Another urgent email from Oxfam America’s Tim Fullerton has just landed in my Inbox, awakening me from the constant Obama-McCain news-stream; Tim is asking for donations to respond to the Georgian crisis, among other disasters. I am reminded that just two weeks ago our constant surfeit of Olympic news was also interrupted – though only sporadically – by reports of violence in South Ossetia. Where? South what? We had barely heard of this region, whose name sounded more like a fictitious location in some Lehár operetta or Walt Disney production. But soon enough we were hearing conflicting stories about Georgian and Russian incursions and invasions, alleged “ethnic cleansing” and questionable “peace keepers.” It was hard to sort out the good guys from the bad, and the situation was surely more complex than much of what we learned from our largely pro-Georgian news media. And, as though competing for attention with more exciting sports events, the political reporting talked in terms of a fascinating game between geopolitical opponents. Shaakashvili had “overplayed his hand;” Putin and Medvedev were just waiting “for an opening” to act more aggressively. Poland, signing on to the U.S. missile defense treaty, had made a “provocative move” and called forth threats of retaliation from Russia. By now, the beginning of September, the situation has escalated to a major confrontation between Russia and “the West” that is taken into account even by our presidential candidates.
Already fading from our overloaded consciousness are the televised images of victims of the (mis)calculated power plays of rulers on all sides. But the email from Tim Fullerton brought them back for me, as does the blogging of Marie Cacae, reporting from in-country for Oxfam about the experiences of villagers caught up in the violence. Her accounts recall to mind the lined faces and perplexed, helpless stares we saw of the stooped old men and women in babushkas and aprons, captured by tv cameras as they paused on their trek along a hot, dusty road, in flight from their now burned and occupied village. Without food, water, or an idea where to go, they wept as they described how their homes had been destroyed. Cacae also describes a younger family who had finally made it to temporary shelter in Tbilisi, distraught that they had been forced to leave older, weaker fellow villagers behind in the forest and fearing their deaths from dehydration, starvation or exposure; in order to survive themselves they had eaten leaves and fed their baby grass as the days without food continued. In the Washington Post we read about Badri Meliauri, 48, who
was brought to Gori's hospital with his wounded 70-year-old mother. He said Ossetian militiamen had killed his mother's father and uncle in their home in the village of Tkziavi. She … had spent the past several days in a room with their bodies, which officials buried Sunday.And we hear from Manana Galegashvili, the 53-year-old Georgian teacher formerly residing peacefully in South Ossetia, who watched her house burn and her dog be shot by Russian soldiers before she climbed into a bus to be removed to Gori; while she blamed the Russians for inciting the Ossetians to violence, she reserved her deepest fury for Georgian president Shaakashvili, who, she said, had sparked the conflict by sending troops into the breakaway territory. “’He did this on his own,’ she said. ‘And who suffers? We do.’"
She has put into words the tragic irony that has both disturbed and enraged me: once again, the hypocritical games that the powerful play on the world stage have had devastating consequences for the very people they are supposed to represent and serve. In a world with more than enough problems already, they willfully create more. Cynically and cruelly they fan the flames of ethnic and religious hatred and unleash violence instead of offering leadership in cooperation and reconciliation.
It was in the context of this new cycle of needless suffering that we saw Alexandra, the startling and thought-provoking 2007 film by Aleksandr Sokurov set (and actually filmed) in Russian-occupied Chechnya. The similarities to the Georgian devastation evoked a painful sense of “eternal return of the same.” Yet the film also gave insight into the underlying humanity of the participants, Russians and Chechens alike. As well as differences and suspicions, it showed commonalities of feeling among agents and victims, young and old, male and female, across ethnic and national lines. And, as its main character walked out of a Russian army camp to explore a Chechen town nearby, it quite literally crossed borders.
Filmed in drab, sepia tones, in Russian and Chechen with sometimes awkward English subtitles, Alexandra is a challenging movie to get into. It begins in medias res with an elderly but unbowed and forceful woman looking for the railroad station in a dusty village. As we eventually learn, Alexandra Nikolaevna (played by 81-year-old Galina Vishnevskaya, former opera diva and Rostropovich’s widow) has been given permission to visit her grandson Denis, a captain in the Russian forces occupying Chechnya. We follow her as she is loaded grunting and complaining onto a troop transport railway car and rides, sitting on the floor alongside the soldiers, through the night till they reach their preliminary destination. Then she is pushed and hoisted onto a tank for the rest of the journey to camp. The “barracks” are a warren of tents connected by board walkways in a barren wasteland not far from Grozny, and Alexandra shares a tent with her grandson.
The contrast between the comfortably ample, indomitable grandmother and the callow, often forlorn youths who inhabit this all-male domain is one of the striking effects of the movie. Alexandra’s presence creates an almost Brechtian lens of alienation. By viewing the camp, not simply through her eyes, but with the added perspective of seeing her wander through it, a foreign body in this landscape of routine boredom, we perceive all the more sharply the incongruities of the “victors’” existence. The men (most of them actually still boys) live in decrepit circumstances, have outdated and malfunctioning weapons and ragged clothes. They crave cigarettes and chocolate and have a bottomless need for human tenderness, mutely articulated in stares full of yearning directed at Alexandra. She becomes for them a symbol of the maternal warmth otherwise so absent in their surroundings. And they are meekly respectful of her, an officer’s grandmother, after all.
Alexandra and Denis have an affectionate, even intimate relationship (as when he unbraids and combs her hair), but when she (in presumably typical grandmother-fashion) urges him to get married he demurs: he likes having his freedom and besides, being in the war for so long has changed him. We infer, thinking of some returning Iraq veterans, that he may no longer feel able to live a “normal” family life because of the brutality he has seen and been a part of. Every so often Denis must leave camp with a group of his men and “take care of something.” But the most we see of military action is a caravan of tanks and trucks moving out, accompanied by shouts, grinding gears and swirls of dust – and our feeling of foreboding. We are left to imagine what the soldiers will be doing in the countryside where conflict still simmers and landmines lie buried. Sokurov has omitted the scenes of brutality and terror that we know occurred, for example from reading the searing portrayals by murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. (See an online excerpt from A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya (2003), and for those who know a little German, see Fembio’s biography and rich resources on Politkovskaya.)
Instead, we watch Alexandra as she ties on her babushka kerchief, dismisses her young “minder” and ventures outside the camp to the nearby market town. Curiosity about the “Other” is a quality this undaunted Oma seems to share with the filmmaker, along with her name (Aleksandr/Aleksandra). Aside from lounging Russian soldiers the town appears populated by women, old men and children. A few restless adolescent boys are also to be seen. The grown men – killed,imprisoned, encamped and hidden with other “rebels,” or perhaps just at work somewhere? The topic is not addressed (at least not in the English subtitles). The Russian-speaking outsider Alexandra is at first viewed with suspicion by most of the market women. But one, whose Russian is better than the others’, is more welcoming and offers the exhausted grandmother a chair; soon the other women also gain confidence and approach. The friendly Malika then invites Alexandra back to her apartment to rest. The apartment building stands in partial ruin, gaping holes having been blown in the walls by the invaders. Outside it, a little girl is being washed in a bathtub amidst a pile of rubble. As Malika makes tea for her guest in her tiny flat the camera focuses on a few stacks of books piled on the floor, tied up with string. Before the war she had been a teacher; now she ekes out a living selling cigarettes and cookies to Russian soldiers. The two women share brief stories about their lives; Alexandra hopes Malika might come to visit her in Russia someday.
Malika’s charity and empathy are shared by other women in the apartment building, who agree that Alexandra must be accompanied back to the base. The teenaged son of one of the neighbors is enlisted to walk with her. He is slender, with the large, searching eyes of a poet. As they walk she asks what his dreams are. He wants freedom, he tells her, and he wants to visit St. Petersburg. Alexandra cannot help him with the first – it is not so simple – but thinks she could help him with the second. As she passes through the barrier into the Russian camp, however, she leaves him with hardly a farewell as she is noisily greeted by the Russian soldiers who eagerly grab for the cigarettes and cookies she has brought them, gifts from Malika. The boy stands wistfully awhile outside the gate, then turns and walks slowly back across the fields toward his bombed-out town, the camera lingering on him from a distance for several minutes. What is he thinking? Is he angry and disappointed? Does he feel betrayed or still hopeful of some future possibility? Will he join the Chechen rebels? What will become of this sensitive, appealing youth, apparently so soon forgotten by the Russian visitor he has just aided? One suspects that director Sokurov intends to leave us with such questions.
The film ends when Alexandra’s grandson is sent off on a mission to last several days, and she must return home. At the train station Malika and the other Chechen women are there to wish her well. Alexandra repeats her invitation to come visit in Russia, but Malika turns away as the others continue waving. Is she, the victim of conflict, more cognizant of political reality than the more privileged – and perhaps naïve – grandmother from the “victorious” side of the occupiers?
Sokurov offers little commentary in this film, and is far from simply taking sides; but by careful, unhurried rendering of realistic detail, both Russian and Chechen, he compels us to ponder these lives and the larger political moves that impact them. He makes us realize: it is in the very multiplicity of perspectives – Alexandra’s, Dmitri’s, the Russian boy-soldiers’, Malika’s and the neighbor boy’s – that the truth, that some truths lie buried. And he insists that we honor them all. Beyond multiplicity lies commonality – human feeling and need, shared across the fault lines of age, gender, nationality and ethnicity. Despite its sober realities, Alexandra left me with a sense of consolation. In the face of recurring conflict and destruction the human capacity for empathy persists and shimmers through; and that may be our best hope for the future.
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