The subject couldn’t be more topical. Jos de Putter’s portrait of the Chechen freedom fighter Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev had its world premiere in Toronto in September, only days after Russia resumed the war against the very independence movement that crushed the Russian army three years ago.
Before they withdrew their troops the Russians managed to lay the Chechen capital of Grozny in ruins (the same goes for the Chechen economy) and Noukhaev seems to spend most of his time in a bulletproof car on the battered roads between Chechnya’s remote villages. Noukhaev ruled the Chechen Mafia when it gained a foothold in Moscow in the eighties, and then went on to use his illegally-earned fortune to help finance the Chechen liberation war. The Russians – not surprisingly – regard Noukhaev as a criminal, whereas most of the Chechen consider him a hero, a modern-day Robin Hood. In de Putter’s film all character witnesses testify to the second view, but neutral viewers will be tempted to side with Russians, too.
Athough he’s on screen for most the film, our view of Noukhaev’s character mostly remains on the surface. An innocent little conversation in Istanbul reveals it all, though. Noukhaev is playing chess with his right-hand man Mansour Jachimczyk and asks him whether he’s aware of a false move he just made. Jachimczyk looks confusedly at the chessboard, while Noukhaev comes up with the answer to the riddle: “Your mistake is to play with me at all.” In this little scene, Jos de Putter subtly delivers his psychological profile of the film’s main character: a man who is just as dangerous and power-hungry as he is charming.
Not possessing any of the oratorical gifts often associated with the despot, Noukhaev speaks through his actions. In the very first scene of the film we see him drawing coloured triangles, but the explanation is not revealed until very late in the proceedings: the primitive symbols are blueprints for the organization of the future state of Chechnya! Noukhaev reveals himself on other occasions, too. Attending a charity dinner hosted by Elizabeth Taylor, shaking hands with Margaret Thatcher, parading as a God-fearing Muslim among the Chechen peasants and posing with his silver-capped cane as if it was a royal sceptre. Would you buy a used car from this man? Probably not.
Apart from presenting an illuminating portrait of the gangster-politician, de Putter’s brave film (in Chechnya, kidnapping foreigners is one of the only growth industries left) also provides an insight into the historical background of the Chechen conflict, or “colonial war,” as some prefer to call it. The Russian interest in the region is first and foremost geopolitical. The largest oil reserves in the world lie in the Caspian sea and the main pipeline from this area to Europe traverses the Caucasian region and Chechnya. The proud people of the so-called “Wild East” have fought against occupiers ever since Genghis Kahn. Just one glance at the ritual dances of the tribal warriors convinces you that they won’t lay down theirs arms any time soon.