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Film: A people that time forgot

For those who think that Russian cinema is limited to Eisenstein and Tarkovsky, this film might be a revelation.

Prisoner of the Mountains is a type of Russian film most Westerners have not seen before. Were it shot in English, its release would not be limited to the ghetto of the "art-house" venues. And according to the film's director Sergei Bodrov, the Americans are going to produce a remake some time in the future.

The disarmingly simple story offers the viewer the staple set of attractions of popular cinema - some shooting, some romance, some humour.

Those who expect to understand what exactly the Chechen war was about, will not find direct answers in the film. The relationship between the dozens of large and small nations in the Caucuses are so complex that in comparison even the situation in Northern Ireland might seem more simple and straight forward. Instead, the film focuses on universal values and the relationship between the characters.

Two Russian soldiers are taken hostage by rebels in the mountains of the Caucuses. Abdul-Murat, a local patriarch, wants to exchange them for his son, imprisoned by the Russians. The two soldiers overcome their initial hostility to each other and one of them, Vanya, develops a romantic relationship with his captor's teenage daughter, Dina. The other one, Sasha, a more cynical and murderous type, organises an unsuccessful escape and pays for it dearly.

Vanya's mother arrives and convinces the head of the Russian garrison to exchange Abdul-Murat's son for the Russian prisoners. Abdul-Murat's son, meanwhile, is killed just when he was to be freed. The fate of Vanya seems to be sealed.

Loosely based on a story by Leo Tolstoy of the same name (in Russian - The Prisoner of the Caucuses), the film provoked a mixed and passionate response in Russia when it was released at the peak of the bloody Chechen war.

It was some time before Americans began to produce films about Vietnam. How is it that this movie was finished when nobody even knew when and how the Chechen conflict was going to end? The answer is two fold.

First, Russia started colonising the area in 1722 and has had a tumultuous relationship with this freedom-loving mountain region of the Caucuses ever since. Sergei Bodrov is only following the tradition of Russian art which deals with the issue. His characters do not fall into the "good" and "bad" categories. They are all people of flesh and blood who are forced by circumstances to become enemies.

The second part of the answer is that the project was planned before the Chechen war even started, and the intention was to make a film about a war, not the war.

If not for the modern day military ammunition and vehicles, the film could be well set 150 years ago, when Leo Tolstoy wrote his story. "They have lived through the Soviet era untouched by time," says Sergei Bodrov about the people in the village of Rechi where the film was shot. "They live as they did 1,000 years ago."

The area has no sewage system or water supply. Women still climb the mountains to bring the water from a spring. It is eight hours from the nearest town, and during the winter the roads are totally impassable. In Dagestan, which is similar in size to Scotland and with a population of just above two million, 36 languages are spoken, and it is not uncommon that people cannot understand each other.

Whatever the original intentions, the film was filmed in the mountains of the Caucuses and finished at the peak of the Chechen war. As soon as the film was released in Russia, Sergei Bodrov was vigorously attacked by many local critics. He was accused of making a film easily sellable in the West, which over simplified the conflict and portrayed Russians not as they are, but as Westerners would like to see them.

Some found this an advantage. "The film was definitely designed for a Western audience. This is what makes Bodrov unique," Andrei Plakhov, a famous critic said. "He has found a balance between an art film and a commercially successful picture."

The more down to earth reaction is represented by Vasily Kostikov, an army officer: "The war in Chechnya was a dirty and corrupt war. This film is an insult to anyone who fought in the war or was really affected by it".

Bodrov argues that his goal was "to make a human film". "I didn't want a bloody picture with shooting, hanging guts and torn off heads. I do not like this. I do not like war scenes. I am interested in what goes on between people."

The fascinating thing about Prisoner of the Mountains is that all the main characters are so different, so human and so loveable. Even the tough guy Sasha, cynical and cruel though he is.

Sasha is played by Oleg Menshikov, known to the British audience from Burnt by the Sun and also from his theatre performances in London after he was discovered by Vanessa Redgrave. It was reported he had quite a female following when in London. But there is more to him than good looks. He is a great actor with a great future. The 1992 Laurence Olivier award winner, he was recently approached by Steven Spielberg who offered him, though unsuccessfully, a role in one of his films.

In fact, the style of the movie, according to Sergei Bodrov, was influenced by his living in America. "It made me think more about the audience," says Sergei. "It is not a political film. They are interesting today. Tomorrow, they are old like newspapers."

`Prisoner of the Mountains' is on general release from today