Issue 29 (2010)

Valeriia Gai-Germanika: School (Shkola) Episodes 29-69

reviewed by Joe Crescente © 2010

school-nosovaThe films of young Russian auteur Valeriia Gai Germanika often highlight the problems of teenagers and adults—something she seems to suggest is interconnected. When asked recently who is guilty when children act cruelly, Germanika unequivocally maintained that it is often the fault of “adults… they know the outside world” (Ivanova). Germanika has stated on numerous occasions that in contemporary society, children grow up not through logical processes of time, but—echoing anthropologist Victor Turner—through conflict (1969, 1974): “(g)rowing up always occurs through conflict, because otherwise you never grow, never stand on a different step” (Ivanova). In all of her varied works over the past five years, troubled youth have been at the forefront, with adults often lurking not so much as antagonists, but as helpless children themselves, causing destruction to themselves, their families and especially their children.

Episodes 1-28 of School shown on Channel One prior to the commencement of the Vancouver Olympics in February, set up all of the various plot lines: the broken home of Korolev, Epifanov’s dying mother, the capriciousness of Budilova, and many others. The second half of the show, shown upon completion of the Olympic Games, took a significantly darker turn and engaged in occasionally excellent storytelling, the likes of which have rarely been associated with youth drama since the advent of television.

The second half of Valeriia Gai Germanika’s television drama School opens with a student concert celebrating the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland on 23 February. Directed by the physics teacher, Nataliia Nikolaevna, it is an absolute disaster that leads to a reshuffling of the administration of the school. This is the first of several major events of the final forty episodes that have broad implications for the class 9a, although a number of smaller incidents affect the lives of students individually.

A number of the students take the school concert less than seriously and this displeases a visiting delegation from the Russian Ministry of Education that views the failure of the show as an indictment of the lack of authority in the school. The current director, Aleksei Nikolaevich is dismissed, ostensibly under the pretense of health problems. He is removed in favor of by Nosov’s 9a class leader replacement Valentina Kharitonovna Murzenko, based on a recommendation by Nosov, formerly himself an acclaimed teacher at the school. Murzenko, a tough veteran schoolteacher, faces challenges almost immediately, but slowly becomes accustomed to her new role, even if her promotion is not particularly welcomed by some of the other teachers at the school. One of her first acts as school principal is to determine how to correctly bribe the fire inspector, an undertaking that makes her uncomfortable. Yet she also quickly discerns that she is engaging with different forces than just students and parents, and realizes that she must act accordingly.

As this is a show about teenagers in volatile situations and environments, it is unsurprising that all of the characters undergo transformative changes. Vadim, who began the show as friend of Timur, a student from the Caucasus, becomes more embroiled in his skinhead activities. Vadim is supported intellectually by the geography teacher, Oleg Semenovich, who has created a special group after school that in theory discusses geography, but in practice is a cover for radical and patriotic indoctrination. As his speech in the classroom becomes more and more inflammatory, Oleg Semenovich is eventually dismissed for his views.

schoolAccording to the police, Vadim has been involved in at least four major fights since becoming a skinhead. He has become more aggressive, shouting slurs at passing foreigners and frequently insulting those that do not conform to gender norms or which he perceives as weak. He ingratiates himself with the skinhead group, but is severely beaten by them after he is found cavorting with a different and rival extremist group. In hospital, after suffering severe injuries, he decides to give up his radical activities and promises his mother that he will devote more time to his studies. Vadim’s skinhead girlfriend Bagira does not understand why he is going in another direction. In attempting to answer her, Vadim simply points to the wounds and bandages that decorate his body.

Epifanov’s mother dies at the beginning of episode 52 and this frames the outline of this character for the entire show. Shortly before her death, her sister arrives from another city to help, although only after being persuaded by her doctor, Diatlov’s father. Epifanov resents his aunt as he feels that she, much like the rest of his family, had deserted them long before and had not offered any support during his mother’s first operation. He is irritated by her presence in what he feels is his apartment and in his life. As he has already been doing most tasks himself (and often for his mother) for years, Epifanov appears to be particularly irked at being treated like a “child.” He rebels by continuously demonstrating to his aunt that he is the owner of the apartment, hosting frequent late-night parties, not asking permission for anything and trying to force her out. He is compelled to borrow money from her at one point, but pays her back quickly with the earnings from his jobs (car wash, warehouse). In the final episode he puts his aunt on a bus back to her home.

schoolThe question of ownership and apartments comes up frequently in the second half of the show. Epifanov’s main issue after his mother’s death is how he can keep their apartment from falling into other hands as he is a minor. This is seemingly solved when Diatlov’s father agrees to sign documents attesting to parental authority over Epifanov, while in reality Epifanov would remain alone. The apartment causes a conflict between Budilova and her mother. After her father moves out, he demands twenty percent of the value of the apartment, a sum that Budilova’s mother cannot afford. Budilova finds a law online stating that since she is a minor there is no need to give the father any money. The physics teacher, Nataliia Nikolaevna, is also embroiled in a fight with her husband over their apartment after they separate. He demands it back so that he can move in with his new lover.

Happiness and stability are a fleeting commodity in many of the student’s lives. However, in an ironic twist, Sonya and Timur, who become a couple after she breaks up with Kostya, are frequently among the most isolated from the rest of their classmates and come from seemingly modest backgrounds, but in the end are the most happy as they do not share the familial background and drug and alcohol abuse problems of their peers.

schoolThe teachers’ intimate behavior is even more on display during the second half. Nataliia Nikolaevna continues her torrid affair with Korolev’s father, Anton. Her own marriage is strained ostensibly because her husband cannot provide her with children. After frequent attempts at reconciliation he announces that he is leaving her for another woman. In episode 38 Korolev arrives at his father’s apartment intoxicated only to find Nataliia Nikolaevna leaving the building. She is later caught with Korolev’s father by Epifanov at the car wash where he works.

As class leader, Nataliia Nikolaevna organizes an excursion for class 9a to the historic Russian cities of Suzdal and Vladimir. The trip is a disaster. The students display their ignorance of Russian history before the tour guides and use every possible chance to engage in inappropriate behavior. They organize drinking parties and strip poker contests in each other’s rooms. Vova, a long-haired blonde male student is severely beaten while drunk at a nightclub by local toughs. When the hotel administration brings the bloodied Vova to the teacher’s room, Korolev’s father answers the door, revealing himself to Vadim and Vova who inform Korolev upon their return to Moscow. Nataliia Nikolaevna later breaks up with Korolev’s father.

Korolev is subsequently removed from the school by his mother (episode 53) and never reappears. It is usually through Korolev, who comes from the most wealthy family, that Gai-Germanika discusses the issue of class. Korolev’s father is a wealthy man and this comes into play particularly regarding Epifanov, one of the less affluent students in the class. When Korolev happens upon Epifanov at the car wash where he works, he tips him 1000 rubles, telling him that he hears his father is also quite an important man, and he would have a complex if he did not. Epifanov gives the money back, but it is also insinuated that Korolev’s father has assisted in paying for the hospital bills of Epifanov’s mother. When being questioned at the police station following a fight that also involved Korolev on his side, Epifanov warns the police not to meddle with them as Korolev’s father is a wealthy man and this could bring problems for them.

schoolThe English teacher, Elena Grigor’evna, and the history teacher, Iurii Nikolaevich, continue their romance. Almost absurdly, although this is the case with many of the teachers, some of the most significant events of their relationship occur at the school; for example, they break into the now shuttered smoking room where they drink alcohol one day during classes, and the history teacher asks for the English teacher’s hand in marriage. Additionally, many of Nataliia Nikolaevna’s major arguments and conflicts with her husband are played out in and around the school grounds.

However, the main character of the second half of the show is Ania Nosova. Nosova is in conflict with her grandparents and classmates most of the time but finds solace and camaraderie with her group of emo friends, in particular Melane and Koliuchka. Indeed, it seems as if Nosova only feels understood in the company of those who share the emo lifestyle that consists of drinking, melancholy clothing and accessories and highly emotive music. The splinter that commences her undoing begins when Koliuchka starts dating Diatlov (and Epifanov dates Melane). As this largely happens in secret, Nosova has less face time with her friends. She tries to replace their increasing absence through her friendship with Vera. However, Vera is torn between the two worlds of her good grades and behavior, and her desire to rebel against them. She never is able to offer the support that Nosova would need, nor do they really seem to find common ground.

The warning signs are apparent, often in her dialogues with the chemistry teacher, Arsenii Ivanovich. In episode 56 she is hiding in a classroom when he enters. He tells her not to hide from people, but she states that she has no one to turn to. She then tells him that she would like it if “a big nuclear bomb fell on the earth and everyone breathed.” Nosova is confronted by teachers and the principal in a special meeting, but rather than being listened to, Murzenko repeatedly tells her not to act up (ne umnichi). Nosova finally tells the educators that they do not understand what she is going through. 

However, Arsenii Ivanovich repeatedly tries to intervene in a meaningful way. He agrees to fudge the truth for her so that she can go to a concert her grandparents have forbidden her to attend as long as she agrees to extra chemistry lessons. In later episodes he suggests sending her to a psychologist, but her grandmother refuses. When she stops talking altogether (episode 63), he recommends sending her to a rehabilitation center where an acquaintance of his works, which is agreed to out of sheer desperation.

Nosova commits suicide in episode 66 at the rehabilitation center by taking an entire bottle of pills prescribed to her grandmother. She films the suicide on Diatlov’s video camera that she had stolen a few episodes prior.

I am now dying. The most frightening… the most frightening thing is that you don’t even feel it, because to you it’s all the same. When I started going to school I thought it was a different world, not the same as at home… that there, I’d be needed… that I’d be able to talk to you. But you don’t even see me. Because you’re not the one, no one is the same. You don’t exist. You’re nothing. And emo, I thought, I was… around my people, but they’re the same as you. They don’t differ from you at all. It doesn’t make a difference to me. I’m not afraid. In general, nothing is scary. Grandpa… only don’t cry. Don’t cry, because it’ll be better. I won’t mess anything up. The chemistry teacher will come over at night for tea. Honestly, it doesn’t make a difference to me… and it’s not important. It makes no difference to me.

One flaw is that occasionally it feels as if the stories were written as the show was in production. In an interview on the talk show Looking before Sleep (Na noch’ gliadia) Gai-Germanika admitted that many of the scenes were improvised, with the actors themselves creating their own texts for a dialogue. Sometimes random scenes occurred, seemingly out of place, but these might have made sense in relation to an episode which was cut. Also, Gai-Germanika—against the best interests of storytelling—occasionally inserted passages in order to push the envelope as far as possible. One egregious example is a gay kissing scene (episode 60). Only one of the characters had been seen in a previous episode and they had barely spoken or had any significance. Perhaps this character had a bigger part at one time, but lost his story in the process of rewriting. The fact that most of the dramatic romantic moments and conflicts involving teachers happen at the school seems unrealistic, as if the production schedule was sped up to accommodate the inclusion of seven additional episodes that were not planned at the beginning of shooting.

Additionally the disciplined aesthetic of the first half that seemed to conform to the principles of Dogme 95 has been watered down. In particular the amount of music on the show increased exponentially. It is sometimes difficult to determine if the characters are listening to the music themselves or not. In the final episodes the “noise” in Nosova’s head is also artificially created. The rest of the aesthetic, including handheld camerawork and use of natural settings, continues unabated.

Despite its weaknesses, School’s strength is its emphasis on youth and their problems. The issues of teenage pregnancy, abortion, rape, drug and alcohol abuse, racism, suicide, violence, in short all of the issues facing Russian teenagers, are highlighted. While the criticism of the show from educators and lawmakers continued, one surprising supporter of the show was Vladimir Putin. While visiting Chuvash State University on Students’ Day he stated: “You know, it happens that you look at a portrait… (and ask yourself) is it similar? Not so much. But an artist sees it that way. Maybe in such a way a director sees contemporary youth? Maybe it’s not like that in reality, but the director sees it that way…This serial is criticized a lot. We know about the problems, we are trying to respond to them. One must pay attention, but to lapse into hysterics—it is pointless and harmful” (“Putin prosit…”).

It seems as if Gai-Germanika sought to use School as a teaching mechanism to create better relationships between teenagers and adults. Much of the ire stemmed from the fact that it was viewed as a critique explicitly about Russia’s educational system, whereas it is much more critical of parent-child relations. In a monologue at a meeting with the parents of the students of 9a to discuss Ania Nosova’s death (episode 68), Murzenko states what seems to be the pathos of School:

Dear parents. It’s very difficult for me to talk, but I know that I must tell you. You know that just now Vera’s mother said that she knows her daughter well. Nosov also thought so… in reality we know nothing… First, they have already grown up, they are no longer children and unfortunately we have already stopped being authorities for them. We are simply unsuccessful parents for them.

Murzenko then tells of her own upbringing, of her good relations with her mother when growing up. However, in the 10th grade something awful happened to her and she could not approach her mother, because she “would not understand.” However, she had a neighbor she could turn to. This, she maintains, is what Ania Nosova lacked: someone to turn to who could help her through this situation. She continues: “Our children have to know that they can come to us at any moment and we have to be simply friends. I understand that this is very difficult, but we have to be their friends who can help them at any minute and understand them. And then I think that such tragic events would occur much less frequently.”

It is only after Nosova’s death, at her funeral, that we learn several crucial facts about her upbringing and her grandparents’ relationship with her. Nosova was abandoned by her mother, and her father was never around. While her mother is still alive and living in another city, she has had no contact with her daughter, leaving the responsibility of raising the child to her parents. Nosov says that he lost her mother, and now his granddaughter has also gone. This explains his feeling of guilt for her death, but also for her life: because he lost one child, he felt the need to clasp his granddaughter tight. Therefore he had misgivings about her leaving the house to study and once she left and was exposed to the outside world, had great difficulty in understanding her emotional state and needs.

Additionally, Diatlov finally admits that he was the one who had showed Nosov the semi-nude photos of his granddaughter in episode one. He states that he had found the photo online and had circulated it. He states that he loved her and feels enormous guilt for her death, as does Budilova, who had publicly shamed Anya shortly before she ceased talking.

schoolGermanika herself suffered recently from an incident that could have come right out of an episode of School. On 20 May 2010 she ended up in the Emergency Room after drinking alcohol and taking sleeping pills. The tabloids and Russian press were quick to conclude that she had attempted suicide. Germanika answered that “My friend was unable to say that I wanted to kill myself. Nobody can insinuate this, psychologically everything is fine. I drank a lot, from one morning until the next. A lot. We had no particular reason, we were just kicking back” (Gai-Germanika, “U menia byla…”). Yet despite her statement, the tabloids insinuate that she made an attempt on her life. As the characters in School suggest, young and old—everyone makes mistakes, everyone occasionally engages in behavior that appears unseemly, but as fellow human beings our role is not to judge, but to understand. Unfortunately, the human impulse is to judge, and this can have serious consequences in both adolescent and adult life.

Joe Crescente
New York University

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Works Cited

Gai-Germanika, Valeriia, “U menia byla belaia goriachka” (2010).

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

“Putin prosit ne ustraivat’ isteriku po povodu seriala Shkola, “ 25 January 2010.

Turner, Victor (1969), The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Turner, Victor (1974), “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors,” in Turner, (ed.) Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 97-119.

School, Russia 2010
Episodes 29-69; ca 25 minutes each
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) Episodes 29-69

reviewed by Joe Crescente © 2010

Updated: 16 Jul 10