Issue 26 (2009)

Pavel Bardin: Russia-88 (Rossiia-88, 2009)

reviewed by Petre Petrov © 2009

russia88Any evaluation of Pavel Bardin’s Russia-88 must begin with the film’s peculiar fate. To the present date, it has lived much less on the screens of movie theaters than in internet torrents and the black DVD market.At the time of writing this review, the filmhas still not been granted distribution rights for the Russian Federation. Its premiere took place abroad, at the beginning of 2009, within the “Panorama” program of the Berlin Film Festival. Since then, there have been several screenings on the territory of Russia, but it is the failed screenings that have created the more audible noise. One of them, scheduled for 18 April at the “Rolan” theater in Moscow was obstructed in a bizarre sequence of events that featured the arrival at the scene of a Special Task Police Unit (OMON), allegedly dispatched to prevent an anticipated fascist demonstration. Another screening, planned for 3 June at the “Sinefant” (also in Moscow), was cancelled for what the theater’s administration termed “technical reasons.” According to reports, the decision to not show the film followed a visit by two persons who identified themselves as operatives of the Federal Security Service (FSB). These shadowy dramatics were matched by those following the film’s most salient appearance on native soil: its participation in the festival for debut features, “The Spirit of Fire”, in Khanty-Mansiisk. After the event, one member of the jury testified that a “call from up high” had forced a reversal of the initial decision to award the festival’s top prize to Russia-88. (The film received the second-highest accolade, the Special Prize of the Jury, as well as the prize of Russia’s Guild of Film Scholars and Critics.) Add to all this the highly polarized debates in the blogosphere (often indulged in by people who have not had the opportunity to see the film), and it becomes obvious that the event Russia-88 has far exceeded anything a viewing experience may yield.

russia88On the authors’ declared intentions, Russia-88 wants to deliver a trenchant social and political message, an anti-fascist statement that is also a meditation on the life of Russia’s troubled urban youth. As the reel unwinds, the viewer is made to doubt whether these two goals can be achieved in an effective simultaneity. The stringency attendant to the former proves to be at odds with the empathic understanding requisite for the latter. Where he wants to anathemise, Bardin cannot help but sympathize. The result is a cinematic creation markedly more ambiguous than its director’s public pronouncements tell it to be—an ambiguity confirmed by the widely divergent responses one finds both in the Russian press and in internet forums.

russia88Russia-88 is executed in the style of a mock documentary, which chronicles the life of a gang of Moscow skinheads. From a formal point of view, it invites comparisons the paradigmatic Blair Witch Project (1999), while thematically it shows kinship with the cult Australian production Romper Stomper (1992). Bardin’s film withstands these comparisons without the charge of merely rehashing successful exemplars. True, there are no real innovations on the level of technique. Here is the same shaky, jumpy, handheld camera familiar from the Blair Witch Project—an artfully artless vehicle that delivers an unedited video stream, in which accidental disruptions, abrupt transitions, and extraneous material serve as the punctuation marks of immediacy and authenticity. The appeal of Russia-88 lies not in this previously-sampled visual fare, but rather in the fine play between reality and theatricality, between imitation and genuineness. The appeal lasts for as long as this play lasts, that is, for approximately two thirds of the film’s total duration.

russia88We are watching a feature that pretends to be, or imitates, a documentary. In the feature, we are watching a group of young people who play at being Nazis. In both cases, the “reality effect” comes not from the success of the imitation, but on the contrary: from the fact that the imitation shows itself as such. Ostensibly, the camera records the daily life of a Moscow gang of skinheads, but the moments of quotidian spontaneity are outweighed by the succession of set pieces: propagandistic clips and skits; group rituals capped with theatrically posed group shots; Fascist “manifestoes” read on camera; various staged “operations”; street interviews (for a non-existent channel “88”, a number that codes “Heil Hitler!” in abbreviation); interviews with individual gang members. All of this material is, supposedly, intended for internet distribution (Bardin admits to having emulated the neo-Nazi video diaries that could be found on sites like YouTube). Nothing alerts us to the transition from adolescent enactments to real violence. Russia-88 is at its best when it shows these two modes as one. “Reality” is not somewhere apart from theatrical poses. Quite simply—and chillingly—real violence irrupts as a required part of the performance.

russia88The amateur camera recording all of this is operated by Edik, a Jewish youth who makes but occasional appearances before the lens, each time exposing a puny physique, confused identity, and pathetic inability to fit the milieu in which he finds himself. His character—a referential nod to the hero of Henry Bean’s The Believer (2001)—is one of those offenses to good political tone that Russian filmmakers perpetrate with impunity no less startling for being staunchly unreflective. Bardin’s own Semitic lineage is hardly an excuse for his recycling of the most tired and tasteless cultural schemes: physically challenged, Edik is also patently inadequate to the gang’s hyper-masculine ethos; for the film’s creators, this translates automatically into implied homosexuality and, of course—into a penchant for intellectualism and creativity; while each of the gang members is a social outcast, Edik’s is rootlessness par excellence, an almost genetic predicament. If the message we should “get” is that non-integration breeds dangerous cults, then this message is more than little undermined by the unsavory suggestion that the Jewish people’s very marginality could have been complicit in the rise of Fascism.

russia88The main object of attention for Edik and his camera is the gang’s front man, alias Blade (Shtyk), played by Petr Fedorov (who is also the film’s co-producer and composer). Blade projects an excess of the characteristics that his Jewish companion so thoroughly lacks: physical prowess, rugged masculinity, violent racism, and unreserved devotion to the cause. This is supposed to explain Edik’s attraction to him, which materializes for our eyes as an ongoing scopic idolatry. Although mediated through Edik, this fascination cannot but reach out to and affect the film’s viewer as well. One could speculate on whether a narrative’s focal character could ever be represented as thoroughly odious, but the main hero of Russia-88 is certainly not that. His raw charisma—even before the film’s ending polishes it off with a swipe of poignant inner drama—significantly softens whatever combative stance against neo-Fascism Bardin might have hoped to adopt.

russia88 Half hour before the end, the un-plotted stream of Edik’s video diary takes a surprising turn, and a classical intrigue swiftly takes shape. It is a Romeo-and-Juliet plot involving Blade, his sister, and her beloved, a handsome representative of Russia’s Muslim minority.  The dialectic between staged act and actuality comes undone, as the film now pretends not to have staged, but to have simply chanced upon this neat scenario.  The seriousness with which it treats the fictional set-up of the two star-crossed lovers jibes with the earlier approach, in which a knowing mimicry of documentary record sustained the effect of veracity. The seduction of plot to which Bardin succumbs is of course the seduction of “closure” and “point.” The point he needs to make is, apparently, this: that Fascist devotions are but a shell that—no matter how hard it appears—may crack in life’s climactic moments to reveal the immutable core of vulnerable humanity. One wonders whether such a point is worth making. The tragic story of inter-ethnic love takes the predictable course to deliver, at its end, the film’s main hero just the way we like our neo-Fascists to be: grief-stricken, sobbing, repentant, “human, all too human!” But this mawkish crescendo is made to look starkly irrelevant soon thereafter, as we watch a tantalizingly long list of Russia’s recent victims of racist violence following the production credits.

Petre Petrov
Princeton University

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Russia 88, Russia 2009
Color, 104 minutes
Scriptwriter and Director: Pavel Bardin
Director of Cinematography: Sergei Dandurian
Cast: Petr Fedorov, Archibald Archibaldovich, Mikhail Poliakov, Marina Orel, Nikolai Machulskii, Anton Kuznetsov, Ivan Ignatenko, Mikhail Pavlik, Vera Strokova, Kazbek Kibizov, Georgi Totibadze, Aleksandr Makarov, Elena Tokmakova-Gorbushkina, Petr Barancheev, Andrei Merzlikin
Producers: Pavel Bardin, Petr Fedorov, Vasilii Solov’ev
Production: Giya Lordkipanidze, Anna Mikhalkova, Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Aleksandr Shein

Pavel Bardin: Russia-88 (Rossiia-88, 2009)

reviewed by Petre Petrov © 2009

Updated: 30 Sep 09