Aleksei Fedorchenko: Shosho (2006)

reviewed by Michelle Kuhn© 2007

Director Aleksei Fedorchenko has labeled his latest film a documentary fairytale (dokumental'naia skazka). It would appear that Shosho is the first film in this genre and that the label is not an inadequate one. Audiences can be relieved to have this label, as it can serve as a starting point for piecing together a narrative from the otherwise mystifying (and mystical) visual imagery. Without some kind of explanation of the film's bizarre space and characters, an inherent logic among the several short vignettes may be difficult to grasp. The film, in fact, offers the information necessary to make sense of the basic story, but it leaves much unexplained. To try to fill in the gaps, one might turn to outside sources, like director's interviews, in which Fedorchenko explains the genre (documentary fairytale), the original source for the screenplay (a short story by Denis Osokin), and the space (a rural village in the Republic of Mari El). A useful key by which to orient oneself, Osokin's short story “The New Shoes” (“Novye botinki ”; available online at the journal October 's website) served as the basis for the screenplay that Osokin developed for Fedorchenko.

The film's stars are shamans from a rural part of the Republic of Mari El, a republic located within the Russian Federation that is almost untouched by modern Russian life. They are real people (the film is a documentary, even if it does not always seem like one), who play themselves going about their day-to-day business. They also “play” second roles, appearing in masks and costumes during a number of pagan rituals. Much of the film footage merely documents the everyday life of several men living in a Mari village. The audience watches them wake, eat, communicate with their wives, take telephone calls, leave offerings at shrines, entertain themselves, celebrate holidays, and buy shoes—the act to which the original short story's title refers. When in costume, however, these same shamans appear as a new set of characters, with an apparently separate, tangential storyline. Fantastic creatures indeed, their presence in the film represents the coexistent fairytale world, which is captured cinematically with the use of sped-up motion and fishbowl lenses, in addition to the mystical objects and characters making up the mise-en-scène. The overall “feel” of the film, however, is ethnographic.

Shosho is the first Mari-language film, shot almost entirely in something called “Field” Mari (iazyk lugovykh Mari). Translations almost never accompany the spoken Mari. Rarely-used Russian contaminations allow the audience to comprehend something, but the Russian used generally illuminates little of the action taking place. More substantial verbal cues come in the form of intertitles, which summarize entire chapter-like scenes or translate what appears to be one statement made within the scene. To call even these titles illuminating, however, would be a stretch. There are twelve “chapters” in all: an unnamed prelude, nine titled chapters, a sequence in which the filmed subjects are introduced, and a final unnamed sequence.

The intertitles that announce the chapters are cryptic for the most part. Sometimes they appear in the language of the Mari: “chapter four: shoksho shosho.” At other times they appear to translate dialog: "chapter five: misha, where are you taking the fish soup?” Only twice do they assist in the telling of the story, as in “chapter one: old kapiton goes to the urban settlement of morki to buy a new pair of shoes.” And once they appear as an omniscient view of a character's thoughts: “chapter nine: how scary it is to buy shoes / very very scary.” The conventions of capitalization and punctuation never make an appearance in the intertitles, making even this verbal text “abnormal” (that is, foreign). The verbal text is by no means a viewers' guide conveying a linear narrative. In fact, many of the sequences could be rearranged without sacrificing the story as a whole. Shosho operates almost entirely with visual language, making verbal language inconsequential, merely another element distancing the viewer from the alien Mari people. Unlike the visual language of mainstream fiction cinema, however, the language of Shosho oftentimes does not strive for clarity of meaning, preferring instead to leave it up to the viewers to make sense of the series of images.

The viewer's agency extends only so far though. In fact, a very basic narrative unfolds through the film: winter becomes spring. So, while many of the “chapters” seem like loosely related episodes that could be rearranged, the basic temporal indicators dictate the extent to which the episodes are interchangeable. Once one learns that “shosho” is Mari for spring and that the arrival of spring marks the climax of the film, it is possible to achieve retroactively a semi-coherent understanding of what the film is all about: spring is very important to the Mari. This fact unfolds gradually throughout the film. First, a man sings a song, “shoksho shosho,” the first use of the film's title that overtly draws attention to itself. At one point, a horse costumed creature challenges the signs of spring, tossing snow back onto rooftops. Meanwhile, snow melts and grass grows. At the end, a communal village celebration joyously marks the coming of spring. Finally, a group of men discuss the word for spring in several languages, deciding ultimately that the other words are superfluous because the season is just “shosho.” Only at the end of the film can the viewer begin to understand that the mysterious rituals occurring earlier in the film might relate directly to the coming of spring; and only then comes the realization that the anticipated change of seasons determines the time of the narrative.

The other storyline involves the purchase of new shoes, a task to which the elder Kapiton alludes at the film's beginning. The actual purchase of the shoes is delayed, since the elder must catch a bus and travel to a nearby city, making the task a full-fledged quest. A later episode shows Kapiton at the market examining different pairs of boots, trying one pair, and deciding on a pair at last. Upon his return home, he fields several telephone calls. Viewers hear only his side of the conversation, always the same, in which he confirms his purchase of new shoes. The quest for new shoes forms the film's story, but, more importantly, it becomes the impetus for an ethnographic showcasing of local Mari life and beliefs. Buying shoes becomes an event whose climax highlights the Mari's status as “Other.”

An edited sequence situated on old Kapiton's arrival in the city hones in on shop signs, all of which oddly enough feature the Russian language. The preceding events privilege Mari life and help the viewer almost to forget that Mari El is a republic inside the Russian Federation. The viewer becomes absorbed in deciphering both Mari life and the film's narrative. The arrival in the city with its Russian signs disturbs the preceding anthropological images documenting Mari life with dramatic contrast. The signs bring to the surface of the diegesis the side of the polarity that the film has hidden from the beginning, choosing to posit it only in the film's reception: “normal” Russian culture is the measure by which the seemingly fantastic Mari life is compared—or, rather, contrasted. Mari life makes an interesting subject because it differs so drastically from Russian life. Viewers hesitate to label the film fiction or documentary. The Betacam footage superficially looks like a documentary, as do the subjects who go about their everyday routines before the camera's lens; at the same time, this everyday life is sometimes too bizarre to be grasped as belonging to the rubric of the everyday, at least as it is defined by Russian standards, leading viewers to question the authenticity of the images before them.

Michelle Kuhn, University of Pittsburgh

Shosho, Russia, 2006
Color, 60 minutes
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Scriptwriter: Denis Osokin
Cinematography: Leonid Iliukhin
Cast: Ivan Evsevev, Kugerga Fedorov, Vitalii Ivanov, Mikhail Kasantsev, Leonid Petrov, Sergei Fedorov, Mikhail Egorov, Anatolii Iakovlev, Kapiton Kazantsev, Veniamin Khmelev
Producer: Irina Snezhinskaia
Production: Snega Film Company

Aleksei Fedorchenko: Shosho (2006)

reviewed by Michelle Kuhn© 2007

Updated: 29 Jun 07