The International Film Festival Rotterdam — A Festival of Significance for Russian Cinema

In Focus: Svetlana Proskurina

By Barbara Wurm (Vienna)

In 2006 I went to Rotterdam, because Cine Fantom went there. Leaving their Moscow home-base for a while—the tiny but cozy movie theater Fitil' on Frunzenskaia naberezhnaia in Moscow—in order to continue their “famous discussions” (znamenitye obsuzhdeniia) outside the country and to add some internationalism to their already pretty international appearance, the nowadays loosely knit group of former Parallel Cinema (parallel'shchiki), plus friends plus fans, visited Rotterdam, the only big European film festival where one of their founding members, Evgenii Iufit, had been supported, funded, and screened earlier.[1] The program was initiated by Aleksandr Dulerain and Boris Iukhananov, and curated by Lenka Kabankova and Gleb Aleinikov. It proved a wonderful mixture of cult (the Aleinikov Brothers' Tractor Drivers II [Traktoristy II], 1992), glory (Iukhananov's video novel Crazy Prince [Sumasshedshii prints], including Xo Game [Igra v Kho, 1987], Fassbinder [Sumasshedshii prints Fassbinder, 1988], and Nipponese [Sumasshedshii prints Iaponet, 1988]), and totally neglected masterpieces of the early days back in the dark (yet wild) 1980s—like the Aleinikov Brothers' Metastasis (1985), I'm Frigid, but it Doesn't Matter (Ia kholoden, nu i chto?, 1987), or Boris and Gleb (1988).

Within the framework of the retrospective, one could see clearly the shift Cine Fantom has taken over the last decades from experimental rebellion and radical revolt—labels unifying a broad variety of styles and names—to the post-perestroika “anything-goes” or “anything-may-be-cinefantom-worthy attitude.” Independence in filmmaking might still be a necessity to become a “cinefantomiac,” but it now obviously applies to several scales. Side by side with the last real heroes in conceptualism—Andrei Sil'vestrov and Pavel Labazov's Volga-Volga “remake” (2006)—or the new art-member Iurii Leiderman, who together with Sil'vestrov made the phantasmagorical parody on scientific films Kefir Grains Are Going Onto the Flight (Kefirnye gribki otpravliaiutsia v polet, 2003), differentiating kefir grains into two types (“deleuzity” and “vagizity”), quite substantial features were shown—like Sergei Loban's wonderful and moody Dust (Pyl', 2005 ) or Petr Khazizov's pretty annoying Manga (2005).

In 2007 I went to Rotterdam because I had realized the year before that it was a quite unique place for contemporary film history in general and Russian (or former Soviet) in particular—Sokurov, Balabanov, but also many unknown names, everyone seemed to be there. The IFFR is probably one of the few festivals really deserving the common epithet “international,” because—judging from the selection—the programmers do not merely scan the surface structures of countless national film cultures (or, even worse, rely fully on the few relationships they might have established years ago with a handful of producers and companies). They go into depth, demonstrating their research quality and their excellent contacts—in the case of Russia and Eastern Europe, Ludmila Cvikova is the responsible programmer, and Maria Baker is the vigilant curator of some of the special programs. Presenting a number of Russian films—not just one or two, which is often the case at other international festivals (for example, Venice and Cannes, where mainly because they are class-A festivals, they can screen only premieres)—Rotterdam, by comparison, with its broad context (nation-wise, as well as in genre or style), differs from smaller festivals like Germany's Cottbus or Wiesbaden, which focus exclusively on Eastern Europe (and established genres). But most importantly, Rotterdam makes up for all the losses and fills in the gaps that have been marked by the Berlinale over the last few years (that is, post Moritz de Hadeln). The competition program in Berlin has not seen a single Russian film during the last three years and the Panorama section seems hooked either on films by Anna Melikian or amateur videos about Moscow's knocked down gay pride parade, while the Watch -series screens selected super-specials as if nothing else is happening on Russian screens. Not even Berlin's Forum section, which at least tries to find interesting auteurs (like Igor' Voloshin this year, Tania Detkina in 2005, or Aleksei Muradov the year before), can fix this rather distorted image of Russian cinema.

In contrast, the IFFR showed at least a dozen new full-length feature films in 2007, including big titles of the year, like Boris Khlebninov's Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006), Kirill Serebrennikov's Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006), and Sergei Loznitsa's sound experiment Blockade (Blokada, 2006), as well as films by newcomers, such as Mariia Saakyan's The Lighthouse (Maiak, 2006) or Andrei Zaitsev's The Poster (Plakat, 2006) or the young documentary filmmaker Alina Rudnitskaia's Civil Status (Grazhdanskoe sostoianie, 2005). But the program also offered different angles on Russian film history: the Abderrahmane Sissako retrospective showed the Mali-born director's graduation film from the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK), October (Oktiabr', 1993); a family screening brought together Andrei Smirnov's wonderful Autumn (Osen', 1974) and his daughter Dunia's Relations (Sviaz',   2006); and a “hypercinema”-special by film historian Nikolai Izvolov presented unfinished works by Lev Kuleshov—Dokhunda (1934) and Engineer Prait's Project (Proekt inzhenera Praita, 1918)—as well as some saved fragments of a very popular film of its time, the Khanzhonkov Studios “kul'turfil'm” Alcoholism and Its Ill-Effects (P'ianstvo i ego posledstviia, 1913).

Finally, 2008. I went to Rotterdam because I had simply got addicted to the festival—and because one of the “filmmakers in focus” promised to be a discovery—Svetlana Proskurina, of whose films I knew only Remote Access (Udalennyi dostup, 2004), which for me was one of the sensations of that year. There were other Russian films, too, to be finally seen or seen again, like Kira Muratova's ever-so-nerdy, ever-so-ecstatic, ever-so-sublime Two in One (Dva v odnom, 2007), Aleksei Balabanov's shocker Cargo 200 (2007), Larisa Sadilova's slightly over-estimated Nothing Personal (Nichego lichnogo, 2007), Belarusian Viktor Asliuk's extremely humble and sensitive portrait of a former Soviet front rank worker, Maria (2007), Sergei Loznitsa's extraordinary new footage-film project The Revue (Predstavlenie, 2008) on cultural propaganda and everyday life in the Soviet 1950s and 1960s, and, last but not least, Aleksandr Sokurov's Alexandra (2007), a film so enigmatic, so resistant to interpretation, that one does not know, what was more absurd: the dialogues on the screen or Sokurov's introduction, announcing in a somewhat mysterious way that what we were about to see was the last huge sign of hope in Europe—Alexandra aka There is Hope for Russia, aka Russia, Our Only Pride, aka Russia, One Nation—One Hope?

Sokurov is obviously convinced that the only way out of national and global disasters was to act in a strictly non-political, simple, and humanistic way. The wise old grandmother, a constant irritation in the military camp she visits, with her straightforward and yet thoughtful and quiet character, is a symbol of love, grace, and self-confidence. She transgresses the borders between “Russian” and “Caucasian” within the Chechen Republic several times in order to speak with a Chechen woman of her age, to rest and sigh, and to return to the camp and bring back some life and laconic warmth. Alexandra is a masterpiece, with a superb performance by Galina Vishnevskaia in the leading role. The political dimension, however, remains dubious, or at least ambivalent. It seems so radically non-political (even anti-political) that I still doubt whether there is any hope (in Russia, for Russia, coming from Russia). Fortunately, Svetlana Proskurina, who had been several times misleadingly introduced as Sokurov's student and congenial follower, was able to bring light into this irritating (and seemingly nationalist) statement in an interview.

Proskurina's own films deal with completely different matters. This became especially clear within the context of her first-ever personal retrospective organized at a film festival. Her oeuvre is comprised of six feature films and several documentaries. The retrospective included all of her feature films, but only one documentarya series of frank conversations with the maestro, Aleksandr Sokurov (2003). This more or less conventional documentary was made for the channel Kul'tura, for its biographical series Islands (Ostrova) about famous people. It focuses on Sokurov's work biography, his working methods, and his personal convictions, showing a lot of footage from his early films, but concentrating mostly on the set of Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002), where Proskurina had participated in the script. The montage of films and extensive interviews provide a very special, quite intimate atmosphere, which seems the only possible context for Sokurov's intentionally humble, yet at the same time distinct and strong opinions, his constant transcending into spirituality.

Only if one considers a certain idiosyncrasy in style, a certain determination in plot deconstruction, a certain attitude of being different (from the rest, from the masses, from what is considered typically Soviet), or a certain seriousness in dealing with the human psyche to be particularly “Sokurovian” features, can Proskurina be considered his “follower.” Sokurov might be a special friend and mentor, but in terms of filmmaking she names only one person as her teacher, the Lenfil'm director Il'a Averbakh, who kept the studio tradition and experience alive all throughout the 1980s when Proskurina (born in 1958) worked as his assistant and made her first films.

Averbakh's psychological dramaslike Monolog (1972) or Other People's Letters (Chuzhye pis'ma, 1975)established the framework for the genre. However, Proskurina's first short film, Parents' Day (Roditelskii den', 1982, signed with her maiden name Svetlana Kolganova), already displayed a very independent personal vision of estrangement and distrust unfolding between a couple when the husband's daughter from a much earlier relationship re-enters his life. Apparently the man (played by the director's husband, Viktor Proskurin) has not seen the girl since she was a baby and now invites her to stay so that she can prepare for and take her university exams. The most intense moments are the ones before the actual arrival of the young, easy going, and self-confident girl; the moments of anticipation, when the couple's expectations are filled with anxiety and suspicion. The script was written by Natal'ia Riazantseva, who had worked mainly for Averbakh, but had also written the screenplays for two outstanding filmsLarisa Shepit'ko's Wings (Kryl'ia, 1966) and Kira Muratova's A Long Goodbye (Dolgie provody, 1971). Nevertheless, it is the magic interweaving of perfectly clear psychological constellations (which do not need to be made too explicit in the dialogues) with an accuracy of mise-en-scène (faces and bodies in strong emotional orange-redish colors dimmed by a general dark atmosphere) that defines Proskurina's directing from the very beginning. The dense mood is constantly (and contradictorily) shadowed by an inner distance between the characters, as well as between the camera and the protagonists. When the “past” finally hits the floor and the young woman is as present as one can be (she is probably the only one who behaves and feels “at home” here), the actual arrival does not provoke any sort of catharsis, but rather functions as a catalyst of further emotional and psychological thunderstorms. What is quite striking is the way this appearance (as a change in narrative modes) has no influence on the way Proskurina tells and shows the story. Whereas other directors would have deliberately created a before-and-after scenarioone part consisting of a couple talking about what was going to happen and the second showing what really happenedwe have here a continuous flow of feelings, inseparably linked to a specific intonation, certain gestures, and particular (inter)-action.

Another wonderful example of cinematographic awareness in psychological narration is Proskurina's feature length debut Playground (Detskaia ploshchadka, 1986), shown then at the festival in Karlovy Vary. Pinning down the plot is not too easy: it is a coming-of-age love story with a criminal twist set in a communal apartment with neighbors executing a modicum of social control and a room that nevertheless offers several “ways out”or rather “ways in.” It is Zhanna's room, an orphan now working in a factory, but soon also Roman, a romantic lost soul and ambulance driver, moves in. Although one can enter the ground-floor room through a window looking out on the courtyard, freedom and self-fulfillment seem easier to be achieved by just closing the door(s). There is a great dance scene, when Zhanna in her leggings and super 1980s-look demonstrates her growing self-esteem in front of Roman and encourages him to “feel free,” too (Tat'iana Loginova's camerawork is as cheeky and happy-go-lucky here as are the protagonists). The youngsters live an emancipated life, gender role models being smoothly kicked aside by a constant and nonchalant re-positioning within their relationship. But there is always also the outside world, presented as a clear cut and realistic (not, as in so many other cases, pseudo- or hyper- or surrealistic) picture of late Soviet society, with all its “typical” minors and brutal youths, cops and robbers, lascivious elderly women, etc. Their life is determined by a certain behavior considered appropriate within the narrow borders of their little empires and they have no mercy for the young lovers (in fact, they treat them as immature kids). However hard Zhanna and Roman try to get free from this hostile micro-climate, they are doomed at least to soak up the scent of this infamous world.

Proskurina's mastery lies not only in her intense work with actors and actresses (often enough amateurs)giving them as much scope for their individual development as possiblebut also in a very deeply rooted, intuitive cinematographic knowledge, allowing her to create stunningly perfect and precise atmospheres for what is going on inside the human body-brain-and-soul as well as between human beings. What she is trying to avoid is an excess of social determinism. It seems to be one of Proskurina's convictions that lives are driven from within, the real human mission being to confront oneself with “the other,” to step into relationships, to deal with this otherness, to gain from it, to lose from it. Even if a lot of characters in her films tend to fall into depression or seem manic, most of them are high-risk-takers, adventurers in soul-matters, with a positive attitude towards life. Proskurina herself adopts these attitudes when working on a film, her commitment turning into devotion and antagonism; and she expects the same from every member of the crew. There is a seriousness in the way she talks about filmmaking (and life as such) that seems almost holy, but the very non-metaphysical, non-idealistic, non-spiritual, and unsentimental touch about it all lets Proskurina appear miles away from supposed father-figures like Sokurov.

The smaller and more easily manageable social constellations of a family (Parents' Day) or communal apartment-courtyard-family (Playground) are extended in Proskurina's first internationally widely acknowledged film, Accidental Waltz (Sluchainyi val's, 1989), which won the Gold Leopard award in Locarno. Like Playground (Pavel Finn wrote the scripts for both films), Accidental Waltz also emphasized the fragile borders between individuals, genders, and generations. The young actor Aleksei Serebriakov, the unknown actress Tat'iana Bondareva, the wonderful Alla Sokolova (as an elderly lady, full of romance, yearning for a life as a diva, surrounding herself with young male protégés), and Viktor Proskurin (who is one of the very few actors to appear in more than one Proskurina film) form the core of this unsentimental drama.

The narrative structure of Accidental Waltz is quite loosely knit and owes much to the moves of the protagonists, as well as to Dmitrii Mass' remarkable camerawork.

Like many other Soviet filmmakers, Proskurina's career was struck by the breakdown of the film industry in the 1990s. Mass also photographed Proskurina's last film before the gap in her filmmaking career, Reflection in the Mirror (Otrazhenie v zerkale, 1992), which was selected for Cannes and traveled the international festival circuit (including, needless to say, the IFFR). In the film, the only one in Proskurina's oeuvre that is pervaded by a slightly metaphysical touch, Viktor Proskurin is given free range for the last time to explore the psyche of a theatrical actor, Viktor, who is approaching the end of a very successful career and who is haunted by a sudden loss of personality and identity, by deeply rooted self-doubts. His creative energy, the motor of his existence so far, threatens to turn into professionally necessary cynicism, slowly killing him in “real life.” The boundaries between private and public life seem to collapse ever so gradually, ever so harshlyand it is again Proskurina's active arrangement of space, time, light, colors, sounds, gestures, and dialogue that give this slow psychological breakdown a visual, cinematographic grip. The density and intensity of Viktor's agony is the conjoined product of acting, plot, and mise-en-scène .

After the forced working break between 1992 and the beginning of the new decade, during which Proskurina did a lot of reading, writing, and made some TV-documentaries on artists, her comeback film, Remote Access, came out in 2004 and participated in competition at the Venice festival (where it was apparently widely ignored). Proskurina's latest film, The Best of Times (Luchshee vremia goda, 2007) had its international premiere at the Rotterdam film festival. Given the context of her early films, one can easily trace certain stylistic features, displayed quite conspicuously in the two latest films.

First, there is a smoothly moving yet ever so unleashed camera, roaming through space and time and in between characters and things, obscuring and elucidating moods and atmospheres at the same timethereby adding to the general sense of ambivalence.[2] In contrast to the 1980s and early 1990s (with a slight exception in the case of Playground, which, with its many outdoor scenes and a terrific opening in a springtime park, offers a lot of glimmering light green), the colors and shades in the latter films have become more opaque, the contrasts sharpened, the general lighting brighter. Best of Times is saturated with the alluring blue of the sea; Remote Access , by contrast, is marked by the clear cut harmony and stylish taste of the bright monochrome surroundings of New Russians (the post-Red-jacket-era, needless to say).

Second, the complex narrative structure of the two films, one of the particular art-house features for which Proskurina had been praised as well as condemned. Comparing the two new films with her earlier work, say Playground or Accidental Waltz, it becomes evident that the structuring actually has become more lucid over time, laying bare the fact that montage follows an intuitive rhythm suggested by the inner state of a character or gradual shifts in relationships. The changes of shots, the radical transpositions from one season or climate to another in Remote Access or from one time layer to another in Best of Times, are now “de-motivated,” as the Russian formalists would have put it, making it evident that the chronotopic setting is as much an anchoring in a realist narrative as it is an opener for an abstract, symbolic level.

The third feature is the most intricate one: the radical “discrepancy between sound and image […], the dislocation of the disembodied voices and speechless images,” as Birgit Beumers has put it in her review of Remote Access ; or the “spare, strangely detached, even mechanistic, nature of the dialogue,” as Stephen Hutchings [ ] described it in his review of Best of Times. [3] Having had the opportunity to talk to Svetlana Proskurina quite extensively during the Rotterdam festival and quickly realizing that a big part of our conversation would come from the way she listens and watches, the accuracy and curiosity as she observes the “other,” it also became obvious that the use of words has a very subtle meaning for Proskurina. What counts is not at all the semantic core of what is said, but the different nuances and shades transported with every sigh and every pause, every intonation and every vibration: “Every now and then the sound is in tune with the picture or drifts away from it; either disrupts or tunes the fragile human communication.” as Proskurina said once herself.

These moments of disruption or tuning were very special moments during this latest edition of the Rotterdam film festival. Meeting Proskurina, listening to the obsessive, serious, and thoughtful way she talks, but most than all, being able to see her masterpieces of cinematography on a big screen (surrounded by plenty of new adorers), was a kind of gift. The processes of perceiving and reflecting about these images and story lines, about the modalities they were produced by, never satisfied but always encouraged one to keep pondering what occurs on the screen. Proskurinaa discovery not to be forgotten.

Barbara Wurm
Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften, Vienna


1] See Thomas Campbell's review of Iufit's Bipedalisdm (Priamokhozdenie, 2005) in KinoKultura 10 (October 2005).

2] See Olaf Möller's report on the Proskurina-special in the upcoming issue of Film Comment.

3] In the interview Proskurina gave me during the IFFR she mentioned some of the disputes she had with the scriptwriter, Ivan Vyrypaev. Proskurina herself is a trained and experienced scriptwriter, but prefers to confront herself with suggestions by others for her movies. Vyrypaev, she said, has an extraordinary feeling for extraordinary stories, but, in contrast to herself, he is very word-prone, very literature and theater focused, and therefore tends to think in a non-cinematographic way.

Barbara Wurm© 2008

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Updated: 09 Apr 08