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Pondering Prisoner

Sergei Bodrov
Saeed Adyani

Hostage to Film: Russian director Sergei Bodrov.

A talk with Sergei Bodrov, director of 'Prisoner of the Mountains'

By Richard von Busack

Prisoner of the Mountains is a movie both remote and accessible: Remote in that it was filmed in the hills of Dagestan, deep in Central Asia (if a movie has been made there before, it's certainly never reached the U.S.); accessible in that it's a simple story, based on one of Leo Tolstoy's humanist tales of reconciliation between enemies. "A children's story," director Sergei Bodrov says, although he feels that he's made it complex enough for adults.

Tolstoy's story focuses on the fighting he knew as a soldier in the Caucasus mountains; today, of course, the Russians are once again making war in the hill country, this time in Chechenya.

The time is the present. A pair of ambushed Russian soldiers (Oleg Menshikov and Sergei Bodrov Jr., the director's son) are captured and held hostage in exchange for a tribesman's son, who has himself been captured by the Russian army.

The prisoners are held in a stone barn underneath a house in a small village never meant for prisoners. The isolation of the village, a tight cluster of small buildings set against the vastness of the dry hills that look something like California's Amador County naturally brings men together.

The sympathy that grows between the prisoners and the men who guard them makes duty hard to carry out. Dina (Susanna Mekhralieva), daughter of the man in charge of the prisoners, grows fond of the younger and more innocent of the two captives, Vania (Bodrov). Even she has to accustom herself to the idea that Vania may well be killed if the hostage exchange doesn't take place.

Sergei Bodrov, 49, is a noted director in Russia. He wrote some 30 films before co-directing 1984's Sweet Dreams in the Grass. He followed that film with Nonprofessionals (1987) and Freedom Is Paradise (1989), which he turned into a novel that was published in France in 1991.

Since the opening of the Russian border, Bodrov has been spending time in the U.S., co-writing Somebody to Love with Alexandre Rockwell (Four Rooms, In the Soup).

Metro: Is it harder now to make films now then it was under the Soviet regime?

Bodrov: Dunno. It depends. You can do what you want now, but still, everyone's out on the market on their own. There's a lot of stuff out there. Before, you had a strong sense of shape, and if you could stand the squeezing, you could get state money. The older generation of filmmakers is bound to remember it as an easier time.

Metro: How did you raise the money for Prisoner of the Mountains?

Bodrov: From various people, particularly a professor of film in Moscow who's turned producer. A bright guy, a successful Russian businessman.

Metro: What was it like directing your son as an actor?

Bodrov: He was a good. It was a natural choice, his being very close and so forth. For him, it was tough, because I was tough with him.

Metro: And will you work together again?

Bodrov: He's said, "Hopefully, never again." I think he's half-joking and half telling the truth.

Metro: When did you first read Prisoner of the Caucasus, the Tolstoy story in which the film is based?

Bodrov: When I was 7. I changed some stuff from the story; in the original, they want to ransom [the prisoner] just for money. And Tolstoy was a Russian soldier who thought the wars in the Caucasus were just. Of course, I changed the setting, too--to Dagestan. It's a really interesting place. It's a small republic with 36 different languages; 10 miles away from where we were filming, there's a different language.

Metro: The locals had never seen a camera crew?

Bodrov: No; they didn't have theaters, though they had TV occasionally, and there's a VCR or two. It was very remote, an eight-hour drive over really bad roads, impassable in the winter. The people there were supportive. I think we were like a circus to them. We stayed with them, and they participated in the movie.

Metro: And where did you find Susanna Mekhralieva, who plays the young girl Dina?

Bodrov: She was a local girl from the village; we picked her from about 200 kids. There's no secret to it. There's a lot of kids out there, and you just have to pick the right one. There's so many kids who are most awful actors--like kids you see in commercials. You have to make sure that they're comfortable, and then you can get a good performance.

Metro: What is your process of writing like?

Bodrov: I wrote 30 movies, and I didn't seen half of them. When I started to direct, I wrote four movies by myself. I'm starting more and more to work with other people. When you're writing about something you don't know about personally, it helps to get a collaborator. [Co-screenwriter] Arif Aliev is a Muslim. He had good ideas, and he's responsible for the magical-realist scenes that are personally not my cup of tea.

Metro: This is your first film to get general release in America. Of your movies made overseas which would you like to see released here?

Bodrov: Freedom Is Paradise won a grand prize at the Montreal Film Festival. It was sold in many countries, but there's a strange situation; two studios are fighting over the rights to it right now.

Metro: Have nationalists in Russia been criticizing you for making a pacifist film during a time of war?

Bodrov: In general, we've got good response. Nationalists have said I was blaming Russia for the conflict in Chechenya. I said, no, I'm Russian. I don't blame Russia; I blame soldiers.

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