"Melancholia" is putting it lightly. Director Pirjo Honkasalo's grim, stark documentary about the child casualties of the war in Chechnya immerses the viewer in the suffering of people who know nothing but struggle; their first instinct is to survive, and their second, unspoken one is to avenge the deaths of their loved ones. This isn't one of those conventional cause-and-effect documentaries that presents a timeline of conflict, contrasting viewpoints and the major players involved. It's possible to walk into The 3 Rooms of Melancholia unaware of the details of the Chechen war, but chances are you'll leave the theater so indelibly haunted, you'll want to know everything you can.
Honkasalo's strategy is to train her camera on the faces of preteen boys at first, Russian ones training to fight in the war, and later, Chechen ones orphaned by the fighting and let their expressions tell the story. Some appear hardened and bitter; others show the kind of impetuous, inquisitive looks you'd see in any young boy. But Honkasalo's close-ups reveal a disquieting undercurrent of sadness, fear and rage. Scarce, elegant narration tells us their histories. One of the Russian boys, orphaned at a young age, was placed in the training academy by "a woman he calls 'mother.'" Another boy, an 11-year-old Chechen, was rescued from the war zone of Grozny after he was raped, assaulted and left to die by Russian soldiers.
But these aren't lives totally void of beauty and grace, and, with the eye of an artist, Honkasalo captures moments of incredible power. In the film's first segment, or "room," she captures the irony of baby-faced cadets playing games in the snow, dressed in black, full-length coats and uniforms. In the third segment, she records the ceremonial killing of a goat for food, and the fog-drenched scene looks like a Renaissance painting. Like the documentarian Frederick Wiseman, she has such intimate access to and sympathy for her subjects, it's almost as if we're watching a fiction film. None of the boys ever seems aware that the camera is trained on their every move, and it gives Honkasalo an omniscient but never distanced point of view.
The 3 Rooms of Melancholia has garnered some criticism for its impressionistic, meditative take on the Chechen war, for not staring directly into the eye of the bloody conflict. But even if the movie existed only to show us the profound, disturbing reality of prepubescent boys living in a society that knows only death, it would have achieved its goal. At one point, some of the rescued Chechen orphans watch TV news coverage of the horrific hostage incident in Moscow in October 2002, where Chechen rebels held an entire theater under siege. The look on the orphans' faces a mixture of awe, acceptance and eerie resignation is all the context the film needs.
In Russian, Arabic and Chechen, with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 30, and at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 1. Call 313-833-3237.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].
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