the greater scope of Tanović’s work. 

In No Man’s Land we saw the absurdity of the fight between two sides, which are so alike as to be indistinguishable. The only way of marking differences is by using signs such as the Serbian flag to denote ethnic and national borders in an otherwise wild and pristine countryside.

no mans landOften interpreted as a parable of, or a metaphor for, the Bosnian War of 1992-95, the film slowly unravels the story of two soldiers from opposing sides caught at an impasse in a trench between the Bosnian and Serb front lines. Čiki, the Bosnian soldier, and Nino (Rene Bitorajac), his Serb counterpart, alternate between victim and perpetrator in a scaled-down representation of the war. This shift in roles is accomplished by a simple transfer of arms: the one who holds the gun is in charge.

Tanović depicts impotent UN forces and a press in search of a “juicy” story as a critique of the international forces, who took it upon themselves to resolve the conflict, but who, in the end, served to aggravate and perpetuate the war. Tanović’s first-hand experience, gained during his time filming documentary footage of the Bosnian Army, adds a deep personal understanding of the horror and absurdity of war.

no mans landIn one of the key scenes, a UN general is discussing the future of the two soldiers, Čiki and Nino, stranded between the lines. What is unusual in this situation is that both sides have asked for help for the first time. It is thus a rare opportunity to engage in negotiations and save lives. While discussing the situation, however, the general takes up a chess piece from the board in front of him and Bosnia is thus metaphorically transformed from a place in need of help into a pawn in the larger game of chess between greater powers.

Entirely dissimilar in structure and aesthetics at first glance, No Man’s Land and Triage nevertheless share a thematic link in the geography of the conflicts depicted in the two films. Both Bosnia and Kurdistan were the borderlands of the Ottoman Empire: the former with the West and the latter with the Middle East. In the wake of WWI and the disintegration of the Empire, Bosnia, as well as Kurdistan, became disputed territories claimed by their respective neighbors. Iraqi Kurdistan, not unlike Bosnia, was subject to ethnic genocide by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988. Triage clearly alludes to the especially inhumane Halabja poison gas attack on civilians.

triageFurthermore, the Kurdish-Iraqi conflict has been called “gendercide” since soldiers would round up and kill all males over thirteen years old, a premonition of similar atrocious crimes against the Muslim population in Bosnia.

The theme of geography and land is further underlined by Tanović’s use of long continuous shots of nature, which in his films always remains beautiful and untouched by human violence. In No Man’s Land, for example, the frantic activity in the two warring camps alternates with long tracking shots of the mountains. In Triage a similar technique is used to offset the terrible scenes witnessed by the two photographers at the field hospital.

triageThis emphasis on the importance of nature in both films is enunciated by Dr Talzani: “Homeland. It doesn’t matter what you do or even what you believe, you never escape the homeland. It always keeps you. They talk of free will, but we are all just homing pigeons in the end.” These words serve to explain the perseverance of the Kurds who strive to preserve their home, or the conflict arising from incompatible claims of the same territory in Bosnia.

Geographic space plays one other role in Triage. The sharp shift between Kurdistan and Ireland expresses Mark’s dislocation and loss of home. The two locales are at once connected and juxtaposed in the scene of the photographer’s return home. This is achieved through the lack of transitional space—the scene of the dry wild Kurdish landscape is immediately followed by the overcast cityscape of Dublin. This jarring discontinuity in narrative space serves two functions. On the one hand, it symbolizes the disjunction between an orderly Western Europe and the chaotic rest of the world. On the other hand, it represents the fissure in Mark’s psyche. Dressed in a Kurdish outfit, injured and battered, he appears a stranger in his own land—his long exposure to violence and death marks him as different and alien in a wealthy peaceful European world.

triageWhen Mark is about to enter his home, and, presumably, the Western world, the viewer is left to observe from behind, as if part of the past. It is obvious, however, that his injuries, both physical and spiritual, are not so easily left behind. He has returned home, but in the last Kurdistan scene we witness him taking along one of Dr Talzani’s blue strips of paper, thus symbolically bringing death with him. In other words, what connects the geographic extremities of the film, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, is death.

The return home is the beginning of Mark’s journey into the past. He has witnessed a countless number of armed conflicts all over the world in his twelve or so years as a war photographer. As it turns out, his wife’s grandfather, Morales, who leads him farther and farther into the past, has also been part of armed conflict. He has treated Frankoist soldiers, some of whom were considered war criminals, after the end of the Spanish Civil War.

The geography of the film is thus further expanded through Mark’s stories about his experiences and Morales’s involvement. It becomes clear that the Irishman has been traumatized by his experiences and close contact with death. One such story takes the viewers to Africa where a woman asks him to choose three skulls from a pile of bones based on a picture of her husband and children.

triageIf Mark’s story maps out a sort of geography of war and trauma, the grandfather’s character expands the temporal space of the film by embodying a living connection to the past. Thus the encounters between the two protagonists gradually reveal a world of incessant and global violence, whose traumas are inherited by each subsequent generation.

Despite the brilliant performances and thoughtful dialogue, Triage did not create a grand splash in World Cinema, unlike its predecessor, No Man’s Land. The fault must be assigned to the script. The multiple sub-plot lines, which make the book, in this case, unmake the film. The centrifugal nature of the novel makes possible an in-depth exploration of the stories of Mark, his wife, her grandfather, and a score of secondary characters. The same, however, is not possible in a film. For example, Morales’s alluded-to past in Spain, his estrangement from his daughter, and especially Mark’s many stories of bloodshed, remain as stubs—windows of possibilities, which, however, are left with no further development. This is frustrating and ill conceived in a 99-minute-long film, which leaves the viewer with a sense of breadth, but no depth.

Tanović avoided this in No Man’s Land by eschewing flashbacks and subplots. The action of the movie is confined within the space of one day and the characters remain underdeveloped. Triage in this respect could be regarded as the continuation of No Man’s Land: it is the story of the journalists and UN soldiers after they leave Bosnia.

In this way, notwithstanding its weaknesses, Triage sends out as powerful a message as its predecessor: man was not made for war. Or as Dr. Talzani’s phrases it: “Legs will always be the biggest problem.[...] For every arm I’ve amputated here, I’ve probably taken ten legs. Puzzling, isn’t it? […] I think human legs simply weren’t designed for modern war.”

Maria Hristova


1] Interview with Collin Farrell and Danis Tanović. (Video), 13 September 2009. YouTube.

Triage, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, France, 2009
Color, 99 min
Director: Danis Tanović
Script: Danis Tanović
Director of Photography: Seamus Deasy
Music: Lucio Godoy
Editing: Francesca Calvelli, Gareth Young
Production designer: Derek Wallace
Cast: Collin Farrell, Branko Đurić,
Producer: Marc Baschet, Čedomir Kolar, Alan Moloney
Production: Parallel Film Productions, Asap Films, Freeform Spain, Tornasol Films

No Man’s Land (Ničija zemlja), Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, Slovenia, Italy, UK, Belgium, 2001
Color, 98 min
Director: Danis Tanović
Script: Danis Tanović
Director of Photography: Walther van den Ende
Music: Danis Tanović
Editing: Francesca Calvelli
Production designer: Dušan Milavec
Cast: Branko Đurić, Rene Bitorajac, Filip Šovagović, Georges Siatidis, Serge-Henri Valache, Sacha Kremer, Katrin Cartlidge, Mustafa Nadarević, Bogdan Diklić, Simon Callow, Tanja Ribić
Producer: Čedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet, Frédérique Dumas-Zajdela
Production: Noé Productions, Fabrica, Man’s Films, Counihan Villiers Production, Studio Maj, Casablanca


Danis Tanović: Triage, 2009 and No Man’s Land (Ničija zemlja, 2001)

reviewed by Maria Hristova © 2012