Aleksei Fedorchenko: First on the Moon (Pervye na lune), 2005

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2006

The Redemption of Lunar Reality: Aleksei Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon (Pervye na lune), 2005

“The element of irony is very small, perhaps around five percent. The rest is something of an homage to the generation of our fathers and grandfathers, including their honesty, their genuine belief in an ideal.” [1] Thus the Ekaterinburg filmmaker Aleksei Fedorchenko summarizes the narrative stance of his mock-documentary First on the Moon. Fedorchenko’s career in Russian cinema is the story of survival. Survival defines the themes and aesthetic choices in his films as well. Fedorchenko started his filmmaking career at the documentary unit of Sverdlovsk Film Studio in 1990 when Soviet cinema was in its final hour. He describes his work in the 1990s as the struggle for the survival of the studio, including skirmishes with the local mafia. In 2000 Fedorchenko moved to Moscow and made two documentaries: David (2002), about a Jewish survivor of Nazi and Gulag camps, and Children of the White Grave (2003), about the survival of ethnic groups exiled by Stalin to Kazakhstan.

First on the Moon is also a story of survival. The filmmaker chose the genre of mock-documentary to tell a story of the “unknown” Soviet space program, which launched the first man to the moon in 1938. The film begins in Chile where the Soviet spacecraft apparently landed after its return from the moon and traces the fate of the first Soviet “cosmopilot,” Ivan Kharlamov (Boris Vlasov). This Zelig-like character travels from Chile across the Pacific, and then across China to Mongolia until he is finally captured by the NKVD and sent to a psychiatric ward. Eventually, he miraculously escapes from his cell and assumes a series of identities that allow him to hide from the secret police and to survive in the hostile and erratic environment of Soviet Russia.

     

In his interview with Viktor Matizen, Fedorchenko notes: “Viewers should have to figure out for themselves the rules of the game and decide whether they want to play according to them or not.” [2] The filmmaker’s perception of himself and the viewer as homo ludens provides one interpretive key to his new picture. Fedorchenko tries to return to Russian cinema the ludic spirit lost since the famous avant-garde projects of the 1920s. He seeks the path to such a playful mode of filmmaking via the genre of the mock-documentary. While the mock-documentary is well established in the British and American traditions, the genre is pretty much nascent in Russia. The novelty of Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon evinces itself in domestic critics’ exasperation when faced with a film refusing to fit inherited genre niches. Trying to evoke Western genre memory and to compare the film with its Western genre relatives, critics coined all kind of neologisms—such as nasmeshka nad dokumentom, literally “mockery of the document” (Matizen, ibid.); dokumental'naia drama (postmodernistskaia mistifikatsiia) “documentary drama (postmodernist mystification)” (film poster); poddel'naia dokumentalistika (“counterfeit documentary film”) [3] —all awkward calques or borrowings from English.

Arguably the important precursors of Fedorchenko’s film include the mockumentary-style newsreel footage in Sergei Livnev’s Hammer and Sickle (Serp i molot, 1993) and Vitalii Manskii’s project Private Chronicles: Monologue (Chastnye khroniki: Monolog, 1999). [4] While Livnev’s experimental work tested the possibilities of the mockumentary as an aesthetic practice, Manskii’s film offered a new mode of filmmaking—a communal visual game. Both playfulness and self-reflexivity are essential for Fedorchenko’s film.

Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight define the mock-documentary as “a partial and concerted effort to appropriate documentary codes and conventions in order to represent a fictional subject” (2). [5] In their view, “a culture in which the association between factual discourse and factual means of representation is increasingly tenuous” is a significant pre-condition for the emergence of this form (3). Many sots-art and parallel cinema projects of the late-Soviet era dealt with the gap between Soviet reality and its representations in Soviet culture. How then is Fedorchenko’s film different from sots-art’s and parallel cinema’s deconstructions of Soviet iconography? While a defining characteristic of the mock-documentary is its reflexive take on documentary, I would argue that many mock-documentaries, including First on the Moon, embrace a parodic, rather than a mockingly satiric take on the documentary as one of the privileged discourses of the modernist era. [6] First on the Moon, not unlike Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983) or This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984), does not limit itself to deconstructing the past; rather it plays with the parodied discourses and pays tribute to the modernist era’s fascination with the mimetic potential of cinema epitomized in its documentary tradition and the theories of cinema as an art form that redeems physical reality. In this respect, First on the Moon provides a nostalgic view not only of the modernist documentary, but also of cinema as a whole, a visual idiom of modernity.

First on the Moon is an important film for Russian cinema also because it redefines the notion of utopia as the discourse of social wish-fulfillment. Since perestroika, the dominant mode of Russian cinema has been dystopian, whereas utopianism would always come with the mandatory modifier “Soviet.” However, utopianism has deep roots in the folk tradition and cinema—as a form of popular culture—preserves the genre memory of folk utopianism. In Russian cinema of the 1990s, Petr Lutsik reestablished this link between folkloric and cinematic utopianism in his Outskirts (Okraina, 1998), arguably the first post-Soviet folk utopia film. Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon seems to continue this tradition of folk utopia cinema with Ivan Kharlamov as the legendary hero—sent by the Russian government “past three-nine lands, in the three-tenth kingdom”—who manages to survive and return to Russia. Notably, one of Kharlamov’s last assumed identities in the film is that of the legendary defender of the Russian land—Prince Aleksandr Nevskii, the hero of popular hagiography, folk legends, and Sergei Eisenstein’s famous film epic (1938). In other words, Fedorchenko’s film returns the utopian dimension to Russian cinema, thereby distancing it from the Soviet-era monopoly on discourse. The ostentatiously Soviet historical mise-en-scène of the film serves as the setting for redefining the function of Soviet iconography: evacuating it from the realm of political discourse into the realm of popular mythology.

Finally, Fedorchenko’s film poses an eternal question: What kind of a film captures moviegoers’ attention? Kracauer might have argued that the motion picture should fascinate a viewer with its realism to the point that the viewer would be tricked into believing that the motion picture world is more real than physical reality. This uncanny unity of magic and reality defined, according to the critic, two main tendencies of film art: the realist (Lumière) and the fantastic (Méliès). Film that best captures viewers’ attention usually includes both tendencies, thus making a filmmaker the ultimate illusionist.

While creating the illusion of reality, many famous films also generated a series of apocryphal stories about their screenings as illusionist experiences. One such urban legend about the screening of the Lumiéres Brothers’ L'Arrivée d'un train en la Gare de la Ciotat (1896) claims that naïve early moviegoers were terrified by the image of the approaching train and fled in panic from the screening rooms. The mock-documentary attempts to revive this early cinema’s magic in a post-modern context. Many famous mockumentaries, such as This is Spinal Tap, also became the topic of urban legends, according to which viewers were unable to distinguish fiction from documentary. [7] The screening of First on the Moon at the Venice International Film Festival has already turned into an apocryphal story as well. According to this story, many viewers assumed that the film was a genuine documentary and started leaving the screening room before the final credits for the film’s cast. Perhaps the filmmaker can experience ultimate satisfaction when he succeeds in mystifying his viewers to the degree that they cannot tell artifice from actuality.

First on the Moon is a testimony to the craft of the director of photography, Anatolii Lesnikov, and set designer, Nikolai Pavlov, who created ninety percent of the film’s fake documentary footage. The film crew’s skill and a million dollar budget (relatively big for a Russian film) made First on the Moon one of the most important films of the year in Russia. The film won both the best debut and the critics’ awards at the Kinotavr festival in Sochi, as well as the best documentary award at the Venice International Film Festival. What is even more intriguing, the film went beyond festival circuit and was released in Russia’s movie theaters. Does the film’s success simulate the illusion of the Russian film industry’s survival or signal its genuine recovery?

Alexander Prokhorov (College of William and Mary)


Notes

1] Cited in Tom Birchenough, “Inspired Lunacy.” Moscow Times (30 September 2005).

2] Viktor Matizen, “My ne poliruem vremia.” Novye izvestiia (6 June 2005).

3] Andrei Plakhov, “Pervye na lune.” Kommersant (10 July 2005).

4] Vitalii Manskii’s compilation film—made from amateur footage mailed to the filmmaker by people from all over the former Soviet Union—narrates the story of a fictional hero who was born on the eve of Iurii Gagarin’s space flight (April 11 1961) and died with the end of the Soviet era. The film’s stance is close to the personal films of Ross McElwee and Alan Berliner. Like Alan Berliner, Manskii created a database of period footage and then created his Private Chronicles on the basis of the footage from his database.

5] Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight. Faking it. Mock-documentary and the subversion of factuality. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001.

6] Following Linda Hutcheon’s discussion of parody, I understand it as a double-voiced discourse paying homage to the parodied discourse while signaling the difference between the parodic and the parodied discourse: “a repetition that includes difference” (Hutcheon. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings in Twentieth Century Art Forms. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1985. 37).

7] Carl Plantinga notes that the film played well in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto. In Dallas, however, the previews were less successful. The filmmaker reported that “A small section of the audience laughed. The rest asked why we would make a serious documentary about a terrible band they had never heard of” (cited in Plantinga, “Gender, Power, and a Cucumber.” Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1998. 320).


First on the Moon, Russia, 2005
Black and White and Color, 75 minutes
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Screenplay: Aleksandr Gonorovskii and Ramil Iamaleev
Cinematography: Anatolii Lesnikov
Set Designs: Nikolai Pavlov
Cast: Boris Vlasov, Aleksei Slavnin, Andrei Osipov, Anatolii Otradnov, Viktoriia Il'inskaia. Producers: Dmitrii Vorob'ev and Aleksei Fedorchenko
Production: Sverdlovsk Film Studio and Film Company Strana

Aleksei Fedorchenko: First on the Moon (Pervye na lune), 2005

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2006

Updated: 17 Jan 06