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Russia’s Republic of Chechnya on the run to make a movie.

GROZNY, Russia — In 2015, Ramzan Kadyrov, the feared head of Russia’s Republic of Chechnya, decided to
make a movie. In Chechnya, that might seem like a far-fetched idea. 
republic has only four movie theaters for a population of 1.4 million.
There is no local filmmaking tradition whatsoever. So Kadyrov turned to
Beslan Terekbayev. Soon, Terekbayev’s ChechenFilm studio had produced
“Whoever Doesn’t Understand Will Get It,” an action movie starring the
Chechen strongman himself.
film has never been released publicly, but Kadyrov did publish a few
clips to his famous Instagram account. One shows him surrounded by
military vehicles firing a machine gun into the air. Another depicts him
meeting an actress dressed as Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
the surface, “Whoever Doesn’t Understand” may simply seem like the
Chechen leader’s vanity project — but Terekbayev and ChechenFilm are no
joke. With Kadyrov’s backing, Terekbayev intends to turn the
Muslim-majority North Caucasus republic into a filmmaking powerhouse —
and he sees his work as a direct challenge to the liberated values
promoted by Hollywood.

Against the odds

accused of human rights abuses and murdering his political opponents
over nearly a decade ruling Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov is also known for
his love of film. In the past, he has organized visits to Grozny for
movie stars including Elizabeth Hurley and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Kadyrov’s support, ChechenFilm is building a cinematic infrastructure
where none has ever existed. Besides Kadyrov’s action film, the studio
is currently producing five major feature films, has begun a
Chechen-language television series and has opened two new cinemas and
has set-up a cinema school in Grozny.
recent auditions for an Russian-Indian co-production called “Best
Friends” 13-year-old Rayava Chebukhanova had picked a famous poem by
Russian Alexander Pushkin to recite to camera. At the beginning she was
struggling with shyness, she was in tears by the end. Even though the
Chebukhanov family — like many other local families — had rarely visited
the cinema, Rayava’s mother and brother auditioned for a role in the
same production on the same day. “We have a lot of talented
children…” said Khava Chebukhanova, Rayava’s mother, “[but] it is well
known that they have nowhere to channel their talents.”
these conditions, cultivating a cinema-going culture has been an uphill
struggle. Terekbayev, who was director of the first cinema to be opened
in Chechnya in 2008, said financing for their projects is mostly raised
from private Chechen investors. While Hollywood is content to spend tens
of millions of dollars on a feature film, Terekbayev is focused on
low-budget films that can be made for under 70 million rubles ($1.1
The company’s new
cinema school, Step, is headed by Tatyana Boika, a 23-year old art
academy graduate. With few specialists on hand, Step imports instructors
to teach six-month introductory courses on acting, directing, producing
and operating. A lack of equipment and film specialists also means the editing of ChechenFilm’s productions is outsourced to Moscow or St. Petersburg, Terekbayev said.
of ChechenFilm’s biggest stars is 23-year-old Dzhamalaila Selikhanov.
Selikhanov who is currently playing the lead role in the upcoming action
film “Clash,” is also a newcomer to film. He was spotted while
traveling back home from the university, and gave up a job at a bank to take part in his first shoot. Selikhanov, who is also considering a career as a martial arts
fighter, said in an interview that an acting course at Step had helped
him hone his skills. “Before that I used to go red in front of the
camera,” he said.
Beslan Terekbayev (on the left) says that with Kadyrov’s help they “will seize the world.”
         Beslan Terekbayev (on the left) says that with Kadyrov’s help they “will seize the world.”
One Man Show

is one of only a handful of functioning regional movie studios in
Russia, and everything in the nascent Chechen film industry appears to
involve Terekbayev. The 36-year old was put in charge of ChechenFilm in
2013 and, with Kadyrov’s personal assistance, transformed it into a
private film studio. Beyond managing the studio, Terekbayev serves as a
director, producer, script writer and, occasionally, actor. He also
leads Chechnya’s State Cinematographic
Department, which channels financing and administrative support to
ChechenFilm, and is slated to become the head of a re-vitalized North
Caucasus Film Studio this year.
a recent interview in his central Grozny office — alongside vast
portraits of Kadyrov and his father — Terekbayev told The Moscow Times
that it was his childhood dream to work in film. Instead, he became a
pediatrician — but he quit his full-time job as a doctor and hospital
director in 2012. He named Mel Gibson’s Braveheart as one of his
favorite films, and recalled watching the movie on VHS during the First
Chechen War, a bloody fight for independence from Russia that tore apart
the region in the 1990s. “The film left a very deep impression on me,”
he said.

The Kadyrov Brand

dreams aside, Terekbayev’s ties to Kadyrov have clearly played a role
in his rise. According to the filmmaker, his father was a close friend
of Kadyrov’s father. After a Dec. 23 visit to ChechenFilm’s new offices
in Grozny, Kadyrov praised the company on his Instagram account.
Terekbayev said that Kadyrov has ensured they can film in any facility —
from airport to stadium — in the region for free. “He takes part in
these projects to stimulate young people to do good,” Terekbayev said.
Chechen leader’s interest is not purely altruistic. As leader of the
republic, Kadyrov has embraced social media, photographs and film to
boost Chechnya’s profile within Russia and enhance his own grip on
power. In 2011, Hollywood stars Hillary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme
attended Kadyrov’s 35th birthday celebration in Grozny. There, they
publicly praised the Chechen leader. After criticism by human rights
groups, Swank later fired her manager and said she regretted her
decision to attend. Two years later, Kadyrov welcomed glamorous British
actress Elizabeth Hurley and French actor Gerard Depardieu to Grozny to
shoot part of a film called “Viktor.”
of the ambitions of ChechenFilm appear to mirror those of Kadyrov, who
has transformed himself from a former warlord into a national
politician. While Kadyrov’s comments often cause outrage among liberals
in Moscow, he has successfully portrayed himself as a devoutly
religious, physically strong leader, able to project his power all over
Russia. ChechenFilm would also like to project itself beyond the North
Caucasus. “Our plan is to seize the world through cinema,” said
Terekbayev. “We are building our turnover and growing our muscles. In
five years the whole world will know ChechenFilm. It will be releasing
more films than any other Russian film studio.”
A screenshot from The Call of the Heart film series. 
                                     A screenshot from The Call of the Heart film series

No Opposition

say Kadyrov’s authoritarianism means that, regardless of how the
Chechen film industry grows, there is no way to make art in the
republic. The authorities are afraid of the truth, says Inal Sheripov,
who founded ChechenFilm in 2009. “If you articulate an independent
position not agreed in advance with the authorities they perceive it as
dangerous for them, a threat,” he said. “Why? Because others could
follow that example.” Sheripov said he was forced to abandon his work at
ChechenFilm in 2012 after he refused to shoot a film about Kadyrov’s
father. Shortly thereafter, Sheripov moved abroad and has never returned
to Chechnya. 
fear is not unfounded. Kadyrov has been linked to the killing of human
rights activists and critics living abroad in Dubai and Vienna, as well
as to the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was
gunned down outside the Kremlin in 2015. In these conditions, a movie
company in Chechnya could become commercially successful, but would
never be able to make critically acclaimed cinema, Sheripov said. He
dismissed the works of ChechenFilm as “student level.”
Shakhnazarov, the head of leading Russian movie studio Mosfilm and a
prominent director, said that he had never heard of ChechenFilm.
“Sometimes films appear from the regions, but, as a rule, it is private
money and only one or two films,” he said.

Call of the Heart

disagrees with these assessments. ChechenFilm has no need to for
Western freedoms and should not seek to imitate the more successful
Hollywood model, he said. Instead, it should focus on moral
content acceptable under Muslim values. He predicts that his films will
find a receptive audience in Islamic countries. “We can’t make films
that young people watch and turn bad,” he said. “We will shoot a
different sort of film.”
of ChechenFilm’s productions show men and women touching, in line with
public customs in many conservative Muslim societies. “Call of the
Heart,” the ChechenFilm television series, shows a young man from Grozny
who is estranged from a girl he is courting because of his social
position. The plot line emphasizes the moral values promoted in
Kadyrov’s Chechnya — from religious devotion to the
upstanding nature of law enforcement officers. Sex scenes, swearing and
the depiction of alcohol and cigarettes in movies are tell-tale signs of
a failed director, Terekbayev said. “I don’t want freedom. We can’t
allow ourselves this. No-one in the world has freedom,” he said. “If
people show nonsense, that’s not freedom. We are guided by

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