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Andrei Nekrasov, Disbelief [Nedoverie] (2004)

reviewed by Fiona Björling©2005

Andrei Nekrasov's documentary feature film Disbelief opens with the camera trained on an attractive residential street in Milwaukee, USA―complete with a view of an American flag and the sound of birdsong. A hundred and nine harrowing minutes later, we are back in the US as the film closes with a freeze frame of happy American pre-school children tended by their Russian teacher, Tania Morozova. In between, the film has descended step by step down into an expanding inferno of personal tragedies, unresolved crimes, sinister political implications, and scenes of war and destruction. The date at the center of this montage of interviews, archive materials, and Tania's private investigations is 9-9-99, a number that is surely more suggestive than the better known 9-11.

Nekrasov calls his film a documentary composition and indeed it achieves a happy synthesis of two genres―the documentary and the feature film. Nekrasov’s creation of a sense of suspense and intrigue that can match the best psychological thrillers is truly impressive. This film makes compelling viewing and, through to the end, the viewer, like the characters involved, lives in the hope that the murder of the innocent inmates of the Moscow apartment building, destroyed by a bomb on 9 September 1999, will be resolved and justice redressed. Our Russian pre-school teacher, mother of little Sasha, is one of two sisters whose lives are irrevocably changed by the Moscow explosion. Tania, married and living in the US gives her interviews in English, while her sister, Alena, speaks Russian. Tania and Alena have lost their mother and their cherished home, the ugly gray apartment building on Gor'ianovo Street. Tania travels immediately to Moscow to be with her sister, and in one of the film's most moving scenes, they watch together as the building is razed to the ground and the rubble containing the fragments of their childhood ruthlessly cleared away. Precisely at this point the narration starts to nudge the viewer with the suspicion―note that in Russian the title of the film actually means "distrust!"― that the official explanation of a Chechen terrorist attack on ordinary Russian people, sleeping in their beds at night, simply will not hold.

In the credits the characters are listed as dramatis personæ, and many give glimpses of haunting and tragic lives: there is the sisters' murdered mother, Liuba, who had left her rural home in the Urals to become a hairdresser in Moscow; the former FSB lawyer Mikhail Trepashkin who has now changed sides and is acting as the sisters' attorney in Moscow; Timur Dakhkilgov, in an after-text alluded to as the protagonist of the film, dark-skinned and silent, with smile-wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, who was arrested, tortured and charged with terrorism. By way of these honest and simple individuals we proceed to the man summoned to power by Boris El'tsin in 1999, a tiny figure who makes his appearance onto the screen through two gigantic guilded doors opened by two servile and uniformed guards. We are talking, of course, of Vladimir Putin. Putin is the unproved villain of the story, and the accusation is that the apartment explosions in 1999 were instigated by the FSB, if not by Putin himself, as a provocation to discredit the Chechens and mobilize Russian public opinion in support of a second war on Chechnya. Substantial excerpts from a lecture by David Satter, author of the book Darkness at Dawn, the Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003) provide the film with a full account of this theory.  

Apart from Ol'ga Konskaia, Nekrasov himself is responsible for editing the film, which is divided into twelve sections, each with a chapter heading. Any documentary relies on sensitive montage to order the story and its telling and it is here that Nekrasov's masterful artistry lifts the film to a level of classic human drama, in which the private fate of individual characters―Russians and Chechens alike―is interwoven with political and historical events to achieve powerful pathos.   Nekrasov has a strong sense of the visual and aural medium of film. An effective technique in the film is the introduction of an extra level of montage, often consisting of almost subliminal associative shots lasting just one or two seconds: Tania and Sasha observe an ordinary bulldozer on an American street and the camera shifts to a flickering shot of the more sinister bulldozer in Moscow shovelling away the rubble of the exploded apartment building. Tania and her husband play with little Sasha on the beach, his chubby pink toes peek through a mound of sand and the scene is interrupted by a momentary shot of parts of dead human bodies buried in the debris of war. The insertions of seconds-long shots may consist of a flickering TV advertisement with jagged, vulgar music or of a view Moscow silhouetted against a dark and threatening sky. This technique of quick and significant associations, enhanced by a suggestive sound track and a variety of musical styles, creates an emotional atmosphere of threat, fear, and sadness. We can recognize the innovative film language used in Nekrasov's fascinating feature film Liubov' and Other Nightmares (Liubov' i drugie koshmary, 2001), and before that Love is as Strong as Death (Sil'na kak smert' liubov', 1997).

Visually effective too are excerpts from the family archives―the home movies of the Morozov family, taken before the disaster. These amateur films have an unfocussed, shaky, hand-camera quality, and give a dream-like sense to the memories of Tania's mother when she was alive, butterfly-like in white as she celebrated her daughter's wedding, or back in the Urals with her simple peasant family. When Alena tries to describe her dazed state of mind after the tragedy, she says that she felt as if she were under water, and there is a kind of haunting underwater quality in the sequences showing life. But ordinary life goes on vividly as well, for example in Timur's room in a communal apartment, his distraught wife, Lida, who tells their story to background noise and the tumbling of children with too little space to play in. Is it not amazing too that such an ordinary and ugly apartment building as that on Gur'ianovo Street, only a memory now, yet shown time and again, can inspire such intense nostalgia, not only for those who once lived there, but also for a viewer who finds no innate beauty in the massive concrete blocks of Soviet architecture.

The film has been called courageous in its unveiling of the dirty Russian politics that led to the so-called fight against terrorism and to Russia's second war on Chechnya. A possible criticism of the film might be that the American war on terrorism gets off lightly in comparison to its Russian equivalent and that life in the US seems "shiny white" when compared with dirty Moscow. But Nekrasov's films are about Russia and his skill lies in the ability to develop an innovative film language at the service of those who are victims of today's Russia.'Disbelief is a convincing documentary that unveils a political crime and the human suffering it has caused.'But it is also a work of art that fires the imagination of its viewers, constructing and communicating its story with a force that exceeds the specific and touches on the universal.

Fiona Björling, Lund University, Sweden  


Disbelief, Russia and US, 2004

Color,105 minutes

Director:Andrei Nekrasov

Cinematography:Aleksandr Petrovskii and Sergei Tsikhanovich

Editor: Andrei Nekrasov and Ol'ga Konskaia

Protagonists: Tat'iana Morozova-White, Sasha and Abraham White, Elena and Liubov' Morozova, Svetlana Rozhkova, Mikhail Trepashkin, Lidiia and Timur Dakhkilgov, Aleksandr Zdanovich, Vladimir Rushailo, and Vladimir Putin

Producers: Ol'ga Konskaia and Andrei Nekrasov

Production:Dreamscanner 


Andrei Nekrasov, Disbelief [Nedoverie] (2004)

reviewed by Fiona Björling©2005

10/07/05