Last Night's TV: This World: Stolen Brides, BBC2
Cutting Edge: Four Sons versus Four Daughters, Channel 4
Ugly Betty, E4
Thursday 12 August 2010
Two wars in 20 years, widespread violence, the competing mores of tribal society, Islamic law and secularist Russia all collide to make present-day Chechnya a special kind of hell. Stolen Brides, a stunning report from the BBC journalist Lucy Ash, investigates the tradition in the former Soviet republic of men kidnapping women and forcing them into marriage. This isn't anomalous – in a population of barely over a million people, at least one person a week mysteriously disappears. Some of them end up dead; many end up betrothed to a stranger.
The programme was structured around the marriage of Bogdan Khazhiev, an aspiring businessman, to "Zulikhan", a young student in Grozny. Bogdan took a shine to Zulikhan, asked her if she wanted to get married; she said she wanted to wait. Ultimately, she had little choice. Bogdan's cousin Sultan bundled her, screaming, into the back of a car. Two days later, when his family approached hers for a blessing, mediated by a mullah who had stolen his own wife while he was married to someone else, her family were reluctant to give it. After deliberating, they agreed; but only because the two families were distantly related. Zulikhan had no say in the matter. At the wedding, Ash tried to interview guests about their thoughts regarding the kidnapping. A man in a sheepskin hat shifted uncomfortably. "Let's not talk about politics," he pleaded. "Let's talk about our Kazakh friends, let's toast the newlyweds. This is a party after all." "It's the law of our grandfathers," added Sultan. "We have to respect our Chechen traditions."
One of the most disturbing scenes in this brave documentary – remembering that Anna Politkovskaya was killed just four years ago – involved the bridal procession as it approached the village where the wedding was scheduled to take place. Ash watched 10-year-old boys speeding in cars, large numbers of weapons fired into the air; the feeling of lawlessness was tangible. More shocking still, at another point the reporter interviewed Natalia Estemirova, a leading human-rights activist. At some point after the meeting, Estemirova was abducted by masked men on her way to work. The same day her bullet-ridden body was found in a ditch. No one has been brought to justice for the crime; most Chechens believe it will never be properly investigated.
It is easy to sympathise with Zulikhan. Her face was a distorted rictus, somewhere between pleasure and pain, for much of her "happy day". But Bogdan was equally confused. Ash postulates that the violence such men experience at the hands of Russia, and the continuing disenfranchisement that they experience under local leadership operating in the Kremlin's pocket, means that kidnapping women is a means of regaining control. It's an interesting theory, and further hammers home how Ash's report is taken from journalism's top drawer. The married couple now live in Kazakhstan. On the whole, they seem happy, at least to be out of Chechnya. Ash later questioned Bogdan about moving back to Chechnya. His father told her of plans to get his son a quiet government posting in Grozny. Bogdan did not seem keen. Going there to find – and steal – a wife was one thing. Living there full time quite another. "Everything is in the hands of God of course," he told her. "But perhaps I'll wait a bit."
Meanwhile, the "Cutting Edge" film Four Sons versus Four Daughters painted a more wholesome portrait of family life. Two sets of parents – a couple with four sons, and two people with four daughters – swapped places for the weekend to try to discover whether it changed their lives. For many women, having girls to share your interests is something of a dream (I'm avoiding a minefield of stereotypes here). Men who have an interest in football might equally want their children to join in the fun. That was the case here. John, who runs a haulage-truck business, went from playing dress-up with his daughters to driving lessons. Meanwhile, Steve was bored by ballet but his wife enjoyed playing with ponies. It was quite moving, really, as the father and mother normally overwhelmed by the opposite sex rediscovered old memories. These included John going go-karting and talking about cars and Karen getting into shopping. Their opposite numbers faded into the background, somewhat.
Lastly, Ugly Betty is back for another series. I find it slightly paradoxical that Betty, now an associate features editor at fashion magazine Mode, a loose approximation of Vogue, is considered to be unfashionable, given that in any normal setting her geek-chic image would undoubtedly make her the most à la mode person in the room. Still, in this episode she bravely contended with former squeeze, Matt, who is now her boss, pitched and regained control of a piece on insect jewellery, and greeted Daniel, who'd been away in Tibet. Justin, her cousin, has to deal with bullies at high school who don't like his Gucci shirt. The stand-out performance is, as always, from Michael Urie, as bitchy Marc St James, the evil Wilhemina's personal assistant.
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