L'étoile du soldat (Star of the Soldier) (2006)
Director: Christophe de Ponfilly.
Starring: Sacha Bourdo (Nikolaď), Patrick Chauvel (Vergos), Philippe Caubčre (Narrateur, voice), Hanns Zischler (Narrateur allemand, voice), Mohammad Amin (Najmoudine), Ahmad Shah Alefsourat (Assad), Gol-Ghotai (Leďla), Denis Manokhin (Mosgh), Pavel Kuzin (Lieutenant), Elena Mikheeva (Nikolaď's mother), Serguey Sonovsky (Nikolaď's father), Murad Ibragimbekov (Zanoviev).
in the Afghanistan war a young Russian soldier captured by the Mujahideen in the early 80s becomes sympathetic to the Afghans
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. Curse words.
September 11, 2001. Two planes are flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City by terrorists. In the Hindu Kush Mountains journalist Vergos hears about what happened. He has been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years now. In December 1979 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. He would bear witness to a war that lasted 10 years by filming some of it.
In the Soviet Union fate plays a trick on Nikolai Alexandrovich Petrov. He's a singer in his native land and has no interest in politics whatsoever.
After having fun out with his friends, Nikolai returns to his parents' apartment. His parents are watching television. Nikolai turns the light on and says to his mother: "I've been drafted!" She says that this is the best thing that could have happened to him. All he does is play his music. He's no more than a clown. Nikolai says he won't join the army.
Nikolai thinks of ways to avoid military service. A friend of his, Leonid, tells Nikolai that for 1,000 rubles he can get his name off the military rolls. Nikolai asks his father for the money, but dad tells his son that 1,000 rubles is a fortune. Dad also says that Nikolai should just serve his two years and then get out.
Nikolai says goodbye to his friends. He leaves his guitar behind with a friend and gets on the bus.
In the military he takes the oath of allegiance to the Soviet Union. Nikolai with his comrades walks aboard a transport plane to head for Afghanistan.
Panjshir Valley 1983. Nikolai arrives at base camp via a helicopter. His unit now jumps on a truck and is driven into the camp. Somewhere up in the mountains Vergos is probably filming the base where Nikolai has just been posted.
Nikolai asks a veteran if there have been many casualties at the base? For this, the big fellow roughs up the small fellow a bit and then releases him.
Orientation. Why are we here? "We're defending the Afghan workers' revolution." More simply, their aim is to crush the vermin who oppose them.
Four Afghani males are driving their goats along. Nikolai's unit suddenly shows up and starts firing at the men. One Afghani shepherd is killed. A few goats were also killed and they are taken to be eaten by the troops. A Soviet soldier has just been gutted by a farmer armed with a scythe. He is placed in the back of the truck.
Afghanis recover the body of the Afghani goat farmer.
Nikolai has a nightmare and jerks his body to a sitting position on his bed.
A very young Afghani boy is playing with an explosive device. His sister comes over and takes it from him. Sister now calls out to her farmer father holding the explosive over her head. Dad rushes over, takes the explosive and throws it behind a rock wall. The device explodes there.
The sergeant says to his men: "The Afghan army is bullshit!" The Soviet troops, if they don't want to get shot in the back, must keep the Afghanis in front of them. Two wounded Afghani soldiers are brought in on the back of a truck. As Nikolai walks around the camp, his friend Vladimir finds him. Both fellows are very happy they found each other. Vladimir says to his comrades that Nikolai is his best friend from Kirjatch. He was the town's local rock star. The guy who roughed up Nikolai tells him: "You better learn to play the Kalashnikov instead of the mandolin!"
The two friends go over to the mess hall for something to eat. Vladimir pours some Afghan vodka into Nikolai's glass from his canteen. Nikolai asks if there is some job position where it's cool? Vladimir says the morgue, but you have to have connections to get that job. Vladimir says he prefers fighting to filling caskets with dead bodies or with sand when there's nothing left of a body. Nikolai says: "Fucking Americans!" Vladimir says there are hardly any Americans here. They just send weapons to the Afghanis and let them do the fighting for them. Vladimir is a born entertainer. He gets up and offers a toast to, among other things, Brezhnev and his comrades.
Nikolai asks what's it like out there? Vladimir says it's depressing. One RPG can send a soldier to kingdom come. He then tells Nikolai to think of something else.
The unit moves out in a convoy.
Vergos is with a group of Afghani fighters. The group runs into Nikolai's unit headed toward them. They hide behind a wall and let the Russians pass.
Back in the barracks, it looks like Nikolai is already depressed. His friend comes over and tries to cheer him up. He tells Nikolai that if a soldier deserts here, he is dead. Nikolai replies: "We're already dead!"
Another day, another convoy. Nikolai is bothered by the whole situation in Afghanistan. He just can't see how this war is supposed to be helping the Afghanis. This day the Russians come down to the nearby village. The little Afghan girl runs door to door yelling that the Russians are coming! The Russian soldiers are told to form up in platoons. They are going to be helping the Afghanis police the streets of the village. What they are really looking for are able-bodied men they can grab and put into the Afghan army. If the village cooperates, they will receive wheat, seeds and doctor visits as a reward.
The army grabs as many young and old men as they can. They are all lined up. Some of the fellows are as young as 12. The Afghani in charge goes down the line questioning the men and deciding who he will take and who he will leave behind. A little boy comes running up to tell Commander Najmudin that the Russians are taking away the village men.
The guy who roughed up Nikolai is now trying to raped a village woman. Nikolai walks up on him and the guy says: "Fuck off, kid! What are you doing?" Nikolai approaches the large fellow again and tells him to let the woman go. The guy just pushes Nikolai down. Nikolai gets up and prepares his weapon for firing. The guy tells him to go ahead and shoot him because he's sick of all this. While he is yelling at Nikolai, the woman grabs a nearby knife and stabs the man in the stomach. He falls over. The woman now says she will kill Nikolai and then herself. Nikolai motions to the woman to get out of here. She throws the knife down, puts her burka back on and runs out.
Four soldiers carry the dead body out. The lieutenant demands to know who killed this man? Nikolai says he heard a scream and went into a house, but their soldier was already dead. The lieutenant tells the Afghani leader that he has five minute to find the killer. If he doesn't find the killer, the lieutenant says he is going to shoot the Afghani leader. Nikolai goes with the Afghanis to find the house. After awhile, Nikolai and the Afghanis return. The leader demands to know who lives in that alley (the one he is pointing to). No one will say, so he grabs a little boy and shakes him up. The boy says his uncle lives there. The leader goes over to the man and demands information and when he doesn't get it, he shoots the uncle in the head with his army pistol. The lieutenant is satisfied and the army leaves the village. Nikolai thinks about the incidents and the dead men on his way back.
Later Russian jets bomb the village. The soldiers are in a sad mood. At the table Nikolai gets up and tells his friend (and thereby all the guys) that he has blood on his hands. Vladimir tells him to shut up and sit down. A man starts singing and the other soldiers join in. Nikolai goes out and has a smoke.
Vergos in the camp of the resistance fighters writes down the events of the day in his journal. He writes: "The Russians have injected the poison of civil war into Afghanistan."
The lieutenant comes in with mail from home. The guys are all excited by that and rush forward. Nikolai gets a letter. He reads it and then tears up the letter. A tear comes down his right cheek.
Everything possible is done in the Soviet Union to keep the war out of the news. In fact, soldiers writing home are forbidden to write the word "Afghanistan".
The Russians fire on a group of resistance fighters in the distance. Nikolai's convoy runs into an ambush. RPGs are used to destroy some of the vehicles. The Russians suffer quite a few casualties.
Vladimir is in the hospital. His arms are gone, and his head is bandaged up. Nikolai pays him a visit. He tells his friend that he is going to be send home now. After Nikolai leaves the room he cries.
Vergos has been shot in the arm. Back in the cave they patch him up.
Nikolai is out on patrol at the back. The soldier behind him tells him to come with him. They go into a grape arbor and they start picking grapes. The other fellow goes to get a crate. As Nikolai picks grapes, he hears the creak of a door opening. He grabs his weapon and goes to investigate. He starts to walk into the dark room and he is grabbed by the resistance fighters. The other soldiers arrives, but doesn't see Nikolai. He puts the crate down and there he sees his comrade's hat with grapes in it and his back-pack. He starts toward the door but hears gunfire from outside. He turns around and runs toward the sound of the firing.
Nikolai is taken far up into the mountains. He is very afraid because Russian propaganda told him over and over that the bandits cut off prisoners' arms and legs, skin them alive and rip out their tongues. Arriving at the cave, one of the fighters hits Nikolai on the head with the butt of his gun and says that they must kill this Russian. Other fighters stop him and tell him that they are not allowed to kill prisoners. The men eat some type of rice dish.
Nikolai is taken outside the cave to piss. With the guards' backs turned the other way, he starts to sneak off. He doesn't get very far before he is grabbed again. One fellow says: "Even tigers never escape from this valley." The men sleep in the cave, side by side, but Nikolai is very much awake.
In the morning firing is heard and the resistance fighters rush out of the cave to see what's going on. When a helicopter approaches they all duck down and put over themselves blankets that match the colors of the rocks. The group goes to a bigger, safer cave. They bring Nikolai along with them. Everyone stays very quiet. Russians are searching the area.
After the Russians are gone, they come out of the cave and sit under the shade of some trees and have something to eat. Another one of the fighters wants to kill Nikolai, but the leader puts a stop to that saying: "Don't make him hate us!" He cuts the ropes from around Nikolai's hand sand gives him bread to eat. As Nikolai wolves down the bread, Vergos comes over and starts taking his photo. Nikolai heard the guy speaking French before and now says to the photographer in French please don't take photos of me. Vergos is surprised the soldier speaks French. Nikolai says he learned French in school in the Soviet Union. He says he is from Kirjatch which is not far from Moscow.
Vergos writes in his journal that the Mujaheddin took a prisoner. Nikolai is lucky, because other groups might have already killed him.
A week later. Vergos leaves to film other resistance fighters. He will go farther north to catch up with leader Massoud. Vergos goes over to Nikolai and gives him some French poetry to read. Nikolai gives Vergos the photo of him singing with his band. Vergos asks if he is a singer? Nikolai says singer, yes, killer, no. The photo is passed around. Nikolai tells Vergos that the photo is his, but Vergos says no, because Nikolai must not forget what he came from.
Vergos and two other men (Ata, his guide and Ali, his interpreter) travel through the mountains by horse. Vergos thinks about the fact that the resistance fighters are composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Kyrgyzis, Hazaras, Pashtuns and others who are all united in the resistance fight.
Najmudin's group has more or less adopted Nikolai, the little soldier who made them laugh. They dress him in Afghani clothes and teach him how to pray. Over time they start treating Nikolai like a brother.
Vergos is with Massoud and his fighters now. The Soviets are always chasing him. As the winter sets in, Vergos will be stranded here because there is snow and ice everywhere blocking trails and passes.
The resistance fighters with Nikolai all start teaching him the Afghani language. An older man demonstrates his abilities to mimic the sounds of various birds.
The warm weather returns and the Soviets are back out searching for resistance fighters. Nikolai has made friends with Assad, the rebab (a string instrument) player. He takes the rebab and says he will play some rock for the children. He imitates the moves of a rocker as he sings a song that does not sound very good. But he sure makes the children laugh. Everyone runs for cover as a jet flies over the area.
Over time Nikolai came to be called Ahmad the Afghan. He joins the villagers in watch buzkashi, a game played by Afghan horsemen.
The resistance fighters plant mines outside of the Russian camp. The women wash clothes down by the river. The little girl that saw Nikolai save her mother from being raped, recognizes him despite his long hair and beard, goes over to him and kisses his hand. Mother calls her back. The little girl goes to her Uncle Najmudin and tells him the story of the Russian who saved her mother.
A message comes from Massoud that the Soviets are planning an attack and that all civilians should be evacuated. Some of the Afghanis gets mad at the Russians and want to hurt Ahmad. They jostle him back and forth, but don't really hurt him. At night, the civilians move away from their villages to safer areas.
The American CIA, who were trying to make Afghanistan into Russia's Vietnam, start financially backing some of the most radical of the Islamists. Ahmad watches when the resistance fighters plant a huge bomb in the road. He also runs the wires from the bomb to the detonator. The bomb is detonated. Ahmad is told to detonate the other bomb, but he can't or won't, so Assad has to detonate it for him.
Assad and Ahmad run along the river in the valley to get away from the firing. They come upon another section where there has been fighting. Assad jumps behind a wall followed by Ahmad. Assad goes down with a number of hits in his back fired by a Russian soldier. Ahmad sees the Russian coming closer and he yells in Russian don't shoot because he is Russian. Assad now fires his automatic at the Russian and the man goes down. Ahmad goes over to check on the Russian He tells the wound man that his name is Nikolai. The Russian looks at Nikolai and starts to say: "How could you . . . Nikolai?" The soldier dies.
Nikolai works his way over to a campfire site of the Russians. He listens in to some of their conversation and thinks about snow ball fights when he was a kid in Russia. But Nikolai does not make himself known to the Russians.
Ahmad goes to the village. There he finds the dead body of the little girl whose mother he saved. He picks up the dead body and walks with it a ways. Resistance fighters run into him and a man says to take the child away from the Russian. Then they say they are going to shoot the Russian. Ahmad is so worn out and upset about all the death he has seen that he doesn't seem to care if they shoot him or not. The leader of the group has to save Ahmad's life once again.
Vergos returns to the gorges of Rivad. He arrives and is greeted by Najmudin. A jet is heard overhead and the men all run to the cave for safety. There Najmudin asks Vergos to tape his rant. Najmudin says: "They destroy over and over again. We didn't ask for war. Tell it to the world! Let them know! . . . we will not give up."
Najmudin now gives the deceased rebab player's rebab to Nikolai. And at this time Najmudin tells the story of how Nikolai the Russian soldier saved his niece Leila's mother from being raped and possibly killed. And now Najmudi sets Nikolai/Ahmad free.
Nikolai says goodbye to his Afghani friends. Vergos agrees to accompany Nikolai to France.
September 25, 1984. Nikolai and Vergos cross over the Afghanistan border and starts their 10-hour walk into Pakistan. Vergos and Nikolai walk on.
September 11, 201, Vergos was back in Afghanistan when he heard the news about the twin towers in New York City being hit by two airplanes. Commander Massoud died a victim of a suicide bombing.
"In September 1984 Massoud set a Russian prisoner free. He was called Nikolai. On his way to freedom, he was assassinated in Pakistan."
Good film. The audience gets some insights into the Russian-Afghanistan War from the side of the Russians and then from the side of the Afghanis. The audience gets to see the Russians and the Afghanis when they relax and try to enjoy themselves. Friendships between Nikolai and the Afghanis shows how getting to know one can conquer ethnic and national hatreds. Sacha Bourdo (as Nikolaď) was very good.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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