From: Witness

Dagestan’s Peaceful Warriors

On the edge of Russia, a martial arts expert strives to find a balance between faith and independence.

Hidden in the mountainous republic of Dagestan, Gusein Magomaev runs a famed martial arts school that has produced several European champions, Olympians and the only non-Chinese king of Kung Fu.

Nurturing an array of talent, some 200 children train at the site that provides an escape for the region’s disenfranchised youth.

But in a republic with a high concentration of Muslims, outside the school’s thick walls a fierce battle for control of the Northern Caucasus is raging between Muslim separatists and the minority Moscow-backed nationalists.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stressed the importance of Dagestan for Russia – and if war breaks out there, it could have a domino-like effect on the whole region.

In Dagestan’s Peaceful Warriors, we follow Gusein who has faced arson attacks and threats from politicians while trying to keep his students focused on the next Russian karate championship.


By Katharina von Schroeder

If one reads the daily news about Dagestan, it seems like an extremely hostile place. Bomb attacks, warfare, tribalism, poverty and epidemic corruption are making the headlines. The North Caucasian Republic, which neighbours Chechnya, was repeatedly named Russia’s most troublesome region.

Contrary to that, I felt completely safe when I first visited the martial arts school “Five Directions of the World”. It was the unique spirit of the people who lived and worked there, that created a sense of being repealed, despite the harsh circumstances. Immediately, I was intrigued by the idea to tell a story about a complex environment by focusing on people who deeply impressed me with their personal determination and optimistic approach to life.

The founders of the school, Gusein Magomaev and his wife Olga Magomaeva, are the heart and mind of the institution. Together, they built it from scratch without public funds and with their bare hands. Throughout the years, they managed to overcome multiple challenges like suspicious officials, lack of funds, attacks on the school and the loss of friends. Yet strengthened through their wise and humanistic spirit, the couple never gave up and instead stood together in order to realise their goals. 

Around 200 children train at the martial arts school “Five Directions of the World” [Al Jazeera]

Many of the greatest Russian martial arts fighters were trained in this school, but, there is much more to it than the sportive success. Gusein’s and Olga’s work is grounded in the deep belief that every person can discover their talent and is able to play a positive role in society. In a very sensitive way, they manage to pass on their attitude towards life to their students. This is anything but a given fact considering that social and political structures have severely deteriorated over the past decades.

While shooting the film, there were only a few moments when I felt a direct threat. One day, I proposed to shoot the landscape. The name Dagestan can be translated as ‘country of the mountains’. So we wanted to capture the natural beauty of the region.

For our excursion, we left with two cars and a couple of teachers and their spouses. The women had prepared a luxurious picnic, yet all the men where constantly on the watch. They positioned themselves in a way where they can view all directions and made sure that they had a gun with them. Obviously, trust and optimism alone can not work in a place that has experienced a lot of violence.

For me, it is the most incredible achievement that Gusein and Olga kept an optimistic vision despite all. I hope that through the film, their spirit can also be an inspiration to the audience.