Kinotavr: Caught in the Crossfire

By Kirill Razlogov (Moscow)

At the 2007 edition of Kinotavr, the national Russian film festival, at least three very distinct conceptions of the present and the future of the Russian film industry collided.

The growth of domestic film production in the past few years has led to the formation of an integrated film process, inasmuch as—after a rather prolonged interruption—networks of fulltime operational movie theaters have appeared in Russia, as well as communities of viewers, associations of film critics, and the public has begun to influence the development of the film industry and film art in the most direct way. Kinotavr also confirmed that a creative environment has emerged, not a homogenous one but a heterogeneous one. The festival's program of films clearly demonstrated the variety of directions in which the television company that organizes it is currently working. Honor and praise to Aleksandr Rodnianskii, who screens films at his festival that are deeply alien to him as a media magnate.

As the director of STS, the “first entertainment channel,” and as a film producer, Rodnianskii ideally envisions a film process that is built on the logic of Hollywood—with its large conglomerates trying to control every link in the chain of a film's existence—from movie theaters to videos, to television broadcasts, to the internet, and back again. This is a rigid, global—not even Americanized, but specifically globalized—conception of the film process, in which film is merely one of the component parts of what today is referred to as media-culture.

At the same time, however, it is not just that many of STS's television films and serials are made for the domestic market, with shows and ideals adapted to our domestic reality, but the entire film industry as a whole remains amateurish, stereotyped—in a word, a work in progress. This is precisely what defined the festival's multifaceted program and underscored the internal conflicts.

Thanks to the verdict of the jury, which gave its support fully to one film—Aleksei Popogrebskii's Simple Things (Prostye veshchi, 2007)—two conceptions of what our contemporary cinema should be collided: life-affirming and consoling or stimulating and provocative. The jury unequivocally chose the vessel containing a fair amount of rosy water, even as directors and the festival selection committee were clearly drawn to the notorious spoonful of tar.

Sitora Alieva, the Program Director for Kinotavr, grasped and implemented the approach taken in organizing competitions at international film festivals. She selected films that belonged to different registers and different trends, films that belonged to various categories of domestic film production, striving—it would seem—to show the film industry's full diversity. As a consequence, this international type of selection collided with the type of evaluation prevalent within Russia, which, as a rule, is simple and unambiguous. The type of evaluation characteristic of our mentality and embodied in the decision of the main jury, in some sense became a distinctive manifesto rejecting this variety of registers and trends. After all, when films are so different one from the other, it is impossible, solely on the basis of the films themselves, to achieve consensus within any kind of jury, or even in the press.

For the most part, films are selected for competition programs to provoke discussion. Some will be judged unsuccessful. Whether this is a fair assessment or not is a separate matter. And then there are the films that cause a sensation—one or two, three at the most. This is precisely why a field of tense confrontation opened between Simple Things and all of the other films in competition.

In my view, the decision by the jury of the Kinotavr festival was a reaction to the difficulties posed by their very job. They attempted to capture a ray of bright light in the kingdom of darkness. It is important to consider such details as psychology when speculating on a jury's work. A peculiar kind of fatigue sets in when a jury watches a continuous succession of pessimistic, gloomy films that are difficult to take in. I once had an almost comical encounter at the Moscow International Film Festival when the jury expressed its friendly protest at the supposedly poor quality of the competition films, although the real problem was that the majority of those films were gloomy and difficult to watch.

By comparison, Simple Things has an unambiguously happy end: two pregnant women are about to give birth for the benefit of humanity. None of the film's heroes dies, even though one of them was supposed to. He is simply forgotten about. At the same time, life in the film is represented without any embellishments: the questionable hero—a womanizer and bribe-taker (of reasonable amounts)—an anesthesiologist and in some sense is the main hero of our time. The latest novel by Aleksei Ivanov, a fashionable writer, has a very amusing title—Cheap Porn (Bluda i mudo)—and the main character is exactly the same, point for point. I shall not compare these two works in terms of their talent or by distinguishing between literary language and the language of cinema. But this is the hero of our time. He is not a hero of business, or of the special forces, or even of economics; he is not a hero in some moral struggle and is not a knight of Orthodoxy. He is something that has not been precisely defined, yet is indisputably our own. Just as director Aleksandr Rogozhkin in his own time managed to capture with remarkable skill in Particularities of the National Hunt (Osobennosti natsional'noi okhoty, 1995) the intonation that enabled us to survive the 1990s, that epoch that is now called El'tsin's, Ivanov and Popogrebskii, in my view, together with lead actor Sergei Puskepalis, have succeeded in capturing the intonation that allows us to survive in our epoch today. The new conditions of life have altered our critical and social perceptions in very noticeable ways.

The perception of people has not changed much in an unmediated way. But for critics and journalists, the criteria used to judge films has certainly changed. During Soviet years we had a moral code based on building communism, a moral code by which everything occurring on-screen was measured. Today, however, projections of the ideal simply do not work. I would even go so far as to say that today two distinct intonations have collided. One of them, for which Popogrebskii's film serves as an example, is the intonation of mutual survival, sympathy, and understanding. The second intonation can be heard quite clearly in Aleksei Balabanov's Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007)—an intonation of denunciation, apocalyptical. It is strengthened by the clear, ideal picture in Balabanov's own mind. Put a different way: if we examine our life in the scope of the everyday, we end up with Simple Things; but if we measure it by God's intentions, we end up with Cargo 200.

Between these two extremes, paradoxically, are films that implicitly reveal a feminine perception of conflicts. There were quite a few such films in the program, revealing the feminine point of view implicitly, frequently against their own will. Once again, this seems to me to be the result of Sitora Alieva's involvement and of the specifics associated with a woman's selections. Amongst these were amusing films, representing different generations, and films that were very local and marginal—like Valeriia Gai-Germanika's Infante's Birthday (Den' rozhdeniia Infanty, 2007) and Marina Razbezhkina's The Hollow (Iar, 2007). They also would include such aesthete films as Kira Muratova's Two in One (Dva v odnom, 2006), although in my opinion this is not her best film. Nonetheless, these were worthy, interesting films.

This is an appropriate place to mention the major actress, in my view, in Russia today, Viktoriia Tolstoganova, who played the lead role in a very original film—Tat'iana Voronetskaia's Inspiring (Naturshchitsa, 2006)—which was more or less panned. The failure of Inspiring lies in the fact that it was too drawn out, although it was stylized very well and in a refined way. Voronetskaia tried to reconstruct the Georgian primitive style of the beginning of the 20 th century against the background of imaginary poetic conflicts. The very idea is extremely interesting. Tolstoganova could have squeezed more out of this role than she did. But this would have required a more subtle approach to details.

In any case, every film is interesting in its own way, in what distinguishes it from other films. In this respect, Sitora Alieva deserves still more praise because she has a sense of which films can be successful not only on the domestic market, but also on the international film festival circuit. Take, for example, Aleksei Mizgirev's Hard-Hearted (Kremen', 2007), which received an award from the jury. While it contains many lapses, it is also very intriguing. As much as Simple Things represents the reality of existence of people who, crudely speaking, are from “our crowd,” Hard-Hearted, by contrast, represents the reality of existence of people who are entirely different. That's the great power of cinema: it pulls to the surface what no one even suspects.

As everyone observed, Hard-Hearted is Pliumbum (dir. Vadim Abdrashitov, 1986) twenty years later. It has several intonations that overlap with Abdrashitov-Mindadze's film from long ago, a film that is infinitely better made technologically and ideologically than Hard-Hearted . In today's reality, Aleksandr Mindadze's Soar (Otryv, 2007) demonstrated that even a scriptwriter with success at the box office still needs a director after all, or at least an editor. The film was not without interest, although in my opinion, the author out-smarted himself. If the plot had been laid out in a more straightforward way, the film would have been not only more accessible, but also more successful. Nonetheless, this film marked a major cultural event. It is not surprising that the Venice Film Festival became interested precisely in this project. And who knows what place Gai-Germanika's sadomasochistic games occupy in an international context. In our domestic context, however, it is rather curious that the young generation is making films like Infante's Birthday . These films will find their viewers either via DVD or via television broadcasts, but in the general spectrum of film production, they are at the polar opposite of mainstream cinema. Even Hard-Hearted does not have much of a chance to be successful at the box office. But the film will find its own place and director will make people take note of him. Box office success, at least on the level of television, will go to Iaroslav Chevazhevskii's sentimental melodrama Kuka (2007), a film that is diametrically opposed both to Hard-Hearted and Cargo 200, and which elicited critical scorn.

As far as the out-of-competition screenings are concerned, a special group consisted of films that were unique in their own way (positively and negatively), since they were already known, even recognized world-wide because of international film festivals. At one extreme of this group was Andrei Konchalovskii's Gloss (Glianets, 2007), at the other Aleksandr Sokurov's Alexandra (2007). In the former, ideology is clearly bifurcated. On the one hand, everything shown on-screen is kind of horrible; on the other, all of it is exquisite. The film contains many amusing performances—Aleksei Serebriakov, Iuliia Vysotskaia, and Efim Shifrin. On the whole, Konchalovskii served up the dish that everyone expected of him.

Sokurov, by contrast, surprised viewers. I had a preconceived opinion about his film: I did not believe that he could make anything out of Chechnia, Galina Vishnevskaia (left), etc. And I was dumbfounded by the result. Then I understood the director's secret. He perceived his lead actress physiologically—as an old woman who moves with difficulty, carrying the whole weight of her life. Vishnevskaia is not “playing” in the least. But there is enormous significance in how she shifts her feet; how she feels herself when next to a young man, her grandson. The entire problematics of this film unfold on the physiological level and the level of the everyday—not on the political level—in the conversations of women when alone, in the conversation of the elderly women on the mounds of earth. This is a very unexpected and effective move, a kind of anti- gloss.

As for the obvious “blockbusters,” they were squeezed to the periphery of the out-of-competition program and were released in movie theaters even before the festival, since the festival had no need of them. For films oriented exclusively at commercial success, the role of festival competitions is secondary. They belong to the category of “Movies on the Square.” When the day arrives that the Kinotavr festival becomes important for the commercial success of this kind of film, then it will be possible to say that it has taken another step towards its self-affirmation; that is, it will exist not only to support art house cinema, but will begin to play a role in the country's film process on an entirely different level.

Speaking of this issue, last year the Kinotavr festival screened Pavel Lungin's The Island (Ostrov, 2006), but the festival did not play a role in the head-spinning fate of this film. Although it was screened at the opening of the festival, it passed almost unnoticed. No one anticipated that it would become virtually the greatest sensation of the year. What is principally important, however, is that the festival's selection committee took note of the film and scheduled the screening in the right place—not in competition, but out of it. Subsequently The Island received many awards and attained recognition within society—but that is a different matter. In principle, Kinotavr has the potential, and this potential might become quite vitally real: it is possible that the festival will be able to close the gap between television magnates and film industry figures as they continue to participate in it.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Kirill Razlogov
Director, Russian Institute for Cultural Research, Moscow

Kirill Razlogov © 2007

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Updated: 02 Oct 07