Chechen Malika Musaeva makes history at Berlin with ‘Bird’

First-time writer-director Malika Musaeva is set to make history at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, where her female-centered coming-of-age drama “The Cage Is Looking for a Bird” is the first Chechen-language film ever selected by the venerable German fest.

Musaeva’s debut, which world premieres Feb. 22 in the festival’s competitive Encounters section and is being repped internationally by Totem Films, focuses on a group of Chechen women living in a remote rural village, where they must defend their freedom and the right to live their own lives.

At the film’s heart is a friendship between two teenage girls, played by first-time actors Khadizha Bataeva and Madina Akkieva. On the precipice of adulthood, the duo seeks refuge in each other as they navigate difficult decisions about their futures.

Born in Grozny, the capital of Russia’s Chechen Republic, Musaeva says she conceived of the film as a “collection of different experiences, different facts, different destinies,” inspired by the personal histories of family members and friends and the many women who surrounded her throughout her life.

The director and her family left Chechnya in 1999, during the brutal Russian campaign to quell a separatist movement in the Muslim-majority republic, and spent the bulk of her childhood on the move: in the Russian republic of Ingushetia, then Ukraine, then Germany, before she returned to Russia. There she would go on to pursue a degree in film and study in the influential directing workshop established by Alexander Sokurov.

Musaeva then returned to Germany to continue her studies, enrolling in a master’s program in Hamburg and, after graduating, writing a script about the experiences of Chechen refugees in Europe. But German broadcasters and funding bodies weren’t receptive to what one described as a “kitchen drama” focused on the interior lives of people living on the fringes of German society.

Those rejections, however, marked a turning point for the young director, who was approached by her mentor Sokurov about making a first feature — and to do it, no less, in her homeland of Chechnya. Musaeva didn’t hesitate to accept the offer.

Returning to Chechnya, however, presented its own challenges. Arriving in one village in an unfamiliar car with St. Petersburg license plates, she instantly aroused suspicions; in another, the villagers were more welcoming — but none had ever appeared on camera before.

“I was desperate,” Musaeva admits. But having once lived in a neighboring village, she found common ground with the locals and soon befriended Bataeva, who introduced Musaeva to her friends and family. All would soon play parts in the film, effectively playing versions of themselves on screen.

A turbulent year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has stirred painful memories for Musaeva, who experienced flashbacks of her own war-torn childhood as she watched news footage of Russian warplanes. “That sound, you live with it forever,” she says. “I think many Chechen people, they live this trauma again.”

Though Chechnya is still nominally a Russian republic, Musaeva insists: “I’ve never felt Russian. I’ve always felt Chechen.” Yet she is, by her own admission, caught in the cross-currents of her complicated past. “In Germany, I’m an immigrant. And coming back to Chechnya, I’m also different. I’m not like regular Chechen people.”

She is, nevertheless, fiercely proud of her Chechnyan identity and her historic achievement in Berlin. No less important, she adds, is the inspiration she wants to give other Chechen women and girls who, like her, want to pursue their own destinies. “Maybe it will give them some hope, and it will show that there are other possibilities — there are ways to do something they always dreamed of,” she says.

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