Issue 30 (2010)
Anna Fenchenko: Missing Man (Propavshii bez vesti, 2010)
reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2010
Missing Man tells the story of a man (Andrei Filippak) inadvertently caught up in bureaucratic nightmares of ever-increasing absurdity and intensifying danger. After a business meeting at a bus station, our protagonist is approached by the son of one of his neighbors. The boy hurriedly hands him an envelope to be passed on to his mother before hopping on a bus taking him out of town. Our protagonist then delivers the envelope to the mother, who becomes agitated and reveals that she reported her son missing a month ago. She seeks more information, but our protagonist knows nothing. Soon he is visited by investigators, as the mother has informed the police that he has seen and interacted with her missing boy. Our protagonist is now a suspect in this ‘missing man’ case, and he is required to write out a formal statement of compliance to the police that he will not leave town. One night soon after, our protagonist returns home from another business meeting, this time at a dance club, only to find his apartment building being destroyed. He is told that all of his possessions have been relocated to his new home in Polezhaevsk, about one and a half hours on the commuter train away from the center of St. Petersburg. He travels to Polezhaevsk to his new building number, #103, but finds that the buildings stop at #89. When he goes to the local police station to find out what is going on, he is told that he has violated his statement of compliance by having left town. His passport is seized and he is placed under arrest. Another man, David (Rasim Dzhafarov), is brought in under arrest, charges unknown, but he forcefully breaks free, allowing our protagonist to escape alongside him. David and the protagonist are then fugitives, and we follow them as they join with a group of three other rag-tag misfits of varying criminal records in a series of exploits and near-captures. He grows ever more despondent as he eventually loses everything, symbolized by the successive loss of the representative accoutrement of his life before and after—first his satchel, then a sack of potatoes. Throughout all these experiences, the protagonist maintains the same expression: a barely emotive face—both soft and hard, gentle and severe—registering in equal parts bewilderment and resignation.
The film serves as a fairly scathing critique of Russian governmental policy and institutional bureaucracy. The tribulations presented within the film seem intended to echo the troubling circumstances of everyday real life. To those with even a passive acquaintance with Russia, it is an all-too-familiar story to witness city residents forcibly relocated from their homes, from run-down apartments in good locations to new, but distant housing at the outskirts of the city. Old apartment buildings are left to rot and decay so that they can be condemned as uninhabitable, thereby allowing legitimate tenants and owners to be evicted. The property can then be demolished, a new, shiny high-rise can be built, and new luxury apartments can be sold—all highly profitable transactions taking place beyond the reach and at the expense of the original owners. However, the attentiveness of the police to the case of the missing boy comes as a surprise. Of course, this misplaced initial attentiveness was for naught, hindering far more than helping. Throughout the film, more typical police responses to the increasingly desperate circumstances of our protagonist range from sleepy yawns to caustic indifference to distracted sobs interrupted only by a request for some vodka.
Late in the film, the protagonist identifies himself as Leonid, but for most of the film he is nameless, and this anonymity seems to suggest that he could be anyone. The “missing man” of the beginning—the boy on the run—is a label that applies to Leonid as well, now also on the run. Leonid works as a freelance web designer; he is a stylish, even if modest, dresser with obvious technological savvy. He is no grumpy old man without family, nor is he an uneducated alcoholic blue-collar worker unable to keep pace with modernity. He is an urban sophisticate, a member of the creative, entrepreneurial class. Generally speaking, he represents Russia’s future and emerging middle class, which is shown to be systematically and alarmingly suffocated.
Containing such scary but familiar stereotypes of Russia, Missing Man seems designed for the international festival and art-house circuit. Indeed, in February 2010 the film premiered as part of the Panorama program at the Berlinale. The film was a popular at home as well, winning the Best Debut prize at the Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival in 2010. However, the film has not yet been released in Russia.
Reviews and publicity for the film often point to its Kafka-esque storyline. Is Leonid—with an L—the heir to K of The Trial? The persistent mystery and menace of the depicted bureaucracy would suggest so, but I contend that Leonid is no Kafka-esque hero. Although Leonid is indeed not guilty of the criminal charges leveled at him, he is in no way innocent of his own fate. The real strength of Missing Man, I would argue, is that its critical gaze is affixed not only on Russian institutions, but also on the Russian people themselves. In his anonymity, Leonid could be a stand-in for just about anyone, but this very anonymity comes as a result of Leonid’s refusal to interact with those around him. His life is a litany of disengagement: he is entirely oblivious to the fact that his neighbor’s son has been missing for a month; he lives in the same apartment building as his sister and father, just one floor below them, but they rarely communicate with each other; and he never even bothers to read his mail, which would have informed him of his impending relocation. Despite seeing and talking to his family as they are loading their belongings onto a truck to leave their apartment for good, he is still caught unaware when the demolition begins. The film offers him at least one love interest, but he comes across as largely detached and preoccupied, even before his entanglement in the missing-man plot. The film suggests that Leonid is someone who really should know better: his story is a cautionary tale for the Russian intellectual and creative elites, who may choose to disengage with ordinary people and the injustices and outrages of civic life, but thus will ultimately come at the price of their own way of life.
Director Anna Fenchenko clearly has a well-trained and gifted cinematic eye. Her father is a faculty member at the Film Institute VGIK, and she herself graduated from the workshop of Vladimir Khotinenko. Prior to Missing Man, she contributed to Ekran and Iskusstvo kino and worked as a director on television. This extensive background has given her an impressive sensitivity to visual design. Because the film is shot in HDCAM, there is a particular crispness to the images. But she and cinematographer Eduard Moshkovich manage to balance out the otherwise cold and metallic quality that comes with such sharp definition by occasionally overexposing the shot to create intense, bright hot spots that soften the image. Simply put, the film is quite lovely to look at. Fenchenko, however, pushes beyond merely pretty shots in order to present the film’s content visually rather than verbally.
The theme of detachment and indifference can be found within the film’s mise-en-scène. As the opening credits play, we see a long shot of the alleyway to a dingy and desolate apartment complex, the very apartment complex that will later be demolished. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal that this is a point-of-view shot through a window from inside an apartment. In the distance, a woman—the mother of the missing boy—walks with a young child to the center of the frame and then toward the camera. A man with a cane enters the frame from the bottom left and walks toward the woman. At the very moment that they stop and begin to speak to one another, a droning on the soundtrack amplifies dramatically and there is a sudden burst of movement from inside the apartment as the blinds are quickly drawn. Before even meeting Leonid, he is depicted as reclusive and aggressively uninterested in what takes place around him. The next shot presents a crowded sidewalk, an endless stream of bodies moving toward the camera. Leonid is among the crowd, but several seconds pass before it is clear that we are to focus on him. He is truly anonymous, one of many faces in the crowd. The director switches between a space that is fairly empty to a space that is crammed full, yet both shots—seemingly opposites—betray a deep sense of self-imposed isolation. The first shot shows Leonid deliberately separating himself from the world outside his window; the second shot builds from this to reveal him as contentedly alone even in a crowd. He marches forward determinedly, ignoring all those in such tight proximity. His behavior might seem commonplace for urban living, but the film suggests its consequences by continually juxtaposing crowded places with desolate spaces. To Leonid’s consternation, packed locations such as the bus station and flophouse appear to empty instantly before him, as if these spaces had never been inhabited in the first place. The crowds that seem so typical of a city, perhaps some guarantee of safety and protection, are shown to be capable of simply vanishing into thin air. Remaining aloof and distant from the crowd—alone by choice—Leonid never learns why, how, or to where people disappear. And in voluntarily detaching himself from those around him, he is entirely alone when it really matters. Perhaps this is a lesson not exclusive to the Russian elite.
Rhode Island College
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Missing Man, Russian Federation, 2010
Color, 96 min.
Director: Anna Fenchenko
Scriptwriter: Nataliia Repina
Director of Photography: Eduard Moshkovich
Production Design: Pavel Novikov
Music: Andrei Sigle
Costumes: Ol’ga Smirnova
Makeup: Irina Likhacheva
Editing: Marat Magambetov
Executive Producers: Dmitrii Gerbachevskii, Dmitrii Nikitin
Producers: Stanislav Ershov, Tomi Neiminen, Andrei Sigle
Cast: Andrei Filippak, Rasim Dzhafarov, Polina Kamanina, Iuris Lautsin’sh, Liudmila Geroeva, Boris Khaimskii, Daniela Stoianovich
Production Company: Proline
Anna Fenchenko: Missing Man (Propavshii bez vesti, 2010)
reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2010