MovieReview: Exploding Prejudice: "Sapyory" Is A War Story Of Partis

By Alexander Bratersky

The Moscow Times
June 6 2008

The plot of "Sapyory," or "Sappers," sounds just like any other
Russian-made World War II movie: A small band of partisans sets out
to try to save Soviet soldiers captured by the Nazis. But in a genre
often used to promote patriotic feelings, the choice of an Armenian
protagonist as a partisan commander, played by an Armenian actor,
is perhaps unusual.

"I was very surprised when I was selected for the role," said Sayat
Abadzhyan in an interview last week. "I liked that it was a war hero,
not some gangster or crook."

In the Soviet period it seemed natural for filmmakers to show
the contributions of all ethnic groups in the fight against Nazi
Germany. But in recent years, multitudes of war films have tended to
focus on the Russian war effort.

Abadzhyan, 38, graduated from the All-Russia State Institute of
Cinematography (VGIK), where he attended the classes of Armen
Dzhigarkhanyan, the leading Soviet actor of Armenian descent.

His character is a former literature teacher turned amateur sapper,
who heads a small partisan unit in occupied Ukraine. With only limited
forces at his disposal he tries to free Soviet prisoners of war,
who are being forced to work in a military factory manufacturing
landmines for the German army.

"Sappers" was jointly produced by Sinebridzh Kinokompania and Odesskaya
Kinostudia, and shot on location in the village of Yegorovka in
Ukraine. The movie is a filmmaking debut for the prominent film actor
Boris Shcherbakov, who played action heroes in a number of war movies
in the Soviet period. "Every filmmaker has a duty to make a war movie,"
Shcherbakov said at the premiere Kinoteatr Khudozhestvenny in April,
where it headlined a series of films screened to mark Victory Day.

"I was shocked recently then I saw a television program about the
rise of neo-Nazi movement in Russia," Shcherbakov said in a recent
interview in Kazanskiye Vedomosti. "Most of them are young Russian
kids. I cannot comprehend how those people, whose grandfathers took
part in the war, became followers of Nazi ideology."

While "Sappers" doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the genre,
the decision to have an Armenian as a lead character comes against
the background of increasing xenophobic, ultranationalist violence
in Moscow. Just last month, four people were convicted of carrying
out an attack at Cherkizovsky Market in 2006 motivated by hate for
natives of the Caucasus and Asian countries.

At the premiere, Moscow businessman and part-time actor Dmitry Potash
said showing people of different ethnicities as war heroes can help
to cool violent nationalism. "If someone sees a Caucasian man on the
screen as a soldier, he will think about this country’s contribution
to the victory," he said.

"Making an Armenian a leading movie hero refreshes our memory about
the war, which had an international character," Potash said. "It
would be wrong to say that only Russian soldiers fought in the war."

"Nationalism is a very painful subject," said Midia Muradova, 31,
an Armenian-born Muscovite who also attended the premiere. "My
grandfather fought too. At that time we were one big country."

"Sappers" (Sapyory) is showing at the Sputnik Cinema, located at 15
Soldatskaya Ul. Metro Aviamotornaya. Tel. 361-4220. The film is also
available on DVD.

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