KinoKultura: Issue 26 (2009)

Kinotavr 2009: The Victory of New Drama

By Birgit Beumers (Bristol)

openingThe 20th Kinotavr Open Russian film festival took place in Sochi from 7-15 June 2009, offering a rich and fabulous program—despite a slightly shortened festival period (down from ten days to just a week). Yet we should and could sing a song of praise to the organizers for holding the festival with all its sidebars, special events and programs despite the economic crisis, which has struck Russian film production hard. Mainly films already in production are being completed, and the crunch will no doubt make itself felt next year, when a sharp drop in new films is expected. One event that was cancelled this year was the pitching session for new projects—and its absence speaks of the fact that funding is almost unavailable, so holding a pitching session would have been an exercise merely to present projects that are unlikely to find any funding not because of their quality, but because of the credit crunch.

The 20th Kinotavr presented a program of new films, providing indeed the best showcase of Russian films. The jubilee edition was marked in an opening ceremony that looked back over those twenty years. And in this context, but not only, the absence of Kinotavr’s former president and co-founder, Oleg Iankovskii, was especially sad. Due to receive an award for his contribution to Kinotavr this year, he passed away a mere two weeks before the opening, and a few days after Pavel Lungin’s Tsar, in which he had played the monk Filipp—accepting his death at the hands of the cruel tsar—premiered in the “Certain Regard” sidebar in Cannes. The jubilee was also marked by a special edition of Iskusstvo kino, collating reviews of the award winning films from the last twenty years.

The formation of the jury of this anniversary event was handed over to the most rewarded producer at twenty Kinotavr festivals: Sergei Selianov. He summoned as jurors the filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, the actor Sergei Makovetskii and the actress Dar'ia Moroz, the critic Larisa Maliukova, the scriptwriter Avdotiia Smirnova, and director of photography Mikhail Agranovich. So the jury consisted more or less of a group of like-minded people, interested in the search for “new forms.”

Sidebars and Comptitions

ulybkaKinotavr had its usual wide range of sidebar programs. “Cinema on the Square” included blockbusters such as Admiral, Newsmakers (Goriachie novosti), Lovey-Dovey 2 (Liubov’-morkov’ 2), The Inhabited Island (Obitaemyi ostrov), and Platon alongside Hipsters (Stiliagi) and Taras Bulba—offering, in the first instance, the people of Sochi a chance to see these films for free, presented by their stars and idols, in the theater square. Andrei Plakhov’s “Summer Euphoria” included the two most recent films by Sergei Solov’ev, 2-Assa-2 and Anna Karenina, as well as the Cine-Train (Kinopoezd), a film almanac composed of six shorts which were filmed by a group of young European filmmakers (in this instance from Russia, Netherlands, Hungary, Portugal, Romania and Finland) traveling on the Trans-Siberian railway in September 2008. The project was initiated by a NISI MASA’s young cinema workshop, and followed in the footsteps of Aleksandr Medvekin’s film trains of the 1930s. Plakhov also screened a new documentary by the doyen Vitalii Manskii: in Nikolina Gora he traces through interviews the development, past and present, of the old dacha settlement outside Moscow, reserved for the Soviet intelligentsia, which has now become a place for the new Russians. It is here also that Nikita Mikhalkov’s old family home and new estate is located, and one of the highlights of the film is an episode where neighbors remember an episode of Nikita’s juvenile hooliganism.

bossThe short film competition was, as always, a special treat that offered an opportunity to see the talents of tomorrow. Although it contained some good films this year, there were no outstanding discoveries. The main award went to The Boss (Nachalnik) by actor and director Iurii Bykov, about an FSB officer who is attacked at his home by some criminals and manages to take control of the situation before erupting into violence once the danger is actually over. The acting background of director Bykov can be felt in the emphasis on character psychology, which makes this film rather conventional in its form. Other noteworthy shorts included Buddha’s Smile (Ulybka Buddy), a lovely composition about a little boy who pinches a sweet offered to a statue of Buddha. The film—one of the first to be shot in Buryatia—was made by Bair Dyshenov, who was awarded with a special diploma. Another curious film was Flash (Vspyshka) by Tatiana Reshetnikova, about a girl who wants to have her photo taken at a studio and finds herself in a strange and seemingly threatening situation. The director skillfully explores the conventions of the horror before finishing off in the genre of romantic comedy.  

And the winner is… New Drama

troyanovaThe winner of this year’s festival was clearly New Drama—thus is the name of a movement and festival that has brought to the forefront of critical attention new dramatic writing in the capital. New Drama was initially inspired by the plays of Martin MacDonagh, Mark Ravenhill and Patrick Marber and the like, but also by a series of seminars organized by the Royal Court Theatre and the British Council in Moscow in 1999/2000. From here followed an interest, or rather an obsession, with the verbatim technique that was used to record the speech of marginal groups in order to compose plays, thus dwelling on the use of spoken rather than literary language in drama. These plays were largely staged at Teatr.doc, a theatre founded by the playwrights Elena Gremina and her husband Mikhail Ugarov (it is worth noting that Gremina is the daughter of scriptwriter Anatolii Grebnev and sister of Aleksandr Mindadze; her son is the playwright and scriptwriter Aleksandr Rodionov). In the early 2000s the playwrights Iurii Klavdiev, Ivan Vyrypaev, Aleksandr Rodionov and others found a platform for their work at Teatr.doc; they were joined by a host of other young playwrights, including Maksim Kurochkin and Natal’ia Vorozhbit, the Durnenkov Brothers, and other writers who moved from the provinces to Moscow, if not permanently then at least temporarily. Moreover, Teatr.doc soon developed a cinematic branch with the movement and festival Kinoteatr.doc, organized by Mikhail Sinev (formerly producer of the Golden Mask Theater festival—another theatrical connection). The links between stage and screen were intensified in the work of Kirill Serebrennikov, whose successful theater productions of new plays, Russian and foreign, established these works at major Moscow theatres: thus, after having made his Moscow stage debut with a production of Vasilii Sigarev’s Plasticine at the Center for Directing and Playwriting (Tsentr dramaturgii i rezhissury), he staged the Presniakov Brothers’ Terrorism (2002) and Playing the Victim (2004) at the bastion of theatrical tradition, the Moscow Art Theater, before directing two films based on the Presniakovs’ plays: Bad Bed Scenes (Postel’nye stseny, TV, 2005) and Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006). So, it is curious to see at the closing and award ceremony of Kinotavr 2009 two playwrights receive the awards for best director, best film and best scriptwriter: Ivan Vyrypaev and Vasilii Sigarev, together with his wife Yana Troianova (best actress).

And the film press asks: who are they?

vyrypaev It was stunning also how few of the film critics had never heard of Sigarev, known only to theater audiences; the same was true for Vyrypaev a few years ago when he debuted with Euphoria (2006), which was largely ignored at Kinotavr, but received the Small Golden Lion (Audience Award) at the Venice International Film Festival. Ivan Vyrypaev (b. 1974) is an actor and theater director from Irkutsk, who caused a sensation on the Moscow theatrical scene in 2002 with the production of his play Oxygen (Kislorod), which he performed in the style of rap together with a stage partner and DJ. Oxygen has been recognized as best performance at the New Drama festival in 2003, and a year later Vyrypaev received the Golden Mask award in the section “Innovation”; since then Oxygen has been staged in theatres across Europe. His early plays have been staged in numerous theatres in Russia. Valentine’s Day (Valentinov den’, 2002) was turned into a film by Svetlana Proskurina The Best of Times (Luchshie vremena, 2007). Genesis No. 2 (Bytie No. 2, 2004) was directed for the theater by Viktor Ryzhakov (who also directed Oxygen) and Vyrypaev performed the songs; the production won the main prize of the New Drama festival in 2005 and participated in the prestigious festival NET (New European Theater). In 2006 Vyrypaev released a new play, July (Iiul’, 2006), again directed by Ryzhakov at the Praktika Theater; the play consists of a monologue of a sixty-three-year-old maniac and murderer, performed by Polina Agureeva, an actress of Fomenko’s Theater who also played the lead female role in Euphoria (and at the time was Vyrypaev’s wife).

sigarevVasilii Sigarev (b. 1977) is a pupil of Nikolai Koliada, a playwright from Ekaterinburg. Born in Verkhniaia Salda (Sverdlovsk Region), he studied for two years at the Nizhnii Tagil Pedagogical Institute before enrolling at the Ekaterinburg Theater Institute to study dramatic writing with Koliada. Sigarev’s business card is the play Plasticine (Plastilin, 2000), which received numerous awards (Debut 2000; Anti-Booker 2000) and was directed by Kirill Serebrennikov in a production which became a genuine sensation of the theatre season. In 2002 Plasticine was staged by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, and Sigarev won the London Evening Standard award as Most Promising Playwright. In the following seasons, the Royal Court staged two further plays by Sigarev, Black Milk (Chernoe moloko, 1999, published 2001) and Ladybird (full title Ladybirds Return to Earth [Bozh’i korovki vozvrashchaiutsia na zemliu], 2002, published 2003). Sigarev is the best-known contemporary Russian playwrights in the UK, and among the few known in European theatre.

The film Wolfy (Volchok; the Russian title plays on the ambiguity of the word volchok, meaning a spinning top—in the film: the toy the mother gives to the child—and the term used as a substitute for the diminutive of volk—volchonok: the little wolf from the famous lullaby which sounds in the film) appears conventional at first. Yet it is a most unsettling exploration of the absence of love in the contemporary world, without condemning or justifying this coldness of human emotions. It is violence which reigns the life of the mother (Troianova) from the moment she gives birth: she is incapable of loving her daughter (played by Polina Pluchek, the great-grandchild of the famous theatre director Valentin Pluchek), who nevertheless loves her mother. The child resorts to violence as she sees it in her mother, and in order to attract attention. Thus, the child kills a hedgehog (first suffocating it and then throwing it on the rail tracks) which the mother has given her to keep her happy. Or she thrusts a glass jar onto the mother’s lover to have her mother to herself. In reverse reciprocity, the mother ignores the child, making love as the girl is curled up at her feet, or abandoning the child on a railway station after pretending they will go to the south: she will, the girl not. The story is that of a devout daughter and a cruel mother; yet this mother wants to live a life where her daughter has no place, and she shifts the girl from grandmother to sister. But the daughter cannot exist without the mother’s love and consequently perishes in a road accident as she runs, once again, after her mother who is about to abandon her again. There is no future for the child that is not loved, and this bleak outlook on a loveless existence is driven largely by language. An emotional vibration lies in the way in which the dead daughter in her recollection remembers her mother, who remains alive; spoken by the mother, the voice-over eclipses much of the mother’s trademark vulgarism. As Sigarev and Troianova confirmed in the press conference: “This is a human story about love which is impossible, about love and non-love.”

Vyrypaev’s Oxygen similarly addresses the impossibility to breathe in the contemporary world. Yet he chooses a very unconventional form for his film, which is arranged in the form of a musical album with ten clips. The play is structured similarly, consisting of ten episodes which explore the ten commandments and test how they actually mean nothing in the modern world. The film stars Polish actress Karolina Gruszka, who appeared also in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), and the actor from Vyrypaev’s home town Irkutsk, Aleksei Filimonov

kislorodThe clips are introduced with the names of different composers. In the first (music by the composer and DJ Oleg Kostrov) Filimonov features as performer: the performative element highlighted on stage through the setting with a DJ is here enhanced by various devices that remove the events from reality. In the second clip (“Sasha loves Sasha”) a poster of Kislorod serves as backdrop for a scene where a man and a woman walk through a town, again making a self-referential comment about performance. In this episode, the description of the female Sasha (linen dress, sandals, bag with glass beads) is not matched by her real appearance: word and story diverge. Should we believe words or vision, sound or rhythm? At the end of the clip the camera returns to the setting of the first clip, the house where the madly dancing, jumping and performing male Sasha had killed his wife, whose body has now been found by the police. The third clip “Yes or no” (music by musician and sound producer Andrei Samsonov) relies on animation, showing partly animated and partly filmed figures of the man Sasha and the woman Sasha in Moscow. Once again, the image never fixates reality: does this really happen? Vyrypaev offers an unsettling experience to the viewer, who is constantly challenged to ask about the reliability of image, word and sound. The fourth clip “Moscow Rum” (music by Vitalii Lapin, the guitarist of NOM) has the male Sasha remember his journey on the train from Serpukhov to Moscow, while the female Sasha narrates her perspective of the events in a sequence accompanied with animated images of dogs and fleas (the animation is, incidentally, created by Maksim Ushakov, the animator who played the role of Pasha in Euphoria). When at the end of the clip we return to (male) Sasha’s murder of his wife (so he may live with the girl Sasha) and he casts away the shovel he used for the murder, the image transforms into one of an atomic explosion. The fifth clip explores the giving of alms and is accompanied by a folk song. The sixth is set in the Arab world, showing images of terrorism and destruction and of the 9/11 attacks. The events are not commented upon, but a text on the screen takes over this function: man is voiceless, speechless. The scene shifts into an animated sequence where He is on the surface of moon while She moves towards a door behind which there is a wolf. A naked man stands in field of hash and assumes the pose of Christ on the cross when She photographs him. The violence in the world flows into images of hallucination and drug-induces escape from reality. The seventh clip (music by Lapin) continues the experiment with the camera, trying to fixate the fields. Vyrypaev carefully explores different visual media (photo camera, hand held camera) that destabilize the world further. The eighth clip (sound by Khokhlov, music by Ainar Gainullin) captures images of a man and a woman in streets and courtyards. The ninth clip (“For the main one” / Dlia glavnogo) with music by Marktscheider Kunst has animated sequences accompanied by the sound of a film projector, again drawing attention to the use of media. The faces appear against a wall as crowds are passing; there are further flashback to violence and murder. It emerges that Sasha started beating his wife when finding her with a lover (thus before meeting the girl Sasha). Images are blurred, as the motivation for his violence (and murder) shifts. After splitting frames we return to the studio where the actors remove their headphones to debate “What is the most important thing?”. This is followed by a sequence of an animated advert. The final clip (music by Gainullin) shows floating objects and figures, seemingly under water, as they gradually come to the surface. The entire film, then, is life as if under a diving bell. The humming of the projector reminds us further of the fictional character of the images. The film finishes with two bonus tracks. One shows how the police run after Sasha and Sasha as they are on a funfair, in a maze with distorted mirrors; the other returns to the first scene, with the breaking of jars and cups which is undone as the film runs backward. Vyrypaev once more points at the fact that the entire film is a reflection only, and not real. And in order to achieve this, he draws on numerous visual and acoustic devices with one sole purpose: to undermine our perception: of film, of reality, of the word, of sound and image.

Around New Drama, and film

We return once again to the history of New Drama: during the 2004 New Drama festival in St Petersburg, the filmmaker and film historian Boris Khlebnikov presented a program of short films alongside the festival’s performances and readings of new plays. It was shortly afterwards that the festival Kinoteatr.doc (which Khlebnikov curates together with the critic Alena Solntseva and which has been covered since its inception by KinoKultura) launched itself as a major showcase for documentary films. Khlebnikov subsequently worked with the “doc” playwright Aleksandr Rodionov on the script for his film Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006), drawing on Rodionov’s experience both with verbatim theatre (as author of The War of the Moldavians for a Cardboard Box [Voina moldovan za kartonnuiu korobku, 2003]) and new British drama (as translator of Ravenhill’s plays).

Help Gone Mad (Sumashchedshaia pomoshch’) too is co-written with Rodionov. It deals, however, not with a child (as Koktebel) or a teenager (as Free Floating), but with two adult men—yet they act like children. There is the father suffering from dementia (Sergei Dreiden), who needs to be kept under check, a task accomplished by his loving and caring daughter (Anna Mikhalkova) who administers sedatives which the father detests because they stop him from living life in the full, as he likes to. He meets a migrant worker (Evgenii Sytyi) from Belarus, who has lost everything: he takes him in, but the worker fails to understand the situation. The actor and director from the Kemerovo Lozha theatre (founded by playwright-performer Evgenii Grishkovets), in fact, acts very little. He is sent to Moscow by his sister, who sells a pig for him to travel in order to find some work. It is ion Moscow that two men without a future meet: one who wants to live and is unable to; the other who has no work and nothing to live for. The film exposes life in outskirts of the city, and of life itself, together with a lack of concern for the other. Nikolai Khomeriki also co-wrote his script for Tale in the Darkness (Skazka pro temnotu) with Rodionov, relying on the latter’s ability to capture contemporary language and extract from its simple usage ironic and witty dialogues. His film is set and filmed in Vladivostok—another peripheral location—and explores the solitude of a young policewoman (Alisa Khazanova), unable to form a relationship with any of the people around her and doomed, seemingly, to eternal solitude. Both films have a characteristically sparse, but very concise dialogue which captures the lack of content in human communication.

meIgor’ Voloshin presented his new film I (aka Me) (Ia), based on his own script and his biography: he tells the story of a young man who signs himself into a psychiatric clinic in order to avoid the army draft. Whilst showing a colorful vision of the outside world from inside the clinic, the young protagonist is seen to face the destructive effect of the clinic that he had not calculated: his life is marred forever. With a budget of about 3 million the film offers a detailed insight into a hero whom Voloshin wants the audience to love—for negative qualities, since he has no positive features: “they have to be loved for the fact that they died for their love for freedom,” said Voloshin at the press conference. In a sense, the film is a requiem for a generation who loved the notion of protest and fight for the destruction of a system that was falling apart—turning their protest into a vain exercise and stripping their lives forever of a sense of active involvement in history, small and large.

Aleksei Mizgirev also worked from his own script, and he brought back onto the screen Natalia Negoda, the star of perestroika cinema for her role as Little Vera (Malen’kaia Vera, 1988). Here she plays (and appears to be) a hysterical woman (at the press conference she aggressively rejected questions about what she had done since Little Vera), a librarian who steals books in order to make money. The film is set in provincial Russia, in a mining area (filmed near Tula) and a poverty stricken region. She too has no future, falling for a man who cheats just as she does, and breaking off with her family when she lays claim on living space. The film, which went empty-handed at Kinotavr, subsequently won a Best Direction award at Locarno. The film’s title—Buben. Baraban— means nothing and cannot be translated: it refers to a phrase used once in the film when the heroine calms herself, telling herself to breathe regularly while pronouncing the words buben (tambourine) and baraban (drum). Most of these new films deal with a lack of life, love, and air. Such oppression is rendered in almost minimalist manner, with only slight psychological inflection. But there were also films of older masters at Kinotavr.

No New Drama. Old Cinema?

minnesota An interesting film was Minnesota by Andrei Proshkin, based on a script by Aleksandr Mindadze. I would consider this film a mismatch between director and scriptwriter. It transpired in the press conference that Minnesota was originally called Soar (Otryv), and here everything fell into place and the story made sense. This is not a film about the brotherhood of two hockey players, one aggressive and violent, the other talented but meek, as Proshkin reads the script. When the latter is offered the chance of a career away from home he feels obliged to take his brother with him: and the extraction from his habitual environment, the jump, the “soaring”, the otryv, does not come about—this man cannot be detached from his environment. Mindadze wrote this script before his script for Soar, taking the title of the first for his second script when he turned it into a film. Proshkin reads over the attempt of the younger brother to build a new life, which is doomed to failure, and fills the delicate pauses and voids of Mindadze’s script with action, turning this into a psychological drama, which crushes the script.

Two films addressed the generational conflict and how it leads to misunderstandings. Sergei Snezhkin’s film, based on Pavel Sanaev’s autobiographical novel, Bury me Under the Baseboard (Pokhoronite menia za plintusom) is a fine study of the violence and aggression that betrays true love and concern as the grandmother raises her grandson and terrorizes the boy who longs to see his mother, evicted from the parental house because she is married to a drunkard. And Larisa Sadilova’s film Sonny (Synok) also relies on the psychological acting of the brilliant Viktor Sukhorukov, who plays a single father who tries to be mum and dad, yet fails to truly understand his son.

Lack of air, lack of love, lack of a future are linked to violence and aggression, resignation and solitary depression—not necessarily as explanation, but also in a consequential connection; these are the common themes of this festival. It is human violence—verbal more often than physical—that destroys positive human emotions and the chance of a future. The violence they portray is not caused by social circumstance, but it is the result of self-destructive impulses that find their externalization through aggressive speech. The films are not bleak when portraying this hopelessness, unlike the chernukha, but they send a warning message about the potential loss of love. And that is a positive signal set for another decade of Kinotavr programs!

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol

Awards Kinotavr 2009
Best film: Wolfy (Volchok)
Best Director: Ivan Vyrypaev (Oxygen)
Best Actor: Boris Kamorzin (Tale in the Darkness)
Best Actress: Yana Troianova (Wolfy)
Best Music: Oxygen
Best Script: Vasilii Sigarev (Wolfy)
Best Camerawork: Dmitrii Yashonkov (I)
Special Jury Prize: Aleksei Mizgirev for Buben. Baraban


Birgit Beumers© 2009

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Updated: 30 Sep 09