Cannes 2006: The Russian Presence

By Birgit Beumers

The 59th edition of the Cannes International Film Festival featured no Russian films in competition, just as in the previous two years. The last Russian film to appear in competition was back in 2003, Aleksandr Sokurov's Father and Son (Otets i syn), which was accompanied by the sensational press conference where Sokurov answered Michael Billington's question about homoerotic overtones in the film's opening scene with an unhelpful?or helpless?assault on the “filthy imagination” of Western critics.

This year Nikolai Khomeriki's 977 made it into the Un Certain Regard program, without, however, garnering any awards, unlike his short film The Two of Us (A deux [Vdvoem]), which had screened in the Cinéfondation program in 2005 and received a joint second prize. Khomeriki's diploma work as student of the La Femis film school was a 30-minute black-and-white short featuring Natal'ia Koliakanova as a dying mother, cared for by her son Kirill (Artem Smola). The film displayed a great deal of sensitivity on Khomeriki's part, who carefully juxtaposed the intense physical and emotional bond between mother and son with the sterility of the suburban landscape and the cold approach of the man issuing the death certificate. With this masterful debut on the international arena, expectations were high for Khomeriki's first full-length feature film.

977 is a pseudo sci-fi film, visually vaguely reminiscent of Tarkovskii's Solaris (1972) . If it tells any story, it is one about some obscure experiment, the nature of which remains unclear. The relationship between scientists and patients at the clinic where the experiment is conducted remains equally unspecified. The script, written by journalist Iunii Davydov, was significantly rewritten by Khomeriki so much so that Davydov did not recognize it when first seeing the film. 977 remains aesthetically underdeveloped and bears witness to the fact that a filmmaker should be in a position to choose his own script rather than be urged to use a script for which a producer has already acquired rights. After all, not every filmmaker is an Andrei Zviagintsev, who turned the script for the action film by Aleksandr Novototskii and Vladimir Moiseenko into a financially successful art-house mystery, The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003). Yet, this seems to be what the producer was expecting in this instance, just as much as Aleksandr Vainshtein expected a festival hit from Aleksei German Jr. when inviting him to make Garpastum (2005) .

Un Certain Regard also included Djamshid Usmonov's To Get to Heaven First you Have to Die (Bihisht faqat baroi murdagon, 2006 ). Usmonov, who lives in Paris, shot this film largely in his native Tajikistan, with the dialogue in Russian and Tajik, while the film was co-produced by Russia, France, Tajikistan, Germany, and Switzerland. The film tells of the young Kamal (played by Kurched Golibekov, the director's nephew) who is unable to consummate his marriage. He consults a doctor, who provides little help; on his return journey Kamal follows Vera (Dinara Drukarova) to whom he is attracted. During a robbery, into which he is drawn by Vera's friends, he fires a gun, symbolically—in a blunt reference to Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin releasing his sexual energy. After making love to Vera, he returns to his wife and his former life. Tracing the journey of Kamal's initiation, the film follows the classic genre of a Bildungs -film , and the fine performance by Dinara Drukarova made this a popular film with critics and audiences alike.

Most important of all, though, was Russia's presence at the festival in the program of Tous les cinémas du monde (All the Cinemas of the World), organized for the second time this year. Its purpose is “to illustrate the vitality and diversity of cinema throughout the world, the dynamism of its young creative talent, and the involvement of its institutions in promoting cinema d'auteur ” (Cannes IFF Official Website).

The first edition of this program in 2005, convened by Serge Sobczynski, presented the cinematographies of Morocco, South Africa, Mexico, Austria, Peru, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. This year there were over 80 guests from the seven countries selected: Russia, Israel, Singapore, Switzerland, Venezuela, Tunisia, and Chile. For the special purpose of presenting the world's cinematography, the International Village-Pantiero was designed by architects Patrick Bouchain and Nicole Concordet, creating a large white tent with fine projection facilities and an auditorium seating some 200 spectators.

The second season of World Cinemas opened with the Russian Day, preceded by a launch party at the beach club of the Hotel Majestic. Although Russian caterers had been contracted from Paris, émigré byt led to more of a Soviet-style staple diet. The highlight of the evening was a speech by the Head of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography, Mikhail Shvydkoi, projected into a fountain created by the waters of the Mediterranean. Full of such special effects, this vecherinka set the tone for the Russian Day itself, the highlight of which was the screening of the much publicized Company 9 (9-aia rota; dir. Fedor Bondarchuk, 2005), to date not acquired by an international sales agent.

The film screenings included Aleksei Uchitel''s Dreaming of Space (Kosmos kak predchuvstvie, 2005), Sergei Loban's Dust (Pyl', 2005), and Bondarchuk's Company 9. The choice of feature films represented well the main trends in Russian cinema: the festival winner, the experimental film, and the blockbuster respectively. The following evening two short film programs were screened, with the works of Igor' Voloshin (Hare Hunting (Okhota na zaitsev, 2003 ); Anton Katin and Pavel Kostomarov (The Transformer [Transformator, 2003] and A Peaceful Life [Mirnaia zhizn', 2004] ), Valeriia Gai Germanika (Girls [Devochki, 2005] and Sisters [Sestry, 2005] ), and Egor Anashkin Subsidiary Farm (Podsobnoe khoziaistvo, 2004), as well as by the established animator Irina Evteeva with The Demon (2004) , a film created in her unique collage technique, in which documentary footage is combined with acrylic paint and photomontage.

There was a somewhat embarrassing silence at the opening event in the Village-Pantieri, when Shvydkoi could not remember the names of all the participants and introduced merely the “stars”: Bondarchuk, Evgenii Mironov, and Uchitel'. Voloshin, Gai Germanika, Loban, and Kostomarov stood in silence and equal embarrassment, as nobody introduced them. And yet, this young generation and the short film program foreshadow the future of Russian cinema, supported by the kinoteatr.doc festival and its producer Mikhail Sinev, who also remained unnamed.

Russia's presence in Cannes was also marked by a reception to inaugurate the Golden Angel Festival in St. Petersburg, scheduled for July 2006 and organized by Mark Rudinshtein, the former head of the Kinotavr festival. However, only a few days after the luxurious reception in Cannes, it emerged that the Golden Angel had to be “postponed” until 2007 or even cancelled altogether. More important, though, was Russia's presence on the market, where it was represented by distributors such as Intercinema, Central Partnership, Sovexportfilm, and ROSPO Film, which also scheduled several market screenings of new Russian films.

Russia's presence was felt indirectly on the screen, as for example in the works of émigré filmmakers Kirill Mikhanovsky and Julia Loktev, screening in the Critics' Week and the Directors' Fortnight programs respectively. Mikhanovsky, whose family emigrated to Brazil, showed his film Fish Dreams (Sonhos de Peixe, 2006 ) that bears no thematic relation to his native Russia. Loktev, who lives in the US, premiered her film Day Night Day Night (2006) about a shakhid – a (Chechen?) suicide terrorist embarking on Times Square, who is plagued by doubt as she walks the bomb across central New York. The film lacks a psychological dimension: the heroine has neither a past nor an identity, and no insight into her motives is offered, thus raising the question of what – apart from observation – the film has to offer to the audience that we do not know already. The Portuguese director Teresa Villaverde's film The Trance (Transe, 2006), also in the Directors' Fortnight, presented the clichéd image of the Russian woman (played by Ana Moreira) as prostitute. The most amusing Russian presence, however, remains the scene in Pedro Almodovar's Volver (2006), where the mother, Irene (Carmen Maura) – believed to be dead and now hiding in her daughter Sole's apartment – tries to think of a role for herself when Sole's clients arrive: she first says she will pose as a Chinese maid, but when Sole reminds her that she hardly looks Chinese, Irene settles on the part of a Russian cleaning lady. Russia's self esteem may be on a high, but Russian character portrayal in international film tends to contradict that perception.

Indeed, it seems that Russia still has a long way to go to be able to fit into the global cinematic process. This applies both to professional standards (rather poor in Khomeriki's film) and to the standard of scripts, as well as to the way in which the country presents itself in order to be seen differently (other than as terrorists, prostitute, and cleaning lady) in international film. Russia's strength lies in the new, talented young generation of directors and superbly skilled actors. Let us wait and see what the 2006 festival circuit will bring.

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Birgit Beumers © 2006

Updated: 06 Feb 07