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by Austin Dale and Dana Harris
October 12, 2011 3:49 AM
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Editorial: Hilary Swank, What The Hell Were You Thinking?

Hilary Swank at Ramzan Kadyrov's 35th birthday celebration, which was televised on Chechnyan national television.

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.

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8 Comments

  • doc maker | October 15, 2011 5:25 AMReply

    I met Kadyrov at a film festival in Chechnya several years ago - and yeah - though he does have a certain amount of something vaguely akin to charm, he also seemed like your average ruthless petty dictator. The lions and tigers he keeps at his home are sort of the petty dictator dead giveaway. Always a bad sign.

    I do think it was probably seriously bad judgement to go to the guy's birthday party and make ass-kissing speeches, but then again, I would just remind people that it's pretty easy to get caught up in the moment at these things, and to forget the ugly realities behind the polite facade of luxurious hospitality. Who knows why she did it? Someone should ask her. Maybe she had some legitimate rationalization beyond just cash.

    But she's hardly unique; plenty of movie stars hobnob with dictators and autocratic rulers with long records of serious human rights violations -- like Richard Gere hangs out with the King of Jordan, for example. At the same time, Gere champions human rights for Tibetans. So go figure. Nobody's perfect. And the closer you get to money, power and fame, the trickier it becomes to stay innocent and pure.

  • ab | October 14, 2011 11:19 AMReply

    On the other hand, we should be mindful that this is a region that is struggling to attain some kind of national identity amidst the neoimperialist domination of Russia. Chechnya clearly has a wide range of issues, but years of continual oppression and subjugation produces pretty extreme effects.
    I think it's admirable for Swank to have taken a risk in creating some kind of discourse with Kadryov and other Chechnyans. Moreover, I think it's in line with Swank's work - which has largely advocated for subjugated people and taboo issues - to be open to this community. How could the situation in Chechnya possibly improve if we continuously disregard the region and its people instead of opening some sort of dialogue?

  • Dana Harris | October 14, 2011 5:26 AMReply

    Hi, ab and Grokad -- I see your point but respectfully disagree. This event wasn't about dialogue; it was one-way propaganda that she chose to be paid for in order to promulgate (wittingly or not, although I'd argue that if she "did her research" there's no way she could not have known).

    And of course there's a massive difference between actually committing the crimes and being in a movie in which you portray a criminal. But in this case, she's not in a movie. She's not in a role other than that of Hilary Swank, a two-time Oscar winning actress who's known for taking on roles that speak out for human rights. And she chose to trade on those achievements, publicly celebrating a leader who has demonstrated no interest in human rights and continues to deny that he's ever violated them.

    All that said, moving on. She's claimed ignorance, apologized and said she'll give the money to "various charities." Short of turning back time and saying "no" to the offer, that's probably as good an outcome as we can expect. And maybe all the brickbats will make another performer say no to similar opportunities in the future.

  • Grokdad | October 14, 2011 1:50 AMReply

    I think its valid to compare and contrast movie roles vs. reality to make a political point, but it is not valid to use that comparison to castigate the actress. After all, she was paid to portray those roles before as this one now, I presume. Should Deniro have been held responsible for Hinckley, because of a role he played in a movie?

    This article lays more blame at the feet of swank than it does at the real perpetrator of human rights violations. In that, I feel it has missed the mark quite a bit.

  • Nivekian | October 13, 2011 11:28 AMReply

    "I do my Research" yeah right...

  • Allison | October 13, 2011 7:03 AMReply

    She apparently didn't do her research or didn't care. A Human rights organization even told her ahead of time not to attend the event and the reasons why. I guess she needed the money but why not come out with a new perfume or a make-up line if she needs money that bad?

  • sandylieberson | October 13, 2011 4:51 AMReply

    Hillary Swank is either a complete idiot or very well paid by a murderer or both!

  • Lisa | October 12, 2011 6:59 AMReply

    Straight out of Pulitzer winner "A Visit From the Goon Squad"!