Issue 27 (2010)
Natal’ia Ivanova: Robin (Snegir’, 2009)
reviewed by Vlad Strukov © 2010
Natal’ia Ivanova’s debut two-episode television production Robin (in Russian snegir’, a nickname derived from the main character’s surname Snegirev, and meaning robin) is set in an urban centre where the viewer is introduced to a group of teenage friends practicing extreme biking. Five boys and one girl—Natasha (Anastasiia Richi)—roam the streets of their city on bikes; an old garage serves as their base where they listen to funky music and do all sorts of “cool stuff.” Unlike late Soviet TV productions for children, such as Vladimir Alenikov The Adventures of Petrov and Vasechkin (Prikliucheniia Petrova i Vasechkina, 1980) and Konstantin Bromberg’s The Adventures of Elektronnik (Prikliucheniia Elektronika 1980), Robin focuses on the mundane and presents the story of the children as a family drama: Aleksei’s mother dies while giving birth to a child. The viewer learns that Aleksei’s father had died a long time ago, and the father of the newly-born child is unknown, and that the children have no other relatives. Aleksei, who is seventeen years old and a child himself, is the baby’s only legal guardian; by choosing a name for his newly born brother, Aleksei becomes his symbolic parent.
Ivanova’s film treads a familiar territory of the filial drama. Aleksandr Sokurov’s films Father and Son (Otets i syn, 2003) and Aleksandra (2007) and Ivanova’s Robin focus on the emotional link between parent and child. Just like Andrei Zviaginstev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie 2003), Ivanova’s film is a story of coming of age, learning responsibility and finding one’s own way in life. In a fashion similar to Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii’s Koktebel (2003), Robin utilizes the motif of the journey in order to stage social conflicts and develop the characters’ emotional dramas. Both Timur Bekmambetov in his Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor 2006) and Ivanova in Robin offer a cinematic study of the case of a missing father, who eventually returns, but in a different guise.
With Ivanova’s production it appears we are nowhere near from finishing off the theme of the child-parent relationship in contemporary Russian cinema. Ivanova’s version of the conflict is presented from the point of view of a female director, with the concerns of maternity, care and well-being moving to the foreground of the narrative. At first Aleksei rejects his brother, blaming him for the death of the mother; as his friends have a debate about the future of the child and the Russian system of orphanages and possible adoption of the child by an American family, Aleksei undergoes a moral crisis and embraces his brother as the only link to his own past and future. In actions, Aleksei constantly relies on the help of Natasha. Both of them eventually learn the tricks of parenthood with Aleksei often appearing in maternal roles of feeding and caring. As the teenager decides to take care of the child himself, he snatches the baby from the maternity hospital, inadvertently revealing the inefficiency and breeches in the security system of the hospital. The doctor (Kseniia Lavrova-Glinka) alerts the local policeman (Vitalii Ivanchenko), and together they organize a search party; Aleksei manages to escape with the child thanks to Natasha’s help. Aleksei and Natasha have to negotiate caring responsibilities, and it is through nurturing Aleksei’s brother that they start reacting to nature’s instincts that eventually bring them together.
Ivanova introduces a set of substitute parental pairs—Natasha and Aleksei, the doctor and the policeman. The purpose of introducing the first pair is to accentuate an individual’s responsibility for one’s own family; the function of the second pair is to indicate the presence of the state, a function that is fully developed towards the end of the film, when Aleksei and his brother are taken into the care of social—and in Russia’s case, state—institutions of the army and orphanage, respectively. Robin is a film about how the state, i.e. the doctor and the policeman, learns how to communicate its ideas to the young generation of Russian citizens. The theme of generational misunderstanding is also evident in Ivanova’s student graduate work at VGIK (directing school of E. Tashkov and A. Surin): The Wild Rosemary Blossom (Bagul’nik, VGIK, 2007, 25 mins, Russian, camera work by Andrei Katorzhenko; the film is available online from RamblerVision) displays a concern about an adult being unable to communicate her desires to the child. The short film received a prize at VGIK for best sound (Anastasiia Pasenchuk) and became the best feature at the 15th Saint Anna festival (2009) that presents films by film students and debut directors. The Wild Rosemary Blossom portrays a young woman, Maria, who makes a living as a seamstress at a wedding salon. As she leaves her birthday party she comes across a homeless boy—Vitia, who has found shelter from rain at a bus stop. She takes the child home but he runs away. She makes contact with the boy’s street gang as she brings them food. On another occasion Maria manages to keep Vitia at home for some time as she gives him a bath and makes him new clothes; however, he escapes again. The film concludes with a scene in which Maria gives Vitia a pair of new shoes (she had to donate blood to make extra money in order to afford the purchase). While chasing Vitia in Moscow, Maria engages in philosophical discussions with a street beggar (a teenager has to support himself by busking as his mother is ill) who has his own view of love: he defines it as a projection of a person’s own egoistic desires that have little to do with the object of love. As he contradicts Maria, she becomes more and more involved in Vitia’s fate and develops a deeper emotional attachment to the boy.
While The Wild Rosemary Blossom presents an example of social involvement that it is achieved by an individual in the absence of the state, Robin eulogizes the role of the state in securing the future of Aleksei and his brother after informal networks fail them. Robin maintains an unusually strong belief in social institutions—hospitals, police, orphanages (schools) and the army. This motif is absent from Ivanova’s earlier film, suggesting that Robin may be a reaction to the social and ideological needs of the state, i.e. Putin’s national programs aiming to overcome the country’s falling demographics. Such a reaction is grounded in the medium of the production: with television serving the needs of the state, it is not surprising that Robin—unlike The Wild Rosemary Blossom—is perfectly attuned to its ideology. Robin celebrates Aleksei and Natasha’s parental instinct and promotes the idea of procreation in general: in the epilogue, Aleksei returns from his service in the army and he finds both his brother and Natasha awaiting him in the orphanage. Robin also appears to propagate the Russian state’s current policy of “compulsory heterosexuality” as the film shows “failed” families. When Aleksei snatches his brother from the hospital, Natasha takes them to her uncle who is a circus performer and shares his personal space with another man. With just a few hints suggesting a homosocial, if not a homosexual, relationship, each of the men is shown socially incompetent as well as dysfunctional in terms of “the family business.” While maintaining a strong belief in family values, the film presents two institutions that fully account for the persistence of these values, namely, the folk tradition (the young nurse in the maternal hospital is portrayed as inefficient, whereas a older member of the personnel—the babushka type—teaches Aleksei some tricks of child rearing) and the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, the latter is introduced in the film from its very outset: as the teenagers go down the road practicing their extreme biking tricks they do so with the Russian Orthodox Church in the background.
Both The Wild Rosemary Blossom and The Robin utilize Christian as well as popular symbolism to put forward their moral ideology. In the first film, Maria receives a birthday present—a bunch of wild rosemary; the belief is that if Maria continues watering the plant, it will eventually bloom and so will bring her good luck in the form of a husband and many children. At the end of the film, although Maria fails to keep Vitia, she is hopeful of changes as the wild rosemary blooms. Wild rosemary—bagul’nik—is a Russian traditional symbol of purity, succession and patriotism. Robins—snegiri—are one of few kinds of birds that stay in Russia in the winter; they are normally depicted decorating the white snow with their red feathers, and they stand for perseverance, prudence and sacrifice.
The emotional, melodramatic element is quite powerful in Robin; I include two representative reactions from the audiences presented in online blogs: “It is a kind and emotional/soulful [dushevnyi] film,” writes a female blogger, and another seems to respond, “I liked the film. I cried all the time. I am so sensitive…” Ultimately, Robin combines elements of several genres, namely melodrama, detective story, childhood film and love story. The film also displays such features of a standard television production as repetitive narrative patterns, one-dimensional characters and intense goal-oriented behavior. Most of the actors work in Moscow theatres, so the acting style is more characteristic of televised theatre performances than film. The role of Aleksei is played by Evgenii Antropov, who also played Denis Komarov in Egor Anashkin’s Life on Loan drama (Zhizn’ vzaimy, Rekun-Film, 2009). In this film, Antropov plays a teenager who was brought up in an orphanage; he meets the Adamovs, who are experiencing serious problems with their son, also called Denis, and who take Denis Komarov on a family holiday hoping that he can have positive influence on their own son. The two Denises are presented as two facets of the same person, divided by their experiences of growing up in a family and an orphanage. Antropov, however, is more known for his roles of a completely different kind. He starred in Anton Remizov’s Hard-Hearted (Kremen’, 2007) and El’dar Salavatov’s Anti-Killer D.K (2008). In both the films, Antropov plays a young individual, who has to fight his way in life, literally. In Robin Antropov showcases the softer side of his acting ability, presenting a character who is naïve, confused and prone to uncontrolled emotional outbreaks (for example, he attempts suicide when he cannot deal with new burdens). Antropov’s character in Robin reveals his emotional side on a number of occasions, putting forward notions of purity, sincerity and love.
Robin is a peculiar case of novaia iskrennost’—new sensibility (the term that was introduced by Dmitrii Prigov in the mid-1980s)—with more emphasis on sentimental rather than self-reflexive depiction of social dramas. The film accentuates the humane—chelovecheskoe—in its characters and is less preoccupied with social roles and codes; it also emphatically searches for meaning, including the meaning of life, and is less interested in the stylistic or philosophical play. In its praise of family values the film is similar to the literary works of Timur Kibirov, Mark Kharitonov, Viktor Sanchuk, and other authors; however, what distinguishes The Robin from other texts is its engagement with ideology conducted on the level of the plot, characterization and symbolic motifs.
University of Leeds
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Robin (Snegir’), Russia, 2009
Color, TV drama, episodes at 45 mins each
Director: Natal’ia Ivanova
Screenplay: Valentin Donskov
Cinematography: Bogdan Verzhbitskii
Art Director: Inna Bychenkova
Music: Anton Silaev
Sound: Maksim Zadoia
Editing: Aleskandr Chernobrivko
Producer: Igor’ Tolstunov, Sergei Kozlov, Oleg Pshenichnyi, Profit Production Company
Cast: Evgenii Antropov, Anastasiia Richi, Kseniia Lavrova-Glinka
Natal’ia Ivanova: Robin (Snegir’, 2009)
reviewed by Vlad Strukov © 2010