The Syrian Civil War has lasted for nearly a decade, the myriad conflicts of which have been fodder for numerous feature-length documentary films: For Sama, The Cave, City of Ghosts, Last Men In Aleppo. Those documentaries each focus on the various parties involved in this conflict, and their many contrasting agendas: Syrian citizens who rose up against their oppressive government led by President Bashar al-Assad; militant group the Islamic State, which flourished in the chaos and started a bloody campaign in their effort to build a conservative Islamic caliphate; the government’s allies, including international partners like Russia and Iran, unleashed devastating airstrikes, while Syrian rebel groups received backing from the likes of the United States, Britain, Israel, France, and Turkey.
More than 13 million Syrians have since become refugees, causing a massive worldwide crisis. There are so many angles from which to craft compelling portraits of the individuals fighting on the ground for their lives and their way of life, and so much to cover in terms of how the war has spilled over into the rest of the Middle East and around the world, and No Man’s Land fails to communicate even the most basic elements of any of this. A resolutely unimaginative exercise in orientalist condescension, the thoroughly flat No Man’s Land treats the civil war as a tourist destination, and most of its insights about how the conflict became a playground for the West are decidedly unintentional.
Co-created by a predominantly Israeli team, including Ron Leshem (a writer for Euphoria), Eitan Mansuri (who produced the Israeli drama When Heroes Fly), and Maria Feldman and Amit Cohen (responsible for the Israeli thriller False Flag), No Man’s Land follows a web of individuals linked together by their connections to the Syrian Civil War. Unbeknownst to them, they share certain contacts, move within the same circles, and are propelled forward by similar motivations. In 2014, French engineer Antoine (Félix Moati), convinced that he sees his missing-for-four-years sister Anna (Mélanie Thierry) in a news clip from Syria about female fighters facing the Islamic State, is desperate to track her down. While Antoine—who doesn’t speak Arabic, and doesn’t understand the intricacies of the war—leaves behind his parents and girlfriend to sneak into Syria through Turkey, three other men arrive in the country as well.
Brits Nasser (James Krishna Floyd), Iyad (Jo Ben Ayed), and Paul (Dean Ridge) are childhood best friends who are proud to join the Islamic State and eager to prove themselves; they know they’ll be labeled terrorists if they ever returned to the U.K., but have no intention of going back. (Think of a nonsatirical Four Lions.) They want to help build the organization’s robust social media presence and defend their ideals in battle, and they have no problem with killing any of the infidels who stand in the way. Opposing them on the battlefield are groups of fighters who are primarily women, whose gender and boldness equally offend the patriarchal Islamic State. The highly effective, strictly trained women are members of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia linked with the socialist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, who desire autonomy and equal rights for the Kurdish ethnic minority. When Antoine links up with these women, he forms a tentative friendship with the French-speaking Sarya (Souheila Yacoub), who grew up in Paris before moving back to Syria as a teenager with her family after her mother’s death.
As No Man’s Land progresses, each episode incorporates various flashbacks to provide insight into how these people ended up in this place. None of these characters subvert expectations, least of all aspiring jihadis Nasser, Iyad, and Paul, who are given no reasons for their radicalization. The trio go from being cute kids arguing about haircuts to tweens referencing a local mosque and making plans to build bombs that blow up Coldplay. Paul is so close to Nasser and Iyad that he begins reading the Koran as a child (“This book is sick!” is perhaps the show’s funniest line) and eventually converts to Islam, but just being around brown people is all it takes for him to turn into a terrorist. No depth is afforded to anyone. Sarya’s sexually charged adolescence in France makes her move to the more traditional Syria after her mother’s death a struggle. Antoine is an overprotective brother who ruins Anna’s relationship with an Iranian man and is practically disgusted by her increased empathy toward participants in Iran’s Green Movement and the neighboring Arab Spring. Those scenes interrupt the show’s bleakly dusty portrayal of 2014 Syria, but none of this is enough to adequately explain what inspired these people to dive headfirst into a war zone.
Most frustratingly, the flashbacks are also symptoms of a larger narrative shortcoming: All of No Man’s Land’s characters are outsiders who project onto Syria their own ideologies or desires. The show is barely interested in the country as anything other than a place to plop its characters, and the result is that No Man’s Land has no sense of specific cultural identity. Instead, an overreliance on clichéd images and too-familiar conceits to communicate Middle Eastern strife play into viewers’ most simplistic stereotypes. Long lines of refugees trod by, clutching all their possessions; we never hear them speak. There are no helpers anywhere, although Syrian medical personnel and emergency responders have generated plenty of headlines over the years. The YPG women barely seem to communicate with each other; Eva Husson’s feature film Girls Of The Sun did a far better job showing the bonds between these women, how they protect one another, and the uniquely feminine rituals they share. No Man’s Land’s devotes so many scenes to making clear that bearded Muslim men waving guns and yelling “Allahu Akbar” are the bad guys that it has little space for anything else. That’s not meant as a defense of the Islamic State, but as an observation on the stark imbalance between how much time the show spends on documenting garish atrocities committed by them and how thoroughly it fails in providing basic information that would help the female-centered subplots click, like a brief explanation of the Kurdish struggle for independence and the role the YPG plays within it.
At least Floyd, Thierry, and Yacoub elevate their characters with the show’s strongest performances. As Nasser, Floyd finds that narrow space between dead-eyed blankness and tamped-down anger, recognizably pained even with a black scarf covering most of his face. Thierry is the center of the sixth episode, the series’ best for its acknowledgment—albeit slight—that foreign governments tamper with those of the Middle East for their own self-serving ends. And although Sarya is dreadfully underwritten, Yacoub’s performance of her both as a teen, bursting with curiosity about the YPG women welcomed into her village, and as a more cynical, hardened adult now part of the YPG herself, speaks to the soul-flattening decay of the Syrian Civil War. That ensemble can’t counteract how No Man’s Land, neither enlightening nor entertaining, can be summed up in a line of dialogue that is reflective as it is superficial: “War sucks.”