May 10, 2019

A Dangerous Film about Dangerous Wars

A Dangerous Film about Dangerous Wars
Still from Братство. Loco Films

Another day, another controversial film that almost didn’t make it to the big screen. Pavel Lungin’s new war film Братство is based on the memoirs of Nikolai Kovalev, a former head of the FSB who served in the Soviet-Afghan War from 1988 to 1989, and who died only two months before the film was scheduled to premiere. The storyline follows one of the last Soviet contingents to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1988.

In keeping with the military theme, Братство (whose international release title is Leaving Afghanistan) was originally scheduled to debut on Victory Day. However, in April the State Duma, citing veterans’ concerns, censured the film for allegedly depicting soldiers as “marauders, alcoholics, rabble who only did harm.” The Ministry of Culture decided to “relieve social tension” by moving the premiere date to May 10, which is today.

Conventional Tactics

To some extent, this is not surprising. Those following the arrest (and recent release) of director Kirill Serebrennikov, and familiar with the controversy around the 2017 film Matilda, know that the Russian government uses every tool in its arsenal to persecute politically “subversive” films and filmmakers. But there’s something different about the Братство controversy. Lungin supported the annexation of Crimea in 2014. So while he might be critical of the government now, his political views aren’t usually far off the beaten path.

Still from Братство
Still from Братство. / Loco Films

More importantly, there isn’t really any way to tackle the subject matter of Братство without a dose of bleakness. It would be one thing if Братство were about World War II, which occupies an increasingly sacred space in Russian historical memory. But Братство is about the Soviet-Afghan War, which was fought mostly out of the public eye, drained state resources from a stagnant economy, and, after ten years of stalemate, ended in a humiliating retreat. Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War tells story after story of soldiers tricked by recruiters into fighting, mothers forced to bury their sons in secret, and Communists scarred by the war but desperately clinging to their faith in the Party. Even the most recent popular film about the war, Девятая рота (The Ninth Company), ends on a hopeless note. So Lungin’s pessimistic take is actually par for the course.

Hysterics of Shriekers

Is Братство even good? Advance reviews generally like it, with the occasional complaint about pacing or depth of characterization. Moskvich compares Братство favorably to the aforementioned Девятая рота, and praises the film’s “bumpy, sickening drive, which never allows the viewer to get bored,” though in parts it complains about slow pacing. Kommersant takes issue with a thinly sketched cast that mostly conforms to war movie clichés. Nevertheless, it considers the film’s candid take on a long, fruitless war “refreshingly uncomfortable.”

According to Znak, Братство is a good old-fashioned action movie as much as it is anti-war. “There’s lots of shooting and explosions in it, and even a traditional bar fight,” says the review. “This is definitely not an art-house film for highbrow critics: it is truly interesting to watch.” Intermedia admires the film’s portrait of the final years of the Soviet Union. To its reviewer, the film is “not about war so much as the collapse of a great country,” a feeling that the soundtrack (which liberally uses 1980s Soviet rock songs) captures perfectly.

Still from Братство
Still from Братство. / Loco Films

There is a vague sense that the backlash has become an unintended publicity stunt. The Russian branch of Radio France notes that “Nothing in particular diverges from the official position on the Afghan war” and wonders if there would be such an outcry if Kovalev, whose memoirs inspired the film, were still alive. Meanwhile, Intermedia snarks: “There is an unhealthy stir around the film […] created out of thin air. However, if it helps Братство at the box office, then the hysterics of shriekers [истерики кликуш] will have been somewhat useful.”

A Ticking Time Bomb

“Искусство должно пережевывать что-то, что происходит с человеком.”

So what is so dangerous about Братство? Not the film itself, it seems, so much as Lungin’s prolific remarks on the controversy. Lungin thinks the backlash has partly to do with the suppressed trauma of wars that were not as amenable to public glorification as World War II. At a closed premiere in Yekaterinburg, he said, “Art has to chew on [пережевывать] that which happens to people. There is absolutely no outlet for any real problems in society. There are no Afghan films, no Chechen films, it all rots on the inside.” To Komsomolskaya pravda, he separately lamented: “Unfortunately, our people do not want problems, even on the screen. This is maybe the most dangerous thing: there is a future for people with problems because they solve them. But we don’t even watch movies that appeal to people, to their conscience and memory, and demand moral work on themselves.” People would rather get swept up in the sacralization of one successful war than remember the wars that weren’t victorious.

Still from Братство
Still from Братство. / Loco Films

What’s also worth remembering is that Братство is premiering in a different context from Alexievich’s Zinky Boys or even Девятая рота, which debuted in 2005. Currently, Russia is fighting a stagnant war in Ukraine and stepping up its military presence in Syria. Although the casualties and duration of these wars have yet to match the Soviet-Afghan War, Lungin hints at a parallel. “I think we ought to really learn from the past that war is not the solution to our domestic problems,” he tells The Moscow Times. And of course, any comparison of contemporary wars to the war that helped end the Soviet Union pays no compliments to the people currently in power. “The Soviet Union fell not long after the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Lungin tells Izvestia, “and the connection between these two events is obvious to me.” Would Putin’s regime fall if Russia withdrew from Syria or Ukraine? Evidently, some find the implication hard to bear.

On its own, Lungin’s Братство is not unusual for a Soviet-Afghan War film. It is the context in which it was produced that makes it dangerous. It seems fitting that a war film has become a weapon in a larger war: a war over how to remember conflict and celebrate victories while reckoning with the losses and trauma of war.

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