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Ian Birnie talks with Prisoner of the Mountains director Sergei Bodrov

Sergei Bodrov, director of the acclaimed Prisoner of the Mountains - winner of both the FIPRESCI and Audience Awards at the '96 Cannes Film Festival - was born near the Russian-Chinese border in 1948. Beginning his career as a screenwriter, he turned to directing in 1984 and has subsequently completed nine features. Since 1993 he has divided his time between Russia and the United States.

Prisoner begins with the ambush of a small troop of Russian soldiers policing the Caucasus by Muslim rebels from a nearby mountain village. Two Russian soldiers, a cynical veteran and a young recruit, are taken prisoner and are held for ransom - to be exchanged for the son of the village patriarch, who is being held in a Russian jail.

The spectacular mountain village in which the Russians are held captive is backdrop to an intimate story in which reality overtakes rhetoric and the soldiers become reluctant comrades; the recruit even befriends the young Muslim girl who feeds them each day. But the anguish of the patriarch over his son's imprisonment, and the rift between the village elders over the fate of the soldiers, are portrayed with equal sensitivity. What emerges is a complex endgame in which both sides are implicated. Yet the disparity in resources - What threat could these mountain villagers possibly pose to Russian tanks? - is all too evident.

Filmmaker: Prisoner of the Mountains is based on Leo Tolstoy's short story, "Prisoner of the Caucasus," written 150 years ago. How did you finally come to put this story on the screen?

Bodrov: It's a famous story in Russia, a classic. Every kid has to read it. In fact, it was written for kids and I knew the story when I was eight years old. In this story, the Chechens captured two Russian officers because they wanted to sell them for money. Ransom. Great story. But Tolstoy was a Russian officer, so he was pro-Russian. The Chechens were cruel "smelly Tartar people." And the Russians were right, and the Chechens were wrong. Tolstoy was a genius, so he could afford to make mistakes. I don't know who is right and who is wrong. I'm not a judge. I just feel sorry about people.
So we decided to make a story about exchange. Two Russian soldiers are taken prisoner by a Chechen man who hopes to trade them to the Russian army for the release of his son. It's more human. More universal. And for me personally it works much better. Normally in war you have one rule: You have to kill your enemy. Unfortunately it's easier to kill a man than to like him. But somebody has to change this rule. So, I wanted to make this strong and simple message.

Filmmaker: That's interesting because the simplicity is in the story but the complexity is in the emotion and the relationships, particularly between the two soldiers. Was that relationship in the book? Also, the young soldier's played by your son, so that has another kind of resonance.

Bodrov: In Tolstoy's story there were two characters - a weak man from a rich family and a strong man from a poor family. And of course the stronger man wants to escape because he knows nobody will pay for him - I use this in the film. For the movie we decided to create other characters - one who is a professional soldier, who is used to killing people, and the other, a young draftee who is captured in his first fight. He doesn't know the rules of the war.
For the first part I cast a great Russian actor, Oleg Menshikov (Burnt by the Sun), and for the young soldier I couldn't find a professional actor and, at the last moment, I decided to screen-test my son. He was fresh, natural, and it worked. Of course, the movie became more personal for me because it was my son. He could easily have been in that war.

Filmmaker: One of the most striking things about the film - even though you have this life-and-death situation of prisoners, hostages, war - is its humor.

Bodrov: Yes. It's a perfect mix for me, tragedy and comedy. It works much better because people laugh and after five minutes, they [the characters who made the audience laugh] are dead. I have a friend, an old, wonderful Russian writer who spent almost 15 years in the camps. He was arrested in the '40s because the KGB decided, completely out of the blue, that these young people wanted to kill Stalin. He and his friends spent almost 20 years [imprisoned]. And he has a wonderful sense of humor. He spoke to me of another friend. He said, "He is a really strange person. He spent 20 years in the prison and he still can't tell any jokes!" You can find humor in any situation. Audiences appreciate this.

Filmmaker: Humor is also an international language, a subverbal language. I always think that for an independent filmmaker, if you have little money to make a film, make a comedy. People will forgive production values.

Bodrov: Yeah. Did you know I used to be a screenwriter, and my first movies as a writer were comedies. They were silly comedies. My intention was to write more sophisticated comedies, with irony. Unfortunately, my feelings were plugged and, in the end, they used only my plots. I would write silly comedies and more sophisticated ones and the producers preferred the simple ones. They were, however, a few of the most popular comedies of those years. When I decided to direct movies, I met with the audience a lot. For example, I would screen Freedom Is Paradise [Bodrov's feature about a young boy's repeated attempts to escape from reform school] and then in the Q&A, people would say, "It's a really good movie, we like it, but please, make another comedy. We remember your wonderful comedies when you were a writer." And especially in Russia, people would say "You know, it's a hard life. We want to laugh."

Filmmaker: You've been living in L.A. for three years now, and have been involved with a few American productions, including Alexandre Rockwell's Somebody to Love [which Bodrov co-wrote and co-produced]. When you went back to Russia to make Prisoner, was there any way in which your relationship with American movies or living in the West changed your approach to making movies?

Bodrov: It was a very useful experience to make this movie with Alex. I think it was a really fine script. But when people ask me what's the difference between making independent movies in Russia and in America, I would say there's no difference, only lunch is much better here. That's my joke. When I started to make my movies it was interesting that Russian critics were saying that I was making "American" movies and one British critic wrote that one of my films was obviously influenced by Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop, which I never saw, but I must rent on video sometime. Many of my movies are road movies, which is a popular American genre, but I think it was primarily something unconscious.
Since moving to the States, I have seen all the American movies that I couldn't see in Russia. I love to watch movies; sometimes I watch five to seven movies a week. And I'm a member of this wonderful video store, Videots, in Santa Monica - it's the best in L.A. I also think more about the audience now. In Russia you didn't have to make a film for the audience but it was very difficult for a lot of people there to become filmmakers. If you could deal with state censorship, however, you could make your movie with state support. One hundred percent state support. For instance, Tarkovsky - I worked with him for two years as a gaffer - made Stalker from beginning to end, and he didn't like it. So he shot it again from beginning to end with a new cinematographer.

Filmmaker: What American or independent films have you seen recently that particularly impressed you?

Bodrov: This year I missed a lot of movies because I was doing my own movie. I love Fargo. And Leaving Las Vegas was another movie that impressed me. It was very strong. I didn't see the sequel to The Crow, but I really loved the first. I was impressed visually. It was a wonderful story.

Filmmaker: What's in the future for you?

Bodrov: Future projects? I am getting offers now, and some of them are really interesting. And I have a couple of my own projects. I have a wonderful story about circus life. It's magical. I finished a script I wrote with my friend Dwayne Jonson-Cochran. It's a road movie, Bonnie & Clyde-ish, modern day. I love to work with other people. I think now I would also like to do an English-language movie. But I consider myself a Russian director and I will make another movie in Russia. I also want to do a movie in China someday. It all comes down to the story. If it happens in India, why not?

Ian Birnie is the director of the film department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Museum will present a retrospective of films by Sergei Bodrov, January 1 - February 4, 1997.


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