The 13th Open Russian Animation Festival Suzdal (2008)

By Birgit Beumers (Bristol)

This year's Russian animation festival took place in Suzdal's Tourist Center from 28 February until 3 March—the day of the presidential elections. Thus, for the few foreign visitors, the trip to the polling station (scheduled in the festival program) was one of the highlights of the festival. Television cameras (strangely absent in the festival hall) caught festival participants alighting from the special bus and sliding onto a heap of iced snow outside the polling station...

The film program of the festival was scheduled in a more compact manner than usual because of the Sunday excursion to cast a ballot. It was also the first festival to be held without Aleksandr Tatarskii, who died suddenly in July 2007; the 13th festival was opened by his widow and their 18-month old son. The program included full-length animated films, episodes of serials, debut and student films, as well as social ads and, of course, shorts by established animators.

Among the competition films, the two most impressive in my view were also the simplest: Aleksei Alekseev's Pole Hole (Poliarnaia iama, 2007) and Ivan Maksimov's Rain from Above (Dozhd' sverkhu vni, 2007). Pole Hole is a short and witty drawn animation about arctic owls that live in a community; one after the other they disappear into a hole, and one after the other they begin to use their wings and fly to release themselves from the trap. The simple and dumb, yet at the same time quite clever behavior of the owls, who follow the instinct of the herd without thinking and imitate whatever the first owl does, forms a fine plot line that is both serious and funny at the same time. Rain from Above is more serious in tone and shows the devastation of heavy rainfall in the mountains, washing away houses, trees, and people. Only the highest peak of a mountain offers safety amidst this natural disaster. The film underlines the power of nature and forms a sequel to Maksimov's earlier film Wind along the Shore (Veter vdol' berega, 2003).

Another witty and amusing story is told in The Man with Wind in his Head (Chelovek s vetrom v golove, 2007). The film is made by Pavel Sukhikh—known as Heehos (Xixus), who is the organizer of the Kommissia festival of comics and a founding member of the group People of Dead Fish (Liudi mertvoi ryby). The film involves a man with a ventilator in his head that brings “fresh wind” to his brain; this ventilator also sucks up notes, newspaper, and ideas… until an idea gets stuck in the pipe system and the man's head inflates. The man turns into a legendary hero who is immortalized in a monument commissioned by the city authorities and executed in the style of Tsereteli's Peter the Great . When it is being installed, the workers drop a hammer onto the statue, which bounces off the monument and flies into a café, hits the man on the head, and thus makes the idea get unstuck so that his head deflates and he turns into a normal man again. Now he faces the monument of the great man that he once was. The film is drawn in the style of comic strips and parodies monuments in general, as well as the inflation of ideas and Tsereteli's designs for Moscow.

This year's festival presented a great number of extremely promising debuts. Among them were several student films, such as Memorigami (2007) , a drawn animation by Polina Grekova, who studies at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK). It consists of an animated photo album that is looked at by grandparents as they remember the past. Grekova differentiates the past and present by endowing the past with color and treating the present in black-and-white. Stars for a Little Fox (Zvezdy dlia malen'kogo lisa, 2006) by Ekaterina Potekhina, a student from St. Petersburg, is a lovely story of a little white fox who dreams of the stars and befriends a baby hedgehog and his mother. The Kingdom of Cats (Korolevstvo koshek, 2007) is also a drawn animation and a debut by Mariia Kuznetsova. Created in Japanese style, the film tells of a man who gets lost on his way and stumbles into the kingdom of cats, from whence he will never be released. However, an amulet and his true love protect him and lead him out of danger, making possible a happy return. Particularly impressive is the artwork of Rumpel'stil'tskhen by Ol'ga Kholodova, who graduated from the Abramtsevo Art School: her drawn film is based on the German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The most beautiful and extraordinarily fine film is Little Vasilisa (Malen'kaia Vasilisa, 2007) by Darina Schmidt, who is now working for the studio Mel'nitsa in St. Petersburg. She uses textile application to tell her story, which combines several strands of classical Russian fairy tales: Vasilisa is captured by the Baba Iaga, but a bear comes to her rescue and she overcomes Baba Iaga with the help of three simple objects: a comb, a kerchief, and a can of oil (so the gates don't squeak). Baba Iaga's hut stands on small wooden poles (not chicken legs) that collapse when the mouse with a bell on its tail is pulled out from underneath, thus contributing to Baba Iaga's final downfall.

Two young filmmakers presented their second films at the festival: Zoia Kireeva showed her film Coliseum (Kolizei, 2007) about a cinema that comes to life with examples of film history. After her successful and much-acclaimed debut The Stupid Girl (Devochka dura, 2006), Kireeva here shows her skilled hand at a short advertisement clip for the oldest cinema in the Urals, the Coliseum, located in Ekaterinburg. Ekaterina Sokolova, a former student of Iurii Norshtein, Fedor Khitruk, and Andrei Khrzhanovskii, who debuted with Autumn Has Come (Nastupila osen', 1999) has taken a long time to make her second film. She has in the meantime worked as animator on large film projects such as Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) . Her new film The Stupid One (Glupaia, 2008) is based on Iurii Koval''s story “Crow Love” and consists of classical drawn animation. It tells the tale of a husband and wife who live in a village, while a writer lives in solitude next door. A crow observes the couple and becomes attached to them. The radio transmits music and news, the television shows a football match to set the pace for the man's relaxation, while the woman cares for the household and her daughter. The crow follows the woman as she washes, while the husband hangs around with the other men. Russian life is captured finely in the portrait of the woman who is constantly working while the man lies on the sofa or is out with his mates. The crow is rejected by the woman who chases it away several times: by drawing the curtains, by brushing the bird aside from the sleigh, and by pouring a bucket of water over the crow. In the end, the writer, who fails to complete his writing task, goes for a walk on his skis in the white snowy fields as the lonely and rejected crow flies off into the distance.

Among the mature works, the film Poor Yorik (Bednyi Iorik, 2007) by Sergei Gordeev contains fine drawings and a nice tale. Gordeev draws on his experience abroad, as well as his long work for the studio Pilot (including the series Mountain of Gems [Gora samotsvetov]). The tale begins as the two gravediggers from Hamlet retrieve Yorik's skull and begin to lament over his fate: in the film, the skull is missing from Yorik's skeleton, who—without his head—cannot perform for the king. A series of disasters ensues, including the Titanic running aground right outside the theater. The overall story is too long and drawn-out to sustain the rhythm necessary for the witty sketches of which it consists.

A different case is that of Two Italians (Dva ital'iantsa, 2007) by Sviatoslav Ushakov, a drawn animation about an inventor and his photographer friend, who attempt to fly underneath a bridge. A raven, who serves as a model and guides the invention, becomes their friend, and the inventor gets to keep a raven's egg from whence a little raven hatches in due course. The story harmonizes the mechanical and animal skill of flying.

The artist Andrei Zolotukhin, who lives in Switzerland, showed Lullaby (Kolybel'naia, 2007), a montage of images and old photos combined with puppet animation. The film refrains from a coherent narrative, relying on associative chains instead. A pregnant woman is left by her husband, a puppeteer; a puppet woman replaces her. The break-up of the relationship runs parallel to a puppet story about king Herod, demanding the murder of all children. The departure of the beloved is like the murder of a child, whilst the surviving infant is at the same time a savior for the woman's mental health and, thus, also a Christ-like figure. The Boy (Mal'chik, 2008) by the talented Dmitrii Geller from Ekaterinburg also lacks a coherent story, but is more diffuse, often remaining obscure. Thus, it is not clear where the vision of the horse that has passed away begins or ends. However, the fine artwork and the poetry of the images outweigh the lack of structure. The “Boy” is a horse that becomes separated from its mother and errs through the fields before it dies and is carried away on a raft on the river into the other world, which is harmonious and beautiful.

Mariia Muat's He and She (On i ona, 2008) is one of the rather few puppet animations screened in Suzdal. It is based on Gogol''s “ Old-World Landowners” (Starosvetskie pomeshchiki), although the tragic and melancholic overtones dominate the story here, stripping it somewhat of Gogol''s humor. Another puppet animation from an animator normally working with drawings is The Hare-Servant (Zaiats-sluga, 2007) by Elena Chernova. It involves a rotating platform for the action: on it stands the house of Khakim and his wife, who offer hospitality to three rich men. These laid-back men are responsible for a fire that destroys their house. Khakim then tricks the three lazy guys into buying his hare-servant—played by his wife who performs miracles and fulfills any wish. Once he has received the money for the “hare,” they run away to rebuild their home. The story is witty and the portrayal of Khakim is full of humor, while the puppets are pretty and reflect well the local color of the characters and their Asian origin.

Several films with exotic settings made a great impact with the use of regional narratives and local color. Thus, KuiGorozh (2007) by Sergei Merinov, based on a Mordvinian tale, involves plasticine animation and retells the tale of the golden fish and the three wishes that—once fulfilled—crumble in the end. KuiGorozh is a hybrid between an owl and a snake that fulfills any wish, as long as its master can keep it busy. However, the laziness of the couple who have captured KuiGorozh leads to lack of work so that KuiGorozh turns against them. My aul Akchura (Moi aul Akchura, 2007) by Elena Iushkova goes further than praising local habits and rituals: a young man returns from the city to his native aul in order to continue the life that his parents have lived, with all its rituals and traditions. The film, produced in the Bashkirian studio, thus inverts the trend of migration to urban centers and presents an idealized version of reality in the provinces—which, coming from the local studio, is in itself of course not surprising. The story also inverts The Samoed Boy (Samoedskii mal'chik), made in 1928 by Ol'ga Khodataeva, which tells a story of a boy who finds happiness not among the traditions of his own people, but only in the city of Leningrad.

Several feature-length films were also screened, including the last film by Valerii Ugarov (1941-2007), Babka Ezhka and Others (Babka Ezhka i drugie, 2006), which was produced by United Multimedia Projects (a company founded in 1997 for the promotion of Russia animation) and turned into a commercial success. The beautifully drawn film successfully combines several strands of Russian fairy tales into an original adventure plot of a little girl dropped by a stork in the forest on the way to her family and raised by Babka Ezhka and other spirits of the forest, such as Kikimora, Leshii, Vodianoi, and Koschei Bessmertnyi. Much less appealing is the film Elka (2007) by Vladimir Sakov, about the polar bear Elka's journey from the Arctic to the Antarctic, where Maxi Mouse (a cheap parody of Mickey Mouse and the American culture it represents) holds all the inhabitants as slaves until they are freed by Elka and her friends. Rolli and Elf (2007) by Andrei Ignatenko contains a more successful plot, telling with nicely drawn images the tale of the Rollis, who live in the forests of Finland and are threatened with ossification. Deriving part of the plot from the story of Koshchei Bessmertnyi, who can turn into stone both flora and fauna, but also humans, the threat here emanates from a mountain spirit with the power to freeze the Rollis in their land. Yet through braveness and goodness this threat can be averted, leading to a happy ending where all the people, elves, and rollis live in harmony. The film's simple story and basic drawing, which is skillfully animated, makes it a successful children's film with characters resembling Peter Pan and other animated heroes.

Among the series, the festival screened some episodes of Multi-Russia (Mul'ti-Rossiia, produced by the Pilot studio), which are designed to present different regions of the Russian Federation. These included films on Krasnodar, Kaliningrad, and the Taimyr region, which highlighted the ethnic traditions of the regions, as well as their historical and geographical peculiarities. The slogan of the series “People differ, but it's one country” (“Liudi raznye – a strana odna”) and “Borders differ, but it's one country” (“Granitsy raznye, a strana odna”) may appear a little old-fashioned and politically charged in the context of Soviet nation building in the 1920s, but the films perform a nice job in presenting the regions—maybe more to foreign tourist than to Russians, so one might like to see here (as well as in other animation films) more subtitles that would allow the films to reach a wider international audience.

Another immensely rich and popular series is Lullabies of the World (Kolybel'nye mira), produced by Arsen Gotlib and his studio Metronom Film, and directed by Liza Skvortsova. Skvortsova has already made some twenty lullabies, and her most recent ones were shown in Suzdal: a lullaby from the Evenkiisk region, an American lullaby, and, in the non-competitive section, lullabies for the Isle of Man and Croatia. The Evenkiisk lullaby contains much more local color than the Taimyr clip of Multi-Russia. The lullaby from the Isle of Man evolves around a particularly beautiful song and tells of a little red bird and its mother. The American lullaby is made in western style, with a train ride and a horse chase through the countryside whilst the native Indians watch. Skvortsova clearly has a talent for finding suitable melodies, to which she arranges visual elements typical of a region and composes a small story, usually involving a child—human or animal—being cradled.

Other new episodes included several parts of Smeshariki such as Hedgehog in a Nebulous State (Ezhik v tumannosti; dir. Denis Chernov, 2007), a parody on Norshtein's Hedgehog in the Fog (Ezhik v tumane, 1975), Truffels (Triuffel'; dir. Natal'ia Mirzoian, 2007), and Affair in Letters (Roman v pis'makh; dir. Aleksei Gorbunov, 2007), all made in the characteristic flash animation of the series. Social ads included a series entitled “Reanimation,” promoting anti-drug campaigns with the films Everything as Always (Vse kak vsegda), Little Girl (Malen'kaia devochka), and Red Boots (Krasnye bashmachki). A cycle of social ads for road safety was created with drawings by Elena Chernova; they explain the usefulness of subway passages, seat belts, and pedestrian crossings.

Overall, the films presented in Suzdal show the various trends of animation: from mainstream commercial films for large audiences (which has become possible largely thanks to the successful blockbuster trilogy produced by CTB and Mel'nitsa on the feats of Alesha Popovich, Dobrynia Nikitich, and Il'ia Muromets) to festival films, from social clips and advertising, from comic-style to fine drawings. Only one aspect is of concern: the relative lack of puppet animation.

Stills courtesy of the festival.

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol

Awards 2008

Grand Prix (and First Place of Professional Rating):
Rain from Above, dir. Ivan Maksimov

Second Place of Professional Rating:
The Boy, dir. Dmitrii Geller

Third Place of Professional Rating:
He and She, dir, Mariia Muat

Prize for Best Direction:
Rain from Above, dir. Ivan Maksimov

Prize for Best Script:
Novel in Letters, dir. Aleksei Gorbunov; script Aleksei Lebedev

Best Art Work:
He and She, dir, Mariia Muat; artist Marina Kurchevskaia

Best Animation:
He and She, dir, Mariia Muat

Best Sound:
Lullaby, dir. Andrei Zolotukhin, composer Oleg Karavaichuk

Best Children’s Film:
Little Vasilisa, dir. Darina Schmidt

Best Student Film:
Memorigami, dir. Polina Grekova

Best Debut:
Little Vasilisa, dir. Darina Schmidt

Best Series:
Lullabies of the World, director Elizaveta Skvortsova

Best Feature:
Babka Ezhka and Others, dir. Valerii Ugarov

Best Applied Artwork:
Social ads for “Road Safety,” dir. Elena Chernova


Birgit Beumers© 2008

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Updated: 13 Jul 08