The 19th edition of Kinotavr, which took place in Sochi from 7-15 June 2008, was one of the most interesting cinema showcases in recent times. The sheer fact that the “role” of Balabanov, the disturber of public peace and detonator of last year's Kinotavr, was performed this time by a 23-year-old girl, is already inspiring. Maybe Balabanov, whose film made everybody quarrel and squabble last year, leading critics right down to direct accusations, scandals and hysterics with subsequent threats to leave the Guild of Film Critics, has inoculated all of us against further injections of Russia's harsh reality.
Anyway, the girl with the strange “Roman” name Valeriia Gai-Germanika (just like the wife of emperor Commodus, no less!) and her radical film Everybody Dies But Me (Vse umrut a ia ostanus', 2008) about teenagers who drink, swear, hate their parents and make sex in a basement, did not met with the kind of criticism that Balabanov's Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007) encountered last year. Maybe this is because the sketch of life in the Russian provinces from Gai-Germanika's pen is just that—a sketch (though no doubt highly talented), while Balabanov's film generalizes on a more universal level, and neither provincial teachers nor professional critics (representing the more advanced section of the population) were ready for this portrayal.
So as you watch, bit by bit, you realize that the author of sheer fear, the young girl Lera-Valeriia, has become not so much an outsider stared at with genuine disgust by our moral lady critics, but the heroine of this large Russian film festival. And there is a good reason: the film may be a sketch, but its plot—like a classical drama of Racine's times unfolding during the day when the three girls visit a disco—contains everything essential: characters, destinies, temperaments. Moreover, the unexpressive future of the three friends is outlined: marriage and everyday melancholy in a provincial, vegetative life at best, and possibly prison at worse. Although probably things won't get that bad—as we tend t say: they'll be over and done with their youthful follies and take the harness in their hands.
Inspiration cannot be sold, but virginity is for sale
“How's that?”, you may wonder.— “That's how,” I say, thus moving smoothly on to another film, namely Vitalii Manskii's Virginity (Devstvennost'), a documentary about the destinies of another three ladies, somewhat more senior, who come from the province to conquer the capital. They propose to do this by selling their virginity, a product, as Dmitrii Bykov's off-screen voice summarizes (he incidentally also wrote the text for the film); a so-so product, not in high demand. As it transpires from the film, virginity costs money—I don't know whether this a lot or not: $3,000 (proposes a buyer on the Internet). The girl Katia eventually finds a client on the World Wide Web, and receives these greens (dollars). Another girl, a certain Karina , dreams of selling herself in a steeper manner: for a million bucks (wishing, in the long term, to replace Madonna who—in her opinion—should take a break). The third girl, Christina, aims to get onto the reality TV show “ House 2”, and personally to the producer Stepan Menshchikov, in order to bribe him with her innocence, and become his wife and mother of his children.
Thus all three girls (jumping ahead, I'll say that Karina ends up , as one would expect, in a brothel; Christina is expelled from the show after having been professionally and cynically exposed; and only Katia, grieving for her lost virginity, spends the money on her studies) are possessed only by one single idea: to sell something, and if there's nothing except for this virginity, well, then at least that.
In interview Manskii gave on a youth web site, he spoke with genuine contempt about the heroines, and at the same time about a certain Elena Berkova, a former porn star who nowadays is a presenter on MTV, comparing her with Karina and suggesting she should not only be expelled from TV but banished beyond the limits of Moscow. That is: Manskii moralizes and suggests to punish the culprits and cleanse society from nastiness. That's funny. Taking into account that even the above mentioned Madonna did not disdain roles in porn films and is now almost an archetype of the epoch; that a good half of our deputies, ministers, and oligarchs have a much more shameful past than those who have worked in a brothel—in Manskii's place I'd be careful with such far-reaching conclusions. Or, on the contrary, I'd make them genuinely far-reaching: in a society infected with the virus of corruption, money-making, total cynicism and disrespect for human kind, these three unfortunate girls are merely victims. And there's no use exposing just them.
A much younger director coped better with this challenge: the 23-year-old Gai-Germanika created in her film an image of Russia as personified in the destinies of three girls. This spitting into the face (you can't call it anything else) of the glamorous Russia whose image our commercial directors try to impose on us, and an even more powerful attack against intellectual errors hanging over from old “school” films—these features are much more concise in Everybody Dies But Me than in Manskii's opus. A born documentalist, Manskii is, however, not always inspired by a moral feeling, and such a sense of morals is, as he suggests, absent in his heroines. If we look in a very n arrow way at the present, then we all sell something or other: our body, our writing (otherwise no chance of survival), or entire companies and factories; let alone inspiration, which—as the poet believes—“is not for sale”…
Russia cannot be understood by reason alone
It is interesting how Kirill Serebrennikov's Yuriev Day, based on a script by Iurii Arabov and an original hit of the festival, compares with these films that depict our country without much flattery. Yuriev Day initiated lively discussions, which reached a temperature not much below the heated discussions around Balabanov last year.
Russia's Number One critic Andrei Plakhov offered an interesting reading of this film about a European celebrity, a beauty and opera diva, who visits her native town of Yuriev with “nostalgic,” as she says, purposes. She will lose everything here: her son, her voice, and her career. Yet it is not clear what to make of this: whether this film should be read in an ironical key or, on the contrary, with an orthodox-informed sense of finding faith. Another critic, a rather venomous lady (to say no more) called the Serebrennikov's and Arabov's message “s ynod hysterics”. At the end of the film the heroine (finely portrayed by Kseniia Rappoport) enters a dilapidated church to sing with the local choir and—having forgotten about ambition, arrogance, career, Europe, brilliant lovers, favorable contracts and other things—she wipes the floor in a local tubercular clinic for prisoners. Radical, to say the least: the opera diva who wipes up the spittle of the patients, condemned men who are beyond doubt criminals: they will steal, kill, betray, rape. She lowers herself to the very bottom of life, as did the saints, in order to purge herself of arrogance and draw nearer to the holy spirit. No less than the intelligence and flair of a critic like Plakhov are necessary to detect here ironical distance; personally, I did not see it, although ironic distance is also present in Breaking the Waves (1996) by Lars von Trier, which told to us an inversed Christmas fairy tale, a horror story for the night. The ironic distance is too veiled and too theatricalized—especially in the scenes modeled on Hieronymus Bosch with the prisoners—to be a key to the understanding of the film. I liked also another interpretation: a film about each of us potentially losing everything in a split second. Except for faith, obviously. Such an improbable, shocking plot may be mastered by the gifted playwright Iurii Arabov, who knows how to tread the thin line between absurdity, irony, and humanism; Kirill Serebrennikov, whose work in my opinion is more based on effects and affects, has set the accents too heavily, sometimes bordering on parody.
The wild field in the land of fools
As far as Russian parody is concerned, especially with folklore motives—this rare genre (which Sergei Ovcharov had mastered in his time) has also been represented at Kinotavr by the film Wild Field (Dikoe pole, 2008) by Mikhail Kalatozishvili. Based on a script by Petr Lutsik and Aleksei Samoriadov (who unfortunately perished a long time ago, in their 30s and 40s respectively), the extremely gifted and most paradoxical scriptwriters of the 1990s, this film creates a rather strange impression. Generally Lutsik and Samoriadov have not been too lucky with film interpretations of their scripts: none of the films based on their scripts expressed a shred of the madness that raged in their works. Probably, therefore, each director in turn tried to penetrate the sacrosanct of their myth, without sensing the organic structure. Kalatozishvili, in my opinion, feels the film-prose of Lutsik and Samoriadov no worse and no better than others, but he has enough wit to follow the script, staging the events with great attention to detail and without burdening the plot with his own allusions . Strangely enough, such apprenticeship serves in the given case better than a “creative approach”: as a result, Wild Field will no doubt gain success and admirers: it has already been invited to the Venice Film Festival and will become a cultural event. It seems to me that all this befits the restless spirit of two untimely departed geniuses: having found an embodiment for the image of a wild and unrestrained, almost pagan Russia, they have left this image to their heirs. There is even something mystical here: the scriptwriters, who perished in the prime of life, are no longer here, but their metaphysical “body” continues to hover above us.
Nevertheless, despite the presence in the competition of such strong films (true, Gai-Germanika was shown out of competition), a film of a completely different style garnered the main prize: Shultes (Shul'tes, 2008) by Bakur Bakuradze. The tale of a thief and pickpocket, a former sportsman who partly lost his memory, took a high note of cinema culture. In fact so high that the fans of the newly emerged talent (this is the director's debut in feature films) compared him to Robert Bresson. Although Bakuradze still has a way to go until he reaches the level of Bresson, there really is something they share: first of all, the ontological sense of cinema where everything that happens on the screen is somehow filled with a special meaning. This is not the notorious meaning that, at times, covers uttermost emptiness, but that the “film-genius,” as Louis Delluc said, assimilates reality exclusively through cinematic rather than literary means. The fact that Bakuradze w on the competition—in spite of the fact that he had such powerful contenders as Serebrennikov, Manskii and even Kalatozishvili (let alone the humanitarian film by Aleksei Uchitel', Captive [Plennyi, 2008] about a Russian soldier who develops brotherly feelings for a captured Chechen boy),—is in my opinion the only fair decision. And in a way this is surprising: usually you don't expect anything just from juries, whether they are in Venice or Cannes…
Translated by Birgit Beumers
Diliara Tasbulatova© 2008
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