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War through the eyes of a child

by at 20/02/2012 18:23

This week, Moscow cinemas started screening “Avgust. Vosmogo” (“August. The Eighth”),  Janik Fayziev’s war/fantasy film. The plot tells a story of young Muscovite Ksenia who sends her son to the Caucasus to be with his father, her ex-husband. Suddenly the war breaks out in the region, and Ksenia has to fly down there to rescue her child.

Despite the name “Avgust.Vosmogo” and the posters that advertise it, the film is not exactly about war or robots. It doesn’t show much blood or the corpses that usually feature heavily in war movies. It’s more about a child’s perception of war, which ranks it together with Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” while the girl saving her loved one is reminiscent of “The Snow Queen.”

I must admit I was a bit annoyed by the main female character throughout the film. In the midst of the solid performance of guys in khaki and the heartbreaking little boy, Svetlana Ivanova’s character seemed too unnatural, fragile and inappropriate, like an inebriated chicken. A couple of days later I understood, however. This is what any of us, regular people, Moscow girls and boys who rarely deal with problems bigger than metro faces and relationships, would look like out there, when our world is about to be ruined by someone or something big and heartless.

 “Our heroine isn’t suited for anything but mundane household dramas,” Fayziev told KinoPoisk. “But she goes through the [war] experience and can’t let herself get tired, refuse or complain, because she doesn’t have a choice.”

Experienced crew

Svetlana Ivanova in “Avgust. Vosmogo”.

© Courtesy of Kinogallery.com

Svetlana Ivanova in “Avgust. Vosmogo”.

Beside U.S. screenwriter Michael Lerner, who worked for 20 years as a war correspondent for Newsweek, the film can boast a much-decorated crew, including Oscar-nominated film editor Dennis Virkler, Oscar-awarded sound producer Bob Bimmer (“Speed” and “Gladiator”) and talented computer graphics coordinator Sergei Nevshupov (“Lord of The Rings” and “Avatar”). Animation consultant on the set was Alexander Dorogov, who’s known for his work with Walt Disney Feature Animation.

“We are still learning to make decent movies,” Fayziev said. “I initially planned foreign professionals on key production roles, so that they showed us how to do it correctly and to speed up the process.”

The actors who played soldiers underwent training with special police units. “For example, military scouts walk with half-bent knees,” said lead actor Maxim Matveyev. “They wear armored vests, tactical vests, magazine chargers, grenades, almost 10 kilo helmets on their heads, assault rifles with attached grenade launcher, which is all really heavy.”  

Delicate topic

Fayziev arguably set himself a tough challenge by trying to make an entertaining film based on such a painful and controversial subject.

I went to see the premiere at Pushkinsky Cinema on February 17 with two friends with different perspectives on the war: an Ossetian girl, Suzanna and a Georgian guy, Giya. As my mom is Ossetian and my stepdad’s Georgian, it was probably quite a good way to see the film.

Giya’s mother is Russian, and he lives in Moscow with his family. Suzanna’s father was killed in the massacre of refugees (Zar tragedy) during Zviad Ghamsahurdiya’s war with South Ossetia in 1992, when she was only three years old. Her mother managed to evacuate her and her brother from the burning town of Tskhinval and they came to live in Moscow. In August 2008, some of Suzanna’s relatives were hiding from Georgian tanks in basements, while her 16-year-old friend was shot by a giggling soldier. It took me quite a while to talk her into joining me at the premiere.

“I expected it to be painful,” Suzanna told me after the movie. “I’ve seen two films about this war before, one a lame and poorly done propaganda with famous Hollywood actors, and another – the answer from another side, boring as hell and thus not provoking any compassion.”

Maksim Matveyev in “Avgust. Vosmogo”.

© Courtesy of Kinogallery.com

Maksim Matveyev in “Avgust. Vosmogo”.

But Suzanna thought this movie was “surprisingly good, not judgmental and visually impressive. There are already some negative comments from Georgians [about the film] on Caucasus web forums, though.”

She went on to explain what she felt about the war and how it started. “When people discuss the war between big Russia and small Georgia, they seem to forget how it started with the latter trying to destroy tiny South Ossetia in its sleep, in the middle of the night, right after Saakashvili on TV promised Ossetians that they won’t see another 1990s,” Suzanna said. “Operation Clear Field, they called it. Do you understand? They wanted to raise the city to the ground! I don’t get why Saakashvili hates my people so much… Whatever the reason for Russia’s intervention, I can’t express how thankful I am that they saved our relatives – yet again.”

Giya was visibly upset by Suzanna’s comments.

“Yes, those politicians were playing with lives, as usual”, he said. “But the Georgian people aren’t guilty – first they had the Hitler-like nationalist [Zviad] Gamsakhurdia, and now this mental tie-eating creature. It’s all very sad. We are all brothers – Ossetians, Georgians and Russians – and we should live in peace.”

The Russian actor with Ossetian heritage, Yegor Beroyev, who plays Kseniya’s ex-husband, said that he was ready for any job, even as a property man, on the film set. “Many of my relatives live in Vladikavkaz,” he said. “When the war started, my brothers were keen to go to South Ossetia.”

The peacekeepers we spoke to confirmed that the film was correct. Yury, a paratrooper who participated in the events, said that the film was very relevant and we shouldn’t forget the war. “Once we were all citizens of one great country, which unfortunately was split into pieces. And then suddenly Georgia attacked small South Ossetia… We are only soldiers, we carried out our orders, but I was amazed by the self-control of Ossetians.”

 “Everyone was in awe when we came out of the burning city with Ossetian children and peacekeepers. They couldn’t believe someone survived at all,” said Captain Alexei Ukhvatov, the prototype hero for the film, remembering the events of 2008.

Peace propaganda

Scene from “Avgust. Vosmogo”

© Courtesy of Kinogallery.com

Scene from “Avgust. Vosmogo”

Before anyone had a chance to see the movie, it already was condemned as “anti-Georgian propaganda” in some quarters, however. Lerner dismissed this in an interview to The Moscow News, pointing out that in fact a Georgian soldier saves the day in the film.

“But that’s not what the movie’s about,” he said. “It’s about the people in the conflict. In America, you rarely have an action movie with a woman [as a lead character]. I like how the character develops, a girl becomes a woman, a so-so mom becomes a great mom. For me the human element was interesting. Blending it with robots was the challenge, and I think Janik pulled it off pretty well.

“The idea is that the war is terrible. It makes everybody suffer. If that’s what people come away with, then I’m very happy.”

Fayziev said it was silly and wrong to turn a movie into a means of political manipulation, and there are no good examples of this. “Americans play on patriotic feelings, though,” he said, “but they do it on such a level that you can’t help but feel proud for the hero,” he told KinoPoisk. “Neither you nor I are Americans, but when we watch a good movie and in the end soldiers salute the officer who’s done something good, we get goosebumps, no matter what our nationality is.”

“We were trying to examine the tragedy that is war through the eyes of a child,” Fayziev said. “This little person doesn’t care about sides, who’s right and who’s wrong. He feels very unhappy and has to cope with it somehow.”

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