Elena Nikolaeva: Vanechka (2007)

reviewed by Colin Burns© 2008

Elena Nikolaeva started her career during the Soviet era, with films such as The Aborigine (Aborigen, 1988), and SexStory (SekSkazka, 1991). Since then she has largely been working in television. In the last couple of years, however, she has returned to film. Her most recent film, Vanechka (2007) again pairs the director with rising young actress Elena Velikanova, who first worked with her on Pops (Popsa, 2005), alongside the well know cast of Andrei Panin, Alisa Grebenshchikova and Armen Dzhigarkhanian. The film develops Nikolaeva's recent television work in that it has the look, tone and feel of the Russian television serial Confidential Service (Sluzhba doveriia, 2007). In fact, Vanechka includes original television footage of that period. The grit and realism of this material stands in stark contrast to the gloss sheen of the film overall. Nikolaeva's technique has clearly proved popular as Vanechka has won a number of awards within the CIS at various festivals.

Set in Moscow in 1998, against the backdrop of the economic crisis of that time, the film concerns a young aspiring actress, Nadia (Velikanova), who in the opening scene is accepted into the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). On her way home from the successful audition she stops to look after the little Vanechka, the son of a couple with whom she is friends. They are busy transporting their furniture to their new flat. Waving them goodbye, as she is holding their child, she sees them killed in a hit-and-run accident involving a group of gangsters. She has no choice but to take Vanechka home with her.

Initially Nadia struggles along with her newly adopted child. With the help of her friends, she manages, but her new role is not to last. A policeman, who had initially helped her at the scene of the accident, hatches a plot with the gangsters responsible for her friends' death, to acquire the flat purchased by her parents. He arrives with state officials, her flat is condemned and, convinced that she is unable to cope, her child is taken from her and placed in an orphanage. Undeterred, Nadia manages to find employment in the orphanage, so that she can stay close to the baby. One of the benefactors of the orphanage is, coincidently, the businessman Gavrilov (Panin), who earlier saved her from being crushed at a demonstration, and who clearly has designs on her. At first she ignores his advances, eventually succumbing to his charms. Whilst the relationship is not a steady one, she gets to enjoy something of the high life of the circles in which Gavrilov moves. This relatively happy state of affairs does not last, since Vanechka is chosen by a foreign couple for adoption. Desperate, Nadia snatches him and runs off into the economic turmoil that gripped Russia in the late summer of 1998. Here she is later reunited with Gavrilov, now a victim of the economic collapse himself. Love wins out, however, and the new family is finally joined together.

Elena Nikolaeva states “The country needs such films—about real life in which everyone receives according to his beliefs” (official website). Yet this film is far from a story about “real life”. It is as much a fairytale as the earlier Pops, in which country girl Slava (Velikanova) visits her pop svengali aunt in Moscow in order to make her dreams of stardom come true. Although on the surface the two films appear similar, there are fundamental differences between Velikanova's two heroines. They are both “innocents” from the provinces who arrive in Moscow in search of fame, and in both films, they meet a range of stock characters corrupted by modern city life. Leather clad gangsters and corrupt police are common enough characters in contemporary popular Russian cinema. In Pops, however, Slava remains a Candide-type character who survives because of her very innocence, her naiveté and her belief in goodness and thus she emerges untainted. Nadia is quite different. She is innocent, but possesses an inner strength that sees her through, as she is required to take decisive action to achieve in life. Unlike Slava , it is the support of others—a priest, a businessman, and the VGIK bosses—that protects Nadia and enables her to achieve her aims.

The film is set against during the economic crisis of 1998, but this essentially remains a backdrop. Nadia seems unaffected by it; in fact, through her relationship with Gavrilov she starts to enjoy a life of luxury, albeit temporary. We see the poverty around her, the striking miners famously banging their helmets on the streets outside the White House; people rushing to the banks as the value of the ruble tumbles. Nadia remains unconcerned about the economic crisis that unfolds around her. She owns no money anyway, and what little she has is spent on her only concern: her family, or rather the family she is trying to form. As Gavrilov's business is ruined by the default, he finally becomes a suitable match and father for her surrogate child. Thus from this economic chaos a family is born, freed from the superficial material values that surround it.

With the end of the Yeltsin era and the relative political and economic stability of Russia today, this film attempts rewrites the country's recent past. To create a new myth of the recent past Nadia is seen to come through her personal crisis to restore the traditional values of Russia—family, motherhood and faith. In the same way that Russia itself has started to restore its own standing in the world, reasserting its identity from the west, following so much western involvement during the 1990s. After which there is a need to reassert the traditional image and values of Russia.

The film's producer Nadezhda Kopytina has stated that “This story is about the Russian soul. Vulnerable but strong, capable of compassion and always living in hope” (official website) and these are indeed the key themes of the film. In fact, the opening credits make it clear that this is not just a simple tale of an individual, but a story about an epoch and a nation. This is also highlighted through the inter-cutting of news items of the time and Yeltsin's speeches. The wider context of the economic turmoil attempts to give the film an epic dimension.

The Yeltsin era was a time when Russia was dependent on the West, and the West expected Russia to create a new, western-style democratic society. Now free from these expectations, Russia is again looking to reassert its own identity and its faith in the common people. From a time when Russia was in its early transformation to capitalism, with the rise of oligarchs and boundless capitalism, Vanechka attempts to reassert the idea that the common people have come through that period with their true values intact and unaffected by the superficial temptation of western materialism.

The film, in fact, goes further than this: it presents Nadia as the embodiment of those values. She is shown as a Madonna with child, pure and unaffected by the materialism around her. She is a symbol of pure motherhood and thus a symbol of Mother Russia. For her, motherhood is more than a natural role: it is a moral choice.

Despite all the trials that are placed before Nadia, she eventually creates a family for Vanechka. Her strength and her belief in love win out. In this way the film attempts to present a new myth for modern-day Russia—the myth of the common people who, faced with the adversity and challenges of recent times, have pulled through by placing their faith in traditional values of the nation. Despite all these changes, the soul of the Russian people remains unchanged. Ultimately, however, the film fails to convince. It is no more than a modern Russian fairytale, turning the chaos of the Yeltsin era into a backdrop for an inverted Cinderella story, in which the prince turns into a pauper and happiness triumphs at the end, asserting moral over material values.

Colin Burns

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Vanechka, Russia, 2007
Color, 106 minutes
Director: Elena Nikolaeva.
Screenplay: Iuliia Topol’
Cinematography: Archil Akhvlediani
Costume Designer: Vladimir Trapeznikov
Composer: Iurii Poteenko
Production Designer: Negmar Dzhuraev
Cast Elena Velikanova, Andrei Panin, Maksim Gal’kin, Nina Ruslanova, Armen Dzhigarkhanian, Vasilii Mishchenko
Producer: Nadezhda Kopytina
Production: Global Action Group & Mikhail Kalatozov Foundation
Website: http://www.vanechka.ru/rus/content/index.html

Elena Nikolaeva: Vanechka (2007)

reviewed by Colin Burns© 2008

Updated: 25 Sep 08