In 2011, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist was a last-minute addition to the Cannes selection and no one knew anything about it. The playful black-and-white film-fantasy about a fading silent-era film star, played by Jean Dujardin, became a popular sensation. Though it didn’t win the Palme d’Or - that went to Terrence Malick's Tree of Life - The Artist went on to get 10 Oscar nominations and five wins, earning worldwide box office sales of more than $130-million.
The Search, which premiered Wednesday morning, is the director’s follow-up. Like The Artist, it stars Bérénice Bejo, who also happens to be his wife. Otherwise, The Search is everything The Artist was not: raw, brutally violent and earnest to a fault. The subject is the 1999 Second Chechen War, when the Russian Federation took control of the break-away Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, in a devastating campaign that caused the death of tens of thousands of civilians; some estimates indicate as many as 200,000 were killed in a population of one million.
The movie takes its title and part of its plot from Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 Hollywood film about a young Auschwitz survivor seeking his mother. The Search follows two interweaving stories: One is about the progressive dehumanization of a young Russian soldier named Kolia (Maxim Emelianov) on the front. The second follows the relationship between Carole (Bejo), a human rights worker for the European government, and a nine-year-old Chechen orphan boy named Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamatsuiev). The story is told in Chechen, French, Russian and largely in English – particularly when Carole communicates with International Red Cross representative Helen (Annette Bening) .
In an entirely practical sense, “The Artist made The Search possible,” Hazanavicius said after the morning screening,
“Of course you’re entitled to make a film about the Chechen war, but what kind of film, what kind of budget will you get? After The Artist, I was in a very odd situation. I had made a film that didn’t conform to what the market is supposed to do and it made a lot of money. I could do almost any film I wanted to do and I thought, ‘This is a good time to do a film on Chechnya.’ If I had made The Artist 2, I would have been under pressure, because people would compare it to what I did before. In this case, I don’t have to worry.”
In some ways, The Search was an even tougher sell than The Artist, says producer Thomas Langmann: “It wasn’t just shooting in black and white. It was in several different languages and about a difficult subject with a big budget. But The Artist did indeed help us to get this film made.”
While Hazanavicius is associated with comedy, both in The Artist and his two preceding spy spoof movies (OSS 117: Lost in Rio and OSS117: Cairo, Nest of Spies), he has his serious side. In 2004, he helped produce and write a documentary about the Rwanda, co-directed by Raphael Glucksmann, son of the activist philosopher André Glucksmann, who was one of the first French intellectuals to alert the West to the devastation of the Chechen war. Hazanavicius also said he was moved to make the film because of his Lithuanian-Jewish “family background.”
“When you start looking at the Chechen war, you wonder why people didn't make a film about it earlier,” he adds. “You have all the ingredients of modern warfare: In the 1914-1918 war, about 80 per cent of the deaths were soldiers, and 20 per cent civilians. In the Second World War, it was about 50-50. In contemporary wars, it’s 80 per cent civilian deaths, 20 per cent soldiers. The news was muzzled and biased, the international community failed to respond.”
About half the cast is professional actors but key roles, including that of orphan Hadji and his sister, Raissa (Zukhra Duishvili), were discovered through an extensive casting process among ethnic Chechens living in the neighbouring country of Georgia, as well as in Moscow for the Russian soldiers.
Zukhra Duishvili has a grandfather who fought against the Russians. When asked what was the most difficult part of making the film, she paused for a long time before answering and finally said: “Working with a world-famous director.”
Maxim Emelianov, the young Moscow theatre student who won the role of the teenaged Russian soldier Kolia, had a slightly different response to the same question: “Losing weight to play the character.”