Despite some structural problems, sincerely made German docu “White Ravens — Nightmare in Chechnya” presents a harrowing enough portrait of emotionally and physically damaged Russian soldiers to merit serious attention from fests, broadcasters and even theatrical distribs looking for niche non-fiction product.
Three years in the making, pic by helmers Johann Feindt and Tamara Trampe, who both have sturdy docmaking credits behind them, focus mainly on four vets — three of the Chechen conflict, one from Afghanistan — trying to cope with return to civilian life. Nurse Katya K. needed the money at the time of signing up to work in a military field hospital, but returned to St. Petersburg with head injuries and deep psychological scars. Petya Sch. is seen first in homemovie footage as a hearty young man playing guitar just before he left for the front; he came back missing an arm and a leg.
For contrast, filmmakers interview Sergei B, a vet from the 1980s Afghani conflict, still fighting his demons with drink and drugs. His story illustrates how long war haunts its victims.
Most disturbing strand concerns young Kiril S., a handsome boy whose cheerful letters home from Chechnya are read in voiceover to provide ironic counterpoint. After having been captured by the rebels and held prisoner, he is met later in a Moscow mental hospital in a near catatonic state, but still doted on by his adoring mother Tamara. Eventually released, he rapes a 9-year-old girl while drunk and is sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Considerable screen time is devoted to the Committee of Mothers of Russian Soldiers, a volunteer organization run by a cast of flinty women who fight for prisoners’ rights and support those who desert. Threaded throughout the film, helmers show footage of captured Chechen rebels to various interviewees, trying to ascertain ID. It’s an investigative strand that feels more like the subject of another film entirely, one perhaps deserving of its own feature treatment.
While helmers are occasionally heard offscreen asking questions, shooting style is self-effacing, favoring simple, long takes shot on digital equipment. In contrast to Pirjo Honkasalo’s recent poetic docu look at Chechnya, “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia,” Feindt and Trampe seem to shun stylizing technique in order to serve stories straight up, creating a flat, TV-doc quality.