KinoKultura: Issue 25 (2009)

With a Cine-Eye through Russia: The Festival “Kinoteatr.doc” 2009

By Kristina Matvienko (Moscow)

This year’s Kinoteatr.doc festival was thematically focused on “the school”. In the opinion of the permanent festival selectors—the critic Alena Solntseva and the director Boris Khlebnikov this means that the time for studying has come. After the first successes of young directors who had taken a digital camera into their hands for the first time a few years ago, the time had come to present some interim results and to understand where the difference lies between a fresh, non-professional outlook on life and conscious work on the visual acquisition of reality; how to search for heroes and find them not only among marginal groups of all sorts, but also among usual, apparently unremarkable people. These are no simple tasks, but if they cannot be resolved, then he aesthetic phenomenon Kinoteatr.doc—which so strongly influenced both professional cinema and theatre—could expiate. Among the participants of this year’s festival were numerous pupils of Marina Razbezhkina, a teacher and director who created a revolution in teaching film and who uncovered for the public at the very least the director Valeria Gai-Germanika; she also brought to the fore a whole generation of young documentalists who look at the world differently, who film it differently, and whose films have confirmed the viability of the term of “real” cinema.

In the program of “Kinoteatr.doc 2009” there were traditional, but nevertheless very fascinating films about Russia, about people who, to put it mildly, lead an unsuccessful life in cities and villages that are hardly suitable for living.

blagie namereniiaNatal’ia Meshchaninova’s film Good Intentions (Blagie namereniia) is about an elderly couple who rent a house in a village and come there from nearby Krasnodar every summer. The hero—a man with the utopian desire to change the world—suggests to his fellows villagers to take advantage of his home library, to jog every morning, to cure drunkenness, and to work the land as a community and then sustain themselves through private farming and earning a little extra. It is probably needless to say that all these undertakings are met by the local residents at best with laughter, at worst with serious aggression. Having tormented the villagers for the whole summer with his “good intentions”, the man and his wife leave, boarding up the house and fearing that somebody might set alight their modest dwellings. The young director, who successfully debuted at last year’s Kinoteatr.doc, provides an example of a Russian anti-Utopia. The film shows the complex and slowly developing conflict between urban and rural life, but also of a difficult human nature that does not allow the man to calm down when it would appear possible to do so. The illusory and vain nature of his idea to reorganize other people’s lives is shown in Good Intentions, which rightly took one of the festival prizes.

Lera Surkova, another pupil of Razbezhkina, found some quite marginal characters in the Arkhangelsk region; she shot the film Schoolmate (Odnoklassnik). The protagonist lives in a settlement, drinks heavily, is unemployed and loafs around the local lakes. His drunkard parents suffocated from oven smoke during the winter. Both brothers perished a pointless and tragic death. Only he is left—a nice man with kind eyes, defenseless, naive and open, without prospects and without the will to live. Surkova, who also held the camera for this film, tries to disappear and dissolve in order to make it easier for the hero in front of the camera and enable him to forget about her presence so the process is less awkward and scary for him. She manages to do this, and the apotheosis of this liberation is a scene of drunken chanting on the banks of the local lake, when the “schoolmate’s” soul opens up and things get tense for the spectator—not just for this concrete individual, but also for all those settlements where people gradually turn into inveterate drunkards.

poshtoIn an entirely different tonality stands the film by Matvei Troshinkin (Razbezhkina’s workshop) Small Believer (Poshto malovernaia)—although it would appear that the story about a boy with Down Syndrome cannot be light and positive. And yet… in the Moscow suburbs there lives a family of a priest: the youngish wife of the priest makes the beds and maintains the garden, while their sick twelve-year-old son does not leave his mother for a second. In its composition this film is built around the mother’s numerous attempts to drag her son onto a bell-tower so he can see the world from above and see how beautiful everything looks. The boy desperately resists, dreading the steps, and begs the mother not to drag him up. Of course, eventually the kind priest’s wife, infinitely loving her son, manages to convince him to climb up, and the boy stands on the roof of the bell-tower and examines the valleys with great delight. In the intervals the director shows the unusual life of a child with such an illness—how he studies, answers questions on history, sings songs at the table, plants flowers with his mother and wittily speaks about his dreams, in which he becomes Tsar. The main thing in this film is the apparently simple, authentically shown story of the freedom which a child may be given. The priest’s wife reveals a remarkable talent for making such a gift. The hero of Small Believer lives in a world of love, but not in isolation from the world as a whole, and this, perhaps, is the best hymn of glory to wise parental love.

A different story is told in Adopted (Priemnye) by Julia Agafontseva: a story about a woman who has taken three brothers at once from a children's home, but who cannot manage to bond with them. Day after day we see the spurs of irritation, dislike and misunderstanding between the quite successful, well-earning women with a decent apartment and the two elder brothers, who need to be told off constantly for something or other, otherwise they will eat too many sweets or will not study, but spoil themselves. The adoptive mother never had any children and probably knows only from psychology books what it means to teach children life in a “normal family.” Finally, the conflict escalates and leads to a complete breakdown; here the woman is seen in a hysterical fit and threatens to send the elder boys back to the children's home. Agafontseva, also a pupil of Razbezhkina, has carefully and closely collected evidence of this conflict, of the hostility that arises from trifles, which leads to a sad ending. Neither the children, nor the foster mother or grandmother can see the camera, and therefore the evidence is very convincing. The actual ending of the story was omitted from the film: the woman returned the boys to the children's home, keeping only the youngest, who had not yet formed a personality.

Uneasy family relations are also exploredf in the film An Expensive Table (Dorogoi stol, dir. Andzhela Abzalova [Surgut]). The mother of a family has bought a long-awaited new table and waits for the arrival of her daughters to gather around the table. But instead of an idyll there follow a quarrel, mutual reproaches, hysterics, charges—and nobody cares about the table any more; on the contrary, nothing good has come of its purchase. The director filmed this story in her own family, but without bias, although this makes the story not easier to tell.

A family also stands at the center of At the Blue Sea (U sinego moria, dir. Ofeliia Avanti), a film shot in the south of Russia. A young woman is married to a psychopath who spent a term in prison and who continually swears at her, almost beats her up and does not help in the household. Nobody cares for the children; the woman’s ear hurts, but there is nobody to take her to hospital, her head spins and her husband drinks and goes out in the evenings. At the Blue Sea was filmed in beautiful locations, but this beauty stands in sharp contrast to the constant swearing and the hatred that emanates from the small house. It is difficult to detect love or misfortune: it is as difficult to distinguish as in life.

revolutionOne of the major films of the festival is The Revolution that did not Happen (Revoliutsiia kotoroi ne bylo) by Alena Polunina, who made several interesting films before. Before us we have a whole epic: the story of a guy from the provinces joining the National-Bolshevik Party and his activity which ultimately leads to the hero’s death. First the guy is arrested, having been turned in by his own father, who works in a mortuary and is also a party member from the circles of Eduard Limonov. Then the guy gets out, shaven head as before, only thinner, and again embarks on his blasting revolutionary work. From Moscow, he and some other guys are supervised by Limonov, who inspires the necessity of revolutionary struggle, while he himself gets off with a little fright. At last we are shown how on a cold, slushy day a simple coffin with the party guy is carried from the poor wooden house on the outskirts of Moscow. He has been killed somewhere in a skirmish with some semi-mythical enemies. In parallel, Limonov ardently speaks at meetings. Polunina’s film caused a strong response from the audience and the jury, and contains a monologue of a Petersburg nazbol (national bolsheviks) about the future of Russia, a future he does not believe in, just as he no longer believes in a revolution, because nobody needs it. The film passes a terrible diagnosis for modern Russian society, which paradoxically combines party extremism and bribability, indifference to the country’s fate with the unscrupulous consumer attitude to the young.

As in previous years, Kinoteatr.doc has shown films that teach something about Russia, that allow us to see its real face and sense the future. These films are not shown on TV, they cannot be bought, but they can be seen only by coming to Teatr.doc or other venues during the festival. And this too is a diagnosis, just like the fact that the audience of the festival grows year after year. Those people who need such films are not as small in numbers as is might seem, and they have a consistent interest in art that is a little closer to truth than all the rest. 

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Kristina Matvienko

Kristina Matvienko © 2009

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Updated: 11 Jul 09