Issue 34 (2011)
Sergei Makhovikov: A Quiet Outpost (Tikhaia zastava, 2010)
reviewed by Eva Binder © 2011
The film A Quiet Outpost, the directorial debut of the actor Sergei Makhovikov, is based on real historical events. The action takes place in the Tajik-Afghan border region, with the Tajik Civil War, which convulsed the former Soviet republic in the first half of the 1990s, forming its political background. In 1993 in particular there were heavy battles in the frontier area between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, involving Russian troops on the one hand and Islamic opposition forces on the other, who operated out of Afghanistan following the seizure of power in Tajikistan by the “old communists”. The involvement of Russia at the Tajik-Afghan border conflict was justified in the first instance by the need to contain Islamic fundamentalism in the region and to prevent the infiltration of anti-government guerrilla units from Afghanistan. However, these arguments were also used to justify the power politics pursued by Russia in Tajikistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A Quiet Outpost refers to the serious attack by Islamist units on a Russian border patrol on 13 July 1993. Twenty-five border-guards died in the attempt to defend the position, but ultimately the attackers were beaten back with the help of Russian land- and air- forces. The resistance of the Russian border-guards, portrayed heroically in the film, forms the climax of the war drama and dominates the final third of the film. The story leading up to the battle concentrates on introducing and characterizing the protagonists and the milieu. Here, the main focus is on the presentation of life in the border station, which is marked by the comradely relationships between the soldiers. The commander of the border post, Pankov (played by the famous actor Andrei Chadov), is portrayed in a positive light as a person of absolute integrity and with a willingness to make sacrifices. The everyday life in the border station as shown in the film conveys an image of the Russian army that could not be more innocent: the young soldiers are high-spirited and jolly, they have fun, they carry out the typically male activities of hunting and visiting the Russian banya, they write love letters and dream about women. Each of the men is honorable in his own way. The hard-nosed and authoritarian lieutenant Bobrovskii (Igor’ Savochkin) is something of a foil to the soft, human Pankov. The former leads a squad of scouts, also using the information gleaned to find his wife, who has been kidnapped by Islamists.
In contrast to the idealized Russian army, the Islamists are presented with very negative connotations. Their leader, Faizullo, fits every conceivable cliché of an Islamic fundamentalist: he leads a bitter fight in the name of Allah and appears archaic in his cruelty and in his ideas about society. For example, he has the throat of the wise village elder, Zakir, cut, and tries to kidnap the granddaughter of the village schoolmistress (who, for her part, worships and loves Pankov).
A village located close to the border post, a Central Asian kishlak, forms the third milieu presented in the film. The contrast between the Russian protectors, who act in accordance with humanistic ideas (which are, at the same time, blatantly imperialistic), and the archaic and cruel methods of the Islamic bandits are made obvious in their relationships to the villagers, largely women, children and a village elder, Zakir (played by the Tajik theater and film actor Radzhab-Ali Khuseinov). Whereas the Russian soldiers have exceptionally good relations with the villagers, supplying them repeatedly with food and carrying out their evacuation during the battle, the people are terrorized by Faizullo and abused brutally for his military purposes: thus, he drives the old women of the village across a mined mountain path during the battle, and sends Abdulla, a boy from the village, to the Russian soldiers with explosives strapped to his body.
Almost every single detail of the story, as well as its visual presentation, indicates very clearly what the creators of the film—the literary base was written by the novelist Valerii Povoliaev—intended: to serve the cause of patriotic education, primarily that of the Russian youth, and to convey a positive image of the Russian army. Above all, it aims to cast a veil of oblivion over the human rights abuses of the Russian army in Chechnya and the involvement of the soldiers in drugs and arms trades – there is no doubt about the associations with the conflict in the northern Caucasus, which can be discerned in the setting and the Islamist opponents. The film’s producer Iurii Konovalov stated this intention quite bluntly: “Although the border post is destroyed at the end, the film is very pure, bright. We wanted young people to see the film and have the desire to devote themselves to the army. The bleak picture that is painted of the army and shown on cinema screens might be needed by some people… but 50 per cent is all lies. The army is much purer.”
In order to communicate this message without any distortion, good and evil are labeled correspondingly. This applies to the characters, to the ideologies and behavioral norms they represent, and to the visual symbols. Thus the destruction of the border post culminates in the almighty blasting of the stone tablet with the inscription “CCCP” (USSR), and the torn red Soviet flag, with its hammer and sickle, flapping in the wind and the smoke of the cannon fire. The positive points of reference in the film are provided by the Soviet power in general and the different phases of the Soviet era. This is demonstrated, for example, by the recourse to the Soviet filmic convention of representing the multinational Soviet state by means of different ethnicities. In A Quiet Outpost, the focus is placed especially on the youthful-naive Kazakh Azamat and the long-serving, good-natured Ukrainian Gritsuk (played by television star Sergei Selin). Moreover, the Second World War is recalled as a positive reference point, as early as in the first scene of the film: the old Tajik Zakir comes to the commander of the border post to commemorate his war comrade, who was also the first commander of the border post. The dignified tea-drinking scene against the background of an impressive mountain backdrop is accompanied by music from a positively imbued past, directly from the record player: the tango “Black Eyes”, composed by Oskar Strok in 1928. The nostalgic recourse to the Stalin era by means of popular songs permeates the entire film—with hits such as the foxtrot “My little Mary” or the tango “Autumn”.
The formal design of the film is just as predictable as the storyline, characters and symbols. The war drama has been set out according to the rules of the conventional digital cinema of attractions. This includes battle scenes that are pepped up with special effects, evocative shots of the mountains at sunrise, the pathos-filled film music by Eduard Artem’ev, the old film trick of slow motion and not least the radiant blue eyes of the soldiers. The only actual surprise produced by the war drama is the curious appearance of a screaming baby in the trench, which is handed from one soldier to the next during the cannon fire, like a baton in a relay race (it is the baby of Bobrovskii’s wife, who had actually joined the Islamists and was killed by Bobrovskii’s squad).
A Quiet Outpost had its premiere on 22 December 2010 in Moscow. The film reached Russian cinemas on 20 January 2011 and enjoyed the very modest audience figures of only 34,000. The war drama received almost no attention from either the national Russian press or from influential movie magazines. Instead, however, the film won a veritable heap of awards at smaller regional festivals. These include a prize at the International Children’s Film Festival in Artek in the Crimea, which was awarded by a jury of children. The education towards patriotism, which is reduced to the military defense of the country, seems to have no age limit at present, either in Russia or in Ukraine.
University of Innsbruck
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A Quiet Outpost, Russia, 2010
Color, 89 mins
Director: Sergei Makhovikov
Script: Sergei Makhovikov, based on the story “Tikhaia zastava” by Valerii Povoliaev
Cinematography: Maksim Shinkorenko
Music: Eduard Artem’ev
Cast: Andrei Chadov, Sergei Selin, Igor’ Savochkin, Aleksandr Aleshkin, Iurii Konovalov, Timur Efremenkov, Azamat Nigmanov, Adel’ Zainullin, Nino Ninidze, Larisa Shakhvorostova, Rustam Sagdullaev, Radzhab-Ali Khuseinov
Producer: Iurii Konovalov
Production: Mosfil’m (Art Media Group “Iukon”)
Sergei Makhovikov: A Quiet Outpost (Tikhaia zastava, 2010)
reviewed by Eva Binder © 2011