Issue 36 (2012)

Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii: Return to “A” (Vozvrashchenie v A, 2011)

reviewed by Seth Graham © 2012

returnAs Leonid Brezhnev and his inner circle planned the incursion of Soviet troops into Afghanistan in December 1979, the Politburo document ordering the action was titled “On the Situation in A.” In the title of his fact-based film treatment of one Soviet veteran’s experience of that conflict, Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii has adopted that ambiguous initial, after having used such working titles as The Afghan Veteran [Afganets], A Real Colonel [Nastoiashchii polkovnik] and Kara Major [Kara-Maior] (the last of these being the nom de guerre of Boris Kerimbaev, the legendary Kazakh commander of the elite special-forces battalion depicted in the film). Producer Arman Asenov, who also plays (the ultimately rather minor) role of Kara Major in the film, says that the final title was chosen to broaden the film’s appeal beyond the domestic Kazakh market, not an insignificant consideration for a tiny, still-emerging national cinema industry (Sugirbaeva 2012). Still, Asenov and the other creators of the film have spoken openly of their goal of telling the story of a national hero, in the interests of Kazakh pride, so the target audience is both domestic and foreign.

Much about the film exemplifies its creators’ complex ambitions. To begin with genre, Return to “A” draws not only on the war film (and the action film more generally), but also comedy, romance, and the type of “meditative” filmmaking that was a hallmark of post-Stalinist Soviet cinema (the generic eclecticism is made even more complex by the fact that it is the first Kazakh movie to be released in a 3D version). In his description of the film, the director himself refers to the varied mix of themes:

[I]t’s a film about friendship, it’s a film about a dying empire, it’s a film for young people because the values we had when I was 18, when I was 20, are totally different to the values we have now, especially young people. Consumerism, money, lots of things which have nothing to do with the soul, which have nothing to do with the heart, with feelings or emotion and which are actually now more important than it was at our time. So it’s a film about friendship and love and imperialism and about this country which doesn’t exist anymore. (Konchalovskii 2012)

returnKonchalovskii’s stated interest in contrasting the current generation of youth with the (presumably more “soul-oriented”) generation of the 1970s-1980s in part explains the dual temporal setting of the film: the plot alternates between the present day and the time of the 1979-89 Soviet war in Afghanistan. In twenty-first-century Kazakhstan, middle-aged Marat Aiulov, who lost a leg from the knee down in the war, has a son, Altai, whose girlfriend, Dinara, is a television journalist. She and her video crew are planning to travel to Afghanistan to shoot part of a documentary on Alexander the Great. Worried for his lover’s safety, Altai asks his respected war-hero father to speak to Dinara’s producer in order to get the dangerous trip cancelled. Instead, Marat offers to accompany the group, as consultant/guide/bodyguard, to Afghanistan, where he has unfinished business from the war: finding out the ultimate fate and resting place of his MIA comrade-in-arms, Andrei. The loss of his best friend, and his survivor’s guilt, is compounded by his lasting unease at having married Andrei’s girlfriend, Sarule, after the war. That feeling is still present in the contemporary sections of the film; Marat tells Sarule that he had noticed her watching him sleep and looking at him as if someone else should be in his place. The potentially interesting relationship between Marat and his wife is, like other themes that crop up in the course of the narrative, not fully developed.

returnThe treatment of geopolitics and history that we might expect from a film set during both the Soviet and American-led wars in Afghanistan is similarly scant. The Taliban appears, and behaves as we expect them to behave, but there is no sustained or coherent consideration of why that nation is seemingly prone to constant war, or even to the impact of the decade-long Soviet war on the collective psyche of the former Soviet people, or the particular experience of Kara-Major’s famous “Muslim” battalion during a war in an Islamic country. Marat does (implausibly) meet and recognize one of his former Mujaheddin enemies during his return to “A,” but their brief exchange is not exploited as fully as it might have been as a moment of reflection on this war or war in general. Likewise, Marat is reunited with the elderly shepherd who saved his life after he was wounded, but their reunion is located firmly on the emotional and personal plane of the film, rather than emblematic of international or intergenerational relationships more generally. As for that emotional and personal plane, it is the most successful aspect of the film, in part due to some subtle acting by the two actors who play Marat. One wishes that more screen time had been given to developing the relationship between Marat and Andrei before and during the war.

returnDinara’s film crew provides a touch of comic relief in the person of the extremely obese producer, who is in charge of the money, and who breaks into operatic solos (and bodily functions) at inopportune moments. The scenes of the crew also serve to leaven (or distract from) the central plot of Marat’s titular return to the battleground, with, for example, a mini-drama about the budding romance between the videographer Alia and one of the technicians, or the implicitly meta-narrative monologue by another member of the crew in which he describes his ideal movie, with a strong, morally certain hero who metaphorically represents the motherland. The film itself, of course, is a partial fulfilment of that prescription, although the above-mentioned generic eclecticism waters down its potential role in resurrecting the Soviet “positive hero” for the post-Soviet filmgoer.

returnMarat’s wartime story (although not the contemporary narrative of a return to Afghanistan) is based on the experiences of Zhumabek Aiubaev, a member of Kara-major’s elite battalion who, indeed, lost a leg in combat and then petitioned to be allowed to continue serving. In this regard, the story also strongly recalls that of an iconic Soviet hero, Aleksei Mares’ev, who was shot down in WWII and lost both legs below the knee before famously being allowed to continue his career as a pilot.

As his double-barrelled name suggests, Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii is the scion of the Soviet/Russian filmmaking dynasty of Nikita Mikhalkov (Egor’s uncle) and Andrei Konchalovskii (his father), both of whom, coincidentally (or not), have dabbled recently in the war film (see Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel [2011] and Konchalovskii’s House of Fools [2002]). Egor is also the son of Kazakh actress Natal’ia Arinbasarova, who has a cameo in the film as Marat’s grandmother in a flashback.

returnMikhalkov-Konchalovskii’s war film, in addition to its nods to heroic Soviet films about the Second World War, is also part of another, much smaller cinematic tradition: the Afghan war film, which is comprised of a surprisingly small corpus, especially given the war’s reputation as the “Soviet Viet Nam,” evoking another war that has produced a comparatively enormous number of cinematic responses. As Denise Youngblood points out, most films about the Afghan War were documentaries before Fedor Bondarchuk’s 2005 blockbuster, Company 9 [Deviataia rota] (Youngblood 206-207). Bondarchuk chose a much more traditional and monogeneric approach to the film, and even modelled its structure and other elements, as Dawn Seckler writes, after Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), although with almost none of the latter film’s biting anti-war satire. Still, Youngblood is onto something when she calls Bondarchuk’s blockbuster “a comrades film for the age of disillusionment,” (208) and Konchalovskii (who, like Bondarchuk, has a formidable familial tradition of filmmaking to live up to) seems to have implicitly tried to make his contribution to the genre of the Afghan war film something of an antidote to that disillusionment. 

Seth Graham
University College London

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Works Cited

Konchalovskii, Egor. Interview with Jonathan Newell.

Seckler, Dawn. "Company 9," KinoKultura 12 (April 2006).

Sugirbaeva, Mirei. “Geroi zhil riadom s nami…” Respublikanskaia gazeta Karavan, 23 March 2012.

Youngblood, Denise J. Russian War Films: On the Cinema Front, 1914-2005. UP of Kansas, 2007.

Return to “A”, Kazakhstan, 2011
Color, 116 minutes, Russian, Farsi and Kazakh
Director: Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii
Screenplay: Vladimir Moiseenko, Aleksandr Novototskii-Vlasov
Cinematography: Anton Antonov
Music: Viktor Sologub
Cast: Seidulla Moldakhanov (Marat Aiulov today), Berik Aitzhanov (Marat Aiulov as a young man), Denis Nikiforov (Andrei Ostrovskii), Karlygash Mukhomedzhanova (Dinara), Farkhat Abdraimov (Producer), Natal’ia Arinbasarova (Marat’s grandmother)
Producer: Arman Arsenov
Production: Kazakhfilm

Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii: Return to “A” (Vozvrashchenie v A, 2011)

reviewed by Seth Graham © 2012