Hilary Swank and Ramzan Kadyrov would seem to be an unlikely pair.
Hilary Swank is indie film royalty, an actress who won her first Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry" and has gone on to succeed in both mainstream genre films and independent dramas that center on important social issues.
Ramzan Kadyrov is the president of Chechnya, a leader who is internationally reviled for his alleged violence against separatist forces. His violations are so widespread that Human Rights Watch has said they constitute crimes against humanity.
But there they were, together at Kadyrov's 35th birthday celebration in Grozny last week. After a brief video montage of her cinematic work, Swank took to the stage at the event to wish Kadyrov a happy birthday and express her gratitude for the invitation.
"Thank you so much for inviting me to your beautiful city," she said, adding that she was given a tour that day. "I could feel the spirit of the people. Everyone felt so happy."
She then goes on to praise the construction company, by name (!), that's rebuilt much of the city and offers them her congratulations. "I hope someday, when you get your opera house built, maybe I'll have a film premiere here."
At the end of her presentation, Swank's translator leans over to her; he's apparently impressed with her performance. In return, she smiles and says, "I do my research."
Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and singer Seal also attended the event, as did violinist Vanessa-Mae, who was reportedly paid half a million dollars for her performance.
We don't know if Swank was paid. But given Kadyrov's position in the world, we hope so. We hope it was stupid money. Not that it would justify the act, but it would bring some balance because this was a really stupid idea.
Chechnya, of course, was destroyed over two civil wars. Under Kadyrov, who came to office in 2007 after the assassination of his then-president father, the country has seen some stability as he initiated a major construction program that has rebuilt the city with shopping malls, luxury hotels and major thoroughfares.
However, Kadyrov has not undertaken a similar plan for the people he rules.
So now we have an actress who has thrown herself into roles like suffragist Alice Paul in "Iron Jawed Angels," but traveled halfway around the world to celebrate the birthday of a leader who says: "A woman should know her place. A woman should give her love to us [men]… She would be [man’s] property. And the man is the owner."
Twelve years ago, Swank received an Oscar for her portrayal of transsexual murder victim Brandon Teena; this month, she shook hands with the leader of a country where gay people are sentenced to die.
In "Freedom Writers," she portrayed Erin Gruwell, an English teacher who encourages written self expression so her at-risk students have a chance to escape their current circumstances. In Chechnya, journalists live in a "climate of fear," according to Reporters Without Borders. (When a RWP representative told this to Kadyrov's press secretary, this was the response: “If journalists are afraid to cover any topics in Chechnya, they are cowards and they should become taxi drivers.”)
In "Conviction" Swank portrayed Betty Anne Waters, a woman who fought to free her wrongly convicted brother who faced the death penalty. In 2009, Kadyrov went on national television to tell his people that if you had a family member who had fled Chechnya to join the insurgency, you were held responsible for bringing that person home to face the penalties. "You must find your relatives and return them home," he said. "If they commit evil, you, your dear ones and even your descendants will pay the price… The evil done by your relatives in the forest will come back to you and your homes. Every one of you will feel this on your own back. Everyone with relatives in the forest will be responsible, everyone, everyone!"
Of course, Swank's entire career doesn't align with Kadyrov's very long list of human rights violations. However, it's bizarre in the extreme that a woman who has spent much of her acting career portraying real-life figures who have fought for various rights and freedoms would allow herself to be used as a propaganda tool for a man who's dedicated much of his life to ensuring that the people he rules have no such opportunities.