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Chechnya: Filmmaker Documents Villagers' Sad Fate

The picture from which Mukusheva's film takes its name (Courtesy Photo) May 15, 2007 (RFE -- High in the mountains of Chechnya, the ancient village of Zumsoi stands as a tragic symbol of the recent wars pitting the independence-seeking republic against Russia. Once home to several families whose ancestors had farmed the rocky terrain for generations, it is now abandoned.

Zarema Mukusheva is a young Chechen human rights activist from Grozny who spent two years documenting life in Zumsoi. The resulting film -- “Crying Sun: The Impact Of War In The Mountains Of Chechnya” -- was recently screened in Washington, D.C. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke to Mukusheva ahead of the event.

RFE/RL: How did you decide the title of the film?

Zarema Mukusheva: We chose this title because we remembered a picture that was painted by one of the village children. It was of the village and the burned houses, and there is a sun that is crying in the sky, above the houses.

We thought this title was very suggestive, and explained the situation and emotions of the people who lived during the war.

RFE/RL: How did you find out about the village of Zumsoi?

Mukusheva: This is a very high, mountainous village in Chechnya and we came there because we heard about a mop-up operation [being conducted by Russian troops]. And we visited this village after this mop-up operation because we wanted to document it.

The mountain village of Zumsoi (Courtesy photo: Memorial)

[The Russian human-rights group] Memorial has never produced films or videos before, this is our first project. The film was also done in cooperation with Witness [a U.S. human rights group that uses video cameras to document abuses.]

We spent two years filming footage, but we actually never intended to make the film, we were just observing the people who were coming and going and filming what we saw.

RFE/RL: In two years you must have filmed many things. What did you end up putting in the finished film?

Mukusheva: The action takes place in the mountains of Chechnya, in the village of Zumsoi. This village is remarkable because it is a historic village, an ancient village. The characters -- the heroes in our film -- are two families, and we trace their fates over the last two years.

We especially follow one man [Myahdi Muhayev] -- during the war, his 15-year-old brother was abducted by Russian troops. Another brother was also detained, and after very cruel torture, became handicapped. Then our character himself is thrown into jail. After his detention by the federal services, he disappears for several days, and then there is an attempt to accuse him of serious crimes.

The other main character in the film is a schoolteacher in Zumsoi whose father is 103 years old. After everyone abandons the village, she starts to work for a human-rights organization and on the cases of disappeared people.

The film shows the lifestyle of these people, their situation, and how they are treated by the [Russian] military troops. It also shows the environment of the village -- which is a result of the war; aerial attacks on the village, mop-up operations, and about how the families, one after another, gradually have to leave the village until the village is finally abandoned.

Myahdi Muhayev (left) was detained by Russian troops while the film was being made (Courtesy photo: Memorial)

Our film depicts the tragedy of how people have had to abandon the mountainous villages of Chechnya, how the war has squeezed the local population out of their native homelands.

The federal troops justify their actions by saying that people who live in the mountains serve as a food-supply base for Chechen guerrillas who are still operating in the mountains.

Our aim was not only to show this social problem, but to show the lives of simple people of Chechnya who have had to bear this war on their shoulders. And to show how their lives and their fates have been injured by this war.

RFE/RL: You have made a very emotional film. How have audiences reacted when they see it?

Mukusheva: There are certain moments in the film that are tough to watch, even for me, although I have seen it with my own eyes, and witnessed it, but it is still difficult to watch. For example, there is footage of a mop-up operation by Russian troops, and watching it, you get chills.

There are moments in the film when Chechens who live outside Chechnya -- those who had to flee Chechnya -- feel very sad and nostalgic, especially when they see the beautiful mountains and the life of the people who live in the mountains.

We have shown the film in Moscow, and we plan to show it in several towns in Russia. I don’t want this film to be seen only by the authorities. For me, it’s more important to change the opinion of ordinary Russian citizens, than to try and change the opinion of people like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.

RFE/RL: As a filmmaker and human-rights activist, you have worked with victims and ordinary people who have lived through years of fighting. What long-term effects do you think the wars in Chechnya will have?

Mohadi Hadjiyev, age 103, walking through his home village of Zumsoi (Courtesy photo: Memorial)
Mukusheva: War is terrible not only because it brings destruction and the death of friends and relatives, but also because it plants the seeds of conflict and hatred which can grow again. In Chechnya today there are many families who have taken in orphaned children, and these children, since early childhood, have seen and heard about federal troops, mop-up operations, and men in masks.

They are growing up with these images. And when they become adults, what will their political outlooks be? This is largely shaped by their childhood experiences.

Once I visited a family during my work for Memorial, and there was an old woman, she was surrounded by five small boys. She said, pointing at one child, "this is the son of my oldest son." She pointed at another and said, "this is the son of my youngest son," of another, she said, "this is the son of my middle son."

All of her sons had been detained by the [Russians], as well as her husband, and all were still missing. And I’m thinking about these boys, who are growing up without fathers. And they’re playing 'war' in the yard. So I’m thinking that when they grow up, their outlooks will be more radical than their parents.

When I was a child, my friends used to play "war" as well. Some would be Russian soldiers, and others would be told, "You have to be Germans, the Nazi soldiers." And no one wanted to be German, they all wanted to be Russian soldiers. Now, when children play war here, they all want to be Chechen fighters. No one wants to be a Russian soldier.

The Chechnya Conflict

The Chechnya Conflict

The aftermath of a December 2002 Chechen resistance attack on the main government building in Grozny (epa)


The fighting in Chechnya has raged, with short breaks, since 1994. It has brought misery, death, and destruction to the North Caucasus republic and to Russia as a whole. View an annotated timeline of the conflict.


RFE/RL's complete coverage of Russia's war-torn Republic of Chechnya.