Valeriia Gai-Germanika: Everybody Dies But Me (Vse umrut, a ia ostanus', 2008)
reviewed by Aleksandr Kolbovskii© 2008
"Everybody dies but me" is an ordinary children's statement of confidence and consolation. There is no death. Rather, it is there, of course, but I shall never die. Perhaps someone else will die, maybe. Even for sure, people die. Both close people—grandmothers and grandfathers, parents, brothers and sisters, and people in the street and in the metro. Probably everyone will sometime die. But this does not concern me. Everyone will die. But I shall stay.
Actually, the process of growing up involves, among other things, the understanding that life is finite. Thus the title of Valeriia Gai-Germanika's film is in some sense a universal formula of a childhood that has yet not ended, but is already doomed by the first knowledge of death.
However, the issue of the title is not all that simple. It is certainly challenging and provocative. The film had the working title “KVZh” (the names of the three heroines, Katia, Vika and Zhanna); and another working title was “Three Girls”. I like the final version, but my mind returns here to the legendary Soviet “school” film made exactly forty years ago, which could have prompted something, or most likely did, in the young Gai-Germanika. Even if only the spread of the action. Stanislav Rostotskii's We'll live until Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel'nika, 1968)—an important cult film for the understanding of the late Thaw and early Stagnation era, the time when tanks rolled in the streets of Prague and when the fight against any non-official ideas erupted again—was full of expectation. Even the title suggested some usual school days— in expectation of Monday. Gai-Germanika also shows some usual school days—until Saturday when an event of universal school scale will take place: the first disco of the academic year.
Schoolboys and schoolgirls, both 40 years ago and now, have matured without noticing it: every 45 minutes of a usual school lesson has made them mature as though it had been a whole life. Every hour is like a month, every day like a year.
By the way, the action of Everybody Dies But Me, in the final cut following the three heroines until late Saturday evening after the disco, should also have ended on Monday. In an interview the director said that at the end of the script the heroines were supposed to return to school early Monday morning. According to the director, she cut this scene as she felt that it was important to leave the sensation of melancholy, loneliness, tears of powerlessness in the ending. “I made the ending so that you see how bad I sometimes feel,” said Valeriia Gai-Germanika.
At this point we should introduce this new figure of Russian cinema scene; a figure as picturesque as she is extraordinary. She is 24 years old. She looks like an upper-form pupil herself: lacy skirts, her hair dyed in the color of wild fuchsia, a tattoo on her shoulder: “ Caligula” . This image is wonderfully supplemented by a piercing in the nose. She is a great fan of the already mentioned Caligula , and also of Marilyn Manson. Her grandmother's favorite novel is Spartak, therefore this heroine's passport is issued in the quite suitably old-Roman-style name Gai (in honor of Gaius Julius Caesar) and Valeria (in honor of Lucius Cornelius Sulla's fifth wife, Valeria Messala). Not abandoning family traditions, she called her small daughter Octavia. “The main thing that she'll be a good gal”, she says about the future of her daughter (Maliukova).
At the age of 19, with a most basic camera, she filmed in the stairwell of the house next door her first documentary film for which she received the Grand Prix of the Shorts competition at Kinotavr and which participated in the Cannes Russian Day. Then there were at once two works in the competition of Kinotavr, one of which—Infante's Birthday (Den' rozhdeniia infanty, 2007) shocked the audience by its sado-masochistic theme presented, by the way, in an almost sterile manner. She studied with Marina Razbezhkina, a director who has come to fiction films from documentary herself. Gai-Germanika repeated this path, moving from documentary to fiction, although in her new film she leaves the border between authenticity and fiction almost indistinguishable.
With Everybody Dies But Me Germanika has already managed to snatch (and continues to do so) some international awards, including two prizes at the Cannes International Film Festival 2008: a special mention of the jury for the Camera d'Or and the youth prize in the Semaine de la Critique.
The strange, provocative, and irritating Gai-Germanika has worked here with the serious production company “ProFIT” and made an externally traditional film, with an adult genre label of “psychological drama.”—“How else could I have labeled it?”—she asks. “Not an astral- meditative phantasmagoria? A usual psychological drama as man experiences it during different stages of his life. A pity for those who did not.” (Maliukova)
So, the story of a disco, the story about three girls and how they go through the drama of growing up. Five days during which time is condensed and compressed. Every small event at school or at home acquires a universal scale and significance. And Gai-Germanika sees each of three heroines from the point of view of a peer, understanding and deciphering each detail for spectators of a different age-group, who have a different view on life. She focuses her attention on details of clothes to the logic of behavior and brisk language consisting of a mix of interjections, obscene lexicon and modern youth slang – all these expressions we constantly hear in the street and in the metro: koroche (“in short”), blin (“sh…”), va-abshche (“so ova-all”), and, of course, ovtsa (“sheep”), which describes some silly girl.
They are three girls and they are different, but at the same time they are very similar. Katia (Polina Filonenko) has perhaps the strongest character, as she most acutely experiences a metamorphosis that she does not understand herself, which psychologists qualify as age drama, and doctors as puberty, but which we here simply term “growing up”. She has simple and ordinary parents: we see them, but do not know anything about them. The parents periodically get into a pedagogical-educational rage, but hardly grasp what to do with this growing, strange, unpleasant, bristling creature. We know that someone in family has died: on Monday Katia returns home in the evening and finds the table after a funeral wake; on Saturday (after the disco) she finds the same table after the commemoration of the ninth day after death. Katia is a capricious and brisk girl, like a cat who roams around on its own. Like the other two, she too wants happiness which she formulates quite precisely: “Let there be a disco, and let me meet a bloke.”
Zhanna (Agniia Kuznetsova) is self-confident. A “cheerful f***-you-all” (raduzhnaia pofigistka), as Gai-Germanika calls her (Maliukova). She would like every day to be a holiday and wants the world to revolve around her—although Zhanna herself spins the world as far as her abilities and age allow this. Her parents adore her and therefore do everything she wants. Everything is “cool” (prikol'no) for her, especially when the older pupils mistake her for their peer and take her along to have a bottle of cheap port in the toilet. But she gets unpleasant when something unforeseen gets into the way of “cool” pastime —a friend, for example, whom she lightheartedly upsets to continue with the party.
Finally, there is Vika (Ol'ga Shuvalova), an angelic and airy creature, a little dumb but charming. She has everything of a Barbie doll: her eyes, ringlets, woolens, T-shirts, underwear, handbag, and even the phone—all nice and pink. This is all part and parcel of the domestic glamour that a girl from the provinces would imagine, knowing it only from television as shown by the national glamour icon Kseniia Sobchak. Vika suddenly and unexpectedly for herself falls in love—with a vulgar teenager and local playboy. Vika is kind at heart, but it is the kindness of a quiet beast not out for prey. She even dares, within the limits of her strength and language, to sort things out with the girlfriend whom she has just betrayed. The indifferent Zhanna does not even try, but Vika reckons that everything should be fair.
These three girls are constantly on the front stage. The other characters are grouped in two mass scenes in the background, without any designated personal characteristics. One crowd involves the adults, the other the pupils. Some faces are singled out more than others in the school scenes. The playboy mentioned above is an older pupil; his girlfriend a nasty vamp who already knows how to fight for her man; and another pupil from the girls' class who is clearly a “sheep”—ugly, unhappy, and a complete fool.
If the girls can somehow be decoded, then adults exist absolutely separately in this world. They are “separate” and “others”. In the legendary school film The Scarecrow (Chuchelo, 1983) by Rolan Bykov there was a frame which has stuck in memory. Before the entrance to the school the children met the head mistress, a strict woman of Soviet appearance looking at the children with arrogance and confidence. In the disciplined and rigid Soviet pedagogical system, the children were perceived not as people, but as objects of education—patriotic, communist, whatever. These women have not gone anywhere: they live in clover in new Russian schools and continue to be engaged in the “education of the growing generation”.
In Gai-Germanika's film there are such teachers, too. The contents of school lessons may have changed, and instead of Maiakovskii's “Verses about Soviet Passports” they now read the extra-curricular Mandel'shtam, while the children snap that Mandel'shtam is not on the program (“I have nothing against Pushkin,”, grumbles a girl at the literature lesson). Although, certainly, the use in the curriculum of Mandel'shtam's “of wine and onion smells your daughter” (“Surely you've experienced that too?”, the literature teacher maliciously asks the children) seems hypocritical : first the system destroys the poet, then indifferently “uses” him as though nothing had happened.
The adults are separated from the children spatially by invisible borders, which are not clear, ciphered, or coded. The teenagers have not the slightest desire to worry about the problems of the adults. Likewise, the adults have no chance to understand what is happening with the children.
Gai-Germanika's past as documentary filmmaker transpires like an photo in the process of being developed. Everybody Dies But Me possesses the unconditional accuracy and reliability of a document, recording a certain cross-section of the generation and the personal attitudes within this generation. Moreover, it provides an exact enough and sharp picture of modern Russian reality. So, in this case we are dealing with artistic-documentary cinema, if by artistic we understand the skill to recreate reality through fiction films and a degree of authorial judgment of reality, and if we understand by documentation authenticity, reality, truth.
This young director competently works with the young actresses, achieving an amazing, practically documentary, naturalness and organized ensemble acting. It is particularly worth mentioning the director of photography Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev. He has come to fiction film from the documentary and now actively works with young directors of the “new wave”, such as Aleksei German Jr. (Khamidkhodzhaev received the prize for Best Cinematography on German Jr.'s Paper Soldier [Bumazhnyi soldat, 2008] at this year's Venice IFF), Nikolai Khomeriki, Il'ia Khrzhanovskii, and Sergei Mokritskii. And with Gai-Germanika too. Khamidkhodzhaev takes long shots, sometimes with a hand-held camera, investigating carefully, attentively, meticulously and surveying the space, studying the faces of the young heroines and the world they inhabit. The young Gai-Germanika certainly pretends, dissembles and shows off when she claims that she has no idea about editing and therefore the episodes in her film contain no cuts. She is probably talking about the rhythm of the narration and, more generally, about a way of recording reality, about an artistic reliability that is achieved with the help of the graphic and expressive means of non-fiction film.
As it happened, I watched the film at Kinotavr with the daughter of friends who studies in the tenth grade. After the film I asked her how true it was what we had seen. “It's absolutely exact,” she said. “In the center of Moscow you're unlikely to find such schools, because the children of the big-wigs go there, but in any suburbian ‘sleeping' district there are only such schools and such children”
The world of surburbia has its own laws. Fashion and music reach these boundless conglomerations of houses, windows, fences, garages, waste land as a strange echo, where they are transformed into outskirts fashion, outskirts music in an outskirts life, outskirts customs, outskirts mentality.
At the school disco, and later on film credits, we hear the smash hit of the rock group “Zveri” (Beasts):
Bright yellow glasses,
Two hearts as a charm ,
Your name on the hand.
Districts and quarters,
I leave beautifully.
“Zveri” is a cult group and incredibly popular in these outskirts “districts and quarters”. “Zveri” sing about the inhabitants of the suburbs, and for them. The typical buildings, standard look-alike schools, court yards, graffiti on the walls and fences—in these infinite “d istricts and quarters” live “typical” people of different ages and professions, with a “typical” psychology, “typical” problems and “typical” lives. The power of this music coincides with the power of the infinite Moscow outskirts, the stone jungles that differ only in their names.
From time to time new Russian cinema pays attention to this world, looking at the “d istricts and quarters”. This world is sometimes made look horrific or demonic, as in Aleksei Mizgirev's Hard-Hearted (Kremen', 2007), but more often it is surveyed by the indifferent lens of a camera that glides across rows of identical windows and balconies, as the heroine Marina Liubakova's Cruelty (Zhestokost', 2007) moves her lens across her neighborhood. Gai-Germanika apparently tries to understand this world, to explain and classify its laws, rules of behavior, and to sketch ways of survival. In this sense her new film is a guidebook to a hitherto unmapped age and geographical reality, where the title itself becomes a symbol, or a slogan. Everybody Dies But Me is a tongue-twister, a spell, a consolation; and, of course, a juxtaposition. Strangely enough, and contrary to its gloomy and practically hopeless first resonance, it offers hope for the future. Because the genuine, beautiful life, freedom and happiness, the sky in diamonds, all this will come true, somehow, later. When everyone has died but me.
Translated by Birgit Beumers
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Maliukova, Larisa. “Pontovaia vyskohka” (interview with Valeriia Gai-Germanika), Novaia gazeta 15 May 2008.
Everybody Dies But Me, Russia, 2008
Color, 84 min.
Scriptwriters Aleksandr Rodionov, Iurii Klavdiev
Director Valeriia Gai Germanika
Director of Photography Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Production Design Denis Shibanov
Costume Design Aleksandr Petliura
Sound Sergei Ovcharenko
Editing Iuliia Batalova, Ivan Lebedev
Cast: Polina Filonenko, Agniia Kuznetsova, Ol’ga Shuvalova, Iuliia Aleksandrova, Donatas Grudovich, Anastasiia Zabadaeva, Ol’ga Lapshina, Aleksei Bagdasarov, Inga Strel’kova-Obol’dina, Garol’d Strel’kov, Irina Znamenshchikova, Aleksandra Kamyshova, Evgeniia Presnikova, Maksim Kostromykin
General Producer Igor’ Tolstunov
Co-Producer Anna Kagarlitskaia
Production Film Company ProFIT
Valeriia Gai-Germanika: Everybody Dies But Me (Vse umrut, a ia ostanus', 2008)
reviewed by Aleksandr Kolbovskii© 2008