Some deaths are harder to accept than others. For the last two years, Antoine Habert (Félix Moati) has refused to accept that his sister is dead at all. An archaeologist supposedly killed in a terrorist attack in Egypt, Anna (Mélanie Thierry) has lived on in his memories – and his conviction that she’s still alive, despite pretty conclusive evidence – ever since. Then one day on a television in a medical clinic, he sees a news report on a bombing in Syria and there in the background is a woman who just might possibly be Anna.
A story about a civil war, especially one as complex as the one raging in Syria, can’t afford to be simplistic. No Man’s Land is at its heart a story about family, but even there things aren’t cut and dried. For one, that medical clinic where Antoine first saw the news broadcast was a fertility clinic, and his airline pilot wife Lorraine (Julia Faure) most definitely does not share his conviction about Anna’s survival. While he’s increasingly convinced his sister is alive and somehow fighting with the YPJ (the all-female Kurdish fighting force tackling ISIS head-on) Lorraine is right behind him, telling him to give it up.
In another series this part of the story would probably be rushed through to get to the action – and to be fair, the opening scene shows Antoine as a prisoner of a bunch of armed women in the desert, so there’s not a lot of suspense as to whether he’s going to head east to look for his sister – but these scenes have another purpose. They really dig down into why someone with a relatively cushy life in the West would risk it all to jump into a war zone. He’s a man obsessed, to the point that his home life is crumbling. He can’t let it go, no matter what the cost.
Soon he’s contacted the journalist from the news report hoping she has a lead. Though she can’t tell him much, it’s enough to have him travelling to Turkey to meet with her fixer, Talal (Mouad Lasmak). The opening scene lets us know not everything is about to go to plan; exactly how it goes wrong brings up another of this series’ major themes – the arrogance of Westerners who assume they can wade into another country’s problems without repercussions or consequences.
Each episode of this eight-part series goes into a different character’s past via flashback, and it’s telling just how many of them are foreigners there to fight someone else’s war. This isn’t a series of good guys versus bad guys; everyone here has their own motivations, bringing their own personal issues to a conflict that’s devastating a nation. Some are driven by almost comic-book ideals, others just want to make use of their military training, and there are those who just want to belong – even if the only way to do that is through violence.
Antoine ends up embedded in a YPJ unit led by Sarya (Souheila Yacoub), who partly grew up in France – which is handy because he’s rushed off to Syria without bothering to learn any of the native languages. Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline (until it isn’t), Londoners Nasser (James Krishna Floyd), Iyad (Jo Ben Ayed) and Paul (Dean Ridge) are in the country and fighting for ISIS after being radicalised back home. There’s also an American working for ISIS basically as their social media expert, making sure they’re getting their message out across the globe. And lurking behind it all is Stanley (James Purefoy), a mysterious puppet-master with an agenda all his own.
No Man’s Land presents a complex picture one piece at a time, effortlessly pushing forward with Antoine’s quest while delving into the lives of the characters around him as it races through the eight episodes at a rapid pace. It doesn’t hurt that the action scenes are consistently intense, driving home the visceral nature of modern warfare with carnage set against an often surprisingly striking landscape.
If there’s a downside to all this, it’s that you’ll wish the series had the time to linger more with the supporting cast. This is a series about a war in which nobody is a faceless enemy; if Antoine does find his sister, she won’t be the woman he remembers – and he won’t be the man who left his family behind to find her.
No Man’s Land is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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