Issue 36 (2012)
Valeriia Gai Germanika: School (Shkola, 2010)
re-reviewed by Masha Boston © 2012
Valeriia Gai Germanika’s TV series School (2010) was, if not the most scandalous, then definitely among the top 5 most scandalous TV events of 2010. Multiple factors played into the creation of this sensation, including the fact that the series aired on the primary state TV channel, ОRT/Channel 1. The show was widely advertised and aired twice a day: in the prime time slot at 18:20, as well as later at night, at 23:30. The very first episode was shown on 11 January, right after the prolonged New Year and Christmas vacation extravaganza. But soon enough, the 18:20 time slot was cut and the series aired only at 23:30 primarily because of its “inappropriate” content: the shocking behavior of high school pupils and teachers. However, as Artemii Troitskii points out, “what is really shocking [about the series…] is the fact of its very existence on Channel 1” (Troitskii 2010). Troitskii implies that, as a state-supported channel, ORT is heavily censored and School’s highly provocative content does not fit in the overall state policy on children’s education.
This sense of scandal, associated with School as much as with its director Valeriia Gai Germanika, came to a logical conclusion when Gai Germanika did not receive a 2010 TEFI Award. School was nominated in three categories: Best Producer, Best Director and Best Screenwriter. The only category that the series actually received an award was the “Best Producer,” given to Igor Tolstunov and Konstantin Ernst, CEO of Channel 1. This loss was widely covered in the media when Gai Germanika, terribly upset about not receiving the Orpheus statue for the Best Director, threatened to leave the film and television industry to “go wash the floors in McDonald’s” (Shul’ga, 2010). In 2011, however, Gai Germanika did receive a Golden Rhinoceros award for the Best TV Series.
School portrays the students in grade 9A (A usually being the best class in a school) who swear, smoke cigarettes, drink gin and tonic on the school property, flirt with teachers (while the teachers flirt back), get in fights, and even (oh, horror!) have sex. (Joe Crescente in his two reviews of the series gives a rather full summary of the events, thus I will avoid a description of when exactly the students drink and flirt with teachers). Such a portrayal of ninth-graders provoked a substantial number of pro et contra commentaries that appeared everywhere from the yellow press, to on-line blogs and forums, to serious journals (see Dondurei 2010). The most radical critics called for the cancelation and banning of the series. A majority of the criticism could be summed up by one of my students, who shared a similar opinion about the series: no one should watch the show, because the pupils’ atrocious behavior in and out of school, seen on TV, will only confirm that such a behavior is acceptable, if any of it is even true, that is. To say, however, that none of this happens to teenagers in an average suburban Moscow (and not only Moscow) high school is, to put it lightly, a naïve perspective, not even to mention that perfectly behaved students do not make good TV. Besides, not all is “doom and gloom” in 9A. Sofia Kashtanskaia (Nadezhda Ivanova) writes poetry and is free from racial prejudices. Il’ia Epifanov (Aleksei Litvinenko) recites poems and generally enjoys literature. The class stages Shakespeare, the pupils fall in love, find true friends and new dreams. Most importantly they try to understand who they are and what it means to be an individual.
Accordingly, the series plays on all the proper school film topics in which children often face adult problems, but lack tools to address them, which then results in problematic behavior. Drugs, sex, honesty, loyalty, first love, true friendship, problems of fitting in and being an individual, having opinions but being unable to express them or being unheard, the eternal conflicts of parents and teenage children, teachers and pupils, even teachers and parents, have of course been discussed in Soviet and Russian cinema. School, as Daniil Dondurei suggests, “has always been a traditional place of posing to society difficult questions, it is a kind of official dissidence. That is why films on this topic often provoke a call to ban them” (Dondurei). The themes of School, then, are not new and frequent negative responses to these topics are almost expected.
The novelty of Gai Germanika’s project is in her perspective and approach. What makes the series compelling is the way it was filmed, in addition to the controversial content. Many critics compared use of a single hand-held camera and on-location shooting to Dogme ‘95 cinematographic style (see for example Joe Crescente’s review). Additionally, such filming resembles reality TV, which in turn suggests a certain sense of authenticity of this high school experience. A lack of functional film music and the use of diegetic sound, along with improvised dialogue, bring a different sense of reality to the screen, a sense of seriousness. Importantly, Gai Gemranika films professional actors and VGIK graduates, whose performance is worthy of praise. But it is the rawness of Gai Germanika’s presentation that is so disturbing. Ania Nosova (Valentina Lukashuk) dies live, so to speak: she turns the video camera on, takes the pills and falls asleep. This could be read in multiple ways, and one possibility is to view it as a commentary on reality TV in general. Reality shows offer the audience “real life” in staged conflicts and situations, and in this context Nosova’s death on camera is as real as a wedding in Dom-2, and it is this closeness of the two, this erasure of border between the real and the fictional, that evokes a sense of shock.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its bold honesty bordering on naturalism, the series proves to be highly moralistic and by the end becomes a clear social critique. For example, the issue of immigration, so relevant to inhabitants of big cities, is brought up again and again. In Episode 7, a pupil from Dagestan, Timur Zadoev (Mikhail Iskhanov), openly clashes with his Russian classmate Vadia (Aleksei Maslodudov). The conflict begins when Vadia interrupts geography lesson by asking: “Why are all these blacks  coming to our Moscow? Why can’t they just sit in their mountains?” The teacher’s politically correct response “there is democracy” in Russia does not satisfy Vadia and he continues: “Well look, my dad can’t find a job, and some wog’s mom works in our school’s cafeteria.” The argument then becomes too personal and turns into a fight.
The problem here is not only in Vadia’s usage of derogatory language in the classroom, but in the fact that most of Vadia’s classmates and his teacher support this position. The geography teacher (Sergei Kagakov) does not stop Vadia and later advises Vadia to provoke Timur in order to expel the latter from school. Such a perspective on immigrants is representative of the Muscovites’ struggle to coexist with an increasing number of immigrants from the Caucasus region. Importantly, the 2000s have been marked by an increase in radical nationalist sentiments (largely stimulated by the explosions of the Moscow apartment buildings, Nord-Ost, and Beslan tragedies and stirred by the multiple race-based clashes and pogroms). While the geography teacher takes on the role of a father figure for Vadia, the radical nationalistic group he joins identifies the culprits of the nation’s and Vadia’s misfortunes, and offers some sort of ideological core, a meaning to Vadia’s life. This dynamic is rather close to the one found in American History X (1998), and shaved headed Vadia even physically resembles Edward Furlong’s character. Unlike Danny Vinyard, Vadia does not have an older brother to look up to and in fact is an older brother himself, assuming a paternal role because his alcoholic parent cannot serve as an example of a successful and fulfilling life.
Corruption, both social and moral, becomes another large problem in the series. Teacher-parent relationships are largely based on the amount of money that parents are able to donate to the school. The Russian teacher (played by Elena Papanova) accepts a bribe to insure her pupil’s gold medal upon graduation (but then gives it back when found out). Physics teacher Natalia Nikolaevna (Aleksandra Rebenok) breaks up her pupil’s family when she becomes the lover of Sergei’s father and flirts with her pupil. A chemistry teacher (Aleksei Kurganov) has a somewhat inappropriate fascination with his student Ania Nosova, although sincerely tries to help and support her. Physical attraction between students, and students and teachers, appears to be inevitable; however, the series problematizes the way students, parents and teachers deal with this attraction. Sex and lack of sexual education or any coherent conversation on sex results in Budilova’s (Anna Shepeliova) pregnancy scare and is accompanied by two attempted rapes: one of drunk Olga (foregrounding the problem of teenage drinking and alcohol accessibility) and the other of Ira, in which an attempted gang rape is used as a scare tactic to make her break up with her boyfriend.
All of the problems raised in School deal with the relationship between teenagers, who are trying to figure out their own identities and roles in the school’s societal structure (as a representative of a society at large), and their teachers and parents. Eventually, almost all of the characters are punished in one way or another for torturing others and themselves. Natal’ia Nikolaevna, for example, loses both her husband and her lover and a masturbation scene (Episode 65) emphasizes her loneliness. The two deaths set up a tone for the series conclusion: Epifanov’s mother dies from cancer, while Nosova commits suicide . The teachers are punished for not understanding and not listening to their students (including the teacher of the year Nosov, the school’s director), sometimes by death, while students are punished for not trying to understand their parents and teachers. The only functional people left are those who manage to maintain a (relatively) healthy family relationship between parents and children. Budilova returns home and attempts to reconnect with her mother, and the only relatively happy couple is Sofia and Timur, as they are able to overcome cultural and racial differences and simply be together.
The most difficult part for the audience, it seems, is to accept that even 10% of what is shown on the screen is truth, from the teachers taking bribes, to teachers turning their pupils into nationalists, to teenage girls posting pictures of their breasts online. The criticism is a rejection of such a reality: contemporary life is full of stress, so Father’s Daughters (Papiny dochki) or any of the nanny shows is a much more rewarding form of entrainment for it allows “the prolongation of work […which] is sought by those who want to escape the mechanized world labor process so that they can cope with it again.” (Adorno and Horkheimer,109) Adorno and Horkheimer imply here both factory and office workers who deal with dull and repetitive work on daily basis. School’s rawness of experience, pseudo-realistic filming is, so to speak, “too close to home” and cannot serve as an effective escape from reality in order to come back to function in it again.
Popular art, including soap operas and TV series, is based on the notion that “the spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product prescribes each reaction, not through any actual coherence but through signals” (Adorno and Horkheimer 109). School, however, forces one to produce his own thoughts in order to understand why certain events on the screen take place. This, perhaps, is at the core of Gai Germanika’s TV achievement: she attempted to break away from the mind-numbing TV series tradition. I could not agree more with Troitskii, who says: “In my humble opinion, School is the best thing that has been created on our state channels during the whole Post-Soviet time.” The series is definitely worth watching in its entirety if, of course, one is willing to produce some thoughts on one’s own.
University of California, Davis
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Dondurei, Daniil, “Piar-Kontent, Kontent-Piar,” Iskusstvo kino, January 2010.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
Shul’ga, Nadezhda, “Valeria Gai Germanika: TEFI dlia menia teper’ prosto ne sushestvuet,” Komsomol’skaia Pravda, 21 September 2010,
Troitskii, Artemii. “Pervyi kanal,” Blog na Ekho Moskvy14 February 2010.
School, Russia 2010
Episodes 1-69; ca 30 minutes each
Premiere: 11 January 2010, ORT/Channel 1 (Pervyi kanal)
Directors: 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), Aleksei Kurganov (chemistry teacher).
Valeriia Gai Germanika: School (Shkola, 2010)
re-reviewed by Masha Boston © 2012