Issue 49 (2015)

Khusein Erkenov’s Ordered to Forget (Prikazano zabyt’, 2014)

reviewed by Chip Crane© 2015

prikazanoKhusein Erkenov’s Ordered to Forget confronts the 1944 deportation of the Chechen people by attempting to document one of the more horrific moments of that event—the massacre of the 700 inhabitants of the aul Khaibakh. In its examination of the deportations of the peoples of the north Caucasus, the film returns to the subject of one of the director’s earliest films, The Chill (Kholod, 1991). The topic is of personal significance to Erkenov, an ethnic Karachay, who was born to deported parents in Uzbekistan.

prikazanoLike The Chill, Ordered to Forget seeks to bridge the rupture caused by the displacement of an entire ethnic group through a framing device linking the events of the past to those living on the territory in the present. The film opens with a sequence of a young Chechen boy who takes a trip with his father and grandmother, Seda, from the sparkling downtown of (recently reconstructed) Grozny to the mountains in order to visit the grave of his grandfather, Daud. When the child notices that there are two dates of death on Daud’s grave, he asks his grandmother how this could be, which leads to an extended flashback offering the explanation.

prikazanoIn the flashback Daud and Seda are young adults happily living in Khaibakh, but their budding romance is interrupted by Kasim, the local NKVD officer who persecutes Daud and his family, partially because he also desires Seda and partially because of the nature of his job. After Kasim arrests Daud’s father, Daud flees to the mountains, but the absence of her lover makes Seda no more receptive to Kasim’s advances, causing him to turn his professional attention toward her family. When her father aims a gun at Kasim to protect Seda from him during a search of their farm, Seda is left with no choice but to join Daud in the mountains.

prikazanoAt this point, however, the film departs from the narrative arc of traditional melodrama as Kasim is replaced by a new NKVD officer, General Gvishiani, who has arrived to oversee the deportations of the Chechen and Ingush peoples. The officers and soldiers under his command round up villagers, killing those who try to escape. In the film’s horrifying climax, the barn where the residents of Khaibakh had been allowed to shelter is set on fire, because the poor quality of the local roads prevented the arrival of the trucks meant to carry them away—the General decided that a mass execution is preferable to a delay. Daud and Seda, prompted by a nightmare that she took as an omen, return to the village just in time to see their neighbors burning. When the film returns to the present, Seda explains to her grandson that his grandfather felt that “though his heart continued beating, his soul died that day with them.”

prikazanoWhile the replacement of the film’s villain halfway through the narrative may be dramaturgically problematic, the choice expands the scope of the film’s critique of the violence of the period. Rather than placing blame on the General who oversaw the operation or on Stalin who, the film makes clear, ordered it, Ordered to Forget depicts Soviet society as evil to its core. The film clearly locates this evil in its authoritarian structure, linking violence again and again to scenes where commands are given and orders are obeyed. Orders are repeatedly invoked by characters in the film to deny their own responsibility (“This order was signed by Stalin, himself”) or agency (“The orders of an NKVD colonel are not up for debate”). Erkenov counters this comforting sense of helplessness and the moral abdication it implies by showing other characters refusing to obey orders, often at great cost to themselves: the chairwoman of a kolkhoz refuses to sign the indictments of several of her villagers, knowing that she will be executed as a result; an NKVD officer commits suicide rather than set fire to the barn as he has been commanded to do. The film’s climax brings this moral vision to an extreme point: as a young soldier shoots children fleeing from the burning barn, his face twists with a kind of sadistic glee, suggesting that the orders to kill anyone who left the barn might merely offer cover, relieving him of responsibility for desires that are his own. At that moment Daud refuses an order (one from another source, but still an order). In a flashback, his father commands him never to kill a human being—all of whom are sacred, he says—but Daud shoots this young soldier, saving the life of one child. The film’s title implicates its viewers into this Manichean moral economy as well, casting them as defiantly disobeying an order not to remember the violence of the Soviet period.

prikazanoThe title also took on additional significance when the Ministry of Culture refused to issue a license for Ordered to Forget, citing it for its “falsification of history” and potential to provoke ethnic hatred (Muradov). While the first charge might seem ironic, given the relatively wide spectrum of uses to which Soviet history has been put on the Russian screen, the Ministry of Culture further supported its ban by the claim that it searched several archives without finding a single document verifying that the Khaibakh massacre occurred. The film offers a powerful response to this denial with its final image—a harrowing still photograph of the sole survivor of the Khaibakh massacre, Mumadi El'gakaev. Using El'gakaev’s participation in the making of the film to legitimize the account presented in Ordered to Forget, Erkenov essentially counters the authority of the archive with that of human memory.

prikazanoThe Ministry’s second claim—that the film could promote ethnic hatred—may be rooted in the film’s engagement with the traditions of Soviet and post-Soviet national cinemas, using traditional signifiers of national identity, but altering their purpose within the narrative. While the film is dominated by scenes of violence, much of the film is devoted to the depiction of the everyday lives of pre-deportation Chechens, showing dances, songs, costumes, as well as traditional farming tools, weapons, displays of horsemanship, etc. Rather than demonstrating the harmonious co-existence of minority nations with the larger state, however, the ethnographic display in Ordered to Forget is intended to magnify the tragedy of that encounter. In this, Ordered to Forget goes even farther than a comparable film, Akhtem Seitablaev’s Khaitarma (2013), which dramatizes the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. As I argue in my review of Seitablaev’s film, Khaitarma accepts the conventional depiction of the Great Patriotic War as a moment of ethnic integration, but shows that the deportation of the Tatars wrongly excluded them from this highly desirable multicultural utopia. Ordered to Forget, on the other hand, suggests that the Chechen encounter with the State was never anything but harmful, with the deportation and massacres as notable instances of a larger pattern of violence.[1]

Despite the banning of the film, it has been screened at a handful of festivals, including the 2014 Moscow International Film Festival, where audiences have responded favorably to the film, often greeting it with stunned silence and tears.[2]


Notes

1] Without discounting the importance of geopolitical factors, this may account for the difference in the reception the two films received—Khaitarma won the NIKA for best film from the CIS.

2] I witnessed this first hand at the screening of the film at the 2015 Russian Film Symposium in Pittsburgh. Oleg Sul’kin noted a similar response at the Moscow International Film Festival, which has been the only official screening of Ordered to Forget inside of Russia (even then, however, it was  left out of the printed program) (Sul’kin).

Chip Crane
University of Pittsburgh

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Crane, Chip. 2014. “Akhtem Seitablaev: KhaitarmaKinokultura 45.

Muradov, Musa and Viacheslav Kozlov.  2014. “V kino usmotreli nedokazannyi epizod.”  Kommersant". 22 May.

Sul’kin, Oleg. 2014. “V Moskve pokazali zapreshchennyi fil’m pro deportatsii chechentsev. Golos Ameriki. 22 June.

 


Ordered to Forget, Russia, 2014
Color, 87 minutes

Director: Khusein Erkenov
Screenplay: Ruslan Kokanaev, Sultan Zaurbekov
Camera: Anatolii Petringa
Composer: Vladimir Dashkevich 
Cast: Shamkhan Mitraev, Kheda Akhmadova, Roza Khairullina, Timur Badalbeili, Roman Kuznichenko, Movsar Ataev, Aleksandr Novin
Producer: Ruslan Kokanaev
Production: Kinokompaniia “Grozny-fil'm” im. Sheikha Mansura

Khusein Erkenov’s Ordered to Forget (Prikazano zabyt’, 2014)

reviewed by Chip Crane© 2015

Updated: 06 Jul 15