Mikhalkov’s “12”: One of the most glorious moments in modern Russian cinema


I don’t think you even need to like this movie in order to feel goosebumps crawling up your arms as you watch this one. If you can’t read the Russian subtitles and don’t understand Chechen, the kid expresses admiration for the knife, and the man gives it to him. After the dance, the kid’s wary father calls him home. The kid says that he’s sorry, he’s being called to do homework. The man answers with a pretty terrifying and accurate line,

“Don’t worry, boy, there will be enough of this war left over for you too.”

These are Chechen fighters, in a movie made in a post-Beslan world. And the beauty portrayed here cuts through all that. I never expected a conservative Russian filmmaker such as Nikita Mikhalkov to shoot a scene that can humanize and illuminate and goddamn it, hotify (from the word “hot” – the word “beautify” will not do) this particular group of people in a way that no amount of political debate can match. This scene is not didactic. Instead of being buggered by an agenda, you are enveloped in the intimacy of a childhood memory that stands apart from rhetoric. It’s a Lolita moment, in the sense of a work of art twinkling like a star through the fog of social commentary that immediately gets heaped upon it due to its very nature. You respond to it as an individual.

A (cranky) fellow writer recently told me, “how racist! What ‘ethnic’ people just randomly break out into dance? What kind of BS…” I had to interrupt him there, because I do actually randomly break out into dance. I’ve done it on sidewalks while waiting for a bus with my cousin, and on Independence Square with my uncle’s drunk brother, and countless other times, which I won’t mention, because I blog under my real name.

I can’t do the lezginka, but I sure as hell can shake my bum or wave my scarf when I get in the mood, which is often. When I do it, it’s not an artform, and it won’t give you goosebumps (in fact, it will probably just make you raise your eyebrow like that mustachioed guy in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and say “I weep for the future”), but if the above scene is racist, then so is my life. You know being an “ethnic” person in someone else’s eyes, and all.

Leaving me aside, it’s not at all abnormal for groups of people to break out in traditional dance. I’ve seen it happen in Brooklyn, Montmartre, and the legendary Borshagovka. They don’t always do it as beautifully as above, but they do it nonetheless.

I’d like to have a world with more dancing. The more people dance, the less time they have to kill each other.

8 thoughts on “Mikhalkov’s “12”: One of the most glorious moments in modern Russian cinema

  1. Natalia said: ” … Mikhalkov … [shoots] a scene … in a way that no amount of political debate can match. This scene is not didactic. Instead of being buggered by an agenda … [etc.] …”

    I haven’t seen this film or any of Mikhalkov’s work, so necessarily you understand Mikhalkov and his work a lot better than I do — but to me, this video clip, at least, is starkly didactic and clearly, to me, “buggered by an agenda,” because the boy, who initiates the dance with the Chechen fighters, doesn’t initiate the dance until AFTER he is given the knife. That’s what threw me — first he is given the knife, and then strides, uninvited, but decisively and with determination, to the group of lounging Chechen fighters, and initiates his own dance, alone, WITH THE KNIFE. He even practices stabbing with the knife while he dances. Only after the boy initiates his lonely dance with the knife do the lounging Chechen fighters stand up and join him in the dance.

    I thought that was the whole “didactic” point of the video clip, i.e., to show that the Chechen boy already has the potential for murderous violence inside him which is awakened by being given the knife by a Chechen fighter — and I think the boy was given the knife only after he openly expressed admiration for the weapon (did I read that scene right?).

    That’s what I assume is the whole point of the video clip — the boy expresses admiration for the murderous weapon, is given the weapon, and then, uninvited, initiates his own dance in which he “practices” (or feigns) killing people, and only then do the actual Chechen fighters join in the dance. I thought that that was Mikhalkov’s “didactic” point, namely, that Chechen culture already favors homicide, so to speak, and the Chechen terrorist operatives awaken or activate (like pushing a button) the Chechen people’s supposedly ‘ingrained’ homicidal impulses by simply giving them a weapon (the boy had already expressed admiration for the weapon). Then the Chechen people themselves initiate the dance of murder, and the terrorists delightedly join in. In other words, in Mikhalkov’s eyes, Chechen terrorists are simply providing a venue for the Chechen people (as represented by this Chechen boy) to act out the homicidal impulses that Mikhalkov might think are ‘ingrained’ in Chechen culture.

    I’ll defer to your judgment here because I had never even heard of Mikhalkov until you mentioned him on this blog, so I don’t know his views on this issue. But since, after being given the knife, the boy strides uninvited to the fighters and initiates his own personal dance with the knife (in which he practices stabbing people), I think Mikhalkov really is making a “didactic” point here and has an unmistakeably conservative-Russian political agenda in making that point.

  2. To add a point to my over-long post above, I assume that, in Mikhalkov’s presentation in Natalia’s video clip, when the Chechen terrorist gives the boy the knife, the Chechen fighter is deliberately psychologically recruiting the boy for terrorism (it’s an old tactic). I thought that was one of Mikhalkov’s “didactic” points in the clip. But again, I’ll defer to Natalia’s judgment here, since she is familiar with Mikhalkov and I’m not.

  3. That’s what threw me — first he is given the knife, and then strides, uninvited, but decisively and with determination, to the group of lounging Chechen fighters, and initiates his own dance, alone, WITH THE KNIFE.

    Sweet zombie jeebus.

    James, dances with OMIGOD KNIVES are common in various cultures.

    The scene is not didactic in the sense that it can be interpreted in various ways. Is it a call to violence? To heritage? To both? The bearer of this memory – what does he think about it? We don’t know. Are his thoughts on it static? Does it represent a conflict or brief reconciliation? There are endless questions you can ask about this scene, and the way it relates to the film’s many other scenes.

  4. Beautiful clip.

    You see Sokurov’s ‘Aleksandra’ (also on Chechnya) yet? I’m usually a little dubious of his religious-cum-political themes, but Galina Vishnevskaya’s great.

  5. The knife being given to the boy isn’t entirely a matter of ‘enlisting’ the boy into the struggle. Knives, for purposes peaceful and otherwise, are deeply rooted in Caucasian (as in the region) culture. The knife is an object of admiration to the boy in a sense of both sheer beauty and heritage. When he begins to lunge with it, he connects to both the mindset the guerilla is insinuating, and the traditional knife dances of the Caucasus. naturally he breaks into a national dance. The guerrillas join on and encourage him because they are glade to see a patriotic little boy.

    This is a touching scene, especially after having lived in the region.


  7. Everyone forgot about that Chechens KILLERS, nationalists, they are free 6 years – during that time KILLED MAN 40000-50000

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