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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Honored Film Tackles Hot Topic of Chechnya

It may not be "Apocalypse Now," but "Prisoner of the Caucasus," Sergei Bodrov's award-winning film about two Russian soldiers captured by Chechen rebels, has attracted praise and controversy for its treatment of the sensitive subject of the Chechen war.

The film, which won the Directors' Award outside the main competition at Cannes and the Best Film award at June's Sochi festival, tells the story of the growing friendship between the two Russian prisoners and their changing relationship with their captors. The focus is on human drama rather than political symbolism. But whereas American films about Vietnam dealt uncompromisingly with the carnage and inhumanity of the war, "Prisoner of the Caucasus" very much pulls its punches.

"It is not a chef d'oeuvre, but it's very topical and a very necessary comment," said Mark Rudenshtein, organizer of the Sochi Film Festival. "It could have treated the subject in a much tougher way, but then again if it had it would have been much less successful. What is best about it is that it is a good, medium-quality film; usually Russian films are either brilliant or very bad."

One measure of the film's soft approach to a potentially explosive subject is that it has found a fan in Boris Yeltsin, who requested a private screening last week.

"Yeltsin requested a print of the film to be sent to the Kremlin for the weekend," said Bodrov, 48, speaking from Venice Beach, California, where he is exploring new projects. "The security men who brought it back congratulated me, so I think the president liked it. He understood that it is a human story; the film is set in Chechnya but it could just as easily be about Afghanistan, Bosnia, India or wherever. I tried to make the theme universal; after all, politics gets old very quickly, like a newspaper, and it becomes unfashionable after a year. I want people to watch the film many years from now."

"Prisoner of the Caucasus" is the first Russian exploration of a genre of war films which had not previously existed, except in the highly colored, patriotic dramatizations of the Great Patriotic War. The Soviet debacle in Afghanistan was not addressed by Russian filmmakers, said film historian Viktor Listov, because of heavy censorship which ended only in 1991.

"The blood is still flowing in Chechnya, and it takes great courage to tackle such a theme at this time, " said Listov. "Of course it is a painful subject, because it is not yet history."

Bodrov, who began the filming of "Prisoner of the Caucasus" before the outbreak of war in Chechnya, insists that the film aims to explore the centuries-old relationship between Russia and the Caucasus rather than to make a pointed political comment. The film touches on the plight of Russian mothers looking for their sons missing in Chechnya when a young recruit's mother fights uninterested bureaucrats and diffident commanders as she attempts to find her son. But when it comes to depicting the violence of the war, Bodrov steers clear, preferring to show the helicopter gun ships hovering over the rebel aul rather than blowing it to pieces.

"I want to distance myself as far as possible from the theme of the current war," said Bodrov. "It is too soon to make a film specifically about this war; it took Americans 10 years before they could make films about Vietnam. What saves me is that this story is centuries old. The story has been told before, by Pushkin and Tolstoy."

"Prisoner of the Caucasus," whose title is taken from a novella by Lev Tolstoy, also, sadly, continues some of the less appealing aspects of the tradition of Russian literature about the Caucasus, which since the late 18th century provided inspiration for a whole "noble savage" genre. The depiction of Chechen fighters, for instance, is little more than a caricature, with cliched "rebels" in national costume doing a high-kicking dance by a mountain waterfall, cutting off chunks of meat from a sheep roasting over a fire, swigging vodka and heartily slapping each other on the back. This cameo, apart from being inaccurate (Chechens are on the most part teetotaler Moslems), is a sad lapse into ham romanticism which detracts from the otherwise excellent acting.

The real dramatic power behind the film is the relationship between Oleg Menshikov (star of Nikita Mikhalkov's Oscar-winning "Burnt by the Sun"), who plays an extrovert, hard-drinking NCO, and his fellow captive, a young recruit brilliantly played by Sergei Bodrov, Jr. (the director's son).

The duo are captured after an ambush and brought into the rebel village on horseback, chained at the ankle and held in a stable. Their initial hostility both to each other and to their captors melts as they befriend a young Chechen girl, played by Susana Meklralieva, and her father (Djemal Sikharulidze), who holds them hostage for the release of his own son. There are brilliant comic moments, such as when the two prisoners dance drunkenly on the roof of their captors' house after finding a secret stash of wine, alternating with the bitter brutality of the pair's attempted escape, when they murder the mute jailer who they had befriended.

The screenplay was written by director Bodrov, writer Arif Aliev and producer Boris Giller. The film was shot on location in the spectacular mountain scenery of Dagestan on a budget of $1.5 million, with the cast and crew living among the locals in what Bodrov described jokingly as "unspeakable conditions." The crew encountered Caucasian banditry firsthand when the head of their security, who also played a Chechen rebel commander in the film, appeared one night with a band of armed men and demanded more money.

"It was a rather comic situation," said Bodrov. "They came with machine guns and tried to take hostages to get more money. It was unpleasant at the time, but we eventually bargained them down to a much more reasonable sum. It's a different century down there."