Why go to war when you don’t have to?: “See You In Chechnya” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film5 min read
Alexander Kvatashidze’s autobiographical documentary See You In Chechnya (2016) is much less about Chechnya or Georgia than about the moral and psychological questions and consequences of war journalism as a profession. Re-screened last April during the goEast Filmfestival in Wiesbaden, this very sincere film remains – unfortunately – highly relevant.
Put bluntly, there are much better documentaries about Chechnya. A relatively old one is The Making of a New Empire (1999, dir. Jos de Putter). It traces the connection between war and business through the life of Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev, a local strongman or dzhigit. A more recent film, Welcome to Chechnya (2020, dir. David France), has acquired fame for using deepfake technology to tell the story of Russian activists who rescue Chechen victims from violent anti-gay purges. In comparison, Kvatashidze’s film is much more modest and reflective.
Kvatashidze is an omnipresent but mostly invisible narrator in See You in Chechnya. The film can tentatively be divided into two parts, separated from each other by Kvatashidze’s question as to why certain people choose to go to an active war site to report on it, when they do not need to. As he flips through his photojournalistic archive, he tells the story of how he fell in love with French journalist Françoise Spiekermeier, followed her to Grozny in 1999, and was unexpectedly drawn into a circle of seasoned war reporters. The first part of the film is deeply personal, and provides an honest insight into the shock of witnessing war in Chechnya, which, at home in Tbilisi, had seemed very distant.
Kvatashidze’s inability to explain to himself what this experience did to him, and why – for a number of years – it made him want to become a war reporter, sets in motion the second part of the film. Kvatashidze travels to meet the war photographers that he had met in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Roughly speaking, the lives of his friends and acquaintances followed three pathways. For some, including not only Spiekermeier but also two Italian war photojournalists, war as such became an anchor to find meaning and truth. Antonio Russo’s endeavours to uncover atrocities and unconventional weapon use in Chechnya led to his mysterious murder in October 2000. Another Italian journalist Kvatashidze encounters, Giorgio Fornoni, has likewise forsaken family life for his work as a lone wolf reporting in Bosnia, Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Liberia, Congo, and Chechnya. He believes the space of war to be more truthful than everyday life in peacetime. “I go to war,” Fornoni says in the film, “because there, people are not deceitful. They are at their limits.”
A second group – including, perhaps, Kvatashidze himself – seem forever scarred by their experiences, remain in a perpetual transition, and struggle to return to normality. Chechen journalist Raisa Talkhanova gave up her family life for the sake of her career and her self-expression. Forced to move to the US after the war, she permanently lives ‘in transit,’ longing to go back to a Chechen society which no longer exists. French journalist Brice Fleutiaux was kidnapped in Chechnya in October 1999. He was freed, wrote a book about his life as a hostage, but could never return to normality and took his own life in 2001.
Perhaps the most candid case in the film is that of Nick Downie. The British war veteran-turned-journalist explains how he started out idealistically, believing that reporting on violence around the world might change policies or attitudes at home, but he acknowledges that this was not what kept him going to so many conflict zones. Instead, war became a profession to sustain himself, a semi-addictive adventure, and ultimately a habit. Disillusioned at the end of his career, he found value in family, and moved to South Africa to care for his ageing mother.
A third category consists of a single character Kvatashidze met in the early 2000s and interviewed ten years later: Dutch artist Renzo Martens. By asking ordinary Chechens to film him with his camera, Martens’ work in Chechnya reverses photojournalism in an absurd manner. Instead of asking Chechen rebels and refugees how they feel, he asks his subjects to film him, the white male outsider – “and say what you think of me. No compliments, just the truth.” One Chechen woman answers: “I cannot think of anything positive. You journalists just come and go.”
Perhaps this technique carries certain potential in sparking critical reflections on the practice of filming vulnerable people in wartime. But Kvatashidze’s estrangement from Martens is palpable during an interview in Amsterdam, a decade on. “I became an artist,” Martens explains, “while making the Chechnya film.” Seemingly caring little for Chechnya or the Caucasus, for Martens the war had served as a convenient stage or prop to generate a reputation as a postmodern filmmaker.
Kvatashidze could never afford this luxury. His perspective is deeply shaped by the fact that war caught up with him when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. Unlike Western photographers, Kvatashidze is now no longer a voluntary outsider to war but an involuntary insider; he no longer has a place to return to where war is unthinkable. Consequently, Kvatashidze has given up on war photography altogether.
See You in Chechnya is an insightful film into the “peculiar psychology of war reporters.” Yet, there is something unsatisfactory about the film, leaving the viewer with a wish for deeper character development. At times, the film also feels excessively autobiographical. Instead of a linear documentary, this project might have worked better as an exhibition with photographs, projections, and audio interviews, which would have given the viewer more freedom to piece together an interpretation.
That said, Kvatashidze raises important questions which remain incredibly salient. What do we know about war and how is this filtered by the personal choices made by journalists, photographers, and artists, and their understandings of truth, meaning, and representation? Who gets to shape our image – literally and figuratively – of Mykolaiv, Mariupol, and Bakhmut today?