Thursday, 15 October 2015

Timur Bekmambetov, Gennadii Kaiumov: Escape from Afghanistan aka The Peshawar Waltz - Пешаварский вальс (1994)

Directors: Timur Bekmambetov, Gennadii Kaiumov
Cast: Barry Kushner, Viktor Verzhbitskii, Aleksei Shemes, Gennadii Kaiumov, David Kheird, Michael Karpinski

Winner of countless Russian film awards, it portrays the real-life killing by Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan of a group of rebellious Soviet POWs who had freed themselves and begged the Soviet army to liberate them.

Escape from Afghanistan is a film twice unknown. Produced and directed in 1994 by Timur Bekmambetov and Gennadii Kaiumov, the film played at international film festivals under the title The Peshawar Waltz, but was never released into wide distribution in Russia. The film was then reedited, given a new voice and soundtrack, and released to video in 2002 as Escape from Afghanistan, which was well received by connoisseurs of gritty war films but went largely unnoticed by the wider public. One can extend this chain of forgetting in several directions: it was the directorial debut of a director now known exclusively for the blockbusters that came later in his career; it treats, in modified form, a historical event that has largely been written out of history; it recalls the ugly last years of an empire that is recalled today more in the forms of nightmares and fantasies than as history.

The film is loosely based on the so-called Badaber Uprising. During the Soviet military operation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States, together with several other powers, operated a prisoner-of-war camp at the Badaber Fortress, located near Peshawar in Pakistan. In April, 1985, Soviet and Afghan prisoners at the fortress staged a revolt in which they seized weapons and occupied it. Unable to escape the fortress on their own, they entered into negotiations with local authorities in an attempt to obtain the protection of some international organization. These negotiations threatened to embarrass several powerful governments, all of which officially denied their military involvement in any Afghan civil war. The existence of the prisoners had become inconvenient and, as they were unwilling to surrender quietly, they had to be eliminated. Although the exact chain of events remains mysterious to this day, all inmates of the fortress were dead within two days of the start of their uprising.

In Bekmambetov’s 1994 version of the story, the burden of guilt is shifted decisively to the Soviet military forces, which launch an aerial attack on the fortress. The action of the film swirls around two westerners: a British documentary filmmaker and a French doctor treating victims of war under the auspices of Doctors Without Borders. These two visitors to the prison find themselves trapped where they certainly do not belong but where they nonetheless continue their work of recording and healing, respectively. They serve to structure the narrative of the film’s action while also remaining outside of it. Once the uprising begins, the film becomes exemplary of the war-film genre in which individual heroism and the struggle to survive is foregrounded against a fractious collective of soldiers who among themselves are also both victims and victimizers. While the film paints governments with a broad and negative brush, national stereotypes are eschewed in the film in favor of personal portraits. Whether English, French, Soviet, Afghan, or American, people are not marked by national color but by personal credos and fidelity to duty. Ultimately, the soldier’s duty to kill and the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath are equally validated and then rendered equally absurd as the action drives toward its tragic end.

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