A New Look at Prisoners of the Caucasus




Two years ago film director Alexander Rogozhkin proposed a screenplay to ORT television called "Harmony of the World." It turns out that his script, made into the new film "Blokpost," or "Outpost," was all about war.


The third Russian feature film about the Chechen conflict, "Blokpost" is an unusually bloodless war movie. Chronicling the everyday routine of a group of soldiers sent to the front line - uneventful for the most part but filled with tense foreboding - "Blokpost" captures the strange atmosphere of a war in limbo without attacks, heroes or purpose.


Scenes of violence appear only at the beginning and end of the movie, framing the otherwise relatively quiet story.


The opening scene features a raid on a nearby settlement in which a group of Russian soldiers witness a local boy die in a mine explosion. His bewildered Chechen mother grabs an automatic rifle and starts shooting at the much-hated Russians until one of them fires back.


While the military prosecutors investigate the case, the group is sent to a remote outpost deep in the countryside. These inexperienced recent conscripts live in the middle of a mine field, under the pitiless eye of a local sniper, but that doesn't stop them making the most of an unfortunate situation. They fight off boredom and bad premonitions by growing roses and listening to classical music, and through the usual army pastimes - cracking mean jokes at one another's expense, gambling, and swapping bullets for half an hour with a local prostitute.


Rogozhkin is renowned as the director of the immensely popular 1997 "Osobennosti Natsionalny Okhoty," or "Peculiarities of the National Hunt," and the 1998 follow-up "Osobennosti Natsionalny Rybalki," or "Peculiarities of National Fishing." In "Blokpost" Rogozhkin again uses Alexei Buldakov, star of both "Peculiarities," as a Russian general. This time Buldakov plays a decent man respected by the soldiers trying to serve as a peacemaker. This further exaggerates the actor's striking resemblance to Alexander Lebed, the current governor of Krasnoyarsk region and the army general credited with stopping the fighting in Chechnya.


But in "Blokpost" the general becomes the hostage of his own pacifist image. He sacrifices the life of a young soldier, wrongly accused of shooting at the civilian woman, in what he sees as the interests of peace, and the young man is murdered by enraged locals.


Rogozhkin described his new film as the "chronicle of a small existence." There is a strong comic element to the story that seems to override the drama.


But, as Sergei Selyanov of the St. Petersburg STV company that produced the film together with ORT television says, at some point the soldiers - and the viewers - realize that "they are just specks of dust hurled into a strange world with some unknown might. Everything is strange, and only death is their own."


For Rogozhkin and Selyanov the movie, filmed in Adygeya, the most peaceful Caucasus republic, is not specifically about Chechnya. It's also about Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Abkhazia and all the other "hot spots" of bloody ethnic conflicts. There have been too few high-quality films made on this uneasy theme because, as Selyanov said in a phone interview from St. Petersburg, "our society desires to be entertained in spite of everything."


The two previous movies to draw on the war in Chechnya were very different from "Blokpost." Sergei Bodrov Sr.'s Oscar-nominated 1996 "Prisoner of the Caucasus," based on Lev Tolstoy's story of the same name, is an intense, well-acted film about a local Caucasian man who takes two Russian soldiers hostage in order to obtain the release of his son. The soldiers eventually befriend his family.


"Chistilishche," or "Purgatory," made by controversial television journalist turned ultra-nationalist legislator Alexander Nevzorov, came out last year. The film is a home-brewed thriller about the fighting over a hospital in the Chechen capital, Grozny, which the sensationalist reporter said he witnessed. Filled with violent, gory scenes featuring lopped-off heads and the crucifixion of Russian soldiers by the Chechens, the image of the war depicted in this movie found many angry critics.


Rogozhkin's film, which doesn't pretend to be based on real facts, nonetheless comes across as much more realistic than the previous two movies. With all the violence and political intrigues left to the side, it somehow manages to make the viewer feel their effects much more sharply.


The film, which may have had a good chance to win the Best Film award at the upcoming Russian Film Academy awards, the Nikas, was withdrawn from competition by its chief ORT producer Konstantin Ernst because it came out too late and most of the judges hadn't seen it. But "Blokpost" was warmly received recently in Berlin where it was shown in the non-competition program, and its producers hope it will have a future both in Russian movie theaters and at international film festivals.


"Blokpost" is showing at the Khudozhestvenny Movie Theater, 14 Arbatskaya Ploshchad, Wed. and Thur. at 10:30 a.m., 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. Tel: 291-5598. Metro: Arbatskaya.