The Koktebel Studio

By Tom Birchenough (Moscow)

Many critics date the appearance of a new generation of Russian directors working in a broadly arthouse direction to the victory of Andrei Zviagintsev's The Return (Vozvrashchenie) at the Venice Film Festival in 2003. Certainly, that film's international acclaim and subsequent international success seemed a “benchmark” for the revival of a certain strand of the Russian film industry. But others would note no less the appearance of Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii's Koktebel a few months earlier. A prizewinner at the Moscow film festival that year, it later went on to screen—obviously, out of competition—at most major festivals of the following year, with at least one international festival programmer expressing regret that it had not made its debut at a more prestigious international competition program outside Russia.

Had Koktebel come up against The Return directly, the jury's task would have been an unenviable one, but that leaves space for some element of comparison between the styles of two of the most remarkable debuts of the decade, not least because Zviagintsev consciously creates a visual environment that is not defined by country, so much as by the film's own aesthetics, though the latter are very Russian and pay tribute to a distinct tradition. Localities are clearly undefined, no less in his second film, The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007), which incorporates intentionally anonymous European locations alongside rural scenes that—their beauty aside—could be anywhere. In Zviagintsev's own words, it is only the language of the films that ties them specifically to Russia.

That's a direct contrast to Koktebel, a film that catches a very local sense of the country, most notably the regions far beyond the big cities, principally Moscow and St. Petersburg, which dominate most of what we see on the Russian screen today. In itself the location factor may not be crucial—but when it is handled with such skill and empathy in script and playing, it is more than worth noting, especially because what we might call the “Koktebel phenomenon” has grown: Khlebnikov and Popogrebskii separated amicably after their first joint work, but both continue to work with the same producer, Roman Borisevich. Khlebnikov's follow-up work was Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006); Popogrebskii's was the Kinotavr festival prize-winner in 2007 Simple Things (Prostye veshchi). Though they may no longer co-direct, the two certainly seem to keep a sense of a common approach to cinema.

It is a strand that has been little seen in the country's film world recently, though to claim it as an altogether new appearance would be wrong—witness Larisa Sadilova's debut Happy Birthday (S dnem rozhdeniia, 1998) and later With Love, Lilly (S liubov'iu, Lilia, 2002), and some similarities are loosely evident. I don't think it's exactly realism, and would prefer the term “naturalism”: some may look back to Soviet directors of the 1960s generation for comparison, others to international precedents—for this critic at least, to the likes of the work of established British directors like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, even if the latter has often shown a more overtly political quality than any of the Koktebel company's films.

But the social element in the three films is strong indeed, as we watch everyday life unfold, often rather slowly (with the exception of Simple Things, where the urban setting brings a sense of speed and stress that the earlier two films did not accentuate). Koktebel is a slow journey, largely on foot, that takes us across a spectrum of Russian society, showing it for better or worse. Khlebnikov's Free Floating consciously engages with a visual style in a story, in which, literally, not very much happens at all—until the film's optimistic (enough) ending, which has the hero on the river, at least until the season ends—and then, who knows what will be his fate?

The films manage a cautious optimism about the future, despite most everyday circumstances. After the wanderings of the child hero in Koktebel, it seems that there is some sort of resolution out there. Popogrebskii's Simple Things has a closing scene that seemed to some Russian viewers over-optimistic, but for this critic at least seemed natural: life goes on and after conflict comes resolution. At least to a point. The wider future may be difficult, but catharsis is already in play, somehow.

And symbols and allusions are not forced, either—something that might be said of Zviagintsev's works. The image of flight that comes through from the closing scenes of Koktebel , with its visit to the decaying flight monument on the hills above the Crimean village, was found by accident, Popogrebskii has said. It comes to be the absolutely right conclusion for the film, all the more credible for its understatement. The same can be said of the conclusion of Khlebnikov's Free Floating , where the significance of the hero's river journey departure is equally understressed.

Popogrebskii's Simple Things marked something of a departure from the pair's loose aesthetic—not least because of its stronger element of plot and an obvious city setting. Even if St. Petersburg seems less fraught than Moscow, the cinematography of the film's street scenes (using a fast hand-held camera), is notable, as is the sense of urban stress. And no less authentic for that—it's the kind of vibe that we could feel anywhere in the world in a major city. Acting throughout the three films, it has to be said, is outstanding.

That leaves the question of what the two directors are currently working on. Khlebnikov is in completion of a more urban project, provisionally titled, apparently, Mad Help, based loosely on the experience of a Belorussian Gastarbeiter coming to a big city in Russia. He has already tackled such themes in a related way, finishing a documentary on a similar experience last year.

Popogrebskii, meanwhile, looks like he's setting his next film back in the wilds, surveying locations in Russia's Far East. That should leave plenty of opportunities for landscape and raw human emotion of the kind that the pair has proved it is more than capable of evoking.

Finally, is there such a thing as a “Koktebel phenomenon”? In all honesty, it is hard to say. Khlebnikov has spoken of how, shortly before the release of that film, he was offered to direct a big budget feature on very different lines; he suggested the inviting producers watch his debut film first and then make their decision. Apparently, they didn't ring back.

Asked at Kinotavr 2007 whether there was such a thing as a studio style, producer Roman Borisevich said that, of course, he wanted to make a blockbuster. I believe he was joking. The fact that he is also developing a project from theater writer Vasilii Sigarev, who is not exactly known for the optimism of his work, seems to underline that. With local production costs soaring and box office attention to such strands of work not exactly growing incrementally, the producer's task has certainly not become any easier.

It certainly looks like a distinct commitment to a certain direction. We should be very grateful that it is there at all.

Tom Birchenough

Tom Birchenough© 2008

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Updated: 20 Mar 08