6 October 2003, Volume 3, Number 38
AFGHANISTANNEW PAPER LAUNCHED IN KAPISA PROVINCE. A new independent publication titled "Eqbal" appeared for the first time on 29 September, Radio Afghanistan reported. "Eqbal" editors vowed that their paper will maintain its editorial independence from foreign and domestic influences, and will seek to reflect the realities and issues important to residents of the Kapisa and Parwan provinces. It is unknown in what language or how frequently the four-page newspaper will be published. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October)
PUBLISHER/MINISTRY OFFICIAL REPORTEDLY TARGET OF DEATH THREATS. Shah Zaman Warez-Stanakzai, head of publications for the Information and Culture Ministry and publisher of the political journal "Palwasha," told the Kabul daily "Erada" on 22 September that he has been the target of death threats for the past month. Warez-Stanakzai said he has received telephone calls from unidentified individuals who threaten to kill him because of articles he has published in "Palwasha." Warez-Stanakzai said the callers have objected to articles criticizing former mujahedin leaders for destroying Kabul during their power struggle (1992-96) and for plundering the country's national wealth. The callers have said such articles are tantamount to "an insult to Islam," he added. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September)
JOURNALIST TO RECEIVE INTERNATIONAL PRESS FREEDOM AWARD. Abdul Samay Hamed, founder of the Association for the Defense of Afghan Writers' Rights and the magazine "Telaya," will receive one of four International Press Freedom Awards granted this year by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reuters reported on 26 September. The nongovernmental organization annually hands out the awards to journalists who have suffered "serious reprisals" in carrying out their jobs. The awards ceremony will take place on 25 November in New York. Hamed was attacked in April by men armed with knives for a commentary he wrote about Afghanistan's warlords. While freedom of press, albeit with certain restrictions, is guaranteed by the Afghan Transitional Administration, journalists continue to face threats from powerful elements, including warlords, some government officials, and conservative religious forces (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 13 February 2003). ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September)
ARMENIAPARLIAMENT APPROVES DISPUTED MEDIA BILL IN FIRST READING. As anticipated, deputies voted on 24 September by 69-9 with one abstention in favor of the controversial media bill that journalists claim will impose restrictions on reporting, Noyan Tapan reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September)
BANNED TV STATION BIDS FOR NEW LICENSE. The independent television station A1+ submitted a bid on 29 September for two broadcast frequencies to be awarded by the National Commission on Television and Radio on 9 October, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 29 September. A1+ was forced to cease broadcasting in early April 2002 after losing a tender for the frequency on which it had broadcast for several years. Two subsequent tender bids for alternative frequencies were similarly rejected. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September)
BELARUSOPPOSITION NEWSPAPER FINED $5,000. A district court in Minsk fined the opposition newspaper "Narodnaya volya" the equivalent of some $5,000 on 26 September, after finding the publication guilty of defaming Belarusian State Television and Radio Company Chairman Yahor Rybakou in an article published in October 2001, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September)
HUNGARYRADIO CHAIRWOMAN VOWS TO SUE OVER REPORTS OF SPYING... The chairwoman of Hungarian Radio, Katalin Kondor, vowed on 25 September to sue the "Nepszava" daily over its recent reports describing her as a long-time undercover agent for communist-era security forces, local media reported. Kondor insisted the daily's recent articles about her are full of lies. In its 25 September issue, "Nepszava" reported that Kondor worked as an undercover agent over the course of a decade beginning in the mid-1970s. Kondor need not have feared seeing the details of her collaboration emerge, the daily reported, as the act on screening for former state-security agents only applied to those who were involved in the one-time III/III domestic security department. Kondor charged that the "party paper" ("nepszava" means "people's voice" in Hungarian, and before the fall of the communist regime the daily was the newspaper of the left-wing proletariat) launched a well-prepared campaign against her. "Nepszava" Editor in Chief Peter Nemeth told "Nepszabadsag" that his paper stands by the story and will sue Kondor for calling "Nepszava" a "party paper involved in the K&H [financial] scandal." Speaking on Hungarian radio, opposition FIDESZ media specialist Annamaria Szalai accused the ruling Socialists of resorting to trumped-up charges to smear Kondor and Hungarian Radio because the radio refuses to become a left-wing mouthpiece. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September)
...SPARKING WAR OF WORDS. Socialist Party deputy Istvan Ujhelyi was shouted down at a planned press briefing about the Kondor affair outside Hungarian Radio headquarters in Budapest on 29 September, as roughly 20-30 people booed and heckled him, Hungarian television reported. Ujhelyi later called the station's personnel policies and programming "unlawful, irresponsible, and in violation of public-service norms." He also claimed that Kondor is afraid that Karoly Szadai, chairman of the state broadcaster's board of trustees, possesses a document that could damage her reputation if it is made public, MTI news agency reported. Szadai vowed to sue Ujhelyi for slander, "Magyar Nemzet" reported. Szadai accused Ujhelyi of seeking to divert attention away from the "planned [Socialist] occupation of Hungarian Radio," the daily said. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 September)
RUSSIATIMING OF CONSTITUTIONAL COURT DECISION COULD PROVE DECISIVE IN ELECTION CAMPAIGN. The Constitutional Court decided on 26 September that it will consider on 13 October the constitutionality of recent changes in federal election legislation affecting media coverage, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 27 September. At the 26 September plenum, the court combined four complaints into a single case. The inquiries came from a newspaper editor in Kaliningrad Oblast, "Vremya-MN" political observer Konstantin Katanyan, Ekho Moskvy Deputy Editor Sergei Buntman, and a group of more than 100 State Duma deputies. The daily noted that if the court decides to cancel the new rules on campaign coverage, then by the 7 November official beginning of the campaign period, the mass media could be operating under a new set of rules. The media "could be free to report about candidates and their programs without fearing accusations of illegal campaigning and the threat of sanctions," the daily commented. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September)
MOSCOW WATCHDOG SAYS TWO MEDIA OUTLETS VIOLATED CAMPAIGN COVERAGE RULES... The Moscow City Election Commission's working group for information disputes has cited two media outlets for violating recent changes to the law on guaranteeing the rights of voters that regulate the coverage of election campaigns, "Gazeta" reported on 1 October. The weekly "Kommersant-Vlast" was singled out for publishing an item headlined "Aren't you tired of Luzhkov?" which asked prominent businessmen and politicians what they thought of the Moscow mayor. The working group said this article violated the prohibition of reportage that creates "positive or negative attitudes toward candidates." The other publication, the Moscow city government's "Tverskaya, 13," was cited for material covering Luzhkov's visit to the Gubkin Oil and Gas University and a press conference in which he laid out his future plans. This material allegedly violated the ban on reporting on "the activities of a candidate not connected to his professional activity" and publishing material with an "obvious predominance of information about one candidate." The working group, however, did not impose serious penalties on the publications, asking them only for "written explanations," "Gazeta" reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 October)
...AS SOME MEDIA OUTLETS PROSECUTED FOLLOWING FIRST ROUND OF ST. PETERSBURG ELECTION... Nine criminal cases have been opened following the first round of the gubernatorial election in St. Petersburg, including one against a printing company and one against an individual journalist, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 September, citing St. Petersburg City Prosecutor Nikolai Vinnichenko. According to the daily, the editors of 300 regional newspapers have sent an appeal to the Union of Rightist Forces saying they fear that they could be shut down because of the vague legislation on covering election campaigns. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September)
...AND BRYANSK ELECTION COMMISSION WARNS THREE NEWSPAPERS... The Bryansk Oblast Election Commission on 30 September officially warned three local newspapers for violating recent changes to the law on guaranteeing the rights of voters that regulate the coverage of election campaigns, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 1 October. "Bryanskii perekrestok" and "Bryanskie fakty" were warned for publishing polling results concerning the possible outcome of the 7 December State Duma elections, while "Desnitsa" was warned for publishing an interview with Igor Artemev, the No. 3 candidate on Yabloko's federal party list. Bryansk Oblast Election Commission Chairman Viktor Goncharenko said "Bryanskii perekrestok" and "Bryanskie fakty" failed to identify who ordered and paid for the polls, while "Desnitsa" published the Artemev interview after the Central Election Commission (TsIK) approved Yabloko's party list, but before the official start of the campaign period on 7 November. The warnings against the three newspapers marked the first application of the new law. That law permits the authorities to close down for the duration of an election campaign any media outlet that receives two warnings for violating the restrictions on coverage. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October)
...WHILE TSIK HEAD CLAIMS LEGAL CHALLENGE TO THE RESTRICTIONS WAS PAID FOR. TsIK Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said on 30 September that the complaints that three journalists and more than 100 State Duma deputies filed with the Constitutional Court about the restrictions on media coverage of campaigns prove the restrictions' "correctness," RosBalt reported. Veshnyakov claimed that after the restrictions were adopted, "millions in funds no longer had anywhere to be spent and were directed into a campaign against the Central Election Commission." "We even know who is paying for this, and we see that the law is working successfully," Veshnyakov said. He said he hopes the Constitutional Court, which will consider the four complaints as a single matter on 13 October, will do so "objectively and fairly." He also expressed surprise that the court agreed to take up the case so quickly ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October)
UNIFIED RUSSIA PONDERS NEED FOR ANOTHER TV CHANNEL. Unified Russia party leader and Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov has appealed to party members and to Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov to create a party television station, polit.ru and other Russian media reported on 26 September. Mostelekom has already examined the technical possibility for such broadcasts. An unidentified source in the Moscow mayoral administration told Interfax that the money for the project would have to be earmarked for modernizing the city's cable-television network to handle the broadcasts. An unidentified source in the party leadership told "Kommersant-Daily" on 27 September that such a channel is a long-term project and is not linked with the 7 December Duma elections. Communist Party Central Committee Deputy Chairman Ivan Melnikov commented to Ekho Moskvy that he does not understand why Unified Russia needs another channel, since state-controlled ORT and RTR already fulfill the function of disseminating propaganda for the party. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September)
FORMER NTV OWNER'S EXTRADITION HEARING DELAYED TWO WEEKS. The Athens Appeals Court on 29 September suspended hearings of Russia's extradition request against former Media-MOST owner and oligarch Vladimir Gusinskii for two weeks in order to allow the Russian government more time to assemble documentation supporting its allegations, Russian media reported. The court ruled that if Russian prosecutors fail to present convincing documents within 15 days, Gusinskii will be released and allowed to leave the country. The Athens Appeals Court postponed hearing the extradition case after Russian prosecutors presented a new indictment against him, Russian media reported on 26 September. "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 September that First Deputy Prosecutor-General Yurii Buryukov presented the new document, in which Gusinskii is accused of laundering $100 million. The money-laundering case was opened shortly after a Spanish court refused to extradite Gusinskii to Russia in 2001, and Russian prosecutors intend to make it the centerpiece of their case in Athens. Defense lawyers argue that the charge will not stand because prosecutors cannot prove that the money was illegally acquired. Gusinskii was arrested in Athens on 21 August and was released on bond later that month pending the extradition hearing. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 30 September)
MEN IN UNIFORM OCCUPY OFFICES OF 'NOVOE VREMYA'... Unidentified persons in camouflage uniforms bearing "Interior Ministry chevrons" raided and occupied the offices of the weekly news magazine "Novoe vremya" in central Moscow on 25 September, Russian media reported. An employee of the liberal weekly told newsru.com that the intruders said they were representatives of the new owners of the building in which the publication's office is located. The employee said the intruders showed "from a distance" a document they said confirmed their right to be on the premises, but answered "polite requests" that they present identification with "uncensored swearing." A photographer for the magazine tried to photograph the intruders, but one of them took his camera from him and removed the film. After a second attempt to photograph the intruders, some of them came after the photographer, but he managed to escape into another room and lock the door, newsru.com reported. Grani.ru quoted Tatyana Kamoza, a deputy editor for the weekly, as saying the photographer was beaten during the incident. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 October)
...IN AN INCIDENT POLICE SUSPECT IS AN 'ORDINARY' PROPERTY BATTLE... Another "Novoe vremya" deputy editor, Vadim Dubnov, told RFE/RL's Russian Service on 25 September that the uniformed intruders had documents from the Moscow Property Committee confirming ownership of the building. Dubnov said none of the magazine's employees were thrown out of the offices and that they are continuing to work. But the intruders demanded that the publication's lease agreement be renegotiated. A Moscow police spokesman told Interfax on 25 September that the police know nothing about the incident, but that it was "most probably an ordinary shareholders' conflict connected with a change in the building's ownership." "Novoe vremya" journalists were back at their desks on 29 September and were hoping to put out the next issue that week, editors told Ekho Moskvy. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 29 September)
...AS 'NOVOE VREMYA' SUES PUTATIVE NEW OWNER OF ITS OFFICE... The news weekly "Novoe vremya" has filed a lawsuit against Primeks, the firm now claiming ownership of the central Moscow building in which the liberal magazine's editorial offices are located, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 30 September. Primeks reportedly sent the security guards that broke into the office on 24 September. According to "Kommersant-Daily," Primeks General Director Yurii Reinike said last week that "Novoe vremya" could remain in the building but must conclude a new lease with Primeks that would "deal with," among other things, office space which "Novoe vremya" has been renting for around $500,000 a year. As "Kommersant-Daily" notes, office space in the area around Pushkin Square, where the "Novoe vremya" offices are located, rents for $400-$500 per square meter per year, meaning that all the office space in the building housing the weekly could yield as much as $1.5 million per year. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October)
...AND GETS VERBAL SUPPORT FROM MEDIA MINISTER. The latest issue of "Novoe vremya," No. 40, includes an account of the building's takeover by Deputy Editor Vadim Dubnov. "Years of painstaking research on the theory of bandit capitalism could not grant us discoveries like those we had occasion to make in one week of unanticipated practical work," Dubnov wrote. Meanwhile, RIA-Novosti on 30 September quoted Media Minister Mikhail Lesin as expressing "serious concern" about the situation at "Novoe vremya." "The Media Ministry is delving into the details of the conflict and, undoubtedly, will make every effort to support the journalistic team," Lesin said. Such conflicts over property must be adjudicated, he said, adding that he hopes the conflict will be resolved quickly. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October)
CONTROVERSIAL JOURNALIST SAYS HE'S GONE RED... Television journalist Sergei Dorenko announced on 30 September that he has joined the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), Interfax reported. "I am an ordinary communist of party cell No. 2 of the city of Novopavlovsk in Stavropol Krai, where I received my party card yesterday," Dorenko said. He added that he has no plans either to make a party career or to run for the State Duma. Dorenko hosted a weekly show on ORT when it was controlled by former oligarch Boris Berezovskii and is perhaps best-remembered for his attacks on Fatherland-All Russia's leaders, former Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, prior to the December 1999 Duma elections. He also campaigned for Berezovskii in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, where the tycoon was running for a Duma seat. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October)
...WHILE COMMUNISTS BEG TO DIFFER. KPRF leader Gennadii Zyuganov said he knows nothing about Sergei Dorenko joining the party, Interfax reported on 30 September. Zyuganov expressed doubt that the journalist joined in Novopavlovsk, since he neither lives there nor is actively involved in a city party cell there. Sergei Potapov, the KPRF Central Committee's secretary for organizational issues, said that Stavropol Krai KPRF Committee's First Secretary Viktor Pisarenko had told him no one there had either accepted Dorenko into the KPRF or heard anything about him applying to join. Potapov added that joining the KPRF is a complex procedure, requiring recommendations from two party members and approval by a party meeting. The KPRF Duma faction's press service said that if a local party organization had granted Dorenko a party card, then it violated party rules and the decision would be overturned, lenta.ru reported on 30 September. Dorenko, told by gazeta.ru that KPRF officials doubt he is really a member, responded by reading off information he said was printed on his party card, including its number -- 0032519. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October)
MOSCOW THEATER REFUSES TO SHOW CHECHNYA DOCUMENTARIES. Yurii Samodurov, director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum, told Ekho Moskvy on 30 September that the Chechnya Documentary Film Festival planned for 2-4 October in Moscow is under threat because one of the movie theaters involved has changed its mind about showing three of the scheduled documentaries (see End Note below). According to Samodurov, the Kinotsentr theater has decided not to show "Terror in Moscow," about the October 2002 hostage seizure and siege at a Moscow theater; "Babitskii's War," about RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitskii, who was kidnapped in Chechnya in early 2000; and "The Assassination of Russia," which alleges that Russia's special services staged the 1999 apartment-building bombings in Moscow and other cities. Samodurov claimed that Kinotsentr changed its mind under pressure from the Federal Security Service, whose work is touched upon in all three films. "It is hardly possible to interpret this decision any other way," Samodurov said. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October)
SERBIAFIRST PRIVATE MEDIA-PRINTING PLANT OPENED. Serbia's first privately owned printing plant for newspapers and magazines began operation on 25 September in Belgrade, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The plant cost $4.6 million, most of which came from donations from abroad. Throughout former Yugoslavia, most periodicals are still printed in plants that once belonged to communist-era monopolies. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September)
UZBEKISTANJOURNALIST LOSES APPEAL AGAINST HOMOSEXUALITY CONVICTION... A Tashkent city court upheld the conviction on homosexuality charges of journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Sharipov at a closed appeal hearing on 25 September, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the following day. The court reduced Sharipov's sentence from 5 1/2 years to four years in prison, dropping a conviction for involving minors in antisocial behavior. According to HRW, Sharipov arrived for the hearing with injuries to his face that officials said were the result of a minor traffic accident on the way to the court, but which could be signs of physical abuse. Sharipov has recounted in letters smuggled from prison various types of abuse and threats to which he says he has been subjected. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October)
...AND PRESS FREEDOM GROUP CALLS FOR HIS RELEASE. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based nongovernmental organization devoting to defending journalists worldwide, protested the upholding of the conviction on homosexuality charges of Ruslan Sharipov, who had worked as a journalist and formed a group of independent reporters attempting to expand the limits of free expression in Uzbekistan. Concerned that the charges against Sharipov were politically motivated, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper called on Uzbek President Islam Karimov in a statement on 26 September to release Sharipov immediately pending "an impartial review of the charges and evidence against him in a safe setting." A member of Sharipov's family told CPJ that he arrived at the court hearing on 25 September with broken glasses and injuries to his eye described as "serious." Despite official claims that the injuries were due to a car accident, CPJ and other human rights groups were concerned that they could indicate further confirmation of reports of mistreatment during his pretrial detention following his arrest on 26 May. CAF
END NOTECHECHNYA FILM FESTIVAL: FINDING A TURNING POINT IN A STILL WORLD
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Chechnya Film Festival sponsored by Boris Berezovskii's Foundation for Civil Liberties (http://www.chechnyafilmfestival.org) was the first major, concentrated exhibition in the West of documentaries in recent years of the conflict between Russia's federal troops and the Chechen armed resistance. In London, Washington, and New York, the films opened to overflow audiences; in Moscow, the show was cancelled when a commercial theater backed down under pressure from the Kremlin, forcing organizers to move to a smaller venue.
Perhaps the most telling detail about the festival's line-up was that almost all the films were produced by non-Russians. In some cases, Russians were listed as co-producers or in the credits at the end, but in the second war, much of the coverage of the notoriously dangerous war zone, previously featured nightly by Russia's formerly independent NTV, has been taken on by intrepid foreign public-television channels. No doubt they have larger budgets and can limit their risk by leaving the country. Meanwhile, their local counterparts are increasingly subjected to government pressure. Those close to the festival's organization say the Russian films, which weren't shown abroad and included in the Moscow showing, were far "milder" than the foreign ones.
The journalists and human rights activists who hope to get more visibility for one of the world's worst forgotten wars do not expect the films to be critically evaluated in the wider context of the documentary film industry. The production and display of the films alone is such a risky and difficult enterprise that journalistic talent or artistic triumphs almost seem an afterthought.
Nevertheless, several of the films in the festival amply succeeded as both journalism and cinematic art, and some have already won awards. "Terror in Moscow," directed by Dan Reed of Channel 4/Mentor, provides an extraordinary inside view of the three-day hostage crisis staged by Chechen terrorists in Moscow's Dubrovka theater, based on survivors' testimony, recordings of mobile-phone calls, and phone taps from inside the theater as well as tapes from one of the gunman's own camcorders.
"Terror in Moscow" was among the films dubbed "anti-Russian" by Moscow authorities. The film is not biased against a nation, but does convey severe criticism of the government's handling of a national crisis. The Kremlin wished to show the heroic rescue of the victims of the terrorists in the best possible light. Instead, the British documentary raises as many questions as it answers. Some of the victims said the Chechen females among the terrorist group were as much victims as they, traumatized by the killing of their relatives. All of them are summarily executed by Russian special forces during the rescue operation, and the scenes of their slumped, black-clad dead bodies are particularly eerie because of the silence -- not a single one of their bombs went off.
The camera unflinchingly displays how special troops carelessly dumped the hostages in piles like so many rag dolls on the cold pavement, although their rescue was ostensibly the purpose of the operation. Even when the unconscious victims were evacuated to hospitals on buses, care was not taken to prevent them from choking. The film brings out a possible explanation for the neglect -- the troops were convinced that some of the suicide belts might go off, and were anxiously rushing back into the building to remove those remaining to avoid a larger death toll.
The film likely seen as the most provocative of the festival is "Assassination of Russia," directed by Charles Gazelle of Transparences Productions in France with the support of former Russian oligarch Boris Berezovskii, and released in 2002, consists largely of footage from Russia's NTV, then more independent. The film examines the explosions of apartment buildings in September 1999 in Moscow and other cities, and focuses on a foiled bombing in Ryazan on 22 September 1999. In major newspaper ads published during the week of the festival, Berezovskii and some leading public figures he supports, claimed that elements of the Federal Security Service (FSB) are themselves responsible for the Moscow and other bombings in an effort to bring Vladimir Putin to power.
The French film never succeeds in making the case for this claim. Curiously, there are almost no interviews of victims or eye-witnesses of the Moscow explosions, but only short clips of a few expressions of horror by people clambering over the ruins of their former homes. The documentary largely concentrates on Ryazan, where there really is a story to investigate. NTV bounces back and forth between outraged local residents of Ryazan, who had seen the covered license plate number of a suspicious car and people going into a basement with a sack, and the flip-flops of local officials, who at first confirm their account, and then reverse themselves according to a script evidently dictated by Moscow.
Yet so intent are the filmmakers on demonstrating that the FSB itself prepared an explosion in Ryazan, in order to extrapolate their claim that it bears responsibility for the Moscow bombings, that they fail to perform basic journalistic investigation of other plausible theories for the strange events in Ryazan. After the colossal security failures of the Moscow apartment explosions, the FSB may have felt so tasked to show it could thwart such terrorist plots that it concocted its own crisis to then later appear heroic in solving it, but bungled the operation.
The Kremlin's own vengeful response to this film itself, rather than the contradictory explanations of officials, are chiefly what generates skepticism about the official account of the bombings. Journalists and human rights activists associated with the film found themselves the victims of not only police interrogation but of anonymous death threats and efforts to plant drugs on them, and warnings and physical attacks accompanied each showing of the film in Russia.
Another film, about a children's dance troupe struggling to leap from the wreckage of Grozny, might have been expected to be unbearably sentimental. In fact, "Dance, Grozny, Dance" (originally titled "The Sacred and the Damned"), directed by Jos De Putter for Zeppers Films and TV, is a sober and talented work that succeeds at many levels, not just the obvious bow to life-affirming forces among the ruins.
Unlike many of the other documentarists who reduce the sound bytes of suffering Chechens to a few bitter remarks or tearful pleas, in this film, the camera stays on their faces and hugs the little details of their complex lives. An old man brings laughs when he can't find a screwdriver because his wife must have sold it for food at the market. A child matter-of-factly shows journalists where his family's living room used to be in a bombed area of their home. A woman looks out her window at airplanes buzzing a nearby building during a police raid, discussing her plans to walk around it as if it were a routine traffic jam.
A Chechen dancer awakes on the tour bus, sobbing from a dream of her father, killed in the fighting. The camera lingers dispassionately, framing the knot of girls comforting their friend among the bus seats. Even during an interview of the whole family, awkwardly posed as if in a home movie, the Dutch producer refrains from easy melodrama. The long pauses between the remarks of these Chechens is often the only indication of the devastating suffering they have experienced in two wars.
Perhaps inadvertently, one scene appears to capture the whole Chechen pathos. The camera has stayed so much with the children, as they nod in exhaustion on their bus or whirl around during the dance practices in ruined Grozny, that we do not even realize that they are touring European capitals. The viewer is surprised in one scene upon glimpsing a whole, undamaged building in Holland, so accustomed has he become by that time to life in the rubble. The troupe's director asks his European hosts for some plywood to put down temporarily in a cement amphitheater so that the ceremonial knives in one of the dances would be able to stick properly. Despite repeated requests and even proposals to do the labor himself, the troupe's director is inexplicably rebuffed. Finally, he sternly warns the children that no matter what the inhospitable conditions for their dance, and the possibility of a very small audience, they must do their best. "Even if there is only one person in the audience, you must dance for that person as if you were dancing for a full house," he admonishes.
The proud stance of the dancers and their superbly executed swoops and twirls eloquently prove the point: the children have found a turning point in their still, bombed-out world. The film festival has given them and the larger tragedy of Russia and Chechnya if not a full house, at least a wider audience.