SEE YOU IN CHECHNYA – Memories of the wars

SEE YOU IN CHECHNYA is a beautiful, intimate and poignant journey through war. War that is ever present for those living on the front line.

Presented at the latest edition of the Locarno Film Festival and the Trieste Film Festival, SEE YOU IN CHECHNYA is a collection of memoirs, a portrait of seven war reporters who briefly enter the life of Alex, the main character, raising a question that will be ever present in his mind:

“Why do you go to war if you don’t have to?”

You, journalists, photographers, reporters, documentary makers, are the witnesses to the horrors you translate into images, stories, interviews, memories. Why do you go to war if you don’t have to?

Françoise, Raisa, Antonio, Renzo, Bruce and Giorgio, each of them has different reasons to be there, in the war, depicting death and having to constantly deal with the possibility of their own. Ambitions, ideals, boredom, curiosity, thirst for adventure. But all of them have chosen war and for all of them the consequences are painful.

Georgia 1999. Alex is 22 when he encounters war and he is fascinated. It is his passion for photography that leads him to Françoise, a war photographer from Paris, about to leave for Chechnya. Up to that moment, Alex, just as all Georgians, has kept his distance from Chechnya and its war, protected by the awesome peaks of the Great Caucasus.

In 1999 the Second Chechen War (1999-2000) broke out, the First (1994-1996) ending when the Russian forces were defeated by the Chechen guerillas. The impotence of the former superpower was laid bare before the whole world. As well as that of Chechnya, soon overwhelmed by the appetites of Islamist groups, nationalists and, last but not least, of the infamous local mafia.

In 1999, Chechens invaded nearby Daghestan, probably to help their allies. In Moscow, a new Prime Minister had just been appointed, a former KBG official, an unknown Vladimir Putin. He decided that Moscow had had enough of Caucasian separatism and its mujaheddin. In a few weeks he launched an anti-terrorism operation against the Chechen rebels, by now committed to Islamic Wahhabi extremism which had widely spread in earlier years.

“War is just a few steps away… so different from television. People died right next to me, but somehow I felt protected by the camera lens[…] The worst were the children’s corpses…  I kept on taking pictures, I began to lose track of time, things became confused in my head […]. I realized I was no longer reacting to the sounds of war, it was just becoming a routine […]”(Alex)

Françoise and Alex go back to Tbilisi, where the news of the kidnapping of the French journalist, Brice Fleutiaux, by Chechen separatists greets them. Françoise decides to fly back to Paris. Those who get involved in war, end up paying the price. Later, after eight months of captivity, Brice Fleutiaux, commits suicide when he returns to his family home. He is 32.

Nothing will be as it was before”, he had written.

With their backs against the wall in Chechnya, the separatists take the war into Russia. Planes, the underground stations, schools, public places, all become targets of indiscriminate explosions, of suicide bombers (also women) sowing fear in the Russian cities. The new strategy of Islamic terrorism carries out its trial runs before taking the fight to the Western world.

“Memories of Chechnya are calling me back.”

Alex wants to return to Chechnya, but no agency wants him, nobody knows him.

Antonio Russo is a war reporter. He is in Tbilisi when Alex meets him, waiting for an entry visa for Chechnya. Alex wants to follow him, but war rejects him while chasing.

 “Why do you go to war if you don’t find it romantic?”

Because war is the limes of human beings, there is nothing romantic in it. It is an ugly story”. (Antonio Russo).

An ugly story indeed. Shortly after, the body of Antonio Russo is found dead on the border. He was investigating the illegal trafficking of weapons and human organs.

War has long hands.

Renzo Martens from Amsterdam wants to become an artist, a video maker. He wants to go to Chechnya for this reason. He succeeds in getting in, but not Alex, who is turned back at the border. Once again.

I wanted to become one of them, a war reporter. That didn’t happen.

Life has other plans for Alex. A prize for a photo taken in Chechnya with Françoise when it all started… an unexpected recognition that opens the door to Georgian television, an investigative program.

“Of course, it was not like being at war, but it made me feel less useless.” (Alex)

Ten years pass for him. A marriage, a family.

Why do you go to war if you don’t have to?”

This question is still there in his mind waiting for an answer. As a disciple searching for his guru, Alex begins his journey back into his memories, images, faces that have marked his experience in Chechnya which he has never been able to break from as if war continued to live inside him.

“I wanted to know if war had changed them as it had changed me?”

He decides to meet them all, Françoise, Giorgio, Nick, Raisa, people who have left an indelible mark on Alex’s life. Through them he has remained tied to the war for many years, even when it was over and each of them had ended up in other places, on others fronts, including the one of death like Antonio and Bruce.

Why do you go to war if you don’t have to?”

Firstly, Françoise, she is the answer to my disquiet.

She disappeared from my life for many years. Years passed and I was terribly confused. … I’m not able to put the war away in a box of memories.”

Françoise was in Geneva to present a film on Chechnya with Anna Politiskjia. Two years later, the Russian journalist would be shot dead by a hitman on her doorstep.

Françoise is severely ill with cancer.

War has long hands.

Long hands laid on Nick Dony, Englishman, formerly a war reporter. Alex meets him in Georgia in a small village, where he makes a living as a farmer.

War is the greatest adventure, […] once someone told me war is somehow glamourous. I was extremely angry when I heard this. War is only a bad business. So what made me continue in the job? I enjoyed it. For the money. Above all, war became a habit… I’m not afraid of anything, a strange feeling, but it’s so. It’s not a good thing to not be afraid, it’s as if a part of me is already dead.”

Nick is a broken hero, but war is still inside him like a virus that never goes away.

Raisa was the only one who did not actually choose war. The war found her in Chechnya, where she was a journalist. She filmed a documentary, the first by a Chechen. She was a refugee in Georgia, then moved to the United States where she has been living for two years when Alex meets her. She works in a fast food shop, far from her family and her children. For her, war in Chechnya was a deliverance, a salvation, the escape from the depression she had fallen into after an arranged marriage with an unknown man and unwanted family.

In August 2008, the war simply came knocking at Alex’s door when Russian tanks entered Tbilisi. The war in Georgia only lasted five days, but it was enough to put Alex back into the shoes of a war reporter.

“When the war knocks at your door it is something quite different. I cannot stop thinking about those who go to war… if they don’t have to.”

Like Giorgio Fornoni who was in Georgia investigating Antonio Russo’s death. Alex goes to meet him in Bergamo, where he lives.

You cannot cheat in war, everything is true there. Life is real there.” (Giorgio Fornoni)

To finish his journey into the past, the last encounter is with Renzo. He had been in the Congo in the meantime, and had made a film and become quite famous, as he had always wanted.

It all started in Chechnya but it was an advantage that I went alone. War is a one-man adventure.” (Renzo)

A lot of time has passed since then. Two gruesome wars have reduced Chechnya to rubble. According to the United Nations, in 2003, Grozny, besieged and burned to the ground by Russian forces, was the most destroyed city in the world. Akhmad Kadyrov, who only a few years earlier had led the Jihad against the Russians, found it more advantageous to join Putin. Dozens of former rebel fighters turned into pro-Russians and defenders of Putinism, others turned away from a movement of ethnic and nationalist terrorism and embraced the religious fanaticism of radical Islam.

In 2003, Chechnya with a new constitution and Ramzan Kadyrov (Akhmad’s son) as president is back under Moscow’s control.

Many years went by for Alex. Fifteen years to turn his back on the war.

I was lucky not to go too far… if you go to war, war returns home with you.”

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