Strike Up, Pipers! The Russian Program of the Moscow Film Festival, 2007

By David MacFadyen (UCLA)

1. Events on Screen

Twenty-seven feature films constituted the Russian Program at this year's Moscow Film Festival; at the lesser-known end of the spectrum, seven were directorial debuts. Amongst the heavyweights were Andrei Zviagintsev's tediously-paced The Banishment (Izgnanie), which won the award for best actor at Cannes for Konstantin Lavronenko, and Vera Storozheva's often charming Traveling with Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi). The latter film, although shown in the Russian program, would soon garner first prize in the festival's international competition, too. This coincidence caused discernible grumbling amongst Russian journalists: how could an international festival expect to be taken seriously amid such nepotism? Although these and other complaints are a predictable consequence of any domestic victory, there was much more in the remaining twenty-six films that gave critics additional cause to question Russian cinema's freedom from jingoism.

Zviagintsev's film was shown with forgivable pageantry, especially when Lavronenko was presented to a packed cinema: audience members covered every inch of the carpet, staircase, and even some of the stage beneath the screen. Earlier that day, however, the most overtly antagonistic film of the week had already conjured radically diverse reactions. Set among the unspeakable misery of industrial Russia in 1984, Aleksei Balabanov's Cargo 200 (Gruz 200) concerns a young woman's awful kidnapping. As her fate worsens beyond all reason, so does that of her fiancé serving in Afghanistan. The press drew inevitable parallels between the girl and her nation: Balabanov, they said, was trying to link Soviet and post-Soviet societies with his “revelation” of a timeless Russian cruelty or barbarism. Cargo 200, whose title refers to zinc coffins regularly shipped home from military conflict in Afghanistan, includes a great deal of dark humor as Balabanov plays on discrepancies between saccharine Soviet pop music and the darker, if not demonic harmonies that dictate social relationships in any dead-end town. These jokes were not well received and the film, despite the director's reputation (and bankability) has already encountered troubles with domestic distribution rights.

Simultaneous roundtables hosted by the editor of Iskusstvo kino, Daniil Dondurei, mourned the loss of optimistic, nationally specific, and technically adept cinema, far from the loathsome profiteering of today's TV. Balabanov's film, although lauded (at least) by some as well-made “trash,” serves to underscore these enduring snobberies of the festival. Cargo 200 includes overt technical incompetence amid its own “cargo,” caused by the fact that some actors initially unnerved by the script (for example, Sergei Makovetskii) subsequently signed on to the project. Balabanov then dubbed their voices on top of the actors we see on screen. Dondurei had asked at one roundtable why Western viewers do not watch Russian films. Surely the normalization of ADR in Russia would be one major reason, given its reputation as an international marker of deeply provincial filmmaking. To delete an already-dubbed soundtrack in order then to use other voices altogether is laughable. The distance between grand cinema and the slapdash aesthetic of primetime TV is much less that Dondurei would like. Almost every film in the Russian program used dubbed dialog, whilst TV funds and TV actors were evident in all opening or closing credits.

The big bank accounts of Russian television stations may have created feature films and soundtracks suitable for the small screen, but they have done so with a marked irony. Given that Russian state rhetoric has swamped primetime narratives of late, feature films funded by TV are more patriotic that Dondurei could ever hope for. In other words, most of this year's program may have looked or sounded like it was destined for little living rooms, but the ideas therein were grander (and cruder) than anyone would expect from profit-driven cinema. As a result the key, though unuttered, question in this year's lineup became: will this neo-nationalist tendency, no matter how elegant its application, flatter the nation's collective ego to fiscal benefit? Or, conversely, will it send millions of viewers into a collective coma, being so redolent of the patriotic storytelling that died a swift death at the same time as Balabanov's grim fable?

Fantastically noisy though Russian audiences are in any cinema, they remained quietly untroubled by lines such as those from TV star Ekaterina Guseva in Iurii Pavlov's Headscarves (Platki) that insisted Russian women are the most tender, the most gentle, and the most faithful in the world. Snippets of on-screen text at the end of several films reminded us in a similar spirit that the preceding action had been based upon real-life policemen (Aleksandr Galibin's Forty [Sorok]) or astronauts (Iurii Kara's Korolev), for example. In Vitalii Mel'nikov's closing film, Propaganda Brigade (Agitbrigada “Bei vraga”), a sketch artist from WWII endeavors to capture the suffering of peasant women tied, quite literally, to enormous wooden crucifixes. The effort involved here in replacing Balabanov's essentialism (that is, eternal mental illness) with its opposite (ceaseless spiritual purity) is extreme.

This fundamentally apolitical essence, although grabbed eagerly by politics, took on various visual forms in this year's Russian program. Most noticeably, and sadly, it became forgivable violence and/or suffering in the name of some worthy ideal. Èlla Arkhangel'skaia's film for children Megapolis followed the dubious adoption of a naïve, lost boy by a Moscow street gang. The physical bruising suffered by his mother en route to safety, though admirable, has no place in kids' cinema; it is disproportionate and very ugly. Similarly, Nadezhda Ptushkina's lyrical drama The Cow (Korova) used a borderline rape scene purely to segue two episodes between two apartments. The hero drags the heroine into another space; they could have walked. This excessiveness, however, seemed almost normal in the context of related rough-and-tumble. The Cow was produced by the Siberian “Iugra” company, whose TV films have for several years epitomized this bizarre dovetailing of extreme cuteness (a domestic cow that never needs a toilet) and patriarchal coarseness (a broad-shouldered man required to equal and then replace the cow).

This need for essentialist refuge created a series of “nationally concerned” features that sought continuity in very different places, sometimes purely by negating traits unwanted in any self-definition, like drugs (Valerii Todorovskii's Vice [Tiski]) or domestic terrorism (Forty and Bakhtiiar Khudoinazarov's Tanker Tango). In the absence, perhaps, of any convincing basis for calm chauvinism, some movies leaned unnervingly in the direction of Pavel Lungin's aesthetic—that is, the endorsement of unwarranted, self-destructive wackiness as the very “essence” of Slavdom (for example, in Valerii Ogorodnikov's Fishing Season [Putina]).

Consequently, one of the festival's most impressive films was also one of the most surprising in its relationship to nationhood. Marina Razbezhkina's The Hollow (Iar) benefited from state support; by adapting the work of poet Sergei Esenin, it no doubt offered its sponsors hope for a rustic, profoundly “Slavic” spectacle, too. To her credit, Razbezhkina instead fashioned a dramatic and often distressing portrait of countryside mores. Stripped of bold colors or rustic wistfulness, she pours scorn upon the weight of intolerant traditions, even if (like several other films) she does lean occasionally towards some opposing, equally clunky matriarchal clichés—according to which the number of bared female breasts on screen is in direct proportion to one's patriotism.

All joking aside, the same could be said of cows. Breasts and udders were used amazingly often in the Russian program as metaphors of aid and/or fecundity—which brings us to the most successful film: Traveling with Pets. With almost no screenplay, Vera Storozheva interweaves a gentle series of repeating motifs that follow an inexperienced woman's muddled attempts to rejoin (any kind of) society after the sudden death of a domineering husband. The heroine, Natal'ia, gradually finds better bonds in silence and among animals than she does with wordy, ham-fisted lovers. The film offers perhaps the most graceful structure of all twenty-seven features this year, but suffers from a useless, fifteen-minute denouement that serves simply to make the same, increasingly maudlin point over and over again. All the same, when we reflect upon the irrelevance of filmmakers like Kira Muratova among the fiscal and political pressures listed here, it's no wonder that Storozheva pushes her point home so insistently. Her film's raison d'être is gradually handed over to animals, if for no other reason than they won't start talking about nationhood and the fate of Russian culture. Heaven help us if next year's program includes a remake of Doctor Doolittle.

2. After the Festival

Lots of noise, however, does not guarantee civic curiosity. The Russian press had given front-page coverage both to the festival's build-up and red carpet proceedings, but then showed remarkably little interest in the awards. At the closing ceremony, Mikhalkov ignored this apparent indifference and directly addressed the audience: “You've now seen the best films made in Russia. You've seen how varied our cinema is today… We should be grateful to [you,] our wise and talented viewers for all the good things happening in Russian filmmaking… I've heard a great deal on TV and radio over these nine days. I've answered loads of phone calls, too, and been absolutely stunned by the enthusiasm of today's moviegoers.” He then noted—with discernible pride—that the festival's high-society razzle-dazzle had been reduced this year (RIA Novosti); perhaps the self-congratulatory speeches were taking up too much time.

The assumption that wise and talented audiences actually like this kind of ego-stroking was questioned in the press. Several journalists who did react to the award ceremony asked why this Russian festival has given the accolade of Best (International) Film to Russian directors three times in the last four years. Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, by way of comparison, have displayed similar partisanship no more than twice over the last decade. Respect for the Moscow festival, it was claimed, is rapidly waning as a result, to the point where prize-winners can't be bothered to receive their awards (Sychev).

Andrei Plakhov, writing two weeks later for the journal Seance, maintained that the kind of films needed to charm today's Slavic juries have “a simple construction. They resurrect some fifty-year old terms from a long-forgotten vocabulary: things like ‘humanism' or ‘care and attention for the little people'” (Plakhov). Plakhov calls this allegedly appealing style “concrete” moviemaking, because, in his view, it hides from gross abstractions in more concrete, specific, and small-scale constructions. The enduring silence among Russian journalists and Mikhalkov's audience, however, suggests that similarly archaic Sovietisms are actually working to the benefit of Muscovite abstractions. Consider the festival's blog, designed in the weeks before the opening ceremony to embrace and include the nation's “wise little people.” The festival organizers never produced a single entry; the blog remained completely empty, devoid of both content and comment. It remained a good, yet abstract idea.

If we look to actual, amateur (and operative) blogs, opinions of the festival were thankfully expressed in more concrete terms. A certain “Harvy Pikar,” writing in the same Live Journal where the festival had left its own blog to die, said he “hadn't seen anything that memorable [in this year's offerings], but the movies did have something special about them.” One of Pikar's readers defined it for him: “You're a complete freak for watching that crap!” (Pikar). Other online observers felt this unfortunate fecal quality was a direct consequence of giving the award for Best Film to Storozheva. Abstract lip-service paid to things international had only glossed over a petty, ill-spirited provincialism: “I think it's wrong for us, the country organizing the festival, to award prizes to a Russian film. That just stinks” (Vlush).

Yet another equally petulant blogger on Live Journal (Karen Avanesian) clarified things further by directly addressing Plakhov's “special something”—the relationship between concreteness and abstraction, between minor and major. Their interaction, said Avanesian, was supposed to grant Storozheva's film “a kind of timeless quality. That's clear in the tiniest details, even. We get the small, enclosed spaces of various shacks and the endless distances of nature. We get panoramas of hills and rivers, close-ups of the actors' faces, the smooth and constant flow of water, and the sky floating above our heads.” Storozheva's long-winded, abstract attempts to bridge a concrete, miniature lyricism with something timeless “all across a north Russian wilderness” struck the blogger as “irritating” (Avanesian).

This enduring tension between big ideas of inclusion and little acts of indifference was best expressed in the trenchant online diary Spletnik , which documented (with marked sarcasm) numerous quotes from the festival's “guests and presenters, who had slapped together beautiful phrases made from whatever came into their heads” (“Kbke”). Mikhalkov produced one such gem when he—once again—directly addressed audience members during the festival's closing ceremony: “They're asking us to put in a nomination for Best Screenplay next year. What d'you think? Should we do it?” Mikhalkov's position on the stage suggests that the pronoun “they” (the people supposedly asking him to ponder a self-nomination) designates those beside him on the same platform. Mikhalkov composes a beautiful phrase of open public involvement, but in reality it refers to a closed, if not incestuous activity: the festival is already nominating itself—and the audience is rendered obsolete.

The need for other domestic directors, even, was also dispensed with. Mikhalkov made a series of little video blogs for YouTube; they allowed the director to watch himself being watched. These small films are structured around bizarrely flattering questions from Dmitrii Savel'ev, wondering how the director manages to stay so attractive or whether he's tired of being asked to run for President. There's a telling white space beneath each of the screens, however: none of Mikhalkov's YouTube viewers has anything to say. In an environment where abstractly international festivals shrink first to domestic nepotism and then to self-laudatory, if not masturbatory videocasting, perhaps there's no need to say anything. Judging by the above link, the grand total of Mikhalkov's “wise” and “talented” moviegoers (all across the world's biggest country) is currently 134. No comment, indeed.

David MacFadyen
University of California, Los Angeles

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Works Cited

Avanesian, Karen. “MMKF-2007: Liubov' so slovarem. Viva, Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi.” Live Journal (1 July, 2007).

Pikar, Harvy. “Otchet o 29-om MMKF 2007!” Live Journal (1 July 2007).

Plakhov, Andrei. “Konkretnoe kino.” Seans (17 July 2007).

Sychev, Sergei. “MMKF-2007: Radosti i pechali pred " iubileinogo MMKF.” (2 July 2007).

“Vlush.” “MMKF-2007: Prizy festivalia (ofitsial'nye itogi).” Live Journal (30 June 2007).

“Zavershilis' rossiiskie programmy Moskovskogo kinofestivalia.” RIA Novosti (29 June 2007).


David MacFadyen© 2007

Updated: 02 Oct 07