A Bosnian director delivers a kick in the Balkans.

Don’t let that heavy-lidded scowl fool you — Danis Tanovic is the happiest Bosnian in East Hampton. ”These little-town blues…” he warbles in a tuneless, heavily accented basso profundo, pausing only to glare at passersby. (”Another blonde with a cell phone,” he observes. ”What is this, Blondon? They’re everywhere. Must be a factory nearby.”) He then resumes channeling the Chairman of the Board: ”I want to be a part of it, New York, New York.” If a lamppost were handy, he’d swing on it.

But he still hasn’t cracked a smile. The 32-year-old director, at the Hamptons International Film Festival to screen his acclaimed Balkan war drama No Man’s Land, which nabbed top screenwriting honors at Cannes, is a man without exclamation points — the kind of guy who can get away with singing in the street precisely because he’s not doing it for anyone’s benefit. For a young filmmaker with his first feature opening on Dec. 7, he’s shockingly low-key, and easily mistaken for one of those seen-it-all Euro lens jockeys who work so hard at world-weariness, it’s positively wearying. There’s just one difference: Tanovic really has seen it all — or, at least, a darn sight more than most.

”Yeah, I was in the war,” he says quietly, lighting a Marlboro; and before this reporter can ask, ”Which Balkan war was that, again?” Tanovic relates how, at 23, he picked up a gun and a video camera and walked through his native Sarajevo in the direction of the shelling. From 1991 to 1994, the front was his backyard, as Serb forces incited and supported by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic tried to keep control of Yugoslavia and ”cleanse” it of their ancient enemies.

”I’m an artist, not a warrior,” he says, and somehow, this doesn’t sound trite. ”Eventually, I gave my gun to someone who could use it better than I could. I kept the camera and one grenade — for me, if I got captured.” Hearing something like this from someone who’s actually experienced combat has a way of clearing years of Hollywood bunk from your arteries. But Tanovic, clad in a sensible maroon sweater and munching contentedly on hot dogs and fries, looks suspiciously undamaged. Well, not entirely — two solid weeks on the festival circuit have taken their toll, and those swarthy, handsome features are starting to droop a bit. Overall, though, he’s downright jovial — in an unsmiling sort of way — even when he issues a mock admonition against libel. ”I have a friend who’s a sniper,” he deadpans. ”I am Bosnian, you know.”

And yet, Tanovic is still, in some respects, a native of Hollywood. ”We were forced to watch Muppet shows and Disney when I was a kid, just like you,” he says. ”If I’m here now it’s thanks to you guys.” This isn’t exactly a compliment, but it’s not an insult either. No Man’s Land is Tanovic’s first feature, and it reflects his Stateside sensibilities (in its brisk, urgent storytelling and snappy humor) as much as his Bosnian influences (in its resistance to sentimentality and easy moralizing).

No Man's Land
  • Movie
  • 98 minutes