International Herald Tribune
Chechnya and war through the camera
Joan Dupont IHT Tuesday, April 6, 2004
PARIS-There is a generation of filmmakers who risk their lives to expose the
terror and humiliation of war. They work independent of television and cable
news channels and are not in the business of being embedded.
Gilles de Maistre, a leading French reporter, for instance, is known for
“J’ai 12 ans et je fais la guerre” (I’m 12 years old, and I make war), an
investigation of preteen warriors that won an international Emmy.
And Mylène Sauloy is one of a handful of women to enter Chechnya
clandestinely, draped in a headscarf. “Then, I put my camera in a plastic
bag, and pile bananas on top – I could be a housewife coming back from
market,” she said.
Raised in Marrakech by a Moroccan doctor father and Russian-Hungarian
mother, the director lived in Colombia for 17 years, making films. She also
worked with de Maistre, interviewing street kids in Bogotá for a
“One day, I read an article in Le Monde about this small rebel people in
Caucasia who resist colonization. It wasn’t a European story like Bosnia,
about ethnic racism – it was about a fight for freedom.” When the first war
broke out in 1994, she negotiated with the cultural television channel Arte
to make a film in Chechnya. “I went right from Bogotá to Grozny,” she says.
Sauloy has filmed broken families, shattered homes and a children’s dance
troupe that made it out of the country to perform in Paris but couldn’t wait
to return home to Grozny.
Her first film, “Le Loup et l’Amazone” (The Wolf and the Amazon), made from
1995 to 2000, was inspired by independent-minded women in the mountains of
Caucasia, who, legend has it, may be descended from the Amazons. “It’s a
poetic idea,” she says. The Amazon theme crops up again in her current
project, which focuses on an army of women hiding in the mountains of Iraq.
In her headscarf and long skirts, Sauloy has crossed borders into Chechnya
14 times, turning out films such as “Le 51,” about an apartment house in
Grozny inhabited Chechens, Armenians and Jews. “Grozny used to be a modern
city, like Algiers, cosmopolitan, with an intelligentsia.”
Two wars – from 1994 to 1996 and from 1999 to today – and a reign of terror
have reduced Grozny to rubble. The prewar population was less than a
million; 250,000 have been killed, 200,000 live in exile.
Sauloy’s latest film, “Danse Avec les Ruines” (Dance With the Ruins), tells
the story of a Chechen choreographer and his family who return from exile in
Turkey. “I hopped a bus with them in Istanbul, without realizing they were
really going back home. I was there when they walked into their bombed-out
She followed the troupe of 30 children – originally 60 – to Grozny and shot
the family repairing their home, fitting windows, returning to rehearsal and
to school. The children sewed their costumes and dreamed of the tour to
France, “a country where we won’t be greeted as terrorists,” in the words of
a teenage daughter.
Recently, Sauloy, 45, split her weekend between a screening of “Danse Avec
les Ruines” at the International Women’s Film Festival in Créteil, a Paris
suburb, and her own festival of films on Chechnya at the Cinéma des
Cinéastes in Paris. “Tchétchénie Criblée d’Images” (Chechnya, Riddled with
Images), as the festival was called, screened films of rare beauty, such as
“Eliso” (1928), a silent film by the Georgian director Nikoloz Shengelaya
about the first deportation of the Chechen people in 1864, under the czars.
And there were recent films like Andrei Konchalovsky’s “House of Fools”
(2002) and Sergei Bodrov’s “Prisoner of the Mountain” (1996), which show
sympathy for the predicament of the Chechen people.
In the public imagination, Chechnya has never been a popular cause but a
thorn in the side of the Russian government, and an embarrassment to Europe.
Perceived as poor refugees at best, bandits, terrorists and radical
Islamists at worst, this mountain people of Caucasia live with a terror that
takes a daily toll on both Russians and Chechens.
Five years ago, Sauloy founded an arts association, Marcho Doryila (“Let
freedom be with you”), and recruited figures like the stage and film
director Ariane Mnouchkine and the philosopher André Glucksman to support
Chechen artists. Mnouchkine opened her Théâtre du Soleil in Vincennes, a
suburb of Paris, to the dance troupe from Grozny; at the film festival,
Glucksman led a debate after the screenings, calling Chechnya Europe’s
Sauloy started filming three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union,
when some interpreters, journalists and humanitarian workers also worked as
informers. Her first interpreter in Chechnya was “crazy and dangerous,” she
said, “a regular Russian Mata Hari,” which decided her to learn Russian. “I
was raised with several languages. My grandfather spoke Hungarian, and my
grandparents spoke Yiddish together. At first, I wrote out questions in
Russian, but I couldn’t understand a word of their answers until I went home
For Sauloy, the problem is not a Chechen problem, but a Russian one. “It’s
about dehumanization, and it’s about our silent complicity. The Chechens are
the last resistants in the Caucasian mountains, and as a filmmaker, I’m
interested in resistance, in showing what is left of humanity in wartime.”
She sees the Chechens as an endangered species living in a codified society.
Hospitality is sacred. “When I enter a Chechen home, my host sits next to
the door and seats me furthest away from the door so, if we are attacked, he
will be killed, not I.”
Sauloy balks at the way Chechens have been demonized, yet admits that the
situation has changed since the October elections, which installed a
pro-Russian Chechen government. “Before, when you crossed a Russian
checkpoint, you knew where you were. Now, there’s a Chechen militia, paid to
do the dirty work. Life is becoming more dangerous, the way it was in France
under the Occupation.”
After the first war, Saudi Arabia recruited 2,000 Chechen students, who
became hardline Islamists. “Things have changed,” she says, “since the first
woman Chechen suicide bomber blew herself up in front of Russian military
quarters, and the whole number was filmed on video.” Sauloy has talked to
the orphaned families of these kamikazes, “women who aren’t real Islamists,
but university educated, and who have adopted the look, the headscarf, the
business of reciting the Koran.”
The Chechens traditionally practice Sufism, a mystic form of religion,
“something like the whirling dervishes. But now I know dancers and actors
who never prayed before, who pray. There’s a saying, the more bombs fall,
the more beards grow.”
Now, Sauloy is making a film from a Russian soldier’s home video. “You see
his friends shoot and kill and hear him comment on what he does and sees.
That video has been sold all over. Watching people kill has become a
Her work, she insists, is more dangerous for those who help her than for
herself. “It’s not that I’m fearless, but these people, and these children,
teach me courage.”
Is her family frightened for her?
“Oh yes, they are afraid, and they are proud of me,” she said.
International Herald Tribune