Hollywood loves dramatizing war and exploiting its brutality for cheap Oscar manipulation. But for some reason, Chechnya hasn't made it onto writerstruck Hollywood's Netflix queue.
Back in the Cold War, if you weren't watching a World War II movie, the only enemy you were likely to see was the Russians. But nowadays, tales of brutality have been gaining currency, pandering to both high and lowbrow tastes: African tales from Blood Diamond to Hotel Rwanda, Holocaustsploitation like Jakob the Liar and Fateless, Iraq and War on Terror agitprop like Redacted and Rendition, visions of Central Asia through stars' eyes in Charlie Wilson's War and A Mighty Heart. Even the latest Rambo is about the massacres in Burma.
So why haven't they made a movie about Chechnya? On its face, it seems perfect movie fodder: the traditional moral ambivalence of an arthouse film is satisfied by the face-off of merciless Russian excessive force and equally repugnant Chechen (and often Islamist) brutality. There's a martyr who can stand in as an audience proxy or a Greek chorus, as many believe Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered because of her unflinching reporting from the war zone. And now there's a book worth optioning: Arkady Babchenko's 2007 memoir, One Soldier's War. Babchenko, too, is a journalist, but he came to that career after having served 7 years in both Chechen campaigns.
In his introduction, Babchenko explains that he has changed some names, reported some events he only heard about but didn't see, created composite characters out of several, and changed the timeline of certain events in the telling of the stories, as he tried to bring all the stories together to form a book. As it is, the stories are disjointed and disconnected, some incredibly short and some extremely long, each an interlude in an interminable conflict. Yet they come together to sketch a frightening, hauntingly fractured portrait of a war that is otherwise not well known in the West.
Babchenko's episodic style seems to recall, perhaps quite consciously, the greatest Russian novel by a war journalist, Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry. Both are unflinchingly brutal in their descriptions of human decay, moral and physical, of the blood and filth that attaches to bodies in conflict, and the corrupt souls that flock to it. After all, blood, filth, and corruption are things Hollywood depicts quite well. An adaptation of the book could simply continue with Babchenko's composites and distill all Babchenko's friends and fellow grunts into a motley ensemble cast: Shia LeBoeuf and Joseph Gordon-Levitt might look good as Russian jarheads. Perhaps Thomas Kretschmann could reprise his role from The Pianist with a different accent and play a conscientious officer in a merciless army.
The war's died down by now, of course, which would lend itself to a poignant postscript that could point out that though peace has broken out, the status quo ante was hardly serene, and the decade of war that reigned over the region will have devastating effects on the economy and radicalization of children for years to come. Sobering establishing shots and heartbreaking closeups on the next generation could make for a great ending.
So why don't they make it? Are people just tired of seeing movies about the misery experienced and inflicted by Russians? Or does war only count when a newlywed star makes it into a vanity project?