Tale of the Soviet Union's 'Vietnam'

It would be a stretch of the imagination to call "Peshawar Waltz" a Russian "Apocalypse Now". But the film story of a British journalist covering the war in Afghanistan is a worthwhile addition to the small genre of films about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.


One of the aims of "Peshawar Waltz" was to make a statement about "a pivotal moment in the life of our generation", said Timur Bekmambetov, 32, who wrote and directed the film in Kazakhstan with Gennady Kayumov, 33. The English-language version of the film was shown Sunday as part of the Moscow Film Festival and will be released internationally soon.


Neither director fought in the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) which is known as the Soviet Union's "Vietnam", but the script is based on interviews with veterans of the war. Several main characters are played by veterans, and the film includes documentary footage of Soviet soldiers relating their experiences.


The screenplay is based on three facts, Bekmambetov said: A 1985 Izvestia article about an uprising of Soviet POW's in a Mujahedin camp in Pakistan; a statement by Andrel Sakharov attesting to the Soviet army's bombing of its own troops in a cover-up of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan; and reports by Medicins Sans Frontieres, the French emergency relief organization, about the work of French doctors during the war.


"Peshawar Waltz" uses a documentary style to portray the tragic attempt of Charlie Palmer, a British journalist, to cover the war in Afghanistan. After bribing their way into a Mujahedin camp in Pakistan to interview Soviet soldiers, Palmer (Barry Kushner) and his French companion Dr. Dubois (Viktor Verjbitski) find themselves drawn into a prisoner's uprising in which their roles as observers become increasingly blurred. Though the documentary format relieves the directors of the challenge of developing a more complex plot, "Peshawar Waltz" is an intense and moving film.


Most of the movie takes place underground in a 3-meter trench. The death-and-destruction ending, in which Soviet helicopters bomb their own troops to the sound of the French doctor reciting the Hippocratic Oath, is nothing if not moving, though a bit overdone. Only the opening and the final inferno on the background of mountain cliffs give relief from the film's intense and claustrophobic mood.


Perhaps to the Kazakh directors an Englishman is an Englishman, but to an Anglophone the most remarkable thing about the character of the journalist is his unlikely Liverpudlian accent. Aside from having an accent unusual for an English TV journalist, Kushner, 32, does a fair job in his screen debut - the former Liverpool social worker was discovered in 1990 while teaching English in Kazakhstan. His training for the movie involved watching "pretty much all" the American movies on Vietnam the directors could find. The method shows: the obsessive, bearded character of Palmer seems modeled on Western journalists in similar adventure films.


The movie was filmed in Kaskilen, outside Alma-Ata, on a budget of "somewhere between $50, 000 and $100, 000, depending on what exchange rate you take", Kushner said. It was sponsored by a Moscow businessman.


Under the rubric of Iskona Films, founded in 1990, Bekmambetov and Kayumov intend to take the film onto the international market, where it has already attracted the interest of film companies in Europe and the United States. "Peshawar Waltz" is one of a very few movies on the subject, and should meet with success.


As for Kushner, he intends to go on acting - next time, he hopes, in a comedy.