Matthew Sweet meets Sergei Bodrov, who has made a new film about the Chechen war
SERGEI BODROV has an eye for tough subjects. He's taken on the invasion of Afghanistan and the horrors of the Stalinist gulag. His latest movie, Prisoner of the Mountains (15) - nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1996 - is a tale of the Chechen war, made under difficult conditions on the peaks of Dagestan: there was no running water, sporadic electricity, and Bodrov was forced to sack his assistant director. Oh, and some of his cast held him at gunpoint and threatened to burn his camera if he didn't cough up more money.

Born in Khabarovsk, eastern Siberia, Bodrov was brought up by his grandparents. "They were doctors, very intelligent people. And they were hunters as well. There were four rifles in the house and lots of dogs." This was nothing compared to the neighbours. "The household next door were professional tiger-hunters. They used to go out and catch them with their bare hands."

His own career ambitions changed weekly. "First, I wanted to be a jockey. I thought it would be a good idea to find a girl who was chief of the stables and marry her. But I couldn't find one. I thought about being a doctor, but people said I'd never get through the exams. Then I wanted to be a park ranger."

In the end, he opted for rocket science, taking a place at a prestigious aviation college to study space engineering - "space- shuttle design," he breezes. But during his third year, his predilection for gambling got him kicked off the course. "I was addicted to blackjack. I needed cash so badly that I robbed my grandma. She kept all her savings at home because she didn't trust the bank. When you've robbed your favourite grandma and she still loves you, that's a big deal. I stopped after that."

Expelled from college and in need of money to repay his debts, he found work as an electrician at Mosfilm, the Soviet state film studio. He graduated from wiring plugs for Tarkovsky to writing scripts for candy-floss comedies. His directing break came with Sweet Juice of the Grass (1985). His second, Non-Professionals (1987), was banned for its references to the invasion of Afghanistan, and his third, Freedom is Paradise (1989), took a look at labour camps.

Adapted from a short story by Tolstoy, Prisoner of the Mountains is similarly bold. The story of two hapless Russian soldiers held hostage by the Chechens, it's a passionate anti-war movie with a sharp sense of humanity. In Moscow, its release helped rally opinion against the war. It was well-received in Grozny, too - although, as the Russians bombed all the cinemas, they had to make do with pirated videotapes.

Since the war was still raging while the film was in production, Bodrov used locations in Dagestan, the small republic sandwiched between Chechenya and the Caspian Sea. Thirty-six different ethnic groups occupy this tiny territory, each with their own language and culture. Bodrov chose a remote village populated by the Agul people. As he was shooting two hours' walk from the war zone, he recruited a gang of tough mountain-men for security - and cast them in his film as Chechen guerrillas.

"Unfortunately," recalls Bodrov, "someone told their head man - a champion wrestler - that I'd paid a local girl who plays one of the leads a bit more than him. He came to me in the night with his Kalashnikov - the same one you see him carrying in the film - and said I'd insulted him, that everyone would think he was a fool because this little girl was being paid more. He asked for a lot of money in cash, and was ready to put our film on the fire if he didn't get it. There were 24 hours of negotiation; by the end I was exhausted. We paid 10 per cent of what he was asking. I'm quite an expert at these things."

The film also features a remarkable acting debut from Bodrov's 25-year- old son, Sergei Bodrov Jnr. "When he told me he wanted to be an actor, I said, 'Over my dead body'. It's a miserable profession. But I couldn't find anyone else who was right." The role led to the younger Bodrov's casting as the Mafia hit-man hero of Brat, Russia's biggest box-office hit of 1997, and his own TV talk show.

Bodrov isn't interested in the studio shilling. "I live at Venice Beach, which isn't like Hollywood. We have only two stars living nearby, Anjelica Huston and Dennis Hopper. And he's crazy." He might even be crazy enough to work with Sergei Bodrov.

Details: Going Out, page 11.