Wanted: War Victim
How sensitive they must be, these folk from Swiss TV! Here they are, in the rubble of Grozny, filming the heartrending image of a girl building a dolls' house out of the debris! With delicate artistry, they select this scene to close their documentary on the Chechen war, as a reminder of just how godforsaken Chechnya -- and this girl -- really are.
Who can they be? And are they so sensitive after all?
A Profession of Uncaring
Filming, even in war zones, is a job like any other. Media workers do not have to swear an oath to be sentimental humanists. You try to survive and protect yourself as best you can. You attempt to stay true to yourself. Yet from one report to the next, the world seems more and more the same.
There are no bonuses for caring written into your contract. The image of professional, objective journalism is not helped by the act of giving a hen to an old woman wearing a burned dress in the bombed village of Samashki. Besides, it would hardly be practical to get a receipt for the chicken, and Zurich does not pay expenses without receipts. You can't really shell out your own money on presents for miserable grannies in every conflict zone you fly into. You can't even afford to hug them all farewell in their thin, war-torn dresses.
A journalist must keep a dignified distance, the unwritten code has it. What outrage, then, when somebody breaks the rules of the game by buying pencils for the child of our Chechen hosts on the Grozny market! What hostility towards the freelancer who gives the cookies he has bought from a makeshift kiosk in devastated Samashki to 8-year old Shamil, who returns the favour with empty cartridge-cases and the remains of an exploded bomb.
The studio director is quite within his rights to cut short these chaotic connections. The professionals respond by retreating into the protected space of their own principles: not giving anything away, even the slightest hint of solidarity with a too casual or friendly word or gesture.
It should be enough to support this farmer by recording how she shamefacedly tries to hide her tears in the shadow of a wall of her destroyed house. Shouldn't it? Such images reap praise in Zurich: "How sensitive!"
The Solace of Cliché
In Chechnya, of all places, images of this kind mislead. This is not a country of tears. Here, lamenting one's fate is regarded as bad taste. "We are a mountain people. We don't cry. May the mountains cry in our stead." That's how they talk here, and that's how they fight. Stoicism is a characteristic trait of this tenacious people.
This does not help a TV career. A successful director relies on standard-issue tears. The camera zooms in on some old women on a bench beside the ruins of Samashki. A woman you have just filmed tips them off, and they blubber away. Needless to say, this scene will later be incorporated in the documentary.
The elderly tell you how they were herded into cattle wagons and deported to Kazakhstan in 1944 on Stalin's orders; mothers explain how Russian soldiers today snatch their sons and whisk them away to "filtration camps". They all stay composed as they speak.
The art of shooting snapshots in an alien country lies in the art of simplification. Cliché helps.
One scene, however, will later be edited out. The son, daughter and son-in-law of an old man have all been killed. His house has been reduced to one standing wall. He speaks with dignity to the camera: "We rejoice in everything God gives us." Neither the bosses in Zurich, nor the audience, expect such spiritual fortitude from the victims of war; he who has lost something is supposed to mourn it.
The art of shooting such seven-minute snapshots in a completely unknown country lies in the art of simplification. Everyone 'knows' what war is: sobbing mothers, uniformed men with a weapon slung across their shoulder, bloated corpses, children playing in the rubble. These images are already familiar in reports from other war zones. When you are overwhelmed by the task in hand, cliché is indispensable.
Two Kinds of Violation
In the Zurich studio, the director fetches a coke and a slice of plum cake before beginning to edit the footage from the mass graves of Grozny. His colleague at the editing desk asks incredulously: "Don't tell me you want to eat right now?" "Oh, of course," comes the reply, as he pours a whole pack of sugar onto his cake.
The decomposed corpses appear in the pit. The director -- a hardened former special correspondent -- chews vigorously. The camera zooms in on the black, burst rear of a headless corpse, giving an impression almost of penetration. "Yes, that's it." Cut.
Your colleagues have already raced through Afghanistan, Lebanon and Bosnia. Their attitude to corpses is relaxed. They do not care that to the Chechens, the dead are more sacred than anything else. During the bombardments many Chechen women and men jumped out of the shelters and risked their lives to bury their exposed dead.
The naked backside of a corpse flashes around the world. It sums up the humiliation of a culture where exposure of certain body parts is taboo. When Sainab, our Chechen film heroine, sees bare-chested Russian soldiers sunbathing in Grozny, stretched out on their tanks, she turns away in disgust.
The occupiers' relaxed attitude to nudity and the choice of TV images they make adds to the violation of the dignity of this small mountain people.
Fortunes of War
The rising demand for necrophilia is part of the unwritten media constitution. Before any definitive agreement for a documentary on Chechnya, the bosses need to be reassured: "Don't worry, the war will go on."
So you have to regard it as a stroke of luck when the Russian army unexpectedly begins a massive bombardment of villages in western Chechnya during your first journey through the territory for Tagesanzeiger magazine.
What good fortune, moreover, that the Chechen president Dzhokar Dudayev is killed a couple of days before the publication of your feature! Even though most of your time had been spent with refugee women in neighbouring Ingushetia, daily war coverage gives you an air of unworldly heroic courage. And a career boost, as an offer comes to lead a Swiss TV crew into the war zone.
A Censorship of Pity
The added expense that you represent is unnecessary. The talented film crew realise that they can convey the ravaged condition of Chechnya through the whispers of lonely Christina: "I know what is to come." Silent victims from distant lands are welcome. Christina, the Russian girl from Grozny, beside a giant ruined building, is a comprehensible image. In her face you discern your own autism.
There are other images unseen. In front of the rubble, children appear in groups, clench their fists, and shout with broad smiles: "Allahu akbar!" Sainab explains: "We die with 'Allahu akbar' on our lips because the world silently watches the annihilation of our people. All we have left is God. We pronounce his name because we believe that he is on our side, on the side of justice."
You admit that it would be counterproductive to show images of belligerent Chechen children. It would whip up the fear of Islamic fundamentalism among the TV audiences.
Sainab and Maja are interviewed. The director accuses you of asking the wrong questions, not translating precisely enough. He wants helplessness and doubt to bring this exotic people closer to the Swiss TV audience.
They would like to satisfy the tense foreigner, out of politeness. They would even retract their statement, but the tongue refuses to obey. They ask their guest to accept their apologies. Sainab nervously scratches her head, Maja asks in a depressed voice: "Does he not like us any more? What shall we do?"
On the order of the director you press Sainab: "Would you even give your life for the independence of Chechnya?"
"And the life of your four children?"
You film Sainab in front of the pile of rubble that was the presidential palace, the symbol of Chechen autonomy. Russian snipers shoot into the air to intimidate you. This is a nocturnal distraction to accompany the bored army's vodka sessions.
Sainab explains: "The death of the individual is not a bad thing. It is unacceptable not to defend oneself when being attacked. The contemptuous reaction to this does not only hit the coward but also his children and grandchildren, the whole tribe in eternity. And what is a life worth without respect, without honour?"
The director sighs. The whole scene is useless.
The story repeats itself with Maja. Standing on a rotten beam in the ruins of her house, she announces in the name of the collective Chechen soul: "We are all ready to put up with destruction and death in the name of freedom for coming generations."
The director shakes his head: "I don't buy that." Then: "More personal, get more personal."
Another shoot. But Maja avoids the first person pronoun. Like people across the northern Caucasus, she filters her opinion: "As our elders used to say "
The Gulf Between Us
The director has noble intentions. He promises to Sainab and Maja: "There will not be a single house intact in this film, only ruins." He keeps his promise.
Around noon, gracious, clean ladies wearing thin, rolled hair bands instead of scarves, tight long dresses and lacquer shoes emerge from the burnt rubble of Grozny as if on their way to the Paris opera. The scene renders your concept of war atrocities absurd. You could not show it: These Chechen women's display of their will to survive could evoke unpredictable emotions.
Sainab sees in this aesthetic expression an unbroken national spirit. "See how beautiful we are. This war has taught us that it does not pay off to pile up riches. The more bombs they throw on us the better we dress, even when we are hungry. We know that we could be dead tomorrow. We pass the occupiers with our heads held high, to tell them and ourselves: 'You cannot defeat us.'"
It is a good thing that Swiss special correspondents have dared to travel to Chechnya. Guests are always welcome in the Caucasus. But I wonder if our television crew was ever really there.
This article is based on a chapter in Irena Brezna's book "Die Wölfinnen von Sernowodsk: Reportagen aus Tschetschenien"(The She-wolves of Sernowodsk: Reports from Chechnya, 1997). It was translated from the original German by Julian Kramer.