One of the strongest contenders for recognition in what has been an otherwise modestly meritorious pack, “Peshavar Waltz” is a startling, gripping anti-war manifesto from Russian first-time directors Timur Bekmambetov and Gennadij Kajumov. Tagged by one jury member as “a Russian ‘Platoon'” and by another admirer as “Tarkovsky meets Tarantino,””Peshavar” examines a bloody incident from the former Soviet Union’s Vietnam: the war in Afghanistan.
Resourcefully and powerfully shot by the young directing duo for an astonishing $ 50,000, violent war pic puts to shame most Hollywood actioners with hundreds of times the meager budget and will gain film world’s attention both for its raw force and exhumation of facts that have heretofore gained little notice in the Western press.
Though confusing at times and technically rough around the edges (especially the sound), like “Terminator” for James Cameron, “sex, lies, and videotape” for Steven Soderbergh and “Reservoir Dogs” for Quentin Tarantino, “Peshavar” will provide a launching pad for unknown filmmakers’ careers once pic gets eyed outside this sleepy Bohemian village fest.
At a military base in Pakistan’s Peshavar region, a group of Russian prisoners of war grab control of the base, unwittingly aided by British journalist Charlie Palmer (Barry Kushner), who is being assisted by French medic Dubois (Viktor Verzbickij) in his documentation of the camp conditions.
Once the Russians wipe out their captors, seize control of the radio transmitter and barricade themselves in, Palmer and Dubois find themselves hostages and witnesses to a barbaric insurrection where the lines between friends, allies, deserters, warriors and various ethnicities are blurred or smashed. The film feels so authentic that at times its freewheeling narrative seems like a reconstruction of doc footage of an actual event. The Russian thesps who playthe P.O.W.s are completely convincing, their faces wracked with pain and terror that haunt long after the film wraps up.
Dubois is forced to attend to the wounded and dying, and Palmer weaves in and out of the bloodshed with his camera capturing every moment of heroism, betrayal and confusion. The story, reportedly fact-based and revealed only by Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, indicts not only the brutal Pakistani collaborators who held the men in subhuman conditions, but the Russian invaders and the cynical geopolitics of American advisers who look on as the rebellion is wiped out by a helicopter bombing raid courtesy of the P.O.W. military command.
Although the story fails to develop a clear narrative or establish characters in a conventional manner, and though the details of the event get lost in the mud, blood and smoke, and key dialogue moments are garbled, “Peshavar” nonetheless creates memorable, passionate images.
It’s easier to believe that the film could gain a following from war film fans who will find it a low-budget “Das Boot” than it is to read that it won first prize at a “student” film festival last year. If this is a “student” film and Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth” a big-budget studio pic, perhaps it’s time for our top action helmers to check into a Russian night school class.