Hulu’s ‘No Man’s Land’ Barely Cracks the Glass Ceiling of the Syrian Revolution
ISIS soldiers are afraid of women. The staunch hardliners of the Islamic caliphate are happy to die in battle because they’ve been promised paradise in the afterlife with 72 virgins for wives. Beyond the obvious contradiction of the belief, it comes with further stipulations. They don’t qualify for heaven if they are killed by a woman. They are not martyrs, no matter how fiercely they may have fought in the most heated of battles. They’re just dead. The YPJ are an all-female Kurdish branch of the Syrian Democratic Forces. While western gender equality activists might frown on this blatant propaganda of patriarchal oppression, the YPG uses it to their advantage. It’s how they break glass ceilings, stone walls, and fortified camps in Northern Syria. It’s a shame “No Man’s Land” isn’t about them.
Hulu’s new eight-part series is about a Frenchman who spends time with the YPJ, while he is searching for his sister. It is well-acted, and fairly gripping but the series highlights a male perspective on the YPJ. Antoine Habert (Felix Moati) is not a revolutionary, he’s not even rebellious enough to protect his sister Anna’s (Mélanie Thierry) boyfriend when the cops come calling. He makes some amends while sleepwalking through the Syrian civil war. His background is in construction and he comes in handy when there are bridges to blow up. But he has no shared ideology, and only comes to a shallow understanding of the women’s liberation militia, which is also known as the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPG), linked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
“This isn’t about you, Antoine,” he is scolded too late in the series. “No Man’s Land” is almost all men. Most of the female characters, especially the Kurds, are camouflage wallpaper. They were the ones born in the land they’re defending, but the audience gets the story through the tourists, who impose their own ideologies on the Syrian divide. They all come with an agenda, whether they’re living out the fantasies of teen angst or selling their military training to the highest bidder.
British jihadists Nasser (James Krishna Floyd), Iyad (Jo Ben Ayed), and Paul (Dean Ridge) arrive in Syria at the same time as Antoine. They bonded as kids debating whether the Queen or Coldplay would be more advantageous to blow up, reading the Koran, and preparing for a life of terrorism. The audience learns more about the Islamic State than the YPJ. We learn their battle plans, how the soldiers get promoted, and how much time they spend getting the right voice for beheading videos. It’s all about the likes.
After being rescued from being sold to slaughter as a foreigner in Syria, Antoine begins to like his savior, Sarya (Souheila Yacoub). She is the only YPJ member the audience gets to know, and we don’t get to know enough of her. Sarya is charismatic, has an interesting backstory, and Yacoub brings a magnetic empathy to the role. We can see Sarya taking in all the information around her, we see how the joys of her hot teen years in Paris were obliterated by the Syrian Civil War after the death of her mother. It’s a shame she gets relegated to something just short of a love interest in the series.
The rest of the YPG tease promising arcs, but they are not filled in. One is a writer, who after years of journals, stories and poems, has concluded “war sucks,” and knows how shallow it is. The series is not without a sense of humor. Even Antoine, who spends most of the series in a state of overwhelmed ennui, gets in a good line. When a former Marine called Captain America, who is fighting for the YPJ, waxes poetic about the Zen of sniper stealth, Antoine wants to capture it on video while the soldier is on a roll. When Captain America starts the exact spiel over again, about how he is a Sphynx, a rock, when his cheek is pressed against his AK-57, Antoine can barely keep a straight face. But for the most part, the YPJ fighters are commissioned to ululate uniforms.
“No Man’s Land” also only teases the possibilities of a series about foreigners getting caught up in the Syrian revolution. Antoine’s search for his sister could have made for a missing person mystery like the film “Missing,” with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon. According to the best evidence, Anna died during a terrorist attack in Cairo a few years before Antoine went looking for her. The question of whether she faked her death is fodder enough for a foundation of suspense. Antoine doesn’t even tell his wife Lorraine he’s off to Turkey to look for his sister until long after his fixer, Talal (Mouad Lasmak), tries to sell him to ISIS. Antoine doesn’t speak Arabic, and doesn’t understand the intricacies of the war. On the other side, people Antoine doesn’t even know bring in elements of foreign intrigue. With the unraveling of James Purefoy’s character Stanley, the series teases the possibilities of a good political thriller. By splitting the focus, the film loses force.
Created by Amit Cohen (“False Flag”), Ron Leshem (“Euphoria”), Eitan Mansuri (“When Heroes Fly”) and Maria Feldman, “No Man’s Land” begins with title cards summarizing the basics of the Syrian civil war. Syrian citizens rose up against the military leadership of President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian rebel groups were backed by the U.S., Great Britain, Israel, France, and Turkey. Since the fighting began, more than 13 million Syrians have since become refugees. The landscapes are both beautiful and jarring.
“No Man’s Land” is certainly a loud movie. It is anchored by intense action scenes followed by bearded men firing machine guns and rifles into the air while screaming “Allahu Akbar.” They also do this whenever a visitor comes into camp, or meals are served. It’s a wonder more terrorists aren’t killed by their own bullets during the off season. Don’t those bullets have to come down somewhere? The backgrounds are filled in through flashbacks but the show offers no insight on why foreigners join the battle for the Islamic caliphate. We have no idea how the British jihadis became radicalized, beyond how the white kid’s first reaction to the Koran as a child is “This book is sick.” But how do they get from that place to quoting “For there will be from my people those who desire fornication, silks, liquor and music … And god destroyed them” before burning the last piano in the region is a mystery. At least they know the infidels will ultimately win.
“No Man’s Land”begins streaming Nov. 18 on Hulu.