LONDON — Kazakh director Timour Bekmambetov’s “The Arena” premiered Oct. 5 in Almaty, Kazakhstan — Bekmambetov wasn’t about to let the threat of war and global destruction stand in the way of this unspooling.
At his side in Almaty was indie producer-director Roger Corman, who produced this remake of his 1973 Steve Carver-directed cult favorite. I guess Roger didn’t get the memo about certain military exercises in the neighborhood — not that it would have stopped him. In his nearly 50-year career, he’s personified showbiz rule No. 1: The show must go on. And in Corman’s case, he’d add “under budget.”
The 39-year-old Bekmambetov, one of Russia’s top helmers of commercials, has waited six years for a shot at directing his second feature.
His feature debut, “Peshawar Waltz,” co-directed with Gennadi Kayumov, caught my attention at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1994. Shot for an astonishing $60,000, “Peshawar” was a gritty, violent account of Russian soldiers taken prisoner during the Soviet-Afghanistan war of the ’80s who take over their POW camp in Pakistan near the Afghan border.
At the time, like many Americans, I had only a vague idea of where Peshawar was located. Since Sept. 11, I’ve become better acquainted with the geography and history of the region. Recalling that he’d made a film about the historical roots of the current conflicts, I called Bekmambetov in Moscow, hoping to get his take on the volatile situation today.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” says Bekmambetov. Based on his experiences dramatizing the Russian intervention in Afghanistan, Bekmambetov says “it’s impossible” that the Americans will “go in on the ground. They may support the resistance in the North.
“Remember, all these organizations were supported and created by the CIA 20 years ago. They have the possibility to control them.”
But other than confirming what we ruefully know about America’s role in helping create the Taliban threat, Bekmambetov is clearly not interested in talking about war. So I spent the better part of our phone linkup listening to his filmmaking war stories. When it comes to unbelievable tales, showbiz truth is always stranger than fiction.
The producers of “Peshawar,” according to Bekmambetov, were Russian veterans of the Afghan war.
“They wanted to tell heroic stories about themselves,” he recalls. It was risky, but he rewrote their script and presented them as desperate and turning on one another as the situation deteriorates into a violent climax. Calming angry Russian war veterans doesn’t sound like the easiest job, but Bekmambetov managed to survive their anger and got them into a screening room to see a rough cut.
“They cried,” says Bekmambetov, “and they said ‘OK, it’s true, it’s reality, it was like this exactly.’ ”
I learned that the piracy problem in Moscow is so bad that the producer of “Peshawar” had to go out on the street to buy a bootleg copy of the film to show it to a sales agent. I heard his tale about the Russian special forces officer who served as tech adviser on “Peshawar.” It was years later that Bekmambetov introduced this officer to a French doctor from Medecins Sans Frontieres who turned out to be the very man that the officer has been sent to Afghanistan to capture.
By the end of our conversation, I almost forgot the terrible troubles that led me to call Timour Bekmambetov.
In these times of fear and uncertainty, it’s reassuring to find that the madness of war will never match the loopy logic of the global movie biz.