Issue 54 (2016)
Nicola Bellucci: Grozny Blues (2015)
reviewed by Åsne Ø. Høgetveit© 2016
Grozny Blues is the second film directed by the Italian Nicola Bellucci. In 2010 he directed the documentary film In the Gardens of Sound (Nel giardino dei suoni), according to critics a poetic and touching film about a blind musical therapist, and winner of Best documentary at the São Paolo International Film Festival. In an interview at the festival Visions du Réel, Bellucci explained how, with Grozny Blues, he wished to create a film that would challenge and nuance the stereotypical image created of Chechnya in Western media. (Visions du Réel, 2015) After meeting with human rights activist Zainap Gashaeva, who had to flee Chechnya, Bellucci saw that in present-day Grozny and its recent history lies not only a story about the relation between tradition and the contemporary, but also stories about present-day Russia and conflicts within Islam (MixTV, 2015). He did not specifically mention the relation between men and women, but the relationship and conflict between genders is more or less a red thread in all the stories. Grozny Blues was filmed in 2011–2014—a rather long time, and the result is a poetic, intimate and human portrait of Grozny. The story is purely told through carefully selected images and people talking about what has happened and is happening; their thoughts and dreams, either to the camera or to each other. The scenes change rapidly from one situation to the next, sometimes creating confusion, but not necessarily in a bad way, as life often is confusing.
The main story is told and driven by a group of four middle aged, female human rights activists: Taita Yunusova, Zarman Makhadzieva, Taisa Titiyeva and Zainap. They themselves claim that their work in no way is connected to politics and they, therefore, should not be branded as foreign agents by the authorities—causing them even more bureaucratic and economical trouble. (As if being a human rights activist in Chechnya, Russia wasn’t hard and dangerous enough.) In between the story of these women, there are at least three other stories that are worth noting: the story about the music club Blues Brothers; the story about how men are taught to be men; and the story about street demonstrations and rallies in Grozny. While not exactly juxtaposed to each other, these stories comment on and nuance the impressions about contemporary Chechnya, leaving the viewer with a complex image of the social and political situation—and with a lot of questions.
The main story is partially told through home video footage recorded by the women themselves in the 1990s, and we understand that their friendship has a long history. During the Chechen wars in 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s they decided to record the events as they saw and experienced them, even though they knew how dangerous this was. The footage is mainly a mix of desperate, mourning masses; agitated demonstrations; and the women driving around in a car, smiling, laughing, and telling silly jokes. This helps establish the women as warm and tough ladies. In the 15–20 years that have passed they have all made some experiences in their personal lives, through their work, and regarding the political situation in their country, making the cheerful mood in the car in the 1990s seem almost naïve. They still drive a lot around, and the car is still an intimate and private place, but also a place for thinking back at what used to be. The women now work in different NGOs, mainly concerned with interviewing people about their missing relatives. This is not so much about helping families find their lost relatives—in fact, the women cannot do much more than listen to and record their stories; rather, it is about not forgetting this part of their past. In the public domain the government actively suppresses memories like these, a suppression that is in many ways an added violation against the victims and their families: not only is their trauma denied, but also, as a consequence, the very existence of the “disappeared” persons is denied. Like in many war-ridden countries, a large number of people are missing, according to a report from Human Rights Watch (2007) the estimated number of people missing at the hands of state security services is 3,000–5,000.
The women meet with the relatives either in their office, or they travel to the relatives’ homes. Most of the time it is a woman who is talking about missing husbands, sons and daughters. Often they video record the interview. The women are also shown travelling to a school, and teaching girls about human rights, specifically about children’s rights. They are true activists, and because of their relentless activism, one of the women in the group, Zainap, has had to flee the country. She is now living in Belgium, but keeps in touch with the other women through Skype. They have all sacrificed a lot for doing what they believe in. Two of the other women, Taita and Taisa, are both divorced, and they talk about the stigma connected to this in the conservative Chechen society. For the viewer this becomes even more clear as the fourth lady, Zarman, in a low voice tells of how rumors that she was living with a man she wasn’t married to, recently have led to her father arranging her to be married to a man she does not know, and certainly did not choose. She confesses that she used to think she was strong, but she could not bear to shame her parents, and, therefore, has accepted the marriage. Towards the end of the film she talks about how she tries to avoid telling her husband that she doesn’t love him, and that she will not let a marriage get in the way of her important work. The only woman shown talking about dreams for the future is Taisa, as she with enthusiasm explains how she would love to work with animation films, to create magnificent films à la Shrek (dir. Adamson and Jenson, 2001), only based on Chechen folklore with a humane message.
The second story is about the music club Blues Brothers. The owner is passionate about live music, and 1960s–70s American and British rock and blues music. He complains about young people listening too much to Led Zeppelin and Nirvana and how Grozny has changed so that it becomes more and more difficult for him and his business. The owner takes down his sign and explains how he has to sell the club to pay his debts. Then a young Chechen woman with a dark soulful voice enters the stage. The owner gets a new sign for his club, and discusses with the woman how they can try to work past the restrictive rules on women’s movements so that she can perform at the club in the evenings. This is perhaps the most optimistic story, as it shows the development of a disillusioned man who regains his hopes and dreams for the future, and a young woman who, despite the many restrictions women in this society face, is able to express herself and pursue her passion for music.
The third story, told not as explicitly as the others, is a collection of scenes and sequences including a young man talking about his experiences of the war, but also about women; more young men talking about what kind of women they like; scenes from a traditional wedding; scenes from a dance rehearsal where young men and women practice traditional Chechen dancing; and young boys showing off their traditional dance moves on the street. This is a story of how tradition is taught and passed on to new generations from the old men, singing and dancing at the wedding, through young men in pursuit of a suitable wife, to the boys showing off in the street.
The fourth story is that of demonstrations and rallies in public places then and now. It shows older footage of large crowds mourning victims of the war—there are even some horrifying pictures of burned corpses. Men and women in rallies shouting for Russia to pull back the troops. It all seems chaotic and not very organized. The contemporary rallies are shown as part of the personified worship of the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. It all looks well organized: with a man giving directions and pep-talk in front of a crowd of neatly lined-up young men, who are about to greet Kadyrov entering a mosque; and young people wearing identical jackets with the picture of Kadyrov printed on them.
The invisibility of the director and the team actually making the documentary is fundamental in creating its poetic expression, and is, therefore, its strength in composing a feeling rather than knowledge of Grozny. But this invisibility can at the same time be somewhat problematic. It is disorienting that different events are not timed, placed, or contextualized. It is clear when the footage is older: sometimes these clips are even dated, but the contemporary footage is floating in a timeless space, only through the dialogue and images we understand that time has passed. The main people telling the story are not presented with names; again this makes it challenging to follow. This invisibility creates a distance, that can also be found in the use of sound and music: for example playing Sidney Bechet’s Si Tu Voi Ma Mère to the images of young Chechens dancing a traditional dance obviously not listening to the same music (at the same time this use of music is an interesting comment, just like when the subtitles are faded in to a mix of Money by Pink Floyd and a Muslim call for prayer). The distance places something other at the center of the story, rather than the people, places and chronology of events. The audience gets a poetic, almost melancholic feeling, but is also reminded that this is not its reality and not its story, and that even if the viewers wanted to, there is something here they cannot access.
Thanks to Paula Gorgone for Italian translation of the Visions du Réel interview with Nicola Bellucci.
Åsne Ø. Høgetveit
The Arctic University of Norway
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Mix TV 2015. “Rezhisser Nikola Bellucci v programme ‘Vopros s pristrastiem’.” YouTube 21 October.
Visions du Réel. 2015. “Nicola Bellucci, Grozny Blues.” YouTube 20 April.
Human Rights Watch. 2007. “Justice for Chechnya: The European Court of Human Rights Rules against Russia.” (July).
Grozny Blues, Switzerland 2015
Color, DCP, 104 min
Director Nicola Bellucci
Screenwriters Nicola Bellucci and Lucia Sgueglia
Cinematographer Simon Guy Fässler
Location Sound Nicola Bellucci
Assistant Director Lucia Sgueglia
Editor Anja Bombelli
Production Company Soap Factory GmbH
Nicola Bellucci: Grozny Blues (2015)
reviewed by Åsne Ø. Høgetveit© 2016