Sergei Loban: Dust (Pyl'), 2005

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2006

An independent, small-budget (no-budget, to be precise) film shot on digital camera, Dust seemed an unlikely candidate for any recognition amidst the bombast of such new Russian “blockbusters” as The Turkish Gambit (Dzhanik Faiziev, 2005) and Company 9 (Fedor Bondarchuk, 2005). Nonetheless, upon its release in June 2005 Loban’s film immediately raked in a dozen enthusiastic reviews by major Russian film critics, who repeatedly called this modest film a sign of a new direction in Russian cinema. Screened in the “Perspectives” program at the Moscow Film Festival, [1] Dust received a diploma of the Jury of Russian Film Critics for the “experiment on the body of the hero and on the language of cinema.” While the second part of this peculiar citation is expected praise for an independent production, the first part has to do with the script. The plot is simple, clever, and—to avoid the tired imprecision of the word “topical”—contemporary.

The hero of Dust is Lesha Sergeev (Aleksei Podol'skii), an obese 24-year old man, balding and myopic, who lives with his grandmother. This intelligentnaia woman monitors every aspect of Lesha’s life, from the intake of proteins and glucose (franks and sugar-loaded tea for breakfast) to suitable leisure (making model airplanes) to an appropriate outfit (an oversized T-shirt with a kitten print, purchased in a second-hand store). For the duration of the film, Lesha’s amorphous body will be draped in this “unisex” monstrosity, exchanged for female clothing at the film’s end. This expository part of the film is a small masterpiece of acting, editing, and mise-en-scène. Unpretentious and unsentimental, the sequence has Lesha’s entire life laid out with an unerring feel for turn-of-the-millennium Russia: a fully internalized sense of alienation from “reality.” Lesha’s face, torso, hands, and even the kitten on his T-shirt, magnified and distorted by close-ups, all articulate dejected bewilderment.

By some fluke Lesha is selected by the FSB to participate in an “experiment” for the “glory of Russian science.” Neither the purpose nor, indeed, the nature of the experiment is clear, but its side effect has a profound impact on Lesha in the form of a flickering image of the new Lesha, a muscular, fit, and assertive one. In a Gogolian attempt to regain this other body’s “beauty and power,” the hero desperately chases after his athletic double through the streets, clubs, and gyms of post-Soviet Moscow. The hero’s sluggishness and submissiveness disappear, replaced by an outburst of activity. Initially Lesha follows the FSB instructions: do not return to the lab and call a psychologist in case of “anxiety.” Lesha’s further actions follow the same obscure but effective logic as Ivan the Homeless’ attempts to catch the elusive “foreigner” in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. First Lesha goes to Victory Park on Poklonnaia Mountain; then tries to squeeze his way back into the lab; finally, he tracks down the professor of gynecology in charge of the experiment (Petr Mamonov) and, despite the latter’s warnings, goes in for a lethal dose of the “experiment.”

 

To say that Dust is an independent cinema project by a team of audacious alternative artists only begins to describe this uncanny film and its creators. During the 1990s, director Sergei Loban and scriptwriter Marina Potapova created an art group with the shocking name ZAiBI— “For Anonymous and Free Art.” The two of them plus cameraman Dmitrii Model' also worked on the program Up to 16 and Older for the ORT channel. The self-proclaimed anarchists invited alternative artists to their programs, organized “street parties” (a post-Soviet analogue of conceptualist collective actions), and arranged fake PR campaigns for aspiring Duma candidates. By 2000 their unorthodox activities became too much for the channel to take, at which point the trio announced the creation of the studio SVOI 2000. After several shorts, SVOI 2000 made its debut feature film Dust.

Dust’s symbolic budget of $3,000, as well as its non-professional cast, which consists of the filmmakers’ friends plus Petr Mamonov, exemplifies ZAiBI’s slogan: “Even a naked man in open space can be creative.” Albeit non-professional, the actors in Dust are all familiar faces in the Russian artistic underground. Gleb Mikhailov, the director of Black Dude (Chernyi fraer, 2001)—a campy parody of Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (1997) and Brother-2 (2000)—plays Lesha’s “body.” Russian rappers White Hot Ice and Rustaveli appear as carjacking gangsters. The former MuzTV host Larisa Piatnitskaia (also known as Squirrel) appears as the FSB-employed psychology student, while the “revolutionary writer” Dmitrii Pimenov is featured as an FSB official.

Shot with a hand-held digital camera, Dust abounds in tight close-ups of unappealing faces and bodies, captured at strange angles. Yet this is neither naturalism nor an attempt to go out on a limb for visual originality. The film’s zero-budget and the filmmakers’ inexperience may account for the rough picture, but the “Dogme-95 style” works well for the film. When the camera focuses on Lesha’s bloated face or relentlessly pursues him through his meaningless search it is, as the authors claim, hyperrealism: we are challenged to watch a movie that, in the process of constructing reality, strips it of any cinematic glamour.

The trashy visual quality has another effect that is key to the film’s narrative. On the one hand, we are privy to the grainy but endearing authenticity of a home-video. On the other hand,

the texture of [video] format inevitably brings to mind countless wedding recordings, video reports of investigative police actions, house security monitors, police surveillance […] and other such foul material, dispassionately documenting in every detail the grimy everyday life. [2]

Despite all these signs of art-house marginality, Dust is not an obscure avant-garde text, with appeal only to critics and insiders. Surprisingly enough, it is a cause-and-effect narrative film, character-centered, with clear psychological motivation. The narrative steadily progresses from initial equilibrium to disruption to resolution. As in classic Hollywood films, the hero is driven by desire. The film suggests, however, that our desires and drives are side-effects of some ill-designed neuro-social experiment, whereas final equilibrium is achieved through a pulverization of the hero, who is finally able to catch up with his media-enhanced reflection—a kind of prequel to The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999) set in a country that never valued individual consciousness in the first place.

Dust shares its penchant for hyper-realistic fantasy with such recent Russian films as 4 (Il'ia Khrzhanovskii, 2004) and Bipedalism (Evgenii Iufit, 2004). The Loban-Potapova-Model' team, however, are straight shooters. Beginning as a profoundly humanistic narrative, Dust gradually transforms into a Godardian act of aggression on the viewer, as Lesha gets lost among the forces of the post-Soviet Moscow-scape. The FSB appeals to Lesha’s “love for the Motherland” and harasses him; 1960s intellectuals praise the new generation “which grew up free”; liberals and neo-dissidents suggest emigration; the FSB-employed psychologist encourages Lesha to “open up and communicate”; the keyboard-thumping preacher (played with gusto by Psoi Korolenko) at a religious sect meeting promises new life through God; and so on and so forth. By the time the misanthropic professor delivers his outrageous 10-minute long lecture-monologue (which can only be compared with the Marxist lecture in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, 1967) on human insignificance—also known as “dust”— the viewer cannot but identify with the blessedly autistic hero. None of these discourses has any effect on him. He just stands meekly in the frame with a vacant stare, silent except for Bashmachkin-like mumbling: “My body is there. I want it back. For keeps.”

The viewer does not know how to feel. Perhaps this explains why in a collective act of denial many Russian critics described Lesha using a transplanted term: “loser.” But if the buff supercop/gangster/special forces agent, populating a score of recent films and TV productions, represents the positive pole of this paradigm, the “experiment” has, indeed succeeded. Dust is a funky and accurate picture of Putin’s Russia: a stagnant police state with “KGB basements” below and the desolate imperial ensemble at the Poklonnaia Mountain above, and with second-hand consumer capitalism stuck in the middle. In the closing sequence, the flickering post-experiment Lesha joins his grandmother in front of a TV, where stand-up comedian Evgenii Petrosian is doing his routine: like a cackling demon of banality, he spews out discursive fragments of the new “free” society.

Does Dust intend to make any political commentary? Maybe not. But its imaginative use of the soundtrack—in counterpoint to the image—is quite damning. Lesha’s therapeutic dance with the psychology student is set to Alla Pugacheva’s pop rendition of Mandel'shtam’s macabre “Leningrad.” Lesha’s comic attempts to impress chance acquaintances with the documentary evidence of his “other body” are accompanied by Sofia Rotaru’s “Only This is Not Enough”—the leitmotif of the perestroika classic Little Vera (Vasilii Pichul, 1988). But the film’s gem is Viktor Tsoi’s song “We Are Waiting for Changes!” which acquired a quasi-religious status after the release of Sergei Solov'ev’ ASSA (1988). The song plays twice at the film’s end: the first time as an ironic quote, when Lesha runs through the long corridor towards the lab and the promised land; the second as the final credits start rolling. This time, the song acquires a body: a young man angrily interprets the lyrics into sign language.

Dust is not easy viewing but it is a surprising discovery. The team’s next low-budget project, a film about summer vacations, is already underway. It is definitely something to look forward to.

Elena Prokhorova (University of Richmond)


Notes

1] Dust was reportedly invited to participate in the Cannes Film Festival but was not included because of problems with translation.

2] Anton Kostylev, “Brat-3: Vernite telo,” gazeta.ru (14 July 2005)..


Dust, Russia, 2005
Color, 107 minutes
Director: Sergei Loban
Screenplay: Marina Potapova
Cinematography: Dmitrii Model'
Music: Pavel Shevchenko
Cast: Aleksei Podol'skii, Gleb Mikhailov, Petr Mamonov, Larisa Piatnitskaia, Nina Elisova, Psoi Korolenko, Dmitrii Pimenov, Aleksei Ageev
Producer: Mikhail Sinev
Production: SVOI 2000

Sergei Loban: Dust (Pyl'), 2005

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2006

Updated: 14 Jan 06