The YPG is an all-female branch of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group that has actively fought against ISIL in the Northern part of the country and has been heavily involved in major battles in the war-torn country since the middle of the last decade. They are a relatively progressive branch of the military designed to challenge traditional Islamic roles for women and strike fear into the heart of enemies who believe that if they are killed by a member of the opposite sex that they will not get what they have been promised in the afterlife. While there have been a number of great documentaries about Syria in the last few years like “For Sama,” “Last Man in Aleppo,” and “Girls of the Sun,” which is about the women fighters of Syria, the YPG still feels like one of the last decade’s great untold stories in most households. It should have been fertile ground for a team of writers to craft a mini-series like “No Man’s Land,” on Hulu. But telling stories of women who put their lives on the line in Syria must have been too daunting for the creators of this show because the YPG becomes a relatively faceless backdrop for the stories of men who get caught up in the combat in this 8-episode series. Centering men in a show called “No Man’s Land” about a women’s liberation army is misguided at best and arguably worse.
The creators of “No Man’s Land”—Amit Cohen (“False Flag”), Ron Leshem (“Euphoria”), Eitan Mansuri, and Maria Feldman (director Oded Ruskin helms all eight episodes)—give viewers several sets of eyes into the conflict in Syria, but they’re all those of tourists. Perhaps there was a sense in the writer’s room that writing Syrian characters would be harder than writing visitors to this region, but this gives the whole project the unintended effect of otherizing the people and problems that should be the center of the show. Telling stories of the world through typically white eyes has been a problem in fiction forever, but it feels particularly grotesque to do so in a part of the world still plagued with so much violence. Yes, stories of foreigners caught up in the conflict in Syria are valuable, especially given how many foreign volunteers there are on both sides of the battle in the country, but that should be the subplot and not the thrust.
While the story does eventually expand, the first protagonist of “No Man’s Land” is a Frenchman named Antoine Habert (Félix Moati), who is working with fertility doctors to start a family with his wife when he sees a news report in Syria that startles him. Behind the reporter, he sees a woman putting her hair up and becomes convinced that the figure is his sister Anna (Mélanie Thierry). The problem is that Anna died in Cairo a few years ago, but Antoine was never convinced she didn’t fake her death. Could she have joined up with YPG? Ignoring the concerns of his parents and wife, he leaves France behind and heads to Syria to find Anna.
Antoine’s search for Anna is the throughline for much of “No Man’s Land,” but the writers spin out two other central plots from that story, and the diffused narrative lessens the impact of all of them. Sticking with a man searching for his sister could have given the show the intensity of a thriller, but the writers spiral out into other stories instead, while also giving none of them enough dramatic thrust. Antoine hooks up with fighters in the hope they will lead him to Anna and that’s where he meets the charismatic Sarya (Souheila Yacoub), a soldier who shares a French background and an interesting back story that unfolds in the best episode of the season.
The series is structured in a way that the backgrounds are filled in through flashbacks one at a time in a sort of “Here’s How X Got Here” dynamic. The problem is that these flashbacks and “reasons” are often incredibly shallow. For example, the third episode centers on a trio of Brits who have left their lives behind to join the Islamic State, but their journey is stunningly superficial. Kid versions of Nasser (James Krishna Floyd), Iyad (Jo Ben Ayed), and Paul (Dean Ridge) are shown becoming friends, reading the Koran, talking about escaping their lives, and suddenly they’re in Syria. Hey, look, these three extremist Brits used to be normal kids who argued about Coldplay! That’s about the depth this show reaches in trying to understand how people join foreign causes (although Nasser gets some more backstory late in the season that’s effective, even if it feels like too little too late).
While making a show about the conflict in Syria that barely seems interested in the actual people of Syria destroys most of the dramatic thrust of “No Man’s Land” from beginning to end, there are performances that keep it from total disaster. Yacoub elevates what is a very thin character on the page into something charismatic; Thierry gets a meaty flashback in Episode 6 and nails it; Floyd almost steals the series as the most complex of the British fighters, finding an intensity that the show too often lacks.
Ultimately, “No Man’s Land” suffers from a lack of direction. What’s the point? Life during wartime makes for unexpected partnerships? That’s old news. The most frustrating thing is how generic “No Man’s Land” is willing to become given the singular nature of the YPG and the complexity of the war in Syria. As the aforementioned documentaries made clear, this is land rich with human stories, so why reduce them to such clichés? And as the show gets more and more politically complex in later episodes—at least recognizing foreign interference isn’t often a good thing—it feels like its narrative thrust dissipates further and further until viewers are as lost as Antoine, struggling to hold onto someone or something that may have been lost long ago. [C-]
“No Man’s Land” premieres on Hulu on November 18.