Issue 37 (2012)
Dzhanik Fayziev: August. Eight (Avgust. Vos’mogo, 2012)
reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2012
The Russian-Georgian war of 2008 entered global cinema more quickly than the Vietnam war or the Afghan war did in their day. The still-debated events were the subject of Renny Harlin’s highly partisan Five Days of War (2011) with Andy Garcia as President Saakashvili, which despite considerable production values turned out to be a critical and commercial disaster. Two years prior, Igor’ Voloshin’s artistically more ambitious Olympius Inferno had attempted a Russian version of the events with a claim to artistry, to the extent that this was possible. The outcome proved problematic since a majority of those interested in the conflict keeps viewing Russia as the aggressor, regardless of European Commission findings: it lies in the nature of a clash between a giant and a dwarf.
Unlike its predecessors, Dzhanik Fayziev’s much-touted August. Eight is both unconditionally pro-Russian and unabashedly commercial. For the director this meant taking considerable risks, not just by exposing himself to accusations of neo-imperialist propaganda, but also by trying to square the circle of rendering complex political material suitable for a blockbuster. Fayziev approaches this difficulty in a startling manner: rather than using documentary footage for authenticity, he opens his story with fantasy—a long digital sequence of a savior hero named Kosmoboi rescuing a little boy from a huge laughing baddie. It is a fight for life and death that intrigues but also causes confusion because the viewer, expecting realistic war images, suspects he might be in the wrong film. Only after several minutes does it become clear that this fight is taking place in the mind of little Artem, a Moscow boy with a vivid imagination who constantly incorporates his computer game toys into his own life. Initially, Artem has Kosmoboi attack his divorced mother’s new suitor, whose allies are the evil forces. Kseniia, Artem’s mother, shows greater interest in repairing her private life than in the wellbeing of her son by trying to keep Egor, a smooth but slimy businessman. Not surprisingly, when her estranged former husband Zaur calls and asks to see Artem, she does not hesitate to send the boy to a mountain village near Tskhinval. At this point, geopolitics makes its entrance. Just as Artem arrives at the rural idyll of his biological father and grandparents, military hell breaks loose, and Zaur, who happens to be a Russian peacekeeper, is called to duty. Simultaneously, Kseniia realizes her maternal duty and breaks up with the egotistical Egor. Kseniia’s subsequent journey to South Ossetia to fetch her son makes up most of the following ninety minutes. Sure enough, her trip turns into a nightmare. First, the bus that is supposed to take her to the restricted area is literally torn apart by rockets; then, she falls under continuous heavy bombardment and later is almost shot by a Georgian soldier. The action sequences, coming one after the other in hasty succession, are impressively staged by special effects experts.
For a long time, Fayziev and his screenwriter Michael Lerner leave the political underpinnings of the war untouched—at most, characters mumble something like “it’s troublesome down there.” Kseniia is blissfully unaware of everything outside her love life, her suitor Egor displays blasé indifference, while Zaur maintains a naïve faith in international law—he is a peacekeeper, after all. But once the violence unfolds, the macro-perspective sets in, and we are taken to the ship of the President of the Russian Federation, who is alerted in the middle of the night. This episode introduces a separate plotline showing the Russian leader—a youthful and serious Vladimir Vdovichenkov—as disturbed yet always on top of events. After the Medvedev surrogate realizes the true nature of what is evolving, he makes an inconvenient decision, clearing his advisory team of a stubborn defeatist who cautions about the possible effects of an invasion on Russia’s international reputation. Finally “the President” can act like his computer counterpart “Kosmoboi,” the proverbial good guy, defending the country and saving Artem and his mom.
Obviously conceptualized as a commercial hit, August. Eight showcases the required Spielbergesque ingredients (little boy, loving mother, gruesome monster, noble savior). And yet, it leaves the viewer strangely cold and often bored. For, the very method used to achieve mass appeal minimizes the film’s emotional effect: Fayziev trusts narrative and visual artificiality to an extent that neutralizes his story and at times makes it a borderline parody.
The authors and producers preemptively evade propaganda accusations—indeed, the film does not contain an explicit political discourse, but the biased point of view is hard to overlook. Thus, the Russian administration acts maturely and responsibly, solely motivated by humanistic goals. In the trenches, there is a gallery of exemplary Russian peacekeepers who respond to the enormous pressure of near-constant mortal danger with remarkable fortitude, always willing to help out a screaming damsel in distress who, in true modern style, never even says thank you for multiple acts of self-endangerment and self-sacrifice. Only in the end does Lekha, one of these modern-day knights, win Kseniia’s heart over the renewed advances of nouveau riche Egor.
One of the unresolved dilemmas of the film is the identification of its target audience. For war film buffs, August. Eight lacks gravitas—the premise of visualizing a child’s fantasies of warfare alone must seem preposterous and not worth a look. The quadrangle love story embedded in the film, although ending with a witty gimmick, is too weak to satisfy romantics. And for child audiences, the considerable usage of foul language is unsuitable. What may have been intended as family entertainment thus runs into serious problems pleasing any audience with its unusual blend of genres. As a matter of fact, the film did not generate the box office returns that some short-sighted optimists had expected, and when looking at the film soberly, this is not at all surprising.
The blurred genre makes it hard to discuss acting quality. Within the framework of a filmed computer game, the performances may suffice. Any higher expectations will inevitably be frustrated, though. The most irritating miscast is Svetlana Ivanova in the role of Kseniia: her face remains so empty in all situations that none of the claimed elementary emotions—fear, despair, tenderness, lust—are even minimally conveyed. To watch this animated Barbie doll sitting with rough guys in an armored car or frantically running across a shelled street is truly a grotesque experience. Her symbiotic relationship with her cell phone—which, by the way, repeatedly causes deadly harm for her and the people around—is apparently meant to mark Kseniia as a modern woman; this may pass as long as she is enjoying thoughtless comfort in upper middle-class Moscow wealth. In war, her reckless unteachability is a nuisance. The rest of the star-studded cast, hard as it may try, acts for the most part in vain: since the situations are unbelievable, so are their reactions to them.
Fayziev’s directorial career has been spotty, and he has focused more recently on his role as producer; however August. Eight does reveal certain stylistic consistencies. Most significantly, the external effect is always dominating; any kind of raw truth is not even worth a consideration. Yet, despite its overall precarious nature, his latest film should be given credit for some accomplishments (beside the technical ones). First, it never indulges in gore for entertainment. Second, the characters’ ethical markers are fairytale clear, which is a relief compared to the proud cynicism displayed in the majority of recent American blockbusters. Third, while the film verbally and visually points to Georgian military as sneaky and ruthless, there is not even a hint at ethnic stereotyping; instead, the only time that a Georgian soldier is shown closely, he allows Kseniia to flee after she appeals to his filial feelings. And finally, the film does not declare war to be the preferred way of conflict resolution—it features chivalrous military but is not militaristic.
The cultural-political goal of August. Eight lies in plain sight: it is meant to affirmatively incorporate post-Soviet Russia’s most controversial military conflict into its modern mythology. Since the authors assume that this mythology is digitally shaped, they construct their story accordingly. Yet the plot itself is so unoriginal, piling cliché upon cliché, that it affects the viewer only superficially. The entire stock of characters is borrowed, mostly from Western television; all authentic details of contemporary Russian reality are carefully deleted. Be it Kseniia, who embarrasses Egor in the elevator with feigned orgasmic moaning (a ridiculous imitation of Meg Ryan’s famous performance in When Harry Met Sally), or the boy, who escapes into his inner world populated by computer game protectors—nothing is real, everything recycled from other films, sanitized, neutered. That such an arch-commercial project is permitted to gobble up the precious funds of the Fond Kino is scandalous in its own right and does not bode well for the future of state-supported Russian cinema.
The George Washington University
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August. Eight, Russia 2012,
120 minutes, colour
Director Dzhanik Fayziev
Scriptwriters Michael A. Lerner, Dzhanik Fayziev
Director of Photography Sergei Trofimov
Production Design Vladimir Gudilin, Yuri Fomenko
Costume Design Vladimir Koretsky, Liudmila Gaintseva
Music Ruslan Muratov
Editing Dennis Virkler
Cast: Svetlana Ivanova, Maxim Matveev, Yegor Beroev, Artem Fadeev, Anna Legchilova, Lydia Velezheva, Konstantin Samoukov, Gosha Kutsenko, Alexei Guskov
Producers Dzhanik Fayziev, Ilya Bachurin, Fedor Bondarchuk
Distribution Twentieth Century Fox CIS
Dzhanik Fayziev: August. Eight (Avgust. Vos’mogo, 2012)
reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2012