Vladivostok 2007

By Tom Birchenough (Moscow)

Far away from Moscow, across Russia on the Pacific coast, the fifth Vladivostok international Pacific Meridian festival closed on 21 September, with top honors going to Chinese-Hong Kong feature Getting Home (2007) from director Zhang Yang. The drama tells the story of a long journey across China, in which the main protagonist brings the corpse of his late friend back to his hometown.

In itself that news might not seem remarkable—except as a way to acknowledge that the event, in its loose jubilee year, has confirmed its regional authority, drawing submissions from thirty five countries. It has come a long way since its hesitant beginnings, and now many would agree that it looks like the best run international festival in Russia. Its niche, the Asian-Pacific rim countries, is clearly defined, and the benefits of an ocean setting, and conveniently close hotel and screening venues—almost all within a couple of minutes walking distance of each other—are obvious.

As are the direct air links to Seoul in South Korea, which bring in most of the international guests (Moscow attendees take a nine-hour overnight flight on the way out from the west of the country, leaving them initially somewhat fazed). One Canadian producer this year said he had been forewarned: “Don't think this is like the rest of Russia,” and that looked true in an environment that was supremely convenient. In Vladivostok, it seems that even the cars stop on pedestrian crossings.

Why, anyone might ask, should a Russian international film festival be approached with apprehension? Obvious answers include the difficulties of getting there (though that's true the world over); the occasional glitch in organization (thankfully, those that marked the Moscow festival through most of the 1990s are now largely in the past, too); and something of a hierarchical guest approach (still a problem that Moscow has not solved today), where the presence of stars occasionally fails to make up for a more diligent and wider sense of cinema culture among viewers; as well as a complicated city infrastructure that can be daunting to an outsider (as is the case with any “big city” festival).

The opposite is the case with Vladivostok, where most foreign guests—and there are virtually as many of them as in Moscow—leave with a desire to return. It's also a salutary reminder, one that perhaps many of us need to consider, that Russia does not open up exclusively from the West and through Europe, but no less from the East. Politically and economically that has been increasingly realized in recent years: Pacific Meridian does much to re-enforce that on the cultural front.

Clearly it is not cheap for the city budget (which provides the majority of funding support), but in some way should help to affirm the location's identity—not least because many contemporary new Russian film releases, not to mention foreign works, especially on the more art house niche, still don't make it to Vladivostok for screenings from prints. Among visitors from the other side of Russia who crossed the continent were Sergei Bodrov Sr., presenting Mongol (2007), Otar Ioseliani with a selected retrospective, and Andrei Zviagintsev with The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007), presented in tandem with Russia's other Cannes entry this year, Aleksandr Sokurov's Alexandra (2007). That's a more than prestigious local presence—never mind the international one—and all those films played to packed houses on the main screen of the Okean cinema, with a capacity of no less than 800 odd viewers.

And for those visiting, particularly those who have read any of the horror stories that regularly surfaced in the press over the last decade or so, it's a welcome reminder that Vladivostok is now a more than functioning environment than it was back then—and considerably cleaner and better looked after than in more recent years, too. Local governor Sergei Darkin clearly supports the event strongly.

Other festival results included: Best director award, as well as the best actress prize, to the Japanese film Faces of a Fig Tree, from director and actress Momoi Kaori. Best actor went to Russia's Sergei Puskepalis for his lead in Aleksei Popogrebskii's Simple Things (Prostye veshchi, 2007), who was already acclaimed both at this summer's Kinotavr festival in Sochi and later at Karlovy Vary; it was one of only two Russian films (along with The Horror That Is Always With You [Uzhas, kotoryi vsegda s toboi; dir. Arkadii Iakhnis, 2006]) in the international feature competition of eleven films, judged by a jury headed by French director and past Cannes laureate Bruno Dumont.

Best short film award went to home territory, too, for Leonid Rybakov's mockumentary Stone People (Liudi iz kamnia, 2007), a satiric brief story of the consequences of the Moscow city authorities' attempts to ensure perfect parade day weather by throwing cement out of airplanes into the region's clouds—and on the consequences to the health of those affected.

Other honors also went to Russia. Governor Darkin's special award, titled “9288”—the distance in kilometers between Moscow and Vladivostok—was awarded to Bodrov's Mongol , the event's opening film, which employed much Eastern talent, from lead roles from China and Japan to mass scenes with a Mongolian cast and extensive technical support from Hong Kong. The Yul Brynner prize—the actor was born in the Pacific city, and his son Rock is a regular fest visitor, almost a festival figurehead—was awarded to Zviagintsev for The Banishment.

Another popular highlight was the first screening of an uncompleted cut of Australian director Paul Cox's Salvation, which looks likely to find plentiful festival placement next year; the film was partially shot in Vladivostok (the only city in Russia to work productively with a local city film commission, which is effectively the second side of the Pacific Meridian organizing committee) and has a strong Russian plot angle to it. Its story of a Russian prostitute moved to Australia has both poignancy and satire, particularly in its depiction of the evangelical church movement, with which she becomes unwitting involved. The director developed the script at the Vladivostok festival two years ago, and returned for local shooting on the project during last year's event.

That experience seems rather representative of most other visitors—namely, a desire to come back another time. It's in healthy contrast to the testimony of many visiting the Moscow international film festival in June, who leave downhearted at the chaos of city infrastructure and the lack of elementary things like question and answer sessions with viewers after films. Vladivostok's screening halls are crowded, even in early morning slots, and attention lively.

On the hospitality front, Vladivostok gets just about everything right, too—and proof of that is the fact that you are most likely to find the husband and wife team, Aleksandr Doluda and Natal'ia Shakhnazarova, who head up the festival, meeting and seeing off guests at the city's distant airport on a daily basis. Imagine the top Moscow festival people doing regular trips to Sheremet'evo. I can't, somehow.

There's also a longer-term scheme to develop filmmaking and education in the region. Russia's Far East has never had a major film studio, but plans were announced early in September to open such a facility—aiming both at domestic and foreign production—by 2012, when Vladivostok is due to host the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit.

Plentiful street posters in the city advertise Pacific Meridian, and many others pay tribute to President Putin and his twin plans for the Sochi Winter Olympics (now in the bag, of course), and the APEC meeting in five years time. That will certainly help further to put the city on the international political map. Five editions of the Pacific Meridian festival have already done that on the cinema front—and a brand new studio complex by then could only change the local film atmosphere for the better.

Tom Birchenough

Tom Birchenough© 2007

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Updated: 20 Jan 08