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05/23/2013

Lights, camera, action: stars buff up Chechnya's on-screen image

Elizabeth hurley chechnya blog
 Elizabeth Hurley attends a news conference in Chechnya's capital Grozny, earlier this week. Hurley will star alongside with French actor Gerard Depardieu in the drama, titled "Turquoise, " that will be directed by French filmmaker Philippe Martinez. (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)

“A tale of tragedy, betrayal, lots and lots of mayhem and finally, sweet bloody revenge.”

The modern history of Chechnya? No, a media description of the French-Russian thriller, Turquoise, starring curvaceous British actress Elizabeth Hurley, and lumpy formerly-French actor Gerard Depardieu, now on a permanent tax holiday from Paris in his adopted homeland, Russia.

The film’s biggest casting coup is Chechnya itself.

Russia’s southern banana republic is soon to be a glitzy backdrop to a thriller that aims to eradicate those grittier Hiroshima-like bombing images, massacres, firefights and filtration camps that did so much to undermine its star quality during two brutal wars. Not to mention more recent attention as the place of origin of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers.

 “I followed everything that happened here and saw a city totally rebuilt and very sympathetic people,” Depardieu told reporters from the Chechen capital Grozny, where he is a “very close friend” of warlord leader Ramzan Kadyrov. He is also making a Russian-produced film on Chechnya's post war reconstruction.

Kadyrov’s own hard man image got the soft-lens treatment when Hurley was photographed next to him, cuddling his white kitten, nostalgically named Chanel. And he has taken to posting “almost adorably kooky” pix on Instagram, recently posing benignly alongside another apparent close friend, martial arts film actor Steven Seagal, who gave an impromptu folk dance performance in Grozny.

It won’t be the first time Kadyrov has tried to punch up Chechnya’s image.

He’s imported top-flight footballers for exhibition matchers. And most notoriously, invited action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and Oscar-winning actor Hilary Swank for lavish  national celebrations in Grozny two years ago that coincided with his birthday. (Kadyrov formally opposes public birthdays to avoid accusations of a Stalin-like cult of personality.) After viral, and virulent, media reports, Swank apologized, insisted she knew nothing of her host’s allegedly dubious human rights record, and reportedly fired her manager on return.

This time, Hurley and Depardieu are making no excuses. If they had earlier doubts they could have consulted any number of human rights groups -- like Memorial, whose Chechnya monitor, Natalya Estemirova, was kidnapped and murdered in 2009. Kadyrov’s regime has been accused of pursuing its enemies to foreign countries, killing six of them in Turkey alone. Allegations of human rights abuses fill the files of advocates who can only do their dangerous work outside of Chechnya.

Depardieu, at least, won’t be apologizing any time soon. His new BFF, President Vladimir Putin, personally handed him a Russian passport after he quit France in a dudgeon over a 75 per cent tax on millionaires. He now has registration papers for a new flat in the Soviet-style city of Saransk, capital of the Russian republic of Mordovia, where he plans to open a restaurant.

The region, he rhapsodized, has no oil or gas, but “rich people who make their wishes come true in life.”  Except for Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was denied parole last month from a Mordovian penal colony where she’s serving a two-year sentence for a brief protest in a Moscow cathedral. None of the punk group has been invited to perform in Grozny.

Olivia Ward covered the former Soviet Union from 1992-2002, including Russia’s two wars with Chechnya. She collaborated on Shelley Saywell’s film A Child’s Century of War, which was based on her reports, and listed for an Academy Award.

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