A Memorable Documentary

in 61st Venice Film Festival

by Jan Aghed

Because of the huge number of films in Venice, not enough colleagues on the FIPRESCI jury were able to see Pirjo Honkasalo’s documentary The 3 Rooms of Melancholia in the Orizzonti section, so the film could not be considered during the final meeting. Otherwise I would have decided to give one of the two FIPRESCI prizes to Honkasalo’s film. Besides its obvious artistic merits in the way the film is structured, photographed and put together, there was no more relevant and timely film in the whole festival, more or less coinciding, with the terrorist slaughter of the children in the school in Beslan, Russia.

Honkasalo sympathizes with Chechnya’s struggle for independence while expressing her utter abhorrence at the bloody terrorist act and mass murder of innocent civilians and children. But The 3 Rooms of Melancholia asks the viewer to reflect on the breeding ground for terrorism and what inhuman reactions can be expected from a people who – like the Chechnyans in this film – seems to have nothing to lose, left with no hope and no future.

The subject of Pirjo Honkasalo’s remarkable documentary, incredibly not shown in competition – are the children, the outlook on life and the terrible inner wounds inflicted by a militarized society and first and foremost by the war in Chechnya.

It took her three years to get the permission of the Russian authorities to go into Chechnya and its capital Grozny in order to film the devastating human and material consequences of the war. The film is divided into three parts, beginning in a cadet school under President Vladimir Putin’s special protection in Kronstadt near St. Petersburg. In the spirit of Czarist military traditions, boys in uniform from nine to seventeen years of age, many of them orphans and children with deeply disturbed family backgrounds, are submitted to military discipline and drill for the purpose of learning how to kill.

The ultimate results of such training, mirrored in the cold, icy climate enveloping the small fortress town of Kronstadt, are shown in the two other parts of the film. From the cadet academy Honkasalo moves to Grozny, formerly a beautiful cityand a spa attracting visitors from other regions of Russia. Now it’s a real hell with ruins, mountains of garbage, roaming dogs, armored cars and beggars. With no living tree in sight an infernal chaos dominates the place. Small boys – urchins, orphans, children in rags – play with toy guns, look for pieces of firewood or gather with their brothers and sisters around the mother they must leave because she’s too ill to look after them.

In the third part of the film we meet a substitute mom, Hadizhat Gataeva. She has devoted her life to take care of orphaned and abandoned children of the war. The latter group is brought to a refugee camp in the small Russian republic of Ingushetia. We meet Aslan, eleven years old. She was found in a paper box in the middle of winter after having been repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers. We also meet Adam, twelve years old. His mother, a widow, went mad and tried to throw him out of the window on the eighth floor. And we meet Milana, raped at the age of twelve by soldiers. At seven months pregnancy she had an abortion. Now, seven years later, her face lookslike she was a woman of the age of forty: anxiously, franticly praying to Allah to save her from the shame of being raped.

One of the many unforgettable sequences is situated in the Ingushetia camp where close-ups of a boy’s face are intercut with shots and sounds of Russian bombers flying towards Chechnya on deadly missions. We see the boy’s jaw muscles move and tighten at the sounds of the planes and explosions. These two visual and aural moments may of course not at all be connected in time. But the way Honkasalo cut them together gives the montage a powerful symbolic and moral charge and a characteristic item of her rather incomparable strength and reach with this documentary. So I hope that another festival and another FIPRESCI jury will give The 3 Rooms of Melancholia the attention it deserves.