Starless, Prize-less: The Moscow International Film Festival 2006

By Svetlana Khokhriakova (Moscow)

After Michael Haneke refused, literally days before the festival opened on 23 June, to be the chairman of the jury—breaking all previous agreements—the jury of the 28th Moscow International Film Festival was headed by Andrzej Zulawski. In arriving at its decisions, Zulawski’s jury reached a verdict without having to discuss matters into the early hours of the morning as frequently happens, and its decision was practically unanimous. Prior to announcing the winners, Pan Zulawski formulated some criteria that should not be forgotten, he said, especially by critics: people should ask themselves whether they would buy a ticket to see this or that film. Critics should descend from their clouds and step onto the ground, rather than retreat into some non-existent world. As a rule, one should not leave the theater before a film’s end, something that not everybody always manages to do. If people want to leave during a film, the film’s review should reflect that fact. The ultimate criterion relates to the desire to see a film for a second time. While these rules could, of course, form the basis for the jury’s work, nevertheless a “class-A” festival should encourage, above all, innovation and search in the field of film language. Otherwise, what is the point of a festival?

The criteria set out by Pan Zulawski were completely fulfilled, in his words, by the film About Sara (Sweden, 2005), which received the main prize, the Gold St. George. Director Othman Karim (a native of Uganda who lives and works in Sweden) said that he had not had any hopes that his modest film would receive a prize. The film took five years to make and tells about a young woman who has been seeking love for over a decade, torn between career and private life. The most prosaic and dramatic episodes are full of humor. The film has great potential for distribution and does not aim at festival conquests, yet it turned out to be the Moscow Film Festival’s favorite, despite the fact that the festival had stated its intent not to take note of accomplishments in mainstream cinema, as much as artistic achievements.

The FIPRESCI jury gave its award to the Philippine film The Bet Collector (2006) by Jeffrey Jeturian, which was shot with a hand-held camera as if in the stream of daily street life, with the heroine literally emerging from the crowd. Although she has appeared in films since the age of 14, Gina Pareno is an amateur without professional training as an actress. At other festivals, like Berlin—with its penchant for atypical heroes and performers who do not resemble “actors” and “actresses,” but are fat, non-standard, simple guys who seem to have stepped-in off the street—Pareno might have received an award for best actress.

Yet in Moscow, too, an award was presented for a seemingly simple performance by the skillful and talented German actor Jens Harzer, who played the role of a strange itinerant insurance agent living in his automobile and whose life has an almost virtual quality. Running on Empty (Der Lebensversicherer; dir. Bülent Akinci, Germany, 2006), it turned out, had been made for television and had already been screened in one of the Berlinale programs.

Driving Lessons (2006), the debut of filmmaker and scriptwriter Jeremy Brock from Great Britain, was showered with awards: the Special Jury Prize, the Prize for Best Actress (Julie Walters), and the prizes of the Russian Critics and of Audience Sympathy. The film resembles the well-known theatrical adaptation of Harold and Maude (dir. Hal Ashby, 1971), performed by fine British actors: a teenager and an elderly actress meet, and a genuine friendship develops between them. It is not surprising that Julie Walters was rewarded for her acting skills—she really is a brilliant actress. The film itself is quite endearing and touching, but it is not laden with artistic discoveries.

The Uzbek film The Well-Spring (Chashma / Istochnik; dir. Yolkin Tuychiev, Uzbekistan, 2006) received the main prize in the “Perspectives” competition, which features directors’ first and second films; the award includes both a $10,000 monetary prize and 10,000 meters of Kodak film-stock. The Jury chairman of this competition, Czech director Peter Zelenka, described this winning film as having been made in a remote area of Russia. Indeed, Tuychiev studied in the scriptwriting department of the Advanced Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors in Moscow, but Russia is still perceived as some kind of nomadic land. We all live in the grip of stereotypes concerning what constitutes West and what East, and in passing we hang labels onto so-called western consumer society (as though ours was no consumer society), and then we are surprised that to the European viewer Russia is still a region of fearless bears and permafrost.

There were few stars in Moscow this summer. However much the festival’s president, Nikita Mikhalkov, emphasized that the festival would not chase after stars, they are and always will be an indispensable and attractive component of any festival. The festival opened with Kaige Chen’s The Promise (China, Japan, South Korea, 2005), a director known for his popular films Farewell My Concubine (1993) and The Emperor and the Assassin (1999). Chen attended the opening night and was honored with a prize for his contribution to motion picture art. Bertrand Blier came because his film How Much Do You Love Me? (Combien tu m’aimes?, France and Italy, 2005) opened the competition screenings, but Monica Bellucci, who played the leading role, did not attend. Gerard Depardieu, who played a small but very funny part in the same film, only arrived towards the end of the festival to receive the Stanislavskii Award for his loyalty to the great theater director’s ideas. True, the Italian actor Raoul Bova, who put in an appearance, is not widely known in Russia (except for the serial The Octopus), although in Italy the handsome actor is a real star. His festival performance was in the role of an unattractive mathematician suffering from Asperger’s syndrome in Umberto Marino’s competition entry Ice on Fire (La Fiamma sul ghiaccio, 2006).

Claude Lelouch did not come to Moscow because he had suffered a heart attack just before his Moscow out-of-competition screening of The Courage to Love (Le Courage d’aimer, France, 2005). There was no American delegation and no press conference for Robert Towne’s competition film Ask the Dust (2006). Nobody had seriously hoped to see Colin Farrell or Salma Hayek, who play the lead roles in this film—that would have been too much to expect. But to see no one at all was a little surprising. The big names on the guest list were István Szabó and Raoul Ruiz, who presented their films Relatives (Rokonok, Hungary, 2006) and Klimt (Austria, France, Germany, UK, 2006) respectively. However, the jury paid no attention to either film, as seems to be the case with established directors recently. Everywhere attention is focused on the young because they offer a fresh view and a new style. As if looking back into the past, established directors infinitely return to their previous films and thus remain beyond interest. But the arrival of classics like Ruiz and Szabó at the festival, as well as the fact that they continue to work, sets certain standards. Incidentally, at the press conference Raoul Ruiz said that he adored Nigerian cinema. According to him, thousands upon thousands of films are made in Nigeria ever year, shot directly in the streets, and each with its own star. This is a characteristic of African cinema: what is ingenious today is forced into oblivion tomorrow.

And yet, one established director was bestowed with admiration: Bertrand Blier, an outstanding director, whose latest film, How Much Do You Love Me?, is only an echo of his former achievements. Nevertheless, it is possible to feel the classiness even in this, his least successful and fatigued work, which was awarded the Silver St. George for best director.

Moscow’s Festival has no festival palace. Every year it takes place in several venues that are isolated and removed from each other. This year the festival chose the cinema-multiplex October for its headquarters. Other screenings took place at the Rolan theater, the House of Cinema, and the theater Illusion; the Media Forum was held in the Club on Brest Street, where British and Russian video art was shown, as well as multimedia projects and a program of short art-house films. In honor of the 15th anniversary of renewed diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia, the MIFF hosted a Forum of modern Israeli cinema.

Over the years MIFF programmers have gone through different waves of enthusiasm for Russian cinema. Once upon a time a festival without a victory by a Soviet film was inconceivable; by 2001 we had reached a situation where no Russian film was in competition. At the time, Nikita Mikhalkov and his team were reproached for not doing enough to support the national film industry. In recent years the situation has changed radically: in 2003 three Russian films were in the main competition: Aleksei Uchitel'’s The Stroll (Progulka), Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii’s Koktebel', and Irina Evteeva’s Petersburg; in 2004 the main prize went to Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Our Own (Svoi), without any hesitation or doubt by the jury under the indisputable authority of chairman Alan Parker. But when a year later the Gold St. George again went to a Russian film, this time Aleksei Uchitel'’s Dreaming of Space (Kosmos kak predchuvstvie), this seemed over the top, almost like a return to Soviet times. Although welcomed at the MIFF, Russian directors all the same look not towards Moscow but Cannes, Berlin, or Venice.

Aleksei Muradov, who entered his film The Worm (Cherv') into the Moscow competition, took a sacrificial path. It was clear that nobody would give the main award to a Russian film for the third time running. “The Worm is a program; or simply the desire to receive information. Simultaneously it allows the destruction of somebody else’s files on a computer or the annihilation of somebody’s life. Much depends on the self-defense and the skills of attacker and defender,” the synopsis announced. Muradov spoke about internet space, which is being used by American, Russian, and Chinese security services, a topic he himself understands only poorly. The Americans own this field and can penetrate into any electronic box, retrieve even the most classified information. The film’s main hero is involved in this activity in the belief that he is working for the benefit of his country. But it all turns out differently. He is on the run, having first published the full truth on the internet. Since the space of detection, however, is intentionally hidden, his action remains without consequences.

Following his usual practice, Muradov did not invite media stars for his film (with the exception of the main hero, Sergei Shnyrev, who has participated in television serials). Media actors, Muradov claims, tend to transfer their character from one film to another. Muradov recruits actors without auditions; it is enough for him to look them in the eyes. He tried not to make the time of the action concrete, since he believes it is impossible to film our present time. However, the film’s hero is our absolute contemporary. The 34-year-old Sergei Kurguzov is promoted to the rank of colonel and the very next day he disappears. He travels around the country—hitch-hiking, in third-class carriages—without any definite purpose or desire. He meets women and sleeps with them, and at the same time he showers off the filth gathered during his wanderings, washes his clothes, and draws new energy. The pace is fast, the respites short-term, and tomorrow he is on the road again. He must get lost in time; then, maybe, circumstances will become more favorable. The life of the entire country passes before his eyes: simple, working-class life, difficult and real life, life remote from the dead space of the internet. Whether Kurguzov really worked for the special forces remains a mystery because the film gives no precise reference points. It does not matter to Muradov whether he served in the FSB or the KGB, or whether he worked as a trolleybus conductor. Destiny leads Kurguzov to a woman bodyguard, but it is not clear what this meeting holds. Heroes who escape, a reality that slips away—these, like worms, crawl off into different directions.

The “Perspectives” entry Franz+Polina (2006) is the debut film of clip-maker and director of commercials, Mikhail Segal, and is based on a script by Ales' Adamovich. It tells the story of one of the villages in Belorussia during the German occupation. The male population has joined the partisans and German soldiers have taken their places in their homes. They live well, eat bacon and butter, offend nobody; they are billeted with the local women and help with the household chores. But there is no idyll: the village is burnt down and the young Polina, her mother, and the German soldier Franz survive. When Polina’s mother dies shortly afterwards, Franz and Polina set off with no real goal: a German and a Russian, who take from the Germans and the Russians alike. Alongside the banalities of life there are rather touching and tragic moments in the film, forcing viewers to suffer with the German and Russian because they are, above all, simply people; moreover they are very young and they have fallen into a whirlpool of events where nothing depends on them any more. When a child fires a fatal shot at Franz—who has done him no harm (it is just that the child’s father died at the front)—the scene inspires no hope.

Maria Saakian’s The Lighthouse (Maiak, 2006) was also featured in the “Perspectives” program. It is a rather curious, somewhat derivative film that says a lot about the director’s viewing habits. Many films like it are made each year. One example of this trend is the outstanding Kurdish picture Vodka Lemon (France, Italy, Switzerland, Armenia, 2003) by Hiner Salem, filmed, by the way, on former Soviet space—in Armenia—where people still live in the same way that they lived under Soviet rule, only much worse. Salem’s film, however, was not about the utter darkness of life, but about people who remain people—whatever happens in their lives. The Lighthouse is far from the achievements of Vodka Lemon, from its sense of life and its poetry, which it captures with such amazing simplicity and originality. But the approach is similar. Saakian’s heroine lives in Moscow and returns to her native land, a small and unspecified Caucasian village (actually it is a country that does not exist but is present as a generalized image taken from dreams and the past), where there is a war and where her relatives live. It is impossible to leave; the village is cut off from the external world. Having come for a short while, the heroine, it seems, remains forever. The film was shot in Armenia, the land where Sergo Paradjanov shot most of his films, and it features one of Paradjanov’s favorite actresses, Sofiko Chiaureli. Another of the film’s actors, Sos Sarkisian, was a presidential candidate in Armenia in 1991. Maria Saakian moved from Yerevan to Moscow several years ago and studied at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK). The script was written by Givi Shavgulidze, a native of Sukhumi, and cameraman Maksim Drozdov was born in Kazakhstan; both also studied in Russia. For the director and scriptwriter this is also a very personal story.

None of these Russian entries—Muradov’s, Segal’s, or Saakian’s—received an award.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Svetlana Khokhriakova

Svetlana Khokhriakova© 2006

Updated: 05 Oct 06