KinoKultura: Issue 35 (2012)

Kinoproba 2011—competition, study, memory

By Tat’iana Kruglova and Lilia Nemchenko (Ural Federal University, Ekaterinburg)

From 1-4 December 2011, Ekaterinburg hosted the VIII International Festival-Workshop of Film Schools, “Kinoproba.” The festival program comprised 115 films from 15 countries and 25 film schools, including animation, live-action and documentary films made as course- and diploma works, as well as debuts.

Since 2004, Kinoproba helps discover new names in the world of animation and feature film, introducing audiences to the debuts of young directors and students from around the world. It was at Kinoproba that today’s internationally renowned animation directors Lisa Skvortsova, Zoia Kireeva, Mikhail Dvoriankin and others made their first appearance and garnered their first awards, and feature filmmakers Iurii Bykov and Levan Koguashvili also started their careers at Kinoproba.

Ekaterinburg is not a random location for a festival of young filmmakers: it was here that the famous “Ural” school of animation and documentary films was established. Animation from the Urals is one of the most prominent directions in Russia and abroad, represented by directors such as Aleksandr Petrov, who received an Oscar for The Old Man and the Sea (1999), Aleksei Kharitidi, who won a Golden Palm at Cannes for his short animated film Gagarin (1994), and others. The city has a unique children’s animation school, “Attraction,” headed by Sergei Ainutdinov. Among the most renowned feature film directors who received awards at many national and international festivals are Aleksei Fedorchenko and Vasilii Sigarev.

Kinoproba is both a showcase and a study opportunity for young filmmakers; it is also well known for stressing the continuity between established and beginning filmmakers. The wide-ranging educational program of the festival includes workshops by guest directors, cinematographers, producers, as well as retrospectives and other special projects dedicated to the history of cinema.

The geography of this year’s festival extended from Australia to Yakutia, and Latin American to Europe. Russia was represented by Russian State Film University (VGIK), the Higher Courses of Scriptwriting and Directing (Moscow), the Perm State Institute of Art and Culture, the Russian Federation State Vocational Pedagogical University (Ekaterinburg), the Saint-Petersburg State University of Film and Television, the Studio “Workshop of Aleksandr Petrov” (Yaroslavl), the Ural State Academy of Architecture and Arts (Ekaterinburg), the School of Cinema and Media-Business (Ekaterinburg), and the Shar Studio School (Moscow). Only six debuts made it into the competition, among them Premonition (Predchuvstvie) by the Yakut director Mikhail Lukachevskii, who received the prize for the best debut in live-action cinema. The film’s visual composition (camera work by VGIK student Semen Amanatov) transformed the everyday story of a boy and his grandfather’s fishing into a poetic and philosophical parable about life and death.

ambitionsHow do students of different film schools shoot their films? All the works presented impressed with a high level of professional skills application, but two film schools were awarded special diplomas by the jury, which was chaired by the National Artist of the Russian Federation, director and writer Nikolai Dostal’: the WA Screen Academy Edith Cowan University received a diploma “for the integrity and professionalism of the competition program,” and Tel Aviv University “for the mastery and attention to the problems of everyday life.” Both in the format of live-action and documentary, the Israeli students were not afraid to explore burning social and ethical issues. Interestingly, the works by students from Western film schools tend to focus more on social issues: although the scripts may be weak, they study the cultural phenomenon of marginalization and know no taboos. As for the Russian students, they know well how to make screen versions of literary works or historical events and reconstruct the recent Soviet past. Thus, the jury awarded a special diploma to the film Ambitions (Enmesh) by Ainur Askarov, a student of the Saint-Petersburg State University of Film and Television. The film accurately reproduced the time and space of a village in Soviet Bashkiria at the time of a popular craze for Indian films. The story of a little boy, who commits daring acts only in order to watch his favorite movie Disco Dancer (dir. Babbar Subhash, 1982) has an almost tragic ending.

once againIn the works of Russian students the past is often shown in light, nostalgic tones. This is absolutely obvious in the film by Aleksandr Petrov’s students Once Again (Eschhe raz), which has already been praised repeatedly at several animation festivals. At Kinoproba the film also received the highest recognition in the animation competition. Although the master’s “hand” is clearly recognizable, the film has its own, new tone set by the young authors, who “paint” the world freely, effortlessly, like a wind that plays with objects, picking them up and dropping them, but also explores different fates of different generations. Only the end of the film stops this rush, together with end of the vinyl disc that, in contrast to a life that has already been lived, can be played again, and again.

The lack of a critical attitude to Russian history, a limited range of educational tasks, as well as fear seem to hamper the development of civic feelings of young filmmakers. They rarely attempt to respond to and work through the challenges of the contemporary world, both at a global and a local level. An exception is the feature Take me Away from Here (Zaberi menia otsiuda) by Viktoria Lopach of Saint-Petersburg State University of Film and Television, as well as the documentaries Darkness (Potemki) by Nina Ismailova of Perm’s State Institute of Art and Culture and Inside a Square Circle (Vnutri kvadratnogo kruga) by Valerii Shevchenko, which won the Prize for the Best School Work (Non-Fiction).

square circleShevchenko made a delicate, non-grandiose film about the Kremlin Christmas tree, or elka, the fir tree used for the traditional New Year celebration, especially for children. We could continue the idea of Mikhail Zhvanetskii that Russian jokes cannot be understood in the West by adding: “the holidays are also not understood, as well as many other things…” The film shows no party around the Kremlin Christmas tree, but only the parents waiting for their children. They are supposed to be overflowing with happiness, because their children have been invited to the main New Year party in the country. The children leaving the celebration should at least be cheerful, but we do not see merry and festive-looking faces: instead, there is only an expression of total concern and worry, that special trait in most people’s faces in modern Russia. The entire communication in the film is built on the principle of a loudspeaker connection: the Kremlin security staff addresses the parents through megaphones, and the children and adults constantly talk to each other over the phone, yet the film turned out to be as quiet as a frosty day. This silence is the result of the ascetic visual solution, when the camera slowly pans over the slender, white Kremlin cathedrals. The harmony of the architectural ensemble on a frosty, quiet day is in complete dissonance with the order imposed by people in the Kremlin. The security guard instructs: “The children will go in circles, and the parents will have to call the names and surnames of their children, then the circles will become narrower until all the children are reunited with their parents.” The analogy that springs to mind is that of collecting your luggage from the airport baggage claim: children are equated with luggage. They were checked in, like luggage, handed to the responsibility of the State (the Kremlin), and then the State has to return them. We see frightened, tense-looking children walking in circles with their gifts in their hands; the tension increases with each round, and nerves fail both parents and their children: some cry, others try to break through the security barrier. Here is the holiday! Shevchenko’s film is about the “triumph” and “celebration” of management, about the Kremlin’s creatives and their ingenious technological solutions. And it is also about ugliness. One security guard rebukes a father who started to smoke: “It’s not allowed: there are children here, it’s a sacred place.” Formally, this is of course true. The supreme harmony created by the ancestors forms the backdrop for the festival of the absurd, where the simple question “What is it all for?” does not find an answer. Why should children go to the party without their parents? Why should they be treated like luggage? Everything is substitution.

The very title of the film suggests an alogism: “inside a square circle.” “Square” comes from the lexicon of investigators, and we will also hear, not by chance, about an upcoming “cleansing,” or purge. “Circle” is associated with honor and mourning, with enclosure. Square/circle, holiday/despair, joy/tears form the binaries of Inside a Square Circle. The film is an emblem, a symbolic story of the country still ruled by the absurd. Seventeen minutes of screen-time bring back the memories of the transportation of deported convicts (etapi), of camps, of horror and loss, as well as the hypocritical slogans of “All the best for the children.” And these associations are evoked by the best of all holidays: the New Year.

graffiti tigerYoung cinema is a space for experimentation, and the greatest freedom in the choice of material and techniques, as well as in finding an original balance between improvisation and logic was demonstrated in animation films, as reflected in the festival’s Grand Prix. The Czech animated film Graffiti-Tiger by Libor Pixa of the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts, FAMU combines the atmosphere of Prague, full of fantastic transformations, with visual political quotations in the form of Che Guevara portraits, contemporary artistic practices, and stories of loneliness and love. All of this is seen through the eyes of a tiger painted on the wall of a Prague house, who—as animation characters do—becomes alive and searches his way to an old, lost love.

mishkiThe format of Kinoproba traditionally comprises a comprehensive educational program. Lectures and screenings of films that are not in competition are assembled under the rubric “Archaeology of Cinema,” which this year formed the platform for film historian Nikolai Izvolov’s talk on the reconstruction of a film by Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg Mishki versus Yudenich (Mishki protiv Iudenicha, 1925), and for the restorer and director Nikolai Maiorov, who showed the first stereoscopic film by Aleksandr Andrievskii, Land of Youth (Zemlia molodosti, 1940).

The 2011 festival was held in the year of the 75th anniversary of Soiuzmul’tfil’m, therefore most of the educational programs were devoted to Soviet animation. One of the highlights of Kinoproba was the Soviet animation program curated by Georgii Borodin, an expert, researcher and advocate of national animation, editor at the Institute of Cinematography, and winner of the “White Elephant” award of the Guild of Film Critics and Film Scholars. It was the second time Borodin took part in Kinoproba with his film programs and lectures on aspects of animation in the context of the history of Soviet society. In 2006, he had introduced a program of films from Soiuzmul’tfil’m selected and arranged according to their ideological content. This time the festival’s organizing committee asked Borodin to create a program on “Love and Family in Soviet animation.” The program was divided into three thematic blocks, each lasting 90 minutes.

fox and beaverThe first program was called “Family issues in Soviet satirical animation.” According to Borodin’s commentary: “For years, Soviet animators’ attempts to touch upon the theme of family life in a satirical manner were hampered. The very opportunity to create the image of a modern Soviet man by means of animation was considered controversial. The turning point came in the 1950s, when—remaining within the genre of children’s film—directors began to address the issue of a ‘bourgeois’ upbringing. Since then, everyday family life has been repeatedly addressed in animation.” The films in this section included The Fox and the Beaver (Lisa, bober i drugie, 1960, dir. Mikhail and Vera Tsekhanovskii), Big Troubles (Bol’shie nepriiatnosti, 1961, dir. Valentina and Zinaida Brumberg), Family Chronicle (Semeinaia khronika, 1961, dir. Leonid Amalrik), A Banal Story (Banal’naia istoriia, 1962, dir. Iosif Boiarskii), Adults Only (Tol’ko dlia vzroslykh, dir. Efim Gamburg) and Thank you, Stork (Spasibo, aist, 1978, dir. Anatolii Solin).

banal storyThe material presented in these programs was extremely interesting from a cultural-anthropological perspective: who is usually called a “simple Soviet man.” The subjects of satire are ordinary, human and domestic issues: adultery, jealousy, conflicts between parents and children. All this exists in any society, but the Soviet didactic directive had its own peculiarities. Satire was supposed to occupy its niche in the ideological discourse on the formation of a new man: a Soviet citizen was required to engage in criticism and self-criticism, as it contributed to the liberation from the “remnants of the past.” The treatment of social defects could not be grotesque, and bold artistic generalizations were not permitted. Everything that had been scourged was referred to as “temporary difficulties,” or “some shortcomings.” Bearers of defects were ridiculous, absurd and harmless. It is not coincidental that most of the films gravitate towards the genre of a fable. The scripts were often written by Sergei Mikhalkov, the official children’s poet, fabulist and author of the Soviet (and Russian) national anthem. A fable provides the necessary balance between entertainment and sermon, between realism and stylisation; the fable is closely connected to the moralizing function of art, and it becomes especially relevant and necessary in times when adults are treated as unenlightened, mindless children by the ruling elite. The ideological stratum of Soviet Russia perceived people in the same manner as the representatives of the 18th-century Enlightenment treated people of the lower classes. People were always an object of vigilant surveillance and patriarchal rule, requiring guidance and improvement. The social infantilism of the Soviet people is well described in critical literature and correlates perfectly with the cartoon aesthetics representing, as it were, the children’s perspective. A child perceives evil as something unpleasant, but not too dangerous, as he believes that there is some authority in the adult world that, ultimately, will put everything right.

In fact, the authors represented in this program, especially those who worked in the 1960 and 1970s, demonstrate a more sophisticated stance: they play an ambiguous game with the audience. On the surface, they faithfully follow the canons of Soviet didactic satire with its inevitably cheerful outlook on the future, but while doing so, they also wink to the audience, revealing the conditional and ritualistic quality of the genre. Today’s viewer unwittingly sees the object of satirical depiction as displaced: he clearly reads the irony about the canon and the rules of behavior in Soviet society. What moves into the foreground is a sad look, stripped of any hasty and naive optimism, at the problems of human life in a large modern city, with the temptations and challenges that are not easy to deal with, wit questions that nobody can answer. Towards the 1970s, Soviet man has matured, and so has animation.

dancer on the shipBorodin’s second program was called “Women’s issues in domestic animation.” According to Borodin, “gender relations is one of the favorite themes of Soviet animation. As a rule, films tell you about the ‘plight of the women’s lot,’ and the lack of attention of men to their wives.” There is a variety of genres here: the poetic films Dancer on the Ship (Balerina na korable, 1969, dir. Lev Atamanov), the satirical The Tale of the Stupid Husband (Skazka o glupom muzhe, 1986, dir. Elena Prorokova), the parable I Give you a Star (Dariu tebe zvezdu, 1975, dir. Fedor Khitruk), the subtle stylization of Rozaliia Zel’ma in her Scarecrow (Pugalo, 1990) and Women’s Astrology (1991). Women’s emancipation in the Soviet Union had strong ideological support, yet—having received the right for equal employment—a woman had to maintain the patriarchal order with regard to the male domination in family life, raising children, and intimate relations. Again, we witness how animation, due to its stylisation, manages to avoid direct ideological illustrations and show us the true state of affairs in gender relations. The artists acutely capture the tremors of Soviet feminism gaining momentum, while still unconscious and spontaneous. Most male characters in the films of this section are presented as “unfinished” in comparison with the women: the men are stupid and arrogant, pathetic and awkward, prone to fall for illusions, inclined to self-deception, and always guilty. They see themselves in the wrong way and women only accompany him in this. In Scarecrow, a female rabbit cunningly flatters the simple-hearted and naive scarecrow in order to clean out the fields, bringing hordes of her insatiable relatives with her. In Women’s Astrology the feminine acquires irrational demonic traits that threaten men’s rest. Most irony is devoted to the traditional romantic male attitude toward women as delicate, poetic, and sublime creatures. The floating and weightless ballerina saves the ship from being wrecked (Dancer on the Ship); the dreamy scarecrow does not notice the pragmatic leanings of his ravenous girl-friend; in Bouquet (Buket, 1966, dir. Lev Atamanov), the young and graceful companion of an elderly family man, easily sliding over the ice and flying about on the dance floor, turns out to be a cynical consumer, while the husband, tired of the romanticism, returns to his wife, who provides him with coziness and comfort.

amorous crowThe third section “Animation about love: from lyrics to satire, from parables to eroticism” was saturated with artistic ideas, existential insights, and philosophical thoughts. It is most difficult to find a common denominator in this program. According to Borodin, up until the mid-1960s Soviet animation was deemed unsuitable for a serious conversation about romantic feelings and love. The breakthrough came only in 1966. Two films appeared that year, by Boris Stepantsev and Vadim Kurchevskii, which dared break this stereotype and soon became classics. This selection is only a small fraction of the films on the subject. Animation certainly became a niche where eroticism found a legal shelter in Soviet art. It contained more diversity in depth, drama and tragic endings than full-length feature films. In Window (Okno, 1966, dir. Stepantsev), My Green Crocodile (Moi zelenyi krokodil, 1966, dir. Kurchevskii), Road Fairy Tale (Dorozhnaia skazka, 1981, dir. Garri Bardin), the atmosphere of general distress, uncertainty, and anxiety that permeated late Soviet reality, broke free in these stories about love—or rather about the desire for love, about uncertainty and fear of possession (Window), about the impossibility to keep happiness (Marriage, [Brak, 1987, dir. Bardin]), about the inevitability of illusions (The Elephant and the Warbler, [Slon i penochka, 1986, Natan Lerner]), about chimeras of loneliness (Marriage of Convenience, [Brak po raschetu, 1988, Rozaliia Zel’ma]). Moralization disappears completely, giving way to an interest in sensuality, physicality and non-social eroticism (The Nymph Salmacis, [Nimfa Salmaka, 1992, dir. Anatolii Petrov]). Even here the ironic tone becomes the strongest point of Soviet animation: The Amorous Crow (Vliubchivaia vorona 1988, dir. Mariia Muat) has profaned the myth of free love, which was embodied in the form of a promiscuous crow. The ugly and ragged crow Carmen gives the forest inhabitants the most important thing: they begin to discover themselves, but only when the crow tells them that they are nice. In Soviet animation love is not embedded in specific a social order, but it serves as a refuge. In this, Soviet animation has inherited the traditions of classical Russian art, which has always believed—often too seriously— in the power of salvation that lies in love.

The festival’s educational program brought together not only young filmmakers, but also a humanities-oriented university audience, i.e. students of philosophy, cultural studies and the arts as well as academic staff, who had access to unique materials of film history. Kinoproba has once again introduced new names, and we hope that they will make it into the world of professional cinema, with their films hopefully becoming the object of analysis for future Kinoproby.

Translated by Ksenia Fedorova

Tat’iana Kruglova and Lilia Nemchenko
Ural Federal University, Ekaterinburg

Tat’iana Kruglova and Lilia Nemchenko © 2012

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Updated: 12 Jan 12