Andrei Panin and Tamara Vladimirtseva: Gagarin's Grandson (Vnuk Gagarina, 2007)

reviewed by Michael Ransome© 2008

Gagarin's Grandson is a brave, engaging, and challenging film. The directorial debut of the accomplished actor Andrei Panin, it deals with a range of themes that might not always make comfortable viewing, not only in Russia, but also abroad. It will be enjoyed, however, by any cinema-goers who welcome what they watch as an invitation to deeper reflection on important issues in addition to entertaining them for the duration of the feature.

The film tells a simple story that is set in modern Russia and involves an extraordinary event in the lives of relatively ordinary people: on the death of his mother, the artist Fedor (Gennadii Nazarov) learns that he has a stepbrother, Gena (Dane Lukombo). When Fedor goes to find his stepbrother in a children's home, he is shocked to discover that, while he sounds like a typical 12-year-old Russian, he is in fact black.

The boy introduces himself as Gennadii (Gena), the grandson of Gagarin, providing the first of many occasions for the initially witty reply “one can see the resemblance.” This refrain runs throughout the film, soon palling and giving the audience a small insight into the world of anyone who is slightly different from those amongst whom he or she lives, and who must put up incessantly with hearing the same remarks about their differentness and each time pretend that they have not heard them before.

The first man in space, Iurii Gagarin, did indeed visit Africa in 1962, but the film spends no time exploring whether Gena is actually related to his famous namesake. In more general terms, Gena with his Cameroon father personifies a more idealistic time of close links that once existed between the communist Soviet Union and the developing world, recalled directly in dream sequences towards the end of the film when Gena imagines being in the crowd and meeting Gagarin. In Gena's dream and from the perspective of the early 21 st century, this era seems gloriously bright, naïvely straightforward, and wonderfully optimistic, but Gena and others like him now need to cope with the reality of his mixed cultural legacy.

This reality is in many ways a deeply unpleasant one. Gena faces varying degrees of racist behavior in most aspects of his existence. Although the children's home is portrayed in a perhaps unexpectedly positive light, with an apparently enlightened and kind regime, and although Gena is liked by many of the girls there, he is frequently in conflict with the boys because he is different from the Russian majority. He has the same experience later in school. His stepbrother hesitates only for a short while before proceeding with his plan to adopt Gena, but even his bohemian circle of artistic friends is bemused and taken aback when they meet “Gagarin's grandson.”

Foremost among Fedor's friends and colleagues is Tolia (Andrei Panin), a simple Russian carpenter with the aggressive appearance of a skinhead. He initially embodies the worst aspects of unthinking racism sometimes encountered in modern Russia, which historically has had little first-hand contact with dark-skinned foreigners. Although not actually violent towards the boy, Tolia cannot accept his claim to be Russian and, initially, simply does not understand how his friend might even consider taking in such a stepbrother. Fedor, however, is equally uncompromising in his refusal to countenance any racist attitudes. Tolia turns out not to be the stereotypical unintelligent skinhead thug that his appearance and manner of speaking might at first meeting lead us to expect. We learn at an early stage in his disagreement with Fedor over Gena that in the recent past he nursed his artist friend single-handedly through a month-long illness, and later that he also reads poetry, so his journey through acceptance of the boy to tolerance, affection, and then love in no way lacks credibility as the film progresses.

Before too long Tolia and Gena are inseparable, sharing cigarettes, talking as equals, and taking on racist skinhead thugs together. It is not only this section of society, however, whose prejudices Gena has to face. Fedor's tutelage of Elia (Linda Tabagari), the daughter of a local rich businessman ( Sergei Ugriumov) , brings Gena into contact with another girl who immediately finds him likeable. Her father does not approve and goes as far as offering Gena money not to see her any more. This results in a memorable shot, during which he ostentatiously proves his love for Elia by throwing the money away, shortly before he is unceremoniously ejected into the snow from her father's palatial house.

Thematically, this aspect of the plot has to do with much more than merely racism. It is not clear whether the disapproving father is worried about the color of Gena's skin as much as by the dangerous rebellion and potentially boorish behavior that he represents. To this extent, this episode arguably touches on the universal and timeless issues of the gulf between rich and poor, the generation gap and star-crossed young lovers whose parents do not understand them. This multi-layered depiction of events is typical of the film throughout, as it introduces many other ideas to supplement its central theme. For example, Fedor suggests the age-old figure of the tortured artist—in ill-health and slightly disabled—who suffers a creative block and needs to adapt his talent to commercial needs. This suggestion is reinforced by periodic references to the portrait of van Gogh in Fedor's workshop. His agent is a former live-in lover, Greta (Natal'ia Rogozhkina), who has sold out to the lure of financial success, and her brief inclusion in the plot invites us to consider the challenges facing the young businesswoman in modern Russia, as well as the nature of relationships, very significantly developed elsewhere in the friendship between Fedor and Tolia, and the attitude of the two stepbrothers to their mother.

In fact, neither Gena nor Fedor seems to grieve for the dead woman overmuch, nor indeed does her present husband, who is seen briefly at a wake at the awful hostel in which she spent her last days. The brothers' mother, although an absent character, is also able to suggest other thought-provoking themes: her death from drinking raises the perennial Russian issue of alcoholism and the poverty of the obshchezhitie represents a sad contrast to the hopes for Soviet Russia raised by Gagarin's historic first flight into space.

Gena's experiences as an “orphan”—the bullying and other problems he encounters at school, his adolescent anger, and his recourse to poetry to help express his feelings—are amongst other ideas that all add to the complex thematic mix of the film. The central idea, however, remains the imperative to accept the notion that “we are all newcomers (prishel'tsy),” “all grandchildren of one family,” and “all made from the same molecules.” Gena puts it in a typically earthier way: “you are Russian in your soul, not the color of your arse!”

Dane Lukombo gives an excellent debut performance as Gena, full of anger, bravado, street-wise delinquent behavior, and also charm when he wants to, a genuine love and concern for his ailing step-brother and an irresistible longing to be accepted for what he is by the likes of Tolia. The adult roles are equally deftly played, leaving the audience with a feeling of satisfaction with all aspects of the production and with nothing to distract from contemplation of the film's lingering message.

Russian society in the early 21st century does not emerge with a clear conscience from Gagarin's Grandson. True, in addition to Fedor and Tolia, there are many positive secondary characters to counteract the brutish racism of the skinheads who regularly pursue Gena—as, for example, the wholly decent and professional head teacher of the school who finds a place at his request for Fedor's stepbrother, or the motherly figure who generously feeds the boy after he has taken refuge in her apartment to avoid a beating. However, even the overwhelmingly positive Fedor eventually lets Gena down and the film concludes enigmatically, with far from a happy Hollywood ending.

One of the posters and the DVD cover for the film could not resist the pun that it is a “black comedy,” and it does indeed have many comic moments that cannot fail to entertain. More than that, however, the film strongly recommends itself by unpretentiously staking a claim to serious social and philosophical comment. Its relevance goes far beyond the post-Soviet, early 21 st century Russia it uncompromisingly lays bare to enable it to prompt significant reflection on serious and important themes in all its audiences.

Michael Ransome
Bristol Grammar School

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Gagarin’s Grandson, Russia, 2007
Color, 80 minutes
Directors: Andrei Panin, Tamara Vladimirtseva
Scriptwriter: Natal'ia Nazarova
Cinematography: Artur Gimpel'
Art Director: Vladimir Aronin
Cast: Andrei Panin, Dane Lukombo, Gennadii Nazarov, Natal'ia Rogozhkina, Sergei Ugriumov
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Bakhtier Khudoinazarov, Gennadii Ostrovskii
Production: Central Partnership, with the support of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Andrei Panin and Tamara Vladimirtseva: Gagarin's Grandson (Vnuk Gagarina, 2007)

reviewed by Michael Ransome© 2008

Updated: 20 Mar 08