Issue 45 (2014)

Mantas Kvedaravičius: Barzakh (2011)

reviewed by Oksana Sarkisova© 2014

Barzakh provides viewers with a rare opportunity of an intimate insight into the daily lives of the Chechen families struggling to discover the fate and location of their missing family members. The film director, Mantas Kvedaravičius, was born in Lithuania, and is pursuing his doctoral research on the effects of pain at the University of Cambridge; the footage was shot in Chechnya between 2007 and 2009 as part of his research on torture and disappearances in the North Caucasus. Focusing on the problem of enforced disappearances allows the director not only to highlight the malfunctioning of the legal system and the daily struggle of human rights activists in the region, but to connect the phenomenon to the broader issues of representation of violence and trauma.

barzakBarzakh concentrates on the stories of the families and individuals whose relatives were kidnapped, before either being released or going missing. The director presents the daily lives of two families missing their sons against the backdrop of numerous other families partaking in this experience or sharing the anxiety of its anticipation. An additional narrative line introduces Alaudi Sadykov, who returned from captivity where he was tortured and mutilated. Another protagonist, Ahmed Gisaev, provides insight into the work of the human rights activists in Chechnya who seek information about the fates of the missing ones. Gisaev’s daily job involves many risks and dangers, as the murder of his colleague Natalia Estimirova poignantly revealed.

Despite the numerous dramatic turns in the lives of the film’s protagonists, the film centers on everyday stillness, repetitiveness, pauses, and silences, which capture the emotional trail left by violence. Capturing the afterlife of a family trauma on camera became possible through an intimate relationship of trust between the filmmaker and his protagonists. Kvedaravičius distances himself from an exploitative, voyeuristic use of violent imagery and avoids the tacit visual conventions for documenting violence along with most of the “authenticity clues” used in documentary filmmaking, such as continuity editing or the use of archival footage. The director further challenges the boundary of the documentary concept by introducing subjective episodes, which aim at visualizing the emotional state of the protagonists.

The opening episode’s out-of-focus image accompanied by a female voice reciting a Muslim prayer lacks details and is reminiscent of an impressionist painting, while at the same time evoking a sense of disorientation. It is succeeded by an underwater shot, filling the screen with turquoise-colored, object-free space, further disorienting the viewer. The trembling surface with concentric circles makes recurrent appearances in the film, creating a disturbing and suffocating effect. The poetic mode opening is followed by a scene in a classical observational tradition, which is filmed in high-definition video and contrasts with the emotional and subjective opening sequence.

The film’s narrative plunges the viewers into the daily routine of a family whose son has been missing for almost six years and seven months. The family’s daily life is shown as patches of various events and emotions ranging from writing official requests to the authorities, posting notes inquiring about the missing person around the town, going about their daily chores, and having brief moments of rest while attending a wedding or playing with the younger children. The repetitiveness of these actions becomes the backbone of the filmofficial requests, repeated visits to the fortune-teller, and constant discussions with friends and neighbors about the possible whereabouts of their loved ones constitute a vicious circle in which the authorities refuse to investigate the case yet confirm that the missed person is alive and might eventually return. Given the complete unreliability of these prognoses, going to a fortune-teller to hear a message of hope seems hardly less constructive than taking legal steps towards finding the missing family member. 

While the film avoids the conventional use of authorial commentary, it does not cultivate the classical cinema verité illusion of impartial observation either. Kvedaravičius combines diegetic and non-diegetic soundtrack to evoke an emotional effect. The noise of television setsnews, action series, children’s cartoonsprovides an acoustic background to most of the daily scenes recorded indoors. An iconic tune from the children’s program “Good Night, Little Ones,” familiar to the generations of Soviet and post-Soviet children, becomes a ghastly commentary on the insecure present and future of the children of Chechnya. The sounds of muezzin and Muslim prayers constitute an additional aural layer which distinguishes the Chechens from the all-penetrating Russian tele-empire and frames the cultural difference primarily as a religious one. 

The film’s central episode introduces the concept of barzakh. A monochrome dust cloud unfolding in slow motion over the bare land resembles the Tarkovskian iconography of the zone, post-apocalyptic imagery, and iconic representations of a nuclear explosion, which made a memorable appearance in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). The low-key, off-screen male voice starts reciting the Quran and a Sufi mystic teaching. In the mystical tradition of Sufism, “barzakh” is a limbo, a liminal space between the living and the dead, the place that the soul can visit during sleep and meditation. The voice defines it as “a threshold between the living and the deada threshold that separates these two worlds but is neither of them. … A realm that people enter in dreaming, where they can perceive things that otherwise remain unknown” (Barzakh website). The two worlds are not completely and fully sealed off from one another, but allow for transgression and transition; this lack of closure precludes the possibility of mourning.

The transitional place between the living and dead acquires a chilling dimension as Alaudi Sadykov takes the audience to a makeshift prison, which is still covered with the graffiti of prisoners. He describes several cases when prisoners were locked and tortured by the military forces without investigation and trial and whose fates remain unknown. The episode which materializes the traces of violence is followed by an underwater scene which enhances the suffocating and claustrophobic effect of the imagery. An overview of the rebuilt downtown of Grozny is accompanied, towards the end of the film, by its disillusioning counterpart, showing one of the film’s protagonists driving past the war-torn streets with skeletons of buildings which do not make it into the official reportages.

The film does not offer a dramatic closure and avoids a rounded, cathartic finale. Instead, it outlines the changes which have occurred to the protagonists since the shooting for the film was completed: “In February 2009 the legal investigation on Hamdan Mastaev’s disappearance was stopped. Neither evidence of his death nor the location of his detainment had been established. On the 14th of July 2009, seven years after Alik Tazuev’s kidnapping, the prosecutor’s office informed his mother that her son was alive and would return. Yet the officials refused to disclose the location of and reason for his detainment, or to confirm the fact of his death. Alaudi Sadykov was refused compensation for his physical impairment. Toita Lomaeva was forced to withdraw her complaint about the torturing of her son. Ahmed Gisaev received political asylum in Norway after an attempt on his life.”

The international reception of the film was broad and successful. Barzakh premiered at the 61st International Festival Berlinale as the opening film for Panorama Dokumente, and received the Amnesty International Award at the festival. It continued its tour of dozens of festivals, and received a number of awards worldwide. In Switzerland it was shown by Vision du Réel in Nyon as a closing event, and was screened to a full house. In Moscow, however, it was screened within the framework of the Days of Lithuanian cinema along with 12 other films in October 2013, a framing which skewed the possibility of a discussion on the situation of the missing people and their families in the Northern Caucasus. Nevertheless, despite its limited access to the audiences in Russia, the DVD release by Match Factory allows the film to find its way to audiences. Barzakh is a sensitive and forceful treatment of a societal wound, opening up new perspectives on the problems of trauma, violence, memory, and representation.


Oksana Sarkisova
Central European University

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Barzakh, Lithuania, 2011
Documentary, 59 minutes
Director: Mantas Kvedaravičius
DoP Mantas Kvedaravičius
Producers: Aki Kaurismaki, Mantas Kvedaravičius

Mantas Kvedaravičius: Barzakh (2011)

reviewed by Oksana Sarkisova© 2014