Cult Russian director Balabanov's Voina is likely to have a parallel existence—revered as a tribute to the late actor Sergei Bodrov Jr and despised as a piece of nationalist, warmongering propaganda. Andrew James Horton unravels the film.
That Aleksei Balabanov's latest film Voina (War, 2002) will have good festival mileage is almost a foregone conclusion. After all, his previous films have all been festival hits, despite questions about the director's increasing nationalism, the film is partially in English, which will aid international exposure, and Voina is a tribute to its one of its supporting actors, the late Sergei Bodrov Jr, who died in an avalanche in the Caucusus on 20 September 2002 at the age of 31.
Barely a month after Bodrov's death, though, and the subject of Balabanov's film, the war in Chechnya, has been thrown into the international limelight by the dramatic hostage-taking drama at a Moscow theatre orchestrated by Chechens demanding an end to the war. With the controversial end to the siege, which ended in nearly 130 hostages being killed by the gas used by special forces to immobilise the captors, many commentators outside of Russia, and a rather smaller number within, have questioned Vladimir Putin's strong-man tactics in dealing with the republic and called for more dialogue to take place. Putin, then, will in some respects welcome Balabanov's film, as it is a plea for uncompromising milatarism in dealing with the Chechen people.
Prisoners of the mountains
The story is initially narrated by Ivan Ermakov, who sits in a dark and dingy room with barred windows puffing at cheap cigarettes as he tells his story to an unseen listener. Where he is or why he is telling his story is at first unclear, although before the denouement we've been given enough information to infer he is talking to a journalist.
He recounts his time as a soldier in Chechnya, where he was held captive by a Chechen warlord along with another Russian and two foppish English actors, John Boyle and his fiancée Margaret, who had been snatched from Georgia while touring with Hamlet. John claims he can raise the ransom money of GBP 2 million, and he and Ivan are released to go back and get the sum. To make sure they return, Aslan threatens to order a gang rape of Margaret and then behead her if the cash fails to appear.
Back in London, John quickly becomes disillusioned with the help he can muster from officialdom in his plight. Increasingly panicky, he accepts money from Channel 4 to make a video diary of his return to Chechnya to haggle with Aslan to bring him down to a more reasonable sum. If John was out of his depth in London, he is completely feeble in Moscow. At his wits' end, he tracks down Ivan and the two plan an improbable raid into Chechnya to free his bride-to-be.
At the film's end, we discover from Ivan that John has made an internationally successful film from his video diary and written a book, both of which detail Ivan's commando exploits in detail. Ivan has not been so lucky, and for his troubles he is to be charged with the murder of citizens of the Russian federation. John's documentary evidence of their killing spree is compounded by statements made by a Chechen shepherd, to whom Ivan had paid several thousand pounds for his services. Ivan, ashtray full of cigarette butts beside him, is still the epitome of calm, and there's only the slightest hint in his manner at the sense of betrayal he obviously feels.
A call to arms
After starting his career with a work for the art-house crowd, Balabanov now seems to be moving towards gun-totting action films as his preferred means of expression—three of his last four features have been in the genre. One more film in this style and his non-mainstream films Shchastlivie dni (Happy Days, 1991) and Pro urodov i liudei (Of Freaks and Men, 1998) will seem distinctly out of character in his repetoire.
With the shift to a popular style has come a move to contemporary themes and an undercurrent of insidious nationalism. Balabanov's characters have in previous films revealed their dislike for Jews or been openly fascist, while the website for Brat 2 (Brother II, 2000) talks about "the negro problem" on a page devoted to race relations, an attitude that is mirrored in the film.
In Voina, Balabanov's attitude to non-Russian people is no more enlightened. The Chechens are all barbarians, and the fundamental cause of the war is depicted as being this essential barbarity in their character. Whereas the international news networks have labelled the Chechens (even those who stormed the Moscow theatre) as "rebels," Voina reflects, and clearly at that, the Russian view that they are "terrorists." There's little of of even-handedness in the depiction of the plight of locals that marked Sergei Bodrov Jr's first acting role in Kavkazskii plennik (Prisoner of the Mountains, 1996), directed by his father, Sergei Bodrov Snr. Rather, there is a continuity from another Bodrov Jr role, that of Danila in the original Brat (Brother, 1997), who chases out the odious Chechen mafia, who by implication are somewhat worse than the Russian mafia due to them being foreign, from a St Petersburg market.
In Voina, John, clearly a sensitive urbanite, is shocked by Ivan's casual regard for human life and the coolness with which he uses a gun to aid the progress of the mission. Ivan tells John that he too once felt like that. John undergoes a similar transformation when he discovers that Aslan has not kept his promise and Margaret has been raped. The mild-mannered, bumbling Englishman (who seems to have been based on Hugh Grant's performances) is transformed into a wrathful (albeit slightly ridiculous) killing machine.
There is also, perhaps, a sly stab at the international community, if one is prepared to read the film as an allegory. John, as an English character, is a figure of fun, a ridiculously impractical man who has no understanding of the situation he is in. Moreover, he instigates the mission and engages in the killing spree as much as Ivan, and yet he is feted with fame and possibly fortune while Ivan ends up despised. Balabanov is seemingly presenting this as a metaphor for an international situation in which the West starts wars at will but then ostracises others who do the same.
Russians meanwhile get a mixed presentation. Balabanov is scathing in his portrayal of the Moscow men who lead the operation. Their corruption, lack of principles and cowardice is shown. By contrast, the men in the field are brave fearless fighters, protecting the motherland. Ivan is obviously a notably example, but also Captain Medvedev (which means "bear" in Russian), Sergei Bodrov Jr's rather slight role in the film. It's a return to a character-type that Bodrov knows well—the small, honest man, who may well be violent, but only against crooks and "international terrorists."
Voina is undoubtedly Balabanov's most nationalist film to date, and its political subtext may cause more of a stink than those of his previous films. If there is anything to redeem the film, it does at least have a narrative and dramatic coherence that surpasses that of the dismal (but commercially successful) Brat 2. The tension of the action genre is skilfully offset by the comic element in the character of John, and the bitter prison ending at least recalls the irony that marked the director's early films. Will that be enough to salvage the film from being more than just a memorial to Bodrov Jr?
The tragedy is that Bodrov, a masters graduate in art history and former TV talk show host, last year directed his own action thriller and, while Bodrov was no liberal either, his film, Sestry (Sisters, 2001), at least was less offensive than Balabanov's recent offerings and was certainly better directed than either Brat 2 or Voina. The directorial skill of the film was acknowledged with the Freedom Award at Karlovy Vary. His second film, which had him in a starring role as an amputee and has been described by the Moscow Times as "a parable of life, love and hate," was being shot when some 2.5 million cubic metres of ice tore down the Karmadon Gorge burying him, his crew of 26 and the entire village of Nizhnii Karmadon. (Bodrov's body, though, along with many others, has yet to be found.) Could it have surpassed Balabanov's film by dint of having the dramatic sharpness of Sestry, the irony of Voina and the tolerance of Kavkazskii plennik? We will never know.
Andrew James Horton
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