Issue 26 (2009)

Sergei Govorukhin: Nobody but Us (Nikto, krome nas…, 2008)

reviewed by Susan Corbesero © 2009

In Sergei Govorukhin’s Nobody but Us, a dying war correspondent in a cancer ward emphatically reminds the film’s main character Evgenii Levashov (played by Sergei Shnyrov) of his moral duty to continue documenting the dangerous border war in Tajikistan. “This is a just war. The country must know about it. Film it,” the correspondent compels his young colleague. Levashov, who has just found his true love Natasha (played by Mariia Mironova) in his brief two weeks in civilian life, indeed chooses to return to the conflict as witness to the fighting. The weight of this moral responsibility, endlessly underscored throughout the film, almost costs Levashov his life in an Afghani ambush. Nonetheless, the single-mindedness of this imperative gravely compromises Nobody but Us from an artistic standpoint, which sadly fails as both as a war film and a romantic story of star-crossed lovers.

Sergei Govorukhin’s recent career appears singularly dedicated to documenting “forgotten wars” and paying tribute to the heroism and patriotism of Russian troops, past and present. He has produced and directed the documentaries, Cursed and Forgotten (Prokliaty i zabyty, 1997) on the Chechen war and Composition on a Vanishing Subject (Sochinenie na ukhodiashchuiu temu, 2001) which juxtaposed some disinterested, partying youth on Victory Day both with actual war footage and the stories of World War Two survivors. His first feature film, Nobody but Us (which he wrote, directed, and produced) proves no exception to this trajectory. Son of the distinguished director Stanislav Govorukhin and a former Duma deputy, Govorukhin abandoned a privileged civilian life to serve in the Russian army. As a war correspondent, he saw action in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, and Chechnya, where he was seriously wounded in 1995 and subsequently lost a leg. At home, he has created the Rokada Charity Foundation for disabled war veterans and has been an active member of the Russian Federation’s Commission for Human Rights. His personal and professional courage is without question, justly earning him both state decorations for his military service and humanitarian awards for Nobody but Us. [1] In this film, Govorukhin turns his lens on the (admittedly unfamiliar) conflict along the Afghan-Tajik border in the 1990s, when the Russian military fought rebels in order to protect the former Soviet republic from disintegration.

niktoGiven Govorukhin’s ulterior motive of highlighting this conflict, the film offers disappointingly little critical analysis. The chronology of the conflict, for example, is unclear. After an opening frame with the title “1994” presented on screen, Govorukhin gives very few clues that would contextualize the hostilities. The viewer, together with the celluloid Russian soldiers, is trapped within an a-historical, risky military mission through a canyon in order to take out hundreds of militants hoping to cross the border. In a tedious voiceover early in the film, Levashov painstakingly describes the operation and its hazards (as well as the probable outcome). Levashov’s character, obsessed with ensuring this combat will not be forgotten, provides virtually no insight into the causes or major issues of the conflict.

His mentor gives us a slightly fuller rationale for the war as an ongoing struggle against “barbarians,” described either as the mujahideen (warriors of the Islamic faith) or heroin traffickers who could ultimately penetrate the sacrosanct Russian border. On this battlefront, however, the enemy is represented in an ambiguous, if not predictable way. As the Russian troops spy upon some villagers who are presenting the rebels with a ram, Levashov jokes the animal should occupy the rebel combatants for days; the scene clearly suggests the enemy’s “uncivilized” and sexually deviant nature. The Russian soldiers in the film at least admit to the strategic expertise of their enemy as well as to their sense of shared humanity.

niktoIn an interview at Mosfil’m studios last fall, Govorukhin explained that he personally strove for authenticity in this film. [2] While scenes of soldiers trudging along rocky ledges or waiting in barracks or encampments are no doubt based upon experience of war’s grim reality, Govorukhin’s depictions of these moments prove tiresome. His Russian troops of this “Golden Battalion” are drawn both from a sense of nostalgia and sentimentalized. Most are young, innocent, self-sacrificing brother- or father-figures. According to Levashov (and therefore Govorukhin) the soldiers “are all exceptionably positive.” The film represents their shared destiny as equally positive martyrs in one of Levashov’s dream sequences near the film’s coda. Blissfully floating in the Azov Sea, Levashov looks out to see his band of brothers, recently killed, yet serenely resting on the beach in his version of heaven.”

niktoThe final battle scene, in which some rebels ambush the unwitting Russian soldiers, is perhaps the film’s most convincing and most powerful moment. Ensconced in mountain crevices, expert guerilla fighters relentlessly pound the exposed Russian troops with rockets and grenades, forcing the soldiers to retreat and hide until the arrival of air support. In a rare moment of haziness, Govorukhin loosens his directorial grip and permits the viewer to experience the vagaries of this war—its fluidity, the treacherous landscape, the impossibility of defense against guerilla tactics, and the awful fatalities far from the Russian homeland.

From the very beginning of the film, it is clear that the film’s protagonist embodies a thinly-disguised autobiography of Govorukhin; these parallels continually constrain both the actor and his character development. Before we even see Levashov’s face, viewers are introduced to his camera, kept in his apartment; this immediately establishes a link between the director and the actor. Levashov’s words, both forced and deliberate throughout, tirelessly echo the director’s aim. In a departing letter to his beloved Natasha, the hero (predictably) writes “I must tell everyone about the war. I don’t know if anyone needs this, except me.” Levashov and Govorukhin’s personal histories are virtually identical, sharing the occupation of war correspondent, together with similar battle experiences, and even the same near-fatal wound. With such preset restrictions, Shnyrov can never really inhabit or own the role of Levashov and, as a result, the character remains one-dimensional. His gestures are stilted, if not entirely fake, including, by way of example, the weak portrayal of drunkenness on a streetcar at the moment when he meets—and immediately falls in love with—Natasha. Never one for cinematic subtlety, Govorukhin and his camera ploddingly follow a crumpled Heineken beer can as it rolls down the tram floor to emphasize Levashov’s inebriation…

niktoEven more implausible, and ultimately unsuccessful, is the love story of Natasha and Levashov, two people who were destined to find each other, only to be quickly and cruelly separated by the war. While Levashov claims that Natasha is the woman of his dreams, there is little onscreen chemistry to persuade the viewer of that mystical connection. In Natasha we see the tiresome, stereotypical representation of women all too common in contemporary Russian cinema. Only slightly at variance with the all-too-common image of a “venerable whore” in recent Russian filmmaking, Natasha works as a strip tease dancer. Her choice of drab clothing, demeanor, and somewhat enigmatic personality do not, however, provide any indication of that profession. Levashov’s love “naturally” prompts her to quit her job over the phone, sending her—somewhat bizarrely—into a joyful, yet strange dance that celebrates this new-found liberation, all to the equally odd accompaniment of “Hello Dolly”. Completing this outlandish portrait, Natasha’s mental state is that of somebody superlatively maternal, subordinate, silent and suffering. She lovingly adjusts Levashov’s scarf, puts a warm blanket on his sleeping body, and frequently plays the domestic role of a good wife. Govorukhin never permits her to challenge Levashov or voice her own reaction to Levashov’s return to war; she is never allowed to problematize their relationship. (In fact, only after several encounters does Natasha even ask her lover his first name.) Like Levashov’s mother in the film, Natasha never undermines his capacity to wage war. Govorukhin openly admits to this tactic in a Mos’film interview; he decided to structure the role of Natasha “so it would be clear that she’d not accepted any different choice. She just needs that kind of man.”

Nobody but Us also seems to suffer from another self-imposed historical “imperative,” in other words the need to follow in the footsteps of one’s father, in this case Stanislav Govorukhin. Unlike his father, Sergei graduated from the Film Institute’s (VGIK) scriptwriting division rather than the directors’ department. Without that visual training, the younger Govorukhin’s first feature surrenders to a continuous stream of cinematic clichés and painfully superfluous references to all manner of classic artists, all the way from Paradjanov to Tolstoy. This tendency leads not only to the “fated” encounters on mass transport, but also to profound discussions right next to the famous and colorful Master and Margarita stairwell in Moscow.

niktoOther examples stand out. Early in the film, Levashov’s responds ponderously to Natasha’s career choice with the line: “Imagine right now if cranes were flying over Moscow.”Later, in a conscious nod to Aleksandr Zel’dovich’s film Moscow (Moskva, 2000) a world map decorates Levashov’s apartment wall, operating as a symbol of his alienation. Natasha and Levashov will presumably consummate their love under the same map, which drops over them both slowly and dramatically as they fall into an embrace both physical and somehow “cosmic.” In short, the problems of unsophisticated camera work, simplistic dialogue, awkward pauses, disconnected flashbacks, melodramatic flourishes, and hackneyed war-film conventions all mar the film and its box office appeal. As a result, perhaps, Nobody but Us ticket receipts never broke the $20,000 mark. [3]

Ultimately the film does manage a little clarity, in order to offer a political indictment.  In two short, yet telling scenes Govorukhin identifies the problems of corruption, greed, and political ambition in post-Soviet Russia as responsible for the nation’s loss of an erstwhile historical identity. By way of example, in the one of the film’s very first scenes, just as he finds happiness in love, Levashov also receives a notice from a film company, green-lighting his documentary project on the Tadzhikstan border conflict; this project will bring several social failings to light. His subsequent meeting in the rather barren office about the impending trip to the front casts obvious blame with regard to the loss of Russian national values. Not only do we see a presidential portrait of Yeltsin front and center; we also hear a bureaucrat-cum-businessman’s crass remark that Levashov should take care of himself, merely “because we have invested a lot of money in you.”

Shortly afterwards, the hero visits a former colleague who had made his fortune through the commercialization of filmmaking during perestroika. Levashov—rejecting any such mercantilism—plans to ask for $10,000, not for himself or his project, but from the more noble intention of caring for Natasha and his mother, should he perish at the front. This meeting takes place in another oddly stark setting, highlighting once again the profits to be made through corruption via a westernized, nicely renovated kitchen emblematic of the post-perestroika cash-rich Yeltsin years. As expected, Levashov’s colleague admits to only a faint knowledge of the war, arrogantly dismissing any likelihood of the hostilities’ impact upon him. Levashov takes this opportunity to lecture his collocutor and—by implication—the viewer about the nation’s collective responsibility to stop turning a blind eye and to support disabled veterans. His film, he adds, “will persuade people” to do just that. Ultimately, Levashov refuses the allure of any money, condemning as he does so the empty politics of his colleague. He leaves with principles intact and a strong sense of moral rectitude. In Nobody but Us, the nationalist Govorukhin, just like his cinematic alter ego Levashov, is determined that Russians remember their past in order to foster a new patriotism, no matter how painful the lessons of history.

Susan Corbesero
University of Pittsburgh

 

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Notes

1] Sergei Govorukhin is a decorated soldier, having received the Medals for Courage (1995) and Valor (1998). He has also chaired the International Disability Awareness Film Festival in Moscow.
2] Interview 12 September 2008. Mosfil’m dubbed and produced the soundtrack for Nobody but Us.
3] The film’s budget was a reported modest 2.5 million dollars.


Works Cited

White, Hayden. “Historiography and Historiophoty,” American Historical Review 93.3 (1988): 1193-1199.

Youngblood, Denise. Russian War Films. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2007.


Nobody But Us Russia, 2008
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Sergei Govorukhin
Script: Sergei Govorukhin
Cinematography: Il’ia Demin, Sergei Zubkov
Cast: Sergei Shnyrev, Mariia Mironova, Sergei Makhovikov, Iurii Beliaev, Rafael’ Akhmetshin, Liudmila Titova
Music: Eduard Artem’ev
Producer: Sergei Govorukhin with B. Rotenberg
Production Company: Vozvrashenie: XX vek

Awards:

"Silver Boat" in the category of "Russian Premieres," Window to Europe Film Festival, Vyborg 2008
"Silver Boat" for Courage and Integrity in Life and the Profession, Window to Europe 2008
Special Prize for “Authentic Depictions of Patriotism in a Film” VI International N. Iu. Ozerov Festival of War Films, 2008


Sergei Govorukhin: Nobody but Us (Nikto, krome nas…, 2008)

reviewed by Susan Corbesero © 2009

Updated: 30 Sep 09