Issue 50 (2015)
Artem Temnikov: No Comment (2014)
reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2015
No Comment explores the highly topical question of what causes someone to run off and become a terrorist. Recent newspaper reports reveal that, over the past couple of years, almost 30,000 individuals from more than 100 countries have joined terrorist organizations, principally the so-called Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL. This figure includes more than 250 U.S. citizens, over 750 Brits, and nearly 2,000 French—glaring evidence that the West cannot immure itself from this increasingly global crisis, as transnational flows in and out of the Middle East and North Africa are importing jihadis even more readily than exporting them. This sense of immediacy is only heightened by the opening intertitle that declares the film to be “based on real events,” with the publicity for the film likewise proclaiming that the story for the film comes from footage found in Chechnya by the Russian military, that the characters and story are real, and that only the names have been changed.
The two protagonists of No Comment are two men with movie cameras, and much of the film is seen from the point of view of their camcorders. First, there is Thomas (Leonard Proxauf), a lanky teenager in Germany from a well-to-do family who goes through the daily grind of school, family, and awkwardness. He is a video diarist, an aspiring filmmaker, and a part-time voyeur, but mostly he just records the quotidian but oh-so-ardent preoccupations of adolescence. Second, there is Captain Aleksei Basargin (Aleksandr Novin), a cheerful, strapping young commander of a Russian military unit based in Chechnya and assigned to ferret out terrorist camps. He is friendly and chatty as he films extensive video greetings for his wife and son back home.
In alternating between the two protagonists, the film moves between two genres: a coming-of-age movie and a war film. Thomas endures the school of hard knocks: the loss of his biological parents at a very young age, an intermittent speech impediment, a stern and needling emotionally distant and demanding guardian (Ben Bremer), mean girls who mock him, and mean boys who beat him up for trying to talk to the mean girls. He seems to be lost in his search for a sense of self and his place in the world—but then he meets Muslims. On the other hand, Aleksei introduces us to his ragtag team of merry warriors, each with a nickname reinforcing the standard ethnic and cultural diversity we have come to expect in such units: Fidel, Bula, Chuvash, ‘Foggy’ Tumanov, Schulz the German, and Kakhno the Ukrainian. Generic expectations are further met in that Aleksei is on the final days of his tour of duty—one last mission—before he gets to return home at long last. He prepares the stoic and ill-fated First Lieutenant Dmitrii Rodin (Dmitrii Zhuravlev) to take over command of his unit. As the unit’s job is simply to locate terrorists, there is constant tension as we wait for the inevitable.
Thomas’s path to Islamic conversion and its purported natural devolution to violence begins innocently enough—or does it? Beware the soft-spoken smiling round-faced dark man who drinks tea from a glass and offers you baklava! While filming around town one day, Thomas chances upon a pretty young lady with a lavender headscarf carrying some books. He follows her to a street tent with a banner reading ‘Find Your Truth,’ where he encounters two young unshaven men dressed in all white with matching white skullcaps. They tell him that Allah loves him and offer him a free Quran. He asks the young woman about a stack of books titled Discover the Truth and Take the Path to Perfection, and she answers that “it’s about Islam, a religion of peace and justice.” An older man in all black with a matching black skullcap steps forward, takes off his sunglasses, and introduces himself as Mustafa (Farhad Payar). He reveals the young woman—his ward—as Leila (Soma Pysall) and tells Thomas that he has come to the right place if he wants to learn about life. He offers courses on Islam, for those who want to “broaden their horizons,” as well as Arabic language classes, as “knowledge of Arabic opens doors to the magical world of the Orient.” Thomas leaves with a flyer with their address and an invitation to visit soon.
What are we to make of Leila? Is this the face of the new femme fatale? Thomas’s immersion into Islam is certainly due in part to his yearning for self-discovery, but it seems largely driven by his desire to be near her. She is sweet, modest, and charming—and her affections for Thomas seem genuine. Unlike the traditional femme fatale, she has no hint of irony or detachment, and it does not seem like she actively seeks to control and manipulate her doomed admirer. Instead, it is more like the wide-eyed leading the wide-eyed to the Kool-Aid. Their romance blossoms in an East Asian-inspired garden (as opposed to a more authentically German—or at least European-looking locale?). She tells him that as a child she used to dream of marrying a hero, and she talks of her father who left “never to return” to “fight in some war we have never heard of.” Thomas responds that he would like to live in her fairy tale and fulfill her wishes; his fate is sealed. Next stop: Chechnya!
The film has a strong teleology that moves our two protagonists ever closer together until their first – and last – encounter, which ends the film. Thomas operates in the very terrorist cell that Aleksei’s unit searches for. The terrorists plant landmines throughout the area and set a trap to ambush the soldiers. By their fateful meeting, when the brave Russian forces are striking back, Thomas has already sobered up to the grave errors of his ways. It is worth pointing out the singular tragedy that unites Thomas and Aleksei inexplicably sidesteps the entire issue of terrorism altogether, as it springs from a revenge plot embedded earlier in the narrative.
The title of the film is rather curious, as the viewer seems to be inundated with anything but a lack of commentary. As such, No Comment would make a productive addition to any number of courses in today’s college classroom, not simply a course dealing with contemporary Russian cinema or culture, but particularly any Russia-based history or political science course concerning comparative politics or international affairs. In examining a subject matter of intense interest in so overt a film, students would gain a strong sense of how messaging, ideological positioning, or propaganda in general works in contemporary filmmaking. It is easy to visualize engaging classroom conversations sparked—ignited—by this film. What is to be gained, or what is avoided, in having the terrorist come from Germany—and not even from a minority or immigrant population? How does the veneer of complexity in representing a Muslim population actually lead to a totalizing portrayal in which Islam is uniformly wedded to terrorist violence? Maybe what is uncommented upon in the film speaks even louder. Russian military presence in Chechnya, for example, is simply a given. No attempts are ever made to explore the truly mystifying questions of not only how and why terrorists justify what they do, but also how children of privilege—with no familial or even ethnic ties—are recruited internationally to such causes. In fact, the full extent of the film’s critical edge seems confined to two early off-hand remarks that the Russian soldiers are underpaid and underfed. What about the thousands of Russians who are reported to have joined ISIS? What of those regions of the Caucasus now being claimed by offshoots and affiliates of the self-declared Islamic State? No comment, indeed…
The film premiered at the Open Russia Film Festival Kinotavr in June 2015 and also played later that month in the Russian Programs of the 37th Moscow International Film Festival. It is currently traveling the festival circuit.
Rhode Island College
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No Comment, Russian Federation, 2014
Color, 108 min.
Director: Artem Temnikov
Scriptwriter: Artem Temnikov
Director of Photography: Oleg Shuvaev
Production Design: Irina Grazhdankina
Art Director: Evgenii Mironov
Music: Maksim Koshevarov, Sergei Zykov
Sound: Denis Baranov
Editing: Sergei Ivanov, Murat Magambetov
Costume: Ekaterina Khimicheva
Makeup: Valentina Timofeeva
Producers: Aleksandr Novin, Elena Bren'kova, Asia Temnikova
Cast: Leonard Proxauf, Aleksandr Novin, Dmitrii Zhuravlev, Korkmaz Arslan, Farhad Payar, Soma Pysall, Ivan Akhadi, Roman Shali, Artur Shumakov, Ben Bremer, Stefanie Grabner
Production Company: Studio Third Rome
Artem Temnikov: No Comment (2014)
reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2015