Foreign Policy Blogs

Prisoner of the Mountains (1996)


The conflict between Russia and the territory of Chechnya is the backdrop for this film.
In it two Russian soldiers are taken away to a Chechen village after their group is ambushed. The reason they are captured is so that a villager can use them as a trade for his son, who is being held prisoner by Russians.
Almost documentary-like, the movie, which was shot in the Russian territory of Dagestan, shows fantastic vistas of the mountains and the village that sits atop one of them.
The storyline is based on a short story (“The Prisoner in the Caucasus”) written by Leo Tolstoy. That story is set in the Caucasian war of 1817–1864.
It is also like a documentary in that many of the scenes showing villagers look like authentic images of actual Chechens.
While mostly bleak, there are some moments of humanity and humor that pepper the film.
Of the two Russian prisoners, one is hardened and cynical while the other is a young, idealistic recruit.
The latter makes friends with the daughter of their captor who plays a critical role in the story. The way she shows her fondness for him is not that she will help him get away but that she will dig him a proper grave after he is killed.
A side story is how that young recruit’s mother travels to the village to try and rescue her son. The audience feels her anguish as she travels to a place she has never seen before.
The villager who captured her son flatly tells her he can’t help her because they are enemies.
There are only a few scenes where the Chechens appear on their prayer mats saying their Muslim prayers. They are shown in order to drive home the differences between them and Russians.

The film was made during what is called the First Chechen War, which was fought from the end of 1994 to late 1996.
Despite their overwhelming military superiority, the Russians were worn down by constant Chechen guerrilla raids.
The war became increasingly unpopular in Russia and then-President Boris Yeltsin had to declare a ceasefire and later sign a peace treaty with Chechnya.
Many thousands of Russians and Chechens were killed and wounded in the conflict and as many as half a million people were displaced as a result.
War is hell and can be absurd, two facts this movie drives home.
It also shows that some gaps cannot be filled, that centuries-old hatred cannot be erased by documents and treaties.
Much in the same way that the former Yugoslavia fell apart and its new nations turned on each other after ethnic differences that had been simmering for decades came to the fore, so, too, did some of the former Soviet Union.
What the world continues to face is a region where lines that were drawn by Josef Stalin become blurred by the ethnic groups that inhabit those areas.
There have been two recent wars between Chechnya and Russia. There probably will be another.
“Prisoner of the Mountains” is available to rent.
Murphy can be reached at: [email protected]



Sean Patrick Murphy

Sean Patrick Murphy is a graduate of Bennington College, where he majored in politics and Latin American literature. He has worked for Current History magazine, Physicians for Human Rights, and Citizens for Global Solutions (formerly the World Federalist Association). He lives outside Philadelphia.

Areas of Focus:
Cinematography; Independent Films; Documentary;