Issue 24 (2009)
Tigran Keosaian: Mirage (Mirazh, 2008)
reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2009
“This Is No Mirage, This Is a War”:
Degeneration of the Soviet “Eastern” Tradition in Keosaian’s Mirage
“Somewhere, someplace”...but for no reason at all. This brief motto incorporating one of the titles initially contemplated for Mirage, effectively summarizes the plot of Tigran Keosaian's (b. 1966) chaotic and for the most part senseless action-adventure. The film features a largely meaningless plethora of cinematic quotations ranging from American and Italian Westerns to Bond films to a number of homegrown productions popularly known as “Easterns” or “Red Westerns.” A representative of a younger generation of contemporary filmmakers, Keosaian is the son of the Soviet director Edmond Keosaian (1936-94) whose 1966 cult classic The Elusive Avengers (Neulovimye mstiteli) transformed the well-established tradition of the Soviet civil war film by toning down its prescribed ideological component while at the same time heightening its entertainment value by adopting dynamic plot elements of the American western. Keosaian claims that in making Mirage he not only paid homage to his father, but also perpetuated the established genre that was honed in such Soviet-era classics as Vladimir Motyl’'s The White Sun of the Desert (Beloe solntse pustyni, 1969) and Nikita Mikhalkov's A Stranger Among Friends, a Friend Among Strangers (Svoi sredi chuzhikh, chuzhoi sredi svoikh, 1974). Even though Mirage consciously models itself on the Soviet Eastern, it not only fails to make a meaningful contribution to the surprisingly complex ideology of the genre, but also attests to a degeneration of the genre's traditions in contemporary Russian cinema.
In a playful and tongue-in-cheek manner that is not, however, entirely devoid of seriousness, Mirage tells a story of three young Russian women and two men who independently and for different personal reasons travel to an unnamed (or mythical) country in the Middle East, but end up entrapped together in Dead City, an abandoned desert settlement on the coast currently serving as a base for local bandits involved in drug and sex trafficking. Among the women rounded up as sex slaves, the viewer sees the naïve, but goodhearted blonde Ul’iana (Antonina Komissarova) who willingly contracted to be a sex worker, unaware of the brutality of her future clientele; the geeky but courageous Savosina (Natal'ia Naumova) who came to work on a student construction project; and the mature and practical Lera (Alena Khmel'nitskaia) who fled Russia after unwittingly stumbling upon a politically-motivated murder. The adventure-seeking youths Misha (Aleksei Chadov) and Zhenia (Aleksei Bardukov) who came to the Middle East to engage in extreme sports get lost in the desert and arrive in Dead City shortly after the women manage to knock off their sole guard. With more bandits on the way to fetch their human merchandise and retrieve a large shipment of drugs hidden in the settlement, Dead City turns into a deadly trap for the defenseless and disoriented Russian tourists. The captives' only hope for escape arrives in the figure of the Catcher (“Lovets”, Dmitrii Mar'ianov), a bounty hunter from Russia. Hired by an influential Russian businessman (Viktor Verzhbitskii) to locate and deliver his alleged daughter, Catcher retraces Lera's path to Dead City. In the desert, he comes across his former colleague in the Soviet (or possibly post-Soviet Russian) secret services, Jamal (Rustam Urazaev), now residing in the Middle East and heading the sex and drug trafficking business that holds Lera prisoner. Despite Jamal's promise to hand Lera over to him, Catcher sets out to Dead City on his own. However, with the news that one of Jamal's people has been killed and another taken hostage by the Russians, Jamal insists on storming the hamlet. Afraid that Lera could die during such an attack, Catcher persuades Jamal to let him recover Lera alone in return for retrieving the hostage and the drugs. Upon entering Dead City, Catcher learns that the hostage is dead and the drugs are missing; the captives appeal to him for help. With a storming of Dead City now inevitable Catcher decides to protect his prey by defending the besieged hamlet. As the Russians pull their resources together to confront the enemy, relationships are formed and identities are forged that transform a randomly assembled group of unconnected individuals into a community fighting for survival against a common enemy.
Traditionally set during the Russian civil war of 1918-1920 (and well into the 1920s in Soviet Central Asia), Soviet counterparts of American Westerns were, at different stages of Soviet history, used to legitimize the establishment of the Bolshevik regime and Stalin's rise to power, to interrogate the ideological foundation of the Soviet state in the revisionary political climate of Khrushchev's Thaw, and, finally, to reconcile an increasingly disillusioned population to the inevitability of living under Brezhnev's politically stifling “developed socialism.” In these “historical-revolutionary productions,” to use the genre's official name, the requirement of officially promoted ideological content was unfailingly paired with the demand for an entertaining form that, in Boris Shumiatskii's classic formulation, would make the Bolshevik ideology congenial and accessible “to the millions.” However, by the mid-1960s, as political reaction replaced the brief post-Stalinist liberalization, it produced such widespread ideological apathy that the authorities came to rely on escapist, adventure-oriented plots to keep the politically alienated population sufficiently appeased.
The Elusive Avengers and The White Sun of the Desert both reflected and utilized these post-Thaw moods. Even though they stayed within the Civil-War film framework, portraying an irreconcilable struggle between the Reds and the Whites (the good guys and the bad guys), these films substituted the positive characters' individual agendas and personal codes of honor for the genre's traditionally ideological motivations, and replaced ideologically charged battle scenes with emphatically entertaining and visually dynamic action-adventure sequences. These apparently innocuous adjustments rendered the residual ideological component in the films largely irrelevant, undermining the legitimacy of the Soviet regime by highlighting its failure to provide a compelling ideological vision for a society at a new historical juncture. Such conspicuous downplaying of ideological motivations drew its subversive meaning precisely from this departure from the tradition of prioritizing the ideological in the conventional civil war film, particularly given the regime's authoritarian reassertion of the previously challenged ideological dogma. It is not surprising, then, that even after making changes requested by the censors The White Sun had to spend several months “on the shelf” before Brezhnev himself deemed it ideologically appropriate for a country-wide release in 1970. Thus, while paying lip service to the regime, the best Soviet Easterns (and Tigran Keosaian specifically refers to the more sophisticated examples of the genre), actually conveyed a latently subversive message to a discerning viewer.
A significant disconnect between the dominant ideology and the characters' motivations is precisely what is lacking in Mirage. When asked about the genre of his film, Keosaian described it as “action adventure with minimal social content but packed with unexpected plot twists” (Kinobusiness); the script allowed him the possibility “to be mischievous [pokhuliganit'], [and] to play with generally accepted clichés.” (Proficinema). While the movie certainly downplays its “social” component, the limited information the viewer does glean about the main characters' social backgrounds and motivations, reinforces the dominant ideological rhetoric of the Putin era as opposed to subverting it or rendering it irrelevant, as would be the case in a quality Soviet Eastern. In fact, the film's narrative is held together by a set of stereotypes and ideological attitudes actively cultivated in Putin's Russia.
Mirage's seemingly playful opposition between the good guys and the bad guys as represented by exclusively ethnically Russian characters and Muslim bandits respectively acquires more serious connotations in light of the prolonged ethnic strife in Russia's Muslim Northern Caucasus, the war on “international terrorism” in Chechnya, and the persisting demonization of Caucasian ethnicities in the Russian visual and printed media. Muslim Jamal has not only traded his native Russia for his uncivilized “spiritual homeland” where he can engage in criminal activities, but also betrayed his Russian friend, the then fellow secret agent Catcher, dooming him to six years in enemy captivity. His reprehensibly exploitative business allows him to send his children to Cambridge as he despises Russian education. Jamal's image is built exclusively on stereotypes associated with ethnic Caucasians and Muslim terrorists in Putin's Russia; he comes across as innately criminal, brutal and deceitful. While Catcher's roommate in a student dorm, Jamal used to steal his friend's cigarette lighters, just as today he and his bandits steal gasoline. “Is it couleur nationale?” wonders Catcher. “[It's] a [national] custom,” replies Jamal. He cares nothing for his fighters and easily sacrifices them for monetary profit or even for a moment of personal comfort (as when he shoots a wounded soldier whose groaning interferes with his satellite-phone conversation). In order to retrieve the lucrative drugs Jamal is prepared to butcher defenseless women and unseasoned youths, and encourages his troops to “Bring me their heads!”; the cutting of heads, throats and ears is constantly invoked by Catcher as a warning to his naïve Russian charges of what will happen to them if they get into the bandits' hands. In fact, Savosina perishes when an enemy knife pierces her throat pinning her to the wall. Jamal's Muslim “army” more generally is shown as representing a threat to Russia's (and the entire civilized world's) security, as the bandits rape and sell into sexual slavery blonde Russian women, and wound and kill idealistic young men. In a memorable one-liner offered as a refutation of Zhenia's view of the conflict as a mere “mirage,” Catcher underscores the reality and underlying gravity of a struggle that is depicted in outwardly ironic terms: “This is no mirage, this is a war.”
In painting the portrait of Russia's twenty-first-century enemy, the film draws a parallel between the tourists' victimization by the evil Muslims and Lera's persecution by the politically ambitious Moscow businessman who ordered her capture. Played by Viktor Verzhbitskii, typecast here as yet another cinematic villain, this scheming and murderous political hopeful invokes not only the same actor's rendition of Zavulon, the manipulative lord of the dark in Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006), but also his performance as the emigre oligarch Pokrovskii who orchestrates a terrorist takeover in Moscow in order to regain his political power in Evgenii Lavrent'ev's Countdown (Lichyi nomer, 2004).
If oligarchs and Muslims represent the forces that terrorize contemporary Russia, then her hope for survival rests on a sense of national community fostered by Catcher's impeccable code of honor as a special services veteran and Lera's hard work and integrity as a businesswoman. Unlike his adversaries, Catcher puts his moral principles above monetary profit. Just as he wouldn't risk harming innocent children when ordered to destroy “one very bad man” during his time in the special forces, he will not deliver Lera, once he finds out the truth about her evil pursuer. As opposed to the ruthless Jamal and the power-seeking oligarch who couldn't care less for those who entrusted their lives and wellbeing to them, Catcher plays the role of a protective father figure to his inexperienced charges who fully depend on him for their survival. His definition of the conflict as “a war” implies that it is more than a personal mission for him, just as it was for Aleksei Balabanov's Ivan in War (Voina, 2002). Although he now operates outside the state system and claims that his country betrayed him when he had refused to fulfill the order that involved sacrificing children, the viewer can only assume that he refers to the Soviet era, since his present actions validate the current Russian government's ideology. If Catcher's code of honor dates back to his uncompromising service to the Soviet state, Lera was raised by the state after her natural parents abandoned her in infancy. The honesty and dedication with which she builds her successful small business are starkly opposed to the oligarch's dishonest and self-serving actions. In the film's dangerous universe where the characters have to stand up for themselves, they mobilize to fight not “the system” but the enemy formulated and defined by the system in order to legitimize itself.
This officially channeled effort is depicted as natural and commendable as the film attempts to redirect Russian youths' apparently misdirected energy (and aggression) to the state cause. In the course of the film, Zhenia and Misha rise to a higher ideological consciousness when they realize the escapist, childish nature of their prior participation in paintball tournaments. In the “real” war that rages just a step away from their secure middle class existence, the blood is real and the stakes are high. Misha's initiation into this reality comes with his first real wound: “For some reason, it really hurts,” comments the veteran paint-baller who is used to staged heroics and fake multicolored blood. Zhenia's victory call “Ours have won, ours have won!” at the end of the final battle also acquires a new, ideologized ring after the real life-and-death encounter in which his best friend was wounded and one of his compatriots lost her life. Mirage, therefore, co-opts the virtual reality of the role-playing or computer games as a useful way to stimulate the Russian youths’ creative forces or channel their aggression. Significantly, Catcher leaves Savosina's question about “subjective idealism,” according to which it may well be that the film characters all stay in different safe locations and just dream the same horrible nightmare, suggestively unanswered.
Ideological implications aside, from a purely escapist, entertainment-oriented point of view, the film works on two levels: those well-versed in classical Russian and Western action-adventures will enjoy recognizing the film's numerous auditory and visual allusions (however random and meaningless), while the less sophisticated viewer is more likely to appreciate the film as a comedy overflowing with popular actors rather than as an adrenaline booster (the action sequences in the film are quite tame and predictable and lack spectacular special effects). In the state-controlled media market of Putin’s Russia that sets out to shape a specific, officially promoted vision of contemporary reality in its mass audiences, the film’s ethnic stereotyping and simplistic demonization of political opposition will be unnoticed, if not taken for granted, by the average viewer.
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“Tigran Keosaian: Mirazh budet interesen liubomu zriteliu.” Kinobusiness, 6 July 2008
Bulavinova, Mariia, “Mirazh Tigrana Keosaiana vykhodit na rossiiskie ekrany.” ProfiCinema, 20 August 2008.
Mirage, Russia, 2008,
Color, 81 minutes
Director: Tigran Keosaian
Scriptwriters: Dmitrii Konstantinov, Alena Zvantsova
Camera: Igor’ Klebanov
Music: Sergei Terekhov
Cast: Dmitrii Mar’ianov, Elena (Alena) Khmel’nitskaia, Aleksei Chadov, Aleksei Bardukov, Viktor Verzhbitskii, Aleksei Dmitriev, Antonina Komissarova, Natal’ia Naumova, Aleksei Panin, Iurii Safarov, Iurii Stoianov, Dzhemal Tetruashvili, Sergei Trebesov, Rustam Urazaev
Producer: Ruben Dishdishian
Production: Studio Art Bazar, commissioned by Central Partnership
Tigran Keosaian: Mirage (Mirazh, 2008)
reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2009