Issue 28 (2010)

Valeriia Gai-Germanika: School (Shkola, TV 2010)

reviewed by Joe Crescente © 2010

School, Episodes 1-28

shkolaSchool, a 62-episode “saga” according to its director Valeriia Gai-Germanika, tells the story of the breakdown in discipline of a Moscow school. Gai-Germanika, best known as the director of Everybody Dies But Me (Vse umrut a ia ostanus’, 2008) and several short documentaries about teenagers (Sisters [Sestry, 2005]; Girls [Devochki 2005]; Boys [Malchiki 2007]) stated recently that she does not see the difference between shooting a feature film and a television serial: “One can say that I am shooting one big saga, or sixty-two short films” (Ivanova). This article will discuss episodes 1-28 and a future review is planned to consider the second half of the serial, episodes 29-62.

School premiered on 11 January 2010 on First Channel and quickly became a controversial hit, both on television and on the Internet where it is widely available as a stream or a download. It has thus far been lauded and alternately criticized for its frank depiction of the life of school students and their families and teachers. The serial is filmed in Moscow school No. 945, chosen for its “architecture and convenient location near the metro” (“Ucheniki…”). The serial, which experienced a two-week pause due to the Olympic Games in Vancouver, is expected to conclude on 27 May.

shkolaSchool is aired weeknights and was shown twice daily, at 18.30 and 23.30. However, since the Olympic Games it has only aired in the later slot, in an effort to tamp down on the cantankerous reaction the show has received from the government, critics, educators and the Orthodox Church (“Serial ‘Shkola’…”). One prominent fan of the show is Vladimir Zhirinovskii, the ever-controversial vice-speaker of parliament. He is interested in filming a series in the manner of School about the inner dealings of the Duma (“Zhirinovskii…”). He would like to begin filming this fall, and is prepared to write the screenplay for the show himself if necessary.

School—as indeed much of the work of the production company and festival kinoteatr.doc, which produced some of the early shorts of Gai-Germanika—is considered to adhere to the principles of Dogme ‘95, the manifesto penned by Danish film directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, with an aesthetic focus on naturalism (see for example Kachkaeva). Dogme '95 gave justification to filmmakers working on small budgets and wanting to avoid the Hollywood system. The following is a brief list of what School has in common with Dogme ‘95 and its “vow of chastity:” much of the action is shot on handheld cameras without the use of tripods; no manufactured sets are used and all scenes are filmed in ordinary locations; all sound is sourced, rather than artificial (the only music heard is that listened to by the characters and the dialogues are shot in natural and noisy locations, producing an occasionally disorienting effect, as the viewer is not given privileged access to sound in clamorous environments such as crowded transportation, cafeterias and the street).

shkolaIn Episode One we are introduced to Anatolii Germanovich Nosov, history teacher and homeroom leader of the 9th class in the school. He is also the recipient of a “teacher of the year” award for his prowess in the classroom and the composition of textbooks. It is the first day back after winter vacation. As it is his 70th birthday, the teachers and students of the school have planned a celebration for him. During the celebration, while a student is reading a poem in his honor, Nosov views several photos of his half-naked granddaughter, Ania, downloaded from the Internet and placed inside a birthday card. Nosov suffers a stroke, although the culprit who had placed the photos in the card retrieves them, without his identity being revealed.

Thus begins the show and the breakdown of discipline for class 9A. Two new students are introduced to this class, Ania Nosova and Il’ia Epifanov. Nosova had been studying at home for the previous two years, but due to her grandfather’s stroke (he is in the hospital until episode 14) she arranges her return to school. She has been home-schooled for the past two years under the pretense of illness, although it is never specified what Nosova was suffering from specifically. It is implied that her grandfather has compelled her to study at home for disciplinary reasons. There is great tension between them, especially when he comes home from the hospital, although their relationship drastically improves throughout the course of the show. Nosov is immobile and mute when he first arrives home, yet his mobility and speech improve slowly but steadily with each episode.

shkolaNosova adopts a new “emo” image upon returning to school, dying her hair and wearing thick layers of make-up; she immediately has trouble reintegrating. Her only sociality for the previous two years has been in the virtual sphere. She is taunted and does not get along with any of her classmates, except Epifanov and Misha Diatlov. More distressing is the fact that someone in the school has found, and is distributing, her half-naked photos and advertising with graffiti in various locations where they can be found on the Internet. While a teacher, Arsenii Ivanovich Degtiarev has seen the photos and is using them to blackmail Nosova into leaving school and resuming her studies at home (an act that almost gets him fired), several students also access the images. Degtiarev tries to help her transfer schools, but this attempt is rebuffed by Nosova’s grandmother who thinks it is best that she remain there, so that when her grandfather returns to teaching (considered impossible by most) he will be able to look after her. With time she begins to make friends outside the school. Without a doubt Nosova is the most vulnerable and emotionally fragile of the group, and much of the time she lives in fear of being attacked.

When Epifanov arrives for his first day at the school he asks the first student he sees in the hallway how to get to class and encounters the fists from the school tough guy Lekha Shutov, a tenth-grader. It is not entirely clear why Epifanov has transferred (he jokes that he had impregnated a classmate at his former school), although we quickly learn that his mother is quite ill and they recently moved to a smaller apartment after selling a larger one to pay for an unsuccessful operation. He has a very close relationship with his mother (his father is nowhere in sight) and he takes on a parental role in relation to her by organizing another operation, giving advice and earning income by selling dietary supplements, cleaning apartments, and stealing. He is particularly concerned with his mother’s fascination with new age and folk remedies and newfound religiosity, as he believes that it distracts her from her treatments with modern medicine. He spends much time attempting to organize an operation with Diatlov’s father, a doctor; however, his mother is constantly thwarting such treatments, thinking they are superfluous, as the first expensive operation had not improved her condition.

shkolaWith all of this responsibility, it is unsurprising that Epifanov does not have his head in the classroom. He is often late and frequently asked to leave class for bad behavior, especially in the form of wisecracks. A typical answer for Epifanov when asked how he is doing by the school principal is seen in episode 8. “Like in fairy-tales,” he says. “Thanks for caring.” In the minds of some teachers, in particular Valentina Kharitonovna, who assumes the responsibility of class director of 9A after Nosov’s stroke, Epifanov is the root of all troubles. She attempts to have him removed from the school, although she changes her mind after meeting his mother and discovering how sick she is. However, it becomes clear that he is a very talented and certainly entrepreneurial young man, and among the most trustworthy and sympathetic of his fellow classmates, if not also among the most wild and daring. He becomes quite popular with many of the students and is eventually chosen to host a school variety show.  

Arguably these are the two main characters of the serial, and they are the most troubled both in and out of school. However, this serial is unique in that everyone is shown to be in various levels of stress and despair, including parents and teachers with very few exceptions. Vadim, whose father is a raging and abusive alcoholic, transforms into a skinhead after a falling out with his Caucasian friend Timur, whose mother works in the school cafeteria. This “identity” seems to give Vadim the confidence he seems to be lacking as a result of his troubled upbringing. Olia Budilova’s cowardly father leaves the family in one of the early episodes. Physically attractive, Budilova is an attention-monger, popular among the boys and manipulative of the other girls, but this is a thin veneer to mask her vulnerability. She gets pregnant after a one-night stand with Shutov.

Rich boy Korolev is very popular, but is watching his family fall apart as his father has a destructive affair with his physics teacher, who he himself has affections for. In turn, the physics teacher is battered by her husband when he learns of the tryst after an anonymous tip from another (and quite jealous) teacher who incidentally spends much time flirting with yet another teacher who has recently separated from his wife.

shkolaVera is trying for a gold medal in school, which is complicated when her mother bribes Valentina Kharitonovna in the sum of $2000. Yet she decides to return the money after a short period of time by giving it to Vera. However, the money is stolen out of Vera’s bag by Vadim, although this is not immediately apparent. Vadim is confronted by Kharitonovna, who maintains that she figured out he was the thief thanks to the skills she acquired from her inspector ex-husband. She demands that he return the money, which he admits stealing, although it is unclear how he will be able to, as he comes from among the poorest families in the school. In order to pay Vera’s mother back, Kharitonovna is forced to borrow from the physics teacher who is married to a wealthy man. However, the debt causes the already growing friction between the two to increase further.

In short, many of the problems suffered by the characters on School are the result of interconnectedness between the students, their families and the staff of the school. The above describes merely a fraction of the issues that play out in the show, and it should be mentioned that a variety of non-negative aspects of school life, such as friendship, the arts, trust, relationships and solidarity are highlighted also. However, one of the main criticisms of the show is that it is a “half-truth” concentrating on the unfavorable side of school life (Chernakov). Nikolai Budilaev of the Federal Agency of Education of the Russian Federation stated that School is a “concentration of negativity” and that after watching the serial he felt the need to “wash” his hands (“Ucheniki…”). He was particularly concerned with how the teachers are portrayed. The Minister of Education and Science Andrei Fursenko bases his critique on his experience visiting thousands of schools in Russia (quoted in Chernakov). However, I would argue that what he and some other critics seem to overlook is how much of the action of the program takes place outside of the school. The serial is about the lives of teenagers and those they encounter, which includes teachers and parents, but also shopkeepers, siblings and acquaintances from other schools. Gai-Germanika insists that her style of filmmaking is not negative. She states that, “I don’t find that my films are dark. It seems to me that I have moral, fine heroes, endowed with all of the human qualities and feelings exactly as our viewers have, people from the next building entrance, from the store, from the people who stand in line with us at Sberbank. I don’t see anything dark, if it’s honest” (Gai-Germanika in Ivanova).

shkolaSchool is innovative in its use of new media creating a website in the style of facebook or vkontakte, where school students can create a profile, become friends with the profiles of the actors on the serial, as well as discuss and watch episodes and learn of contests held by the production team. It is not clear if this site was created in preparation to move the show completely to the Internet in the event that it was dropped by the network. School began advertising the site only at the end of the 13th episode, when the serial was already experiencing an outpouring of criticism. Additionally, there has been an explosion of similar sites (shkola-serial and serial-school) with analogous functions.

While it is true that some of the pedagogues are not shown in the most favorable light, it highlights one of arguably the main subjects of the show: the breakdown in the educational system in Russia. The English class in particular seems to highlight the occasional absurdity and ineffectuality that haunts Russian classrooms. The students are graded on their ability to perform in routine question-and-answer drills that do not necessarily demonstrate anything more than rote memorization. As the show demonstrates, this is a common strategy for education that works with a small group of students, but does not awaken the curiosity of the majority. 

shkolaWhereas the characterizations of the students of 9A seem somewhat outsized in the first episode, the characters on this show display an unusual complexity for serialized television. The show’s aesthetic begs the assumption that the serial employs non-professional actors, but the majority of the young performers are graduates and students of prestigious theater and acting programs in Russia. Young actors Aleksei Litvinenko and Valentina Lukashchuk stand out in their portrayals of Epifanov and Nosova respectively. Litvinenko was born in Omsk in 1987 and played in various local theaters before moving to Moscow to enter the Shchepkin Acting School, graduating in 2008. Prior to School he acted in the popular serial Soldiers (Soldaty) for two seasons. Muscovite Lukashchuk graduated from the prestigious All-Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK) in 2009 and also appeared briefly in Gai-Germanika’s Everyone Dies But Me.

But focusing attention on the two “stars” should not distract from the power of the ensemble. The actors portraying the students are especially adept at depicting the social divisions and subtleties of the tournaments of value on display in school hallways and classrooms. Social rewards are gained not from being good students, but often through cruelty, and the most popular students Budilova, Shutov and Korolev are among the least happy teenagers on the show.

It is difficult at the halfway mark to make predictions as to what direction the serial will head, although it seems unlikely that everyone on the show will become friends and their problems will disappear. When asked recently who is guilty when children act cruelly Gai-Germanika unequivocally maintained that it is the fault of “adults” (Gai-Germanika in Ivanova). Gai-Germanika herself had to rely on her parents recently as no offers appeared after the success of Everyone Dies But Me, despite its international profile and a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival. She states that she stayed home for a year and a half drinking wine, reading books and living on her parent’s pension. The transition from the big screen to the small seemingly did little to upset her image of herself as a filmmaker. After all she states, it was the “only offer” she had (Gai-Germanika in Ivanova). “In our time you can realize it all, and yet no one will come to greet you. Therefore this project simply saved me. Both morally and materially.”

To be continued….

Joe Crescente
New York University

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Works Cited

Chernakov, Andrei, “Andrei Fursenko: Serial ‘Shkola’—eto polupravda,” Izvestiia, 19 January 2010

Ivanova, Svetlana “Valeriia Gai-Germanika: Ia rastu,” interview with Gai-Germanika, Medved’ 3 (2010).

Kachkaeva, Anna, “Ekrannaia real’nost’ i pravda zhizni: o seriale ‘Shkola’ i azhiotazhe vokrug nego…,” Radio Svoboda 18 January 2010.  

“Serial ‘Shkola’ perenesli na pozdnii vecher,” Lenta.ru, 24 February 2010

“Ucheniki Moskovskoi shkoli prosyit zapretit’ s”emki seriala ‘Shkola’,” RIA-Novosti, 13 January 2010.

“Zhirinovskii gotov otniat’ lavry u Gai-Germaniki. Politik khochet sochinit’ stsenarii dlia seriala ‘Duma’,” Novyi region 2, 10 February 2010.


School, Russia 2010
Episodes 1-28; ca 30 minutes each
Premiere: 11 January 2010, First Channel (Pervyi kanal)
Director: Valeriia Gai-Germanika, Natal’ia Meshchaninova, Ruslan Malikov
Script: Natal’ia Vorozhbit, Viacheslav Durnenkov, Ivan Ugarov, Vadim Levanov, Nelli Vysotskaia, Iurii Klavdiev
Cinematography: Gennadii Meder, Batyr Morgachev
Production: Igor Tolstunov—“Profit”

Cast: Elena Papanova (Murzenko), Anatolii Semenov (Nosov), Aleksandra Rebenok (physics teacher), Anna Shepeleva (Ol’ia Budilova), Aleksei Litvinenko (Il’ia Epifanov), Valentina Lukashchuk (Ania Nosova), Natal’ia Tereshkova (Ira Shishkova), Igor’ Ogurtsov (Lekha Shutov), Aleksei Maslodudov (Vadia), Daria Rusakova (Vera), Anton Chechevichkin (Vovets), Sergei Ovchinnikov (Goriaev), Larisa Nabatova (Dashulia), Sergei Belov (Korolev), Vitalii Laptev (Kostia), Nadezhda Ivanova (Sonia), Mikhail Isakhanov (Timur), Konstantin Poiarkin (Diatlov), Natal’ia Borisova (Tsibina), Natal’ia Sapetskaia (English teacher), Sergei Kagakov (geography teacher), Gennadii Podshivalov (school principal), Nikolai Sutarmin (history teacher), Tatiana Monakhova (math teacher) Eduard Riabinin (security guard), Tatiana Kosach (secretary), Tatiana Titova (physical education teacher), Aleksei Kurganov (chemistry teacher), Ol’ga Turutina (Budilova’s mother), Liubov’ Firsova (Epifanov’s mother), Liliia Dobrianskaia (Shishkova’s mother), Nina Iurievna (Alia Nikulina), Andrei Andreev (Korolev’s father), Mikhail Budnik (Shishkova’s father), Larisa Khalafova (aunt Patia), Nikita Politseimako (Fedor)

 

Valeriia Gai-Germanika: School (Shkola, TV 2010)

reviewed by Joe Crescente © 2010

Updated: 23 Mar 10