Igor' Apasian: Graffiti (2006)

reviewed by Olga Klimova© 2007

Igor' Apasian's film has received numerous positive responses from Russian audiences, [1] was included in the 19th Tokyo International Film Festival, and won the Silver Boat Award at the 14th Russian Film Festival in Vyborg. This interest in Graffiti on the part of audiences comes mostly not from its visual special effects, camera work, and montage, which are very simple, but from its content and the catchy soundtrack by the popular bands, Animal Jazz and 5nizza. The title of Apasian's film offers viewers a false promise: to familiarize them with youth culture in Russia. In an interview with the radio show Kinozhizn', the director explained that the title of his film relates not only to its content, but also to its genre. While elements of different film genres—such as tragedy, melodrama, comedy, and action film—can be found in Graffiti, Apasian argued that his film represents the genre of a graffito, or “scratched” film, which offers sketches of characters and of everyday life “as it is.” He stated that the characters in Graffiti should remind audiences of the comic book characters widely used in graffiti art, and that everything in the film is as simple and "real" as pictures and signs left on city walls and fences. [2] Through the images and signatures left on walls, graffiti can serve as a mode of memory preservation, and Apasian's film is about creating an archive of collective memory.

Graffiti begins similar to many contemporary Russian youth films—such as Denis Evstigneev's Let's Make Love (Zaimemsia liubov'iu, 2001), Il'ia Khotinenko's Call Me Genie! (Zovi menia dzhin!, 2005), or Petr Tochilin's Khottabych (2006)—by offering a glance into the everyday life of contemporary Russian college students. It introduces graffiti artist Del'fin, the main character, during one of his nightly rites of decorating Moscow walls with his “youthful surrealism,” and only subsequently shows Del'fin engaged in his daytime activities—his studies at the Art Institute, where he is know by his real name, Andrei Dragunov. Graffiti opens with the camera slowly moving across the figures of adults drawn on the wall by Andrei-Del'fin. They are portrayed as ugly monsters with angry eyes and big teeth, and are painted in dark colors. The camera stops its movement on the figure of a boy in a red cap with wide-open, horrified eyes. This very first scene of the film represents Andrei's feelings about the world around him, and the scared boy on the wall is his self-portrait.

Andrei's passion for graffiti marks him as a misfit in urban Russian society. He is chased and beaten by a gang of bikers on the streets of Moscow at night and is threatened with expulsion from the university by the dean during the day. Andrei becomes an outsider because he does not follow the rules of “civilized” society. Instead of going to Italy with the rest of his classmates, he has to leave the city for “a shit hole” (mukhosransk) to paint provincial landscapes in order to get a passing grade on his final exam and, thus, to “work” his way back into society. As with Vasilii Shukshin's character in Snowball Berry Red (Kalina krasnaia, 1973), the trip to the province becomes an opportunity for Andrei to be re-educated and socialized. Because Andrei is only in his early twenties, Graffiti unfolds as a contemporary cinematic Bildungsroman, the story of his maturation. His experiences in the village of Gap (Promezhutochnoe) become trials on his journey of transformation into a good artist and a socialized human being. At the same time, he proves that he is not a “weed” and he fulfills a social function by organizing the individual memories and the individual sufferings of the villagers into one shared memory archive on the wall of a rural club.

Upon his arrival at the village, Andrei meets the head of the local administration (who resembles a pig) and an accountant with gold teeth. His next acquaintance—an intelligent-alcoholic, Ecclesiastes, or Klizia—swallows a fork and sells his raincoat for a shot of vodka. Andrei and Klizia's especially close relations are established from the first moment they meet each other at the local bar. Excessive shot-reverse-shots of a Muscovite student and a village bum end with Andrei walking drunk in Klizia's raincoat toward the sunset with peaceful provincial fields in the background. Andrei also becomes friends with the local Quasimodo—Mitiai, who suffers from shell-shock, presumably as a result of the war in Chechnia, and who makes his living by collecting sewage. Mitiai has scars all over his face and, like the hunchback of Notre-Dame, lives on the top of a tall building. He is also distinguished from the other people in his village by the fact that he is constantly driving a truck. He falls in love with another caricature-character—a crazy woman named Mariia, who wears a bright green outfit, yellow boots, and has dozens of ribbons in her hair. On the one hand, Mariia represents a iurodivaia, or a saintly fool, and the villagers believe that if they put a ribbon in her hair it will make their dreams come true. On the other hand, she is the victim of some unknown traumatic event in which she lost her husband. When she sees tanks driving through the fields, she looks terrified, possibly indicating that her husband, like many other men from this village, was killed at war. Although Apasian does not dedicate his film to the war theme, the loss of relatives and friends at war becomes its main leitmotif. Individual memories of tragic moments in their lives become an important unifying element that, by the end of the film, transform into a collective memory and finds its signification in Andrei's wall painting at the rural club.

If, in the beginning of the film, Andrei creates graffiti out of his fear and hatred of the world around him, his first attempt at the painting on the wall of the club resembles a work of socialist realism. His painting of the members of the local administration and the best workers is set against a nice landscape background, and is full of light and bright colors. However, snapshots of the young men killed at war, provided by the village residents, lead to Andrei's transformation into a “real” artist and to the creation of a graffiti-memorial on the wall of the club. [3] The photographs of the slain soldiers are interpolated into Andrei's consciousness: in a scene on a bus—the cards in the hands of the man sitting next to Andrei turn into the photographs that the residents of Gap have been bringing him. By gathering more and more photographs, and by gradually adding new figures into his composition, Andrei becomes the keeper of collective memory. His painting represents more than fifty years of the history of the people of this village. In its emphasis on the heroic nature of Russian people, the final version of Andrei's mural resembles Il'ia Glazunov's 1988 painting Eternal Russia (Vechnaia Rossiia, illustration on the left).

In the scene of the opening of the memorial, the camera treats Andrei's painting similarly to the graffiti in the beginning of the film: it moves from left to right, focusing on the faces of young soldiers. This time, however, the shots are juxtaposed with shots of the people who are looking at the painting. Unlike the monstrous faces in Andrei's early graffiti, the faces of the soldiers in the painting and the faces of the viewers express mixed feelings: grief, sadness, pride, and happiness. The camera shows the faces of the villagers with tears in their eyes, suggesting that they are more humane than their urban counterparts. In his interview at the 19th Tokyo International Film Festival, Apasian said: “ the faces drawn in the final scene are wonderful, serene, and sympathetic. These faces, drawn like faces on icons—are the outcome of the spiritual work of the young man.” [4]

Graffiti is also used as one of the organizing principles of the narrative structure in Apasian's film. Like the graffiti on any wall, the film consists of various episodes of different people's lives mixed into one big picture. Some of these life episodes are depicted in a realistic way; some of them become hyperbolized and surrealistic. This latter group of stories includes episodes in which Andrei sits in front of a beautiful countryside landscape wearing nothing but his cap and sunglasses; in which provincial farmers breed ostriches on their farm, “Wedding”; and in which the main safe in the local administration is blocked by the body of a sleeping old man to prevent it from being robbed.

Inscriptions are an important component of graffiti, usually serving either as a message to the viewer or as the author's marker-signature. In Graffiti, by contrast, language distinguishes characters from one another: the bikers and Andrei communicate in a youthful slang; the provincial boss speaks to people in blatnoi, criminal language; Klizia mixes the language of the intelligentsia with quotes from the Bible and swear words. Nevertheless, all of the characters are able to understand each other.

Even though most of the provincial people seem nice, sincere, and understanding, Apasian does not represent Gap as a heaven on Earth. The phrase announcing that the local bus has arrived at the bus stop (“Final destination—the village, Gap”) becomes an ironic refrain because it alludes to the fact that almost none of the residents gets out of the province. Gap is the place where they are doomed to stay without any significant changes in their lives. The local administration hopes to find oil in the soil, the village girls welcome the opportunity to spend a night with a guy from the city, and men get drunk at the bar. The most important reason for the residents of Gap to stay in their village, however, is given at the end of the film. In the last scene of Graffiti , as in many previous scenes, the peaceful provincial landscape occupies the majority of the frame. Andrei visits Klizia's grave at the local cemetery, which is located on the river bank and on the top of a high hill, emphasizing its important and central status in the villagers' lives. The residents have to stay in their village to take care of their friends' and family members' graves, especially with so many local men being killed in different wars. By drawing Klizia's portrait and attaching it to the cross on the grave-marker, Andrei completes his task of organizing the memory archive through works of art. That is why, in the closing scene, he is heading toward the horizon and the off-screen music by Animal Jazz sounds very optimistic: Andrei has contributed to the common cause, and has proven that he is a good artist and not a social misfit any longer.


Notes

1] See Russian audience's responses on-line at Ruskino.

2] A short printed version of this interview can be found on-line at Radio Mayak.

3] Apasian not only invited the actual residents of the local villages for these scenes, but also used photographs of real soldiers killed in different wars in Russia.

4] See “Conversation with Director on E-mail. Igor Apasyan, the Director of Graffiti ” (20 October 2006).

Olga Klimova, University of Pittsburgh


Graffiti, Russia, 2006
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Igor' Apasian
Scriptwriter: Igor' Apasian
Cinematography: Radik Askarov
Art Directors: Nadezhda Butorina, Sergei Karpenko
Music: Aleksei Schelygin
Cast: Andrei Novikov, Viktor Perevalov, Larisa Guzeeva, Aleksandr Il'in, Sergei Potapov, Andrei Bulatov, Ol'ga Iurasova
Producer: Maksim Khusaidov
Production: Third Millennium Film Company, with the support of Producers’ Center “Paradise” and the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema.

Igor' Apasian: Graffiti (2006)

reviewed by Olga Klimova© 2007

Updated: 19 Jun 07