The opening moments of “No Man’s Land” promise something quite different. A series of title cards introduce viewers to “the ferocious women of the YPJ,” a volunteer militia fighting to keep ISIS at bay in the Syria of 2015. “They fought bravely against ISIS militants,” the final card reads, “who believed that death at the hands of a female would deny them their place in paradise.” That seems like a fascinating place to begin a story, so it may surprise viewers that we see so much of this world through the eyes of Antoine (Félix Moati), a French man searching for his presumed-dead sister, with whom he’d been estranged for years prior to her death. He catches a glimpse of someone who ties her hair back just like Anna (Mélanie Thierry of “Da 5 Bloods”), and with basically no preparation, throws himself into a war zone, leaving his possibly pregnant partner behind without so much as a note. Eventually he encounters Sarya (Souheila Yacoub), a Kurdish woman who was raised in Paris until she was 16, and who is now a fiercely committed officer within the ranks of the YPJ. And across enemy lines, we meet three Brits who’ve committed themselves to ISIS; if you find yourself waiting for some insight into what motivated them to abandon everything and align themselves with terror, I suggest you content yourself with the fact that at least one of them is played by a pretty good actor.
That actor, James Krishna Floyd, makes his portion of the proceedings bearable; the same can be said about Yacoub, who remains endlessly watchable even when her storyline veers right into the territory this writer was hoping very much to avoid. (If someone cries a single tear during a sex scene, that doesn’t make said scene any less a flimsy excuse to show some breasts; neither does an extended conversation about what is and is not “real.”) Yacoub imbues Sarya with a steel-boned intensity that feels inextricable from the grief and terrible fragility of her past. It’s as if she’s two women at all times: One is a warrior, committed to her sisters, her country, and herself; one is a woman still wounded from the loss of her mother and of a life so remote that it might as well have taken place on another planet. It’s a terrific performance of a role that might otherwise have been thankless.
On the other hand, the strength of Floyd’s performance rests less on any connection between the past and the present and more on his awareness of the given circumstances. This is a show that relishes a wartime jump-scare (see that “war sucks” moment described above for but one example) but for the most part, the life-and-death stakes of each and every moment seem to fade into the background when the rain of artillery stops. Floyd, on the other hand, simply makes Nasser aware. He weighs every word. He listens actively. He’s conscious of the attention and intentions of those around him. This is not revolutionary stuff, acting-wise; if you’re playing a scene in a library, you speak softly or you get shushed. But it’s a rarity in “No Man’s Land,” and while not exclusive to Floyd’s performance alone (Yacoub does this as well), it’s a huge part of what makes him so engaging on screen.