Issue 25 (2009)
Iurii Grymov: Strangers (Chuzhie, 2008)
reviewed by Mariya Y. Boston © 2009
In an interview with Rossiiskaia gazeta Iurii Grymov described his latest film, Strangers, as a“model of the modern world,” where “three major world forces, three cultures, clash: Arabic, Russian, and American.” The plot concerns these three cultures: a team of American doctors comes to vaccinate nameless children in a nameless Arab village, while Russian military forces with a vague peacekeeping mission are stationed nearby. Even while the details remain unknown, the film makes it rather clear who is bad and who is good, who is in charge, and who wants to be in charge, but is completely impotent (in all meanings of the word) in this triangulated power struggle.
The plot of film, however, concentrates not so much on the interaction among these three forces (although the cultural clashes are inevitably a big part of the film), but rather on the interaction of the Americans. The American team is a stereotypical miniature of American society: the childless couple (Mark Adam Miller as the team leader, Tom, and Scarlett McAlister as his wife, Jane); the old “virgin,” Miss Stone (Kathleen Gati), and a gay couple—Mike (Neil Stewart), the infantile white, and Bill (Jeff Grays), the black macho. The film’s opening sequence presents a very friendly and open-minded group of people. And in case the viewer has any doubts, Tom explicitly tells his wife what a great team he has. The rest of the film then sets about proving how dysfunctional this “great team” really is, as couples fight, break up, get back together; “reliable” and “grounded” Miss Stone gets drunk and becomes hysterical, and the happiness suggested in the beginning is shown to be an illusion as the team arrive at the village and actually starts “work.”
So, the film’s plot has some potential. Nevertheless, Strangers surprises by its primitive narrative and heavy propaganda content. Tom’s statement in the beginning of the film, “I can love children, even if I can’t have them,” declares its theme quite explicitly as the film aims to show who truly loves and cares about children—that is to say, not the Americans who talk, but the Russians who act. However, the word “children” is spoken so many times in the film that eventually it loses any meaning, and perhaps this is the film’s intent. In Strangers Americans neither understand nor care for Arab children (and perhaps children in general): the Americans’ love for children serves as a cover to test a vaccine for a pharmaceutical company and prove the savage nature of the Muslim world.
This is the source of all the film’s problems. The second-rate acting of the American cast, while annoying in the beginning, becomes intolerable by the end. None of Tom’s statements about his love for children rings true, even though they are plainly lies. Tom does not care about children; he cares about money and a possible promotion he may be given after this trip. Perhaps the problematic acting is less obvious if the film is watched with Russian dubbing; however English exposes all the false notes and intonations in the characters’ dialogues.
Acting problems are related to the script. The film is co-written by Aleksandr Remnev, Vladimir Maliagin and Iurii Grymov. At times, it seems, Grymov’s experience in the advertising industry is painfully apparent. The film’s characters do not talk but rather give speeches and voice slogans. In one episode, a Russian soldier questions the validity of their stay in this nondescript Arab country and a fellow soldier justifies it by repeating Grymov’s own words that three powers clash here, so the situation is “lousy” and, with that, philosophically concludes, “a triangle is a rigid figure.” This conversation goes nowhere except in the direction of political propaganda, as when another soldier remarks of the Americans, “firstly those batmen create problems for themselves, and then they heroically overcome them.” So while Americans are busy creating problems in order to look like heroes by solving them, the Russian soldiers prove to be the real heroes. The most important thing for a Russian soldier is to “die like a man,” not like a Muslim or a Christian. Although an interesting idea in itself, this platitude is no less vapid and propagandistic than Tom’s speech in the film’s conclusion, when he declares that “America cannot sit by and watch [the terrorist acts of the savage Muslims]. America must act.” Both sound like exhortations on posters from either country.
This reinforces the idea that Strangers is based on stereotypes. As Tom meets the Russian soldiers on his way to save the unvaccinated Arab children, the Russians do not permit him to drive through the war zone, and he argues with them: “You live in Siberia, you don’t care about anyone else’s children except your own because all you know how to do is forbid and constrain ‘cause of your totalitarian minds […] America is a democratic nation and we are not afraid to do the duty of our world that needs to be done.” The absurdity and inappropriateness of such an accusation plays on the “dumb Americans” stereotype so popular in contemporary Russian culture. Since this conflict between the two forces occurs within the first ten minutes, the rest of the film proves the Americans wrong: it is in fact, Russia’s mission “to do the duty of our world that needs to be done,” and it is the Russians who truly love the children and quite literally save their lives. Even more, the children love the Russians back: while an Arab girl treats Russian soldiers with peaches, one of the vaccinated boys pees on Miss Stone’s accordion.
The film suggests that the children know who is worthy of love and who is not. They do not applaud Miss Stone’s mind-numbing performance of “Row, row, row your boat”; they are horrified by Halloween pumpkins, and, in addition to peeing on Miss Stone’s accordion, it is hinted that one of the boys actually hurts Bill, but what happens to him we never really know. In short, the children know that Americans are bad and act accordingly. Perhaps they feel that Americans view children as objects—of adoration, experimentation, even argument, but not as children. Looking at a little redhead boy, Mike says to Bill that he would like to adopt him because the boy “looks like an orange”: “just imagine, you’re black, I’m white, a little orange boy in between us—it could be beautiful.” Similarly, when Jane hears how Miss Stone’s sister “found a healthy man in a parking lot” to conceive her healthy child, Jane decides to follow that example. Since there is no parking lot in this village and the only true male (besides her husband) is their nameless guard, the director often locates Jane’s mating sessions next to or on a car to remind the viewer about the randomness of the act which, interestingly enough, is decided upon by a throw of dice.
The Americans are presented as infantile, neurotic egotists; children, of course, see right through them. In addition, Grymov’s “model of the modern world” presents Americans as completely de-masculinized. Of the three American males, two are gay and Tom is sterile. Thus the only true males able to father children are the Russian soldiers and silent Arabs, all of them notably carrying guns. Unlike the talkative Americans and philosophical Russians, the Arabs are silent. A little boy whom Bill and Mike befriend never says a word, which seems logical because of the language barrier, but on the other hand is also a little forced, since he does not talk to the locals either. Children who arrive at the village to receive the vaccines only cry or laugh; the women who supervise children barely utter a sentence, and when they do speak, their words are never translated. This image of silent Arabs reinforces the stereotype of Middle Eastern culture—mysterious, unfamiliar and incomprehensible—, a culture that Americans try to subjugate and Russians simply save.
The political agenda of the film is obvious. As Grymov explains in his interview, the Strangers are those who impose their own rules on others (readAmericans), and the title card with an excerpt from Bush’s speech makes this point at the end of the film. According to the film’s logic and to Grymov himself, only Russians have the power (and perhaps even the right) to save the world from the evil American Empire: “I believe that the Russians will level out this conflict between the American and Arab worlds. I think we have this mission. Maybe that’s because we are a multi-national country and are familiar with all the problems that stem from this. Maybe Dostoevskii is right and Russia is closer to God.” (Grymov in an interview in Izvestiia). Thus, multinational Russia, unlike single-nation America, has the mission to resolve the conflict between America and the Eastern Muslim world and bring the world peace.
Grymov’s Strangers proves Russian soldiers to be the true “men,” true human beings, caring and loving, but also not without a sense of dignity. The Russian soldiers do not let the Americans through because of concerns for their safety. It is a Russian doctor (Viktor Bychkov) who saves Bill’s life by curing him of an unknown illness. It is the Russian soldiers who clear the minefields and who receive thanks from the grateful locals, while Tom drives his team through the minefield with a vague promise of survival. (Jane threw the dice.). It is a Russian soldier who saves the little girl standing on a mine by sacrificing his own life, while Americans hide the doctor who could save the soldier and offend the Russian major (Aleksei Poluian). The Russian major, of course, will not tolerate this offense and orders his group to leave the village, which eventually leads to the soldier’s death. There is no need to point out all of the Russians’ heroic actions and all of the despicable acts of the Americans. Grymov’s agenda is obvious and overwhelming in its vulgarity.
As Kuvshinova notes, “aesthetic tasks are resolved by vigorous color correction (overexposure, underexposure, etc.) that were already dated in the 90s”; the ideological objective is treated with the rigor of Soviet propaganda. The film’s last image is of Tom and Jane kissing, while their (or rather Jane and the guard’s) “Arab” baby watches them from behind the door. This is the American dream come true, according to Grymov: Tom gets a red car and a gorgeous house, the Arab world is invading America from the inside, while Russian soldiers die doing the “duty of our world.” Unfortunately, slogan-based dialogues, along with bad acting and 90s visual effects, reduce Grymov’s political statement to kitsch, destroying any of its validity.
Mariya Y. Boston
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Fedina, Anna, “Rezhisser Grymov: Amerikantsy dumaiut oni betmeny, spasaiushchie mir,” Izvestiia, 14 December 2007
Kuvshinova, Maria, “Drama o posledstviiakh intimnoi globalizatsii ot avtora Mu-mu,” Afisha 27 October 2008
Novoselova, Elena, “Nemestnye, no ne chuzhie,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 April 2008
Strangers, Russia, USA, Egypt, 2008
Color, 100 min.
Director: Iurii Grymov
Screenplay: Aleksander Remnev, Vladimir Maliagin and Iurii Grymov
Cinematography: Andrei Katorzhenko
Editors: Olga Grymova, Natal’ia Men’shikova, Evgenii Koliadinstev
Production design: Abbas Saber
Sound: Sergei Groshev, Aleksandr Kamaldinov
Music: Andrei Feofanov
Cast: Mark Adam Miller, Scarlett McAlister, Kathleen Gati, Neil Stewart, Jeff Grays, Viktor Bychkov, Aleksei Poluian.
Production: UG Studio, supported by the Federal Agency for Culture and Television of the State Agency for Culture and Cinema
Iurii Grymov: Strangers (Chuzhie, 2008)
reviewed by Mariya Y. Boston © 2009