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'Terrorist' With a Camera

With his first film, a young director tries to do nothing less than explain his people's agony to an uncomprehending world. by Natalia Antelava 5 March 2003 TBILISI, Georgia--Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, described by Washington as a safe haven for Al Qaeda, has been a notorious hideout for Chechen fighters from across the border with Russia. Today Georgian authorities claim that their anti-terror/anti-crime operation has brought order to the gorge, but just a few months ago, the extensive presence of Chechen fighters there put Georgia in the international spotlight and on the brink of war with Russia.

But while Chechen rebels used Pankisi as a hideout, a 26-year-old Chechen exile in Georgia, Murad Mazaev, turned it into the setting for his film debut.

Marsho in Chechen means "freedom," and this new short feature film takes the concept of "frontline cinema" to an entirely new level.

Murad Mazaev
Documentaries have been shot in Chechnya, and the conflict there has been treated in several Russian films, but Mazaev is the first Chechen director to make a feature, and Marsho is thought to be the first dramatic movie in the Chechen language.

"I thought this would be a historical step in a way, the beginning of Chechen cinema, and obviously I wrote the script about what bothered me the most: the Chechen war," Mazaev says.

Mazaev, who made Marsho as his final project at the Tbilisi film school, says he wanted to show the world what is happening in his homeland, which he fled when the second round of fighting broke out in 1999. Some of his family remain in Grozny; others are missing.

"I wanted to make a film … so that people who are far from Chechnya could get information about what really goes on there, about people who are described with such lack of objectivity by the Russian mass media,” he says.


Marsho tells a simple story of a Chechen family whose eldest son--played by Mazaev--goes off to fight the Russians. After his death from a Russian bullet, one of his brothers decides to take up the gun. Mazaev says the main aim of his film was to explain why Chechens refuse to give up their struggle for independence from Russia.

“In the beginning of the film, the main character is just a normal guy. He has dreams, he wants to get married, he likes to draw, he is in love. … After he dies, the war gains a different meaning for his middle brother; it becomes personal revenge. And if he too is killed, there is also the youngest brother, for whom war will mean even more."

The Chechen war will go on as long as Russia persists in the belief that there is a military solution, the director says, because “there is no such solution. As long as Russians kill there will be new generations of Chechen boys for whom the meaning of revenge will grow bigger with every death they see.”

Much of the production's tiny $14,000 budget came from donations by Chechen resistance leader Ahmed Zakaev (a wanted man in Russia) and Turkish charities sympathetic to Chechen causes. Mazaev says that finding locations was much easier than finding money, although Chechnya itself was, for obvious reasons, off limits.

Sandwiched between tall Caucasian peaks and home to Khists, ethnic Chechens, and thousands of refugees from across the border with Russia, Pankisi made the perfect stand-in for Mazaev’s homeland. But before setting up a single shot, Mazaev had to face Georgian troops at the mouth of the gorge and persuade them he was there to make a film, not join the Chechen resistance.

“I had a letter from Tbilisi, saying that I was going to Pankisi with a crew to make a film. But when we got to the checkpoint, the soldiers looked at us in disbelief. I think it just seemed wild to them that Chechens were making a movie,” he remembers.

On location in the Pankisi Gorge
But once inside the gorge, Mazaev found plenty of support. Thrilled at the idea of a Chechen-made film, residents and refugees were eager to help out. Many were taken on as actors. The presence of Chechen guerrillas also proved handy. Permission from Chechen commander Ruslan Gelaev insured that no one interfered with filming. And it was not just security that Chechen guerrillas provided.

“These people have spent years in the mountains; they’ve seen nothing but war. So they were really fascinated with the production process and they helped us out with housing and transportation and made sure that local criminal elements did not create problems,” Mazaev says.

And once, when the crew ran out of blank cartridges for a gunfight scene, Chechen fighters offered their machine guns, even giving a crash course on how to fire them.


Mazaev admits that at first he had a hard time convincing his Georgian actors to perform in the country’s most lawless region. A couple of the leads are professionals; others are acting students, including Mari Kublashvili, who plays the young men's sister. Seated on a wooden bench at Tbilisi State University, Kublashvili remembers the lodging arrangements in Pankisi.

“It turned into a real adventure. … We were put in a house with Wahabbist [fundamentalist Sunni] fighters--the rules were so strict. You couldn't smoke, you couldn't play music … we were not even allowed to laugh out loud. It was not easy with them,” she says.

Asked what lessons she took home from the gorge, the young actress laughs and says she doubts she could ever marry a Chechen.

Her expression turning serious again, Kublashvili adds that although the Chechen way of life is far too rigorous for her taste, she is proud to have taken part in the production and grateful for what she calls an eye-opening experience. For her, like the rest of Mazaev’s Georgian crew, participation in the project was a chance to learn the Chechen language and get a rare insight into the nature of the Chechen war.

“I am Christian, and we had a lot of conversations about my religion versus Islam. But once, when I touched the Koran, they got really angry with me because what they call infidels cannot touch their holy book. … They are very strange people. I think I can understand them better now, before I could not. They are extremely brave--friendship and sacrifices made for friendship are normal things for them … but at the same time I think they are too religious sometimes. You know, their main goal, the main subject of their thoughts is always war. How to reach the war, how to fight, how to kill. Things like books or education don’t seem important, things on this earth don’t interest them, everything is about war," she says.

"But I think this isn't surprising after all their people have seen. … Taking part in this film helped me understand the horrors of what they are going through.”

Mazaev, who plans to take Marsho to international festivals, hopes the film will jar viewers, confronting them with a Chechen take on the brutal, decade-long war. Meanwhile, the film has already received a warm welcome at its 13 February premiere in Tbilisi.

Applause shook the auditorium of the Eliso Theater as a guest speaker from Tbilisi's film school took an ironic potshot at the director, saying, “Look, this the kind of terrorist our country is breeding.”

His sarcastic rejoinder to Moscow's allegations that Georgia is a terrorist training ground also reflected a widespread sympathy for Mazaev’s project among Georgians.

“It might be too early to speak about the film's cinematic qualities, but it’s a real professional film, and it cannot leave you untouched," said a spectator, Tengiz Meladze.

"It shows what the war is like, and as a Georgian I am proud that my country became the birthplace of the first-ever Chechen film.”
Natalia Antelava is TOL's correspondent in Georgia.
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