Moscow 2008: The Center of the Province

By Klaus Eder (Munich)

Moscow. The city and its image in cinema changed considerably over the decades. Each political period, every zeitgeist left its marks. In deep Socialist Realism, Moscow appeared in films as a light on the horizon as place where desires and dreams come true, if you managed to get there in the first place; and if you could shake hands with Comrade Stalin, you had arrived in paradise. Moscow was the metropolis not only of Soviet Union, but of life.

In a commendable sidebar of the festival, another Moscow period was shown. In his Epilogue (Posleslovie, 1983), Marlen Khutsiev presents Moscow as a modern city. Large jets leave for worldwide destinations. Wide streets teem with the newest cars. The proudly filmed tower blocks designed in Stalin's era are joined by newly constructed skyscrapers. An intellectual's apartment is presented as spacious and equipped with elegant furniture and the latest technology. This petit-bourgeois luxury makes people lonesome, adds Khutsiev, but that's another story.

Over twenty years later, Moscow is still a gigantic building site, but the reason behind it is no longer the post-Brezhnev ideology of creating an image of Moscow as an open-minded and trendy modern city. Today, the construction of new buildings booms simply because it's good business—and this business rarely shows consideration for historically significant architectural structures. By the way, one of the buildings in danger is the Dom Kino (Cinema House) near Maiakovskii Square, a cinema center for decades, a home for cinemagoers and meeting place for film people. During the festival, it was used for screenings of new Russian films. The projections were frequented by a mostly elderly public which seemed to be dedicated to cinema—while young people obviously preferred the multiplex atmosphere of the festival center, the October cinema on Arbat.

Moreover, the Moscow Festival itself looks like a building site. Funding was granted just two months before the event, and it borders on a miracle that the colleagues in charge of the program, Kirsi Tykkyläinen and Andrei Plakhov, managed to bring in some of the best films of the season, mainly in sidebars (such as "Reflections" and "Moscow Euphoria"). The main competition, however, has scope for improvement. Some of the films deserved at the best a projection in a sidebar, such as Israeli Dror Zahavi's For My Father (Israel/Germany, 2007)—about a young Arab man who plans a spectacular suicide in Tel Aviv, but gets too close to some of the inhabitants, a woman among them, to realize his idea and order; or actor Tom McCarthy's second feature The Visitor (USA, 2007)—about a widower-scientist who unexpectedly gets fascinated by a Moslem couple he meets in New York: a nice story, told in a naïve way. That the festival takes particular care of films from (smaller) countries which do not have too many chances in other major events (Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Iceland) is a nice attitude (which goes back to earlier times, as the festival has a long-standing tradition as an Eastern counterpoint to Western events), but can hardly create an attractive competition program. The problem: Moscow needs to position itself between Cannes in May, Karlovy Vary in July and Venice at the beginning of September. It seems that the latter two festivals, both taking place after Moscow, have the better cards (and films). Indeed, why should a production company come with a film to Moscow if it can get an entry to Karlovy Vary or Venice? What can Moscow offer (besides the city) that the other two festivals can't? Even worse. Some producers may wait for a Venice decision while Moscow closes its program. Moscow needs a reason why producers should send films there.

The festival still holds a certain attraction, as could be seen at the opening, where festival president Nikita Mikhalkov proudly introduced Liv Ullmann, Emir Kusturica and Takeshi Kitano, as well as the spectacle of Will Smith and Charlize Theron appearing for the world premiere of " Hancock"—a strange choice for an opening film, especially for a festival which had, once upon a time, honored Fellini's (1963) with pride of place. Yes, the Moscow competition needs better films, but it needs in the first place a better conception how to cope with the competition of other major festivals. With the opening and closing galas, a red carpet at the Pushkin Cinema on Pushkin Square, Nikita Mikhalkov proposed one possibility, knowing that he needs stars to attract the media, and he needs the media to attract the public—a “westernization” and “mediatization” of the festival which you may like or not. It may sound paradoxical, but such politics risk the loss of international attention and turn the festival into a regional and provincial event; indeed only few foreign guests showed up this year, besides the makers of the invited films. Let's dare an assertion: the festivals of Cannes, Venice and Berlin exhaust to a large degree the pool of “competition films” of the season. To survive, Moscow needs to focus its competition on another domain of cinema.

For Moscow film-goers, the festival still offered a lot to see, mainly in the sidebars, a sort of “festival of festivals,” with the best films from Cannes, Berlin and other fests—films by Guy Maddin, Todd Haynes, Ermanno Olmi, Bohdan Sláma, Emir Kusturica (whose Maradona [Spain, France, 2006] closed the festival), or, in the excellent "Moscow Euphoria" series, films by Samira Makhmalbaf, Michael Haneke, Abdellatif Kechiche, Carlos Saura, the Dardenne Brothers. Regarding international art-house films, Russia seems still to be a sort of underdeveloped country, with a lot of films to be caught up with – films that get a theatrical release late or even never. It is undoubtedly a merit to offer access to such films – the major purpose of most festivals. It seems that Soviet cultural politics produced a lot of “holes,” a lot of films and directors being still unknown. Naum Kleiman, who heads the Moscow Film Museum and is undoubtedly the country's most knowledgeable film historian, made it possible for Moscow filmgoers to make their first acquaintance with the work of the Korean director Im Kwon-taek (well known at Cannes, Berlin, Venice), and organized an homage to István Szabó as well. His no less knowledgeable colleague Evgenii Margolit composed a daring series on "Socialist Avant-Gardism" (Abuladze, Pudovkin, Kalatozov, Yutkevich, Room, and others). What a good feeling to know that there are still some people around who remember the old masters.

Concerning the traditional domain of Russian cinema, the Moscow festival faces a problem: the Kinotavr festival in Sochi, located on the Black Sea and ending a few days before the Moscow opening. Sochi offers a better selection and has become, over the years, a remarkable meeting point of filmmakers, producers, distributors, foreign critics and festival scouts, an event that is accompanied by numerous panels and discussions. If someone wants to get up to speed on the state of affairs of Russian cinema, this is the place. Also here, Moscow needs to catch up with its own failings of recent years.

Adding up the impressions of Russian cinema from Sochi and Moscow, a few observations can be made. First, a generational change seems to be underway. Only a few veteran filmmakers presented new works. On the other hand, the number of first or second films is astonishingly high, which marks a gratifying interest in young cinema. One of the surprising films in the Moscow competition was Katia Shagalova's Once Upon a Time in the Provinces (Odnazhdy v provintsii, 2008). This signals the arrival of a new generation of young filmmakers who came of age at the end of the Soviet era, or weren't even born until the 1980s. This is the first post-Soviet generation without any emotional links to the old days and its imposed aesthetic and political standards.

Only the visions are disparate. There are attempts to make commercial entertainment. There are typical art-house movies. There are films about today's youth. And: there is no common idea of cinema. During the Soviet era—not that I am using this as a positive concept—there were strict standards, which artists could follow or subvert; at least they provided a point of reference. They haven't been replaced by new values, nor by a new understanding of the role of cinema in society. As a result, today's Russian cinema seems to be the business of loners, or independents; with a little luck, they make it to the movie theaters, or to one of the international festivals, where Russian cinema has been conspicuously absent in recent years, with few exceptions (such as Sergei Bodrov's Mongol). Moreover, Russian filmmakers can no longer count on government support from the Ministry of Culture—even though the state-owned studios are still pretty much in operation, Mosfil'm and the Gorkii Studio in Moscow, Lenfil'm in Saint Petersburg. These old governmental structures of production and distribution are slowly running out of juice, losing their importance, while new structures have yet to be established.

One of the key questions and contradictions under discussion in Sochi was posed by two films in the program: Kirill Serebrennikov's Yuriev Day (Iur'iev den'), a film that consciously reaches back to old Russian traditions, and Bakur Bakuradze's Shultes, which consciously follows Western art-house standards. Does Russian cinema need to open itself to a Western point of view, or even an international one, or would it be better advised to reflect on Russian history, society or culture? Does national cinema have a chance of surviving, or must it become international? Let's see Katia Shagalova's answer. It is an original and very Russian answer.

Her film Once Upon a Time in the Provinces is set in the fictitious town of Uletovo (shot in the city of Podolsk, near Moscow). This is "the provinces", as mentioned both in the Russian and English titles. It is a dirty place. There's not much entertainment to be had, either for the kids or the workers (or for the men without work; unemployment is a concern in the village). And there is not much hope to escape to a better place, the way Moscow represented a shining light on the horizon in the village films of the Soviet era. This is the end of the world. One of the advantages of Katia Shagalova's second film is indeed this atmosphere of an endless tristesse , as in Chekhov's plays, but painted in a realistic manner and without any touch of melancholy; even the most Chekhovian character, Nastia (Iuliia Peresil'd), a TV actress coming from the city to the village to stay with her sister, isn't depicted in a romantic way, but as somebody who has failed in life and broken-down, whose career has abruptly ended, and who harbors no illusions about it. This pitiless view reminds us of the early 1970's novels and films of Vasilii Shukshin, the unfortunately forgotten writer, filmmaker and poet of Russian village life.

There's still another "realistic" approach. As in France, the UK or Germany, Russia has a considerable immigrant population, from the former Asian republics of the USSR and other Asian countries. You may not see this in Moscow, but you see it in Shagalova's Uletovo: Immigrants constitute a considerable percentage of the population, those Russians who could afford to leave having done so long ago. This may not be the first time that recent Russian cinema has addressed the social issue of immigration, but it is a noticeable element in the film.

There is not much of a story, or in the way of "action" in the dull provincial nest. The youngsters gather every evening in a yard, just to knock around. There are, however, various story threads developed around the film's main characters. Vera (El'vira Bolgova), sister of the TV star Nastia, is married to Kolia (the impressive Aleksandr Golubev), a young war veteran who has returned home convinced that he sustained a head injury. When Kolia is drunk—which is most of the time—he loses control, beats his wife, cheats on her with a policewoman whose drunkard daughter, at 17, is already a mother, the child's father being unknown.

This is how Shagalova narrates her stories: jumping from one character to another, from one story to another, her attention flying back and forth as though she was watching a snowball fight. Much of this narrative quality of portraying sharp and concise mini-episodes is already in the script, written by Shagalova herself; the editing helps this dramaturgy.

Wherever she turns her eye and her camera, Shagalova bumps into disasters and filthy lives full of disappointment and despair. Don't ask about the future of the policewoman's daughter: in a few years, she'll drink herself to death. Or about Nastia, the girl from the city. She falls in love with an immigrant called "Che"—he's probably from Cuba—but towards the end, we see Che behaving as badly and brutally as Kolia, implying that Nastia may end up just like her sister, Vera, a lethargic casualty in a world ruled by men and vodka.

You may come from whatever part of the world, you may be a good person or a bad person, says the film; it doesn't matter, because you'll inevitably be sucked into this moral morass. This is Shagalova's bitter message. It is what she has discovered, even if it may not be her opinion. She is, however, honest enough not to introduce any hope or optimism in this remote place and where neither can exist.

The film was not much liked at its Moscow festival premiere. It was seen as too dark, too pessimistic; Russians obviously prefer a more upbeat depiction of their country. However, in all the uncertainty of contemporary Russian cinema, Shagalova turns out to be a real auteur.

Klaus Eder

Klaus Eder© 2008

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Updated: 30 Sep 08