Friday 4 March 2022

Pause in a time of war

The last ten days I have been thinking a lot about Alexander Sokurov's film Alexandra (2007), which I saw at a film festival back then. It is about an old woman, Alexandra, who decides to take a train to Chechnya, where the Russians are at war and her grandson is a soldier. It is a film of great beauty and sadness, and what I remember most is how she befriends a Chechen woman, but even though they are two old women with a lot of things in common they cannot have the friendship Alexandra wants because she is still a representation of the invading force. I wish the film was available, because I have wanted to rewatch it almost since the day after I first saw it.

Now Chechen soldiers are fighting with the Russians in Ukraine, happily participating in that brutal invasion. It makes me sick.

After my previous post I had decided to take a short break from doing research, and I was not going to post anything this week. The war made me change my mind, so consider this a hapless way of expressing my disgust for the war, for Putin, and for all those who have supported and defended him all these years of invasions, mass bombings, and the killing of opponents at home and abroad.

I am aware that there is a certain element of self-righteousness about doing this; a pitiful complaint from a position of safety compared to the horrors inflicted on the real victims. It reminds me of a scene in Lubitsch's Cluny Brown (1946) where a spoiled young Englishman talks with the Czech refugee Adam Belinski, who have escaped from the Nazis. The man is more driven by his own desire "to do something" than listen to what Belinski says. and finally exclaims "I shall write a letter to The Times!" Belinski's face is a mixture of amusement and exhaustion.

Another film I have been thinking of is Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), also about war in Chechnya, this one about the first of these wars. It ends, if I remember correctly, with a shot of Russian helicopters flying towards the mountains to bomb the villages into submission.

But it and Alexandra were Russian films. I cannot say if I have seen any Ukrainian films, although depending on how you define it, The Man With a Movie Camera (1928) could be regarded as one. The films of Alexander Dovzhenko might also count. But that was when Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union, and when Stalin began his effort to starve Ukrainians to death, what is now known as Holodomor, a word that combines the Ukrainian words for "starvation" and "to kill", so "to kill by starvation." (You can read about it here if you wish. Or on Wikipedia of course.)

This week, the Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa quit the European Film Academy because of what he considered their too weak protests against Russia. The Academy has since published a more strongly worded protest. The world seems to have collectively decided, finally, that enough is enough, and Russia is cut off from sports, culture, banking, and lots of other areas. They are now a global pariah, with a diminishing number of defenders. And Russian filmmakers have also themselves spoken out against the war. I do not think this will have much effect on Putin, but they do what they can, and it is brave and dangerous to speak out in Russia today. Many other Russians are also protesting. They deserve our respect. But my thoughts go primarily to the Ukrainians who are putting up one hell of a fight, a fight that is genuinely existential, a matter of life and death.

Want to donate money? Here is a link to UNHCR and here is one to The Red Cross.