Daymokh, The Ancestral Land
Regissør: Masha Novikova
( Nederland)

CHESSENIA / The great thing about Masha Novikova's latest film is how the film gradually gives you a sense of what's going on just below the surface.


For Chechens means daymohk "Fatherland," and the word carries with it a long history of warriors to defend it. In this context, this is also the name of the Chechen folk dance group daymohk, as we follow in this movie where young Chechen boys and girls train diligently to live up to the founder's high expectations.

The folk dance group was founded in 1999 by the choreographer Ramzan Akhmadov in order to bring Chechen traditional culture back to blossom in the war-torn country. At that time, the capital was Grozny a blown up ruin, and the dance group performed all over Europe.

The dance group is currently sponsored by the Chechen state ("No nation without culture", stated Chechnya first president of his time). The group's founder will now make a movie clip to send to Europe, which the dance group has lost contact with. With this, the dancers will show that they are still active.

War from two perspectives

From the opening to daymohk can you first think that this is a film that uncritically celebrates traditional Chechen folk culture and the leader of the Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. His job is to keep the Russian Federation's southern border intact, and Chechnya within it, and he uses his own version of conservative Islam and macho politics to maintain the status quo.

I personally don't know director Masha Novikova's previous films, but she has a lot of experience filming people on the brink of war. She has made a movie about Anna Politkovskaya – the Russian journalist who was murdered in 2006.

The life of the dance group's choreographer, Ramzan Akhmadov, began in exile: His parents were among the hundreds of thousands of people deported from Chechnya in 1944. The forced release was part of a magnificent program, approved by Joseph Stalin, which affected millions of non-Russian Soviet ethnic minorities from the 1930s to the 1950s. Akhmadov's family gathered and sent to Kasakhstan in 1944. When they finally returned home in 1956, they had lost everything.

Daymokh, The Ancestral Land Director Masha Novikova
Daymokh, The Ancestral Land Director Masha Novikova

In a famous lookout tower that hovers over the slopes, with a two-man film team, the founder of Daymohk gives a boy gang a message to search for "old" shields and swords (buried ten minutes in advance). “These were the weapons the knights used; that's how they fought, and we're the descendants. "

In the living room, the TV stands on constant with the government channel's endless report room Kadyrov.

Novikova adds a new dimension to the film when she presents new material against archival clips of the same family from the war twenty years ago. The old clips were shot with two cameras that were often filmed at the same time, but from different perspectives: the same room with the same movements and the same people.

In the new clips, the archive material is displayed with the two images at the top of the screen, side by side, but without touching each other. This literally expands the experience to become even more vibrant. What are we seeing?

A new ideology

During the war, the home of Akhmadov was a small, sober apartment, high up in a block of flats surrounded by other blocks. Water had to be collected in buckets downstairs; the women did hard physical work.

Today we see the same women, who are no longer poor, dressed in solid garments showing only hands and face – a form of conservative Islamic clothing. But this has not always been the case, as the archive material clearly shows.

Daymokh, The Ancestral Land Director Masha Novikova
Daymokh, The Ancestral Land Director Masha Novikova

In the archive clips, the wife of Akhmadov, Aiza, is not covered. She is wearing a sweater, a plain skirt and a small scarf tied around her neck. When she went to school, she says, "I wore short skirts so short I could make them stay". She even put on the school uniform to keep her skirt as short as possible.

Now the family lives in a solid new house with few but exclusive furniture in local design. There is money here, but it feels cold, a little too clean. Akhmadov drives a Mercedes SUV. The daughter is now cultural adviser to Kadyrov, while the son holds a ministerial position. The women are fully covered, and their hair is hidden under shawls long enough to lie over their shoulders. A new ideology prevails. This is the code in the country.

What is valuable about Novikova's work is how the film gradually gives us a feeling that there is a lot going on just below the surface, perhaps not exactly at Akhmadov's home, but which the director cannot express explicitly without compromising his protagonists.

She first conveys the awareness of the unspoken through the use of non-traditional music, which replaces the sound of the recordings of smiling children in stylish folk costumes that go into slow motion films.

This turmoil is formally expressed in words when a man who was previously one of the dancers says that dance no longer means the same thing as before; he doesn't want to dance anymore. The words are left hanging for reflection while Novikova gradually shows us the power of the republic's monarchy in the short scenes of the group's impressive dance number – a tribute to Kadyrov and Putin.

An unshakable love for the country

Groznyj has been rebuilt in new form, but the anxiety and risk of violence are everywhere. Kadyrov came to power when his father, the country's former president, was killed in 2004. A bomb exploded in a large arena where the dance group was also present. They survived.

Media is a means of power: In the living room, the TV is constantly on the government channel's endless reports on Kadyrov. Pictures of him are everywhere, Kadyrov alone or with his father or Putin. In a crowded arena, we see Kadyrov's devoted prepubertal son win a boxing match with a knockout within 14 seconds.

Aiza, Akhmadov's wife, asks: How many children can you fit in one car? During the war they were only three pieces they could escape, but now she has grandchildren – too many to fit in a single private vehicle. She is worried: "Who knows what life brings?" she says. The film thus becomes most interesting as we get past the opening with Chechen honor codes and landscape images filmed with drone cameras.

Towards the end of the movie, the voice behind the picture comes back: Oh, this unwavering love for your country! Young girls from the dance troupe, wearing their finest national costume, take us over a suspension bridge and over to an area where shields and swords are lined up in a row. The girls slowly spin around while covering the weapons with their white shawls. According to tradition, this is how women used to force warring parties to make peace.

Translated by Sigrid Strømmen

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