Issue 45 (2014)

Akhtem Seitablaev: Khaitarma (Ukraine, 2012)

reviewed by Chip Crane© 2014

khaitarmaAkhtem Seitablaev’s Khaitarma tells the story of Amet-Khan Sultan (played by Seitablaev), a historical Crimean Tatar fighter pilot who was twice named Hero of the Soviet Union for his exploits during World War II. Having just participated in the liberation of the Crimea, Amet is given a leave of absence following yet another act of heroism, in which he risked his life to destroy a German dive-bomber headed for Sevastopol’. After wheedling permission from his superiors to take two friends (also highly decorated pilots) and his airplane along, he returns to his hometown to visit his family. His return, however, lasts through 18 May 1944 and Amet and his friends become witnesses to the mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars, who are accused of being traitors and fascist collaborators. Amet tries in vain to stop the action and is almost deported, himself, when confused soldiers requesting orders from their superiors are unable to reconcile the “fact” that he is a traitor due to his ethnicity with the medal on his chest. With the unlikely help of an NKVD officer (Gorbunov) motivated by a professional obligation to keep a Hero of the Soviet Union alive and a personal debt to Amet, who saved his family by destroying a German plane during the battle of Iaroslavl’, Amet manages to save his parents and sister from the deportation, but not his love-interest, Feride (Avaz).

khaitarmaKhaitarma achieved early notoriety when Vladimir Andreev, then the Russian Federation’s General Consul in Crimea, despite not having seen the film, denounced it as a “distortion of the truth about the Great Patriotic War.” Andreev suggested that the film might be more acceptable if, “it was a serial film, in which… of twenty episodes, seventeen were about the feats of Soviet soldiers, the war’s legendary pilots, two were dealt with questions concerning the cooperation of people of the Tatar nationality with the fascist occupiers and the concluding episode, perhaps, was about the deportation.”[1] Other reviews have been generally positive, focusing of the significance of the film’s subject matter. Khaitarma has been screened at several film festivals, including the Kazan’ International Muslim Film Festival and it won the 2014 NIKA for best film from the CIS and Baltic States.

khaitarmaLike many other Soviet and Post-Soviet films, the first half of Khaitarma presents the Great Patriotic War as a moment of the ethnic integration of the peoples of the Soviet Union. Squad-mates of different nationalities fight together, die for each other, and engage in various forms of homo-social bonding when away from the front lines. In this film the space of this integration is even expanded beyond the Soviet sphere—one of the pilots that Amet brings home with him is a Frenchman. In the second half of the film the deportation is depicted as a betrayal of this internationalist promise:  officers repeat the phrase “Crimean Tatars are traitors and collaborators with the enemy” and Russia soldiers push old men who had shared water with them a few scenes before onto box cars.

khaitarmaIf the film depicts the exclusion of the Crimean Tatar people from the Soviet and international communities as a grave injustice, it enacts a small retribution by excluding Russian speakers from a full engagement with the emotional core of the film. The dialogue in several scenes featuring Amet and Feride or Amet and his family are spoken in Crimean Tatar without subtitles or voiceover. While the action of the scenes clearly conveys what is going on in general, the nuances are unavailable to those who do not know the language. The film makes clear, however, that these two exclusions are not equivalent: there was no way for the Crimean Tatars to escape their deportation, even for the 30,000 who served in the Soviet armed forces (the real Amet-Khan Sultan was not allowed to live in Crimea following the war either, instead serving as a trainer in a Moscow aviation school). If viewers want to avoid the exclusion forced upon them all they have to do is learn the language, a point underscored near the end of the film when, after having helped Amet save his family, the NKVD officer turns to leave Amet and go to face his certain execution. Amet says, “Sau bul.” The office turns and asks what it means, to which Amet responds, “It means ‘good bye’.”

khaitarmaWhile the first half of the film engages with the genre of war cinema, at times the second half of Khaitarma relies heavily of the tropes of the action film. Amet’s hand-to-hand skirmishes with Russian soldiers, the suspenseful syncopated music played during the NKVD officer’s race to save Amet, and the frequent reversals with guns unexpectedly pointed at one character or another may seem out of place and potentially too trivial for the serious subject matter of the film. But they also use the figure of the action hero to create a sense of agency against the overwhelming power of the state: violently resisting the deportation of his family and his people, Amet-Khan Sultan is no passive victim. Amet’s action draws attention to the less overt displays of Crimean Tatar agency in the other scenes depicting the deportation: a family carrying their ancient grandmother to the train rather than leave her behind; adults deflecting the attention of children by singing folk songs, old men choosing to die in their homeland rather than climb aboard the train, parents holding up their children to keep them from being smothered in the crowded box cars.

khaitarmaKhaitarma, produced by the Crimean Tatar television channel ATR, is focused on a national tragedy that personally affected nearly everyone involved in making the film: Seitablaev was born in Uzbekistan and many of the thousand Crimean Tatar extras who participated in the crowd scenes depicting the deportation had been deported themselves as children or young adults. But it is part of a broader trend as well, as it belongs to a recent crop of films from national territories of the former Soviet Union that, lacking the status of an SSR, had no state-supported film industry. Like Iurii Feting’s Bibinur (Tatarstan) or Nikita Arzhakov’s Sniper Sakha (Sakha Republic), the film—which features the tag line, “the history of one nation”—is dominated by the presentation of a mythical national ideal grounded in spoken language, cultural practices, traditional spirituality, and a connection to the land, effectively using cinema to produce a timeless national identity that connects the present to the Soviet, pre-Soviet, and pre-Russian pasts.

khaitarmaThis status is underscored by the film’s title: the khaitarma is a Crimean Tatar folk dance that, as the opening titles of the film explain, is “a symbol of the eternal movement of life, dedicated to the memories of grandfathers and great-grandfathers, fathers and mothers, all of those, without whom there would be neither, us, our children, our memories, or our culture.” The opening shots of the film show a couple in traditional costumes dancing the khaitarma on a mountain peak, with the circular movements of the dance emphasized by the rotation of the camera around the pair. Beyond operating as a striking instance of national memory embodied in cultural practices, the dance, the name of which is translated in a later scene as “the return,” takes on even greater significance in the context of the film’s narrative, invoking the promise of an end to the national trauma depicted onscreen.

khaitarmaThe final scene of the film depicts this promise as well, showing the birth of a child on one of the trains taking the Crimean Tatars to their exile. If the symbolism of this image of the continuation of the nation, even in times of extreme hardship, seems over the top, Lenur Isliamov, the film’s producer, cited it as a moment of literal truth: his grandmother gave birth to his uncle on a train as she was being transported to Central Asia (Ardabatskaia 2013).

Chip Crane
University of Pittsburgh


1] Andreev was removed from his position as a result of the scandal that followed his remarks, while Seitablaev joked in an interview that he was grateful to Andreev for the publicity (“Genkonsul Rossii…”;  Karchenko 2013)

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Works Cited

Ardabatskaia, Elena (2013). “’Khaitarma’: Bol' odnogo naroda?.” Moskovskii Komsomolets. 18 June.

“Genkonsul Rossii v Simferopole schitaet, chto fil'm ‘Khaitarma’ iskazhet pravdu o voine.” Unrinform. 22 May 2013.

Karchenko, Tetiana (2013). ‘Rezhisser’ Khaitarmy’: Ia blagodaren genkonsulu Rossii za neimovernyi piar nashei kartiny.” Ukrains’ka pravda: zhittia. 22 July.


Khaitarma, Ukraine, 2012
Color, 87 minutes
Director: Akhtem Seitablaev
Screenplay: Nikolai Rybalka
Cinematography: Vladimir Ivanov
Production Design: Shevket Seidametov
Costume Design: Nadezhda Kudriavtseva
Music: Sergei Krutsenko and Dzhemil' Karikov
Editing: Sergei Klepach
Cast: Akhtem Seitablaev, Iurii Tsurilo, Aleksei Gorbunov, Andrei Saminin, Usine Khalilova, Dinara Avaz, Valerii Shitovalov
Production: Lenur Isliamov, Quatarba Productions, Telekanal ATR

Akhtem Seitablaev: Khaitarma (Ukraine, 2012)

reviewed by Chip Crane© 2014