Issue 39 (2013)
Sergei Mokritskii: Protest Day (Den’ uchitelia, 2012)
reviewed by Otto Boele © 2013
Asked what major developments in Russian cinema the upcoming Kinotavr film festival would bring to light, Program Director Sitora Alieva pointed to a remarkable shift in the choice of main characters. If only two years ago the festival showed no less than seven films which had migrant workers in the leading role, the most recent films seem to be dominated by the figure of the “little man” (malen’kii chelovek). “The intelligenty have returned to the silver screen,” Alieva concluded, pointing to Protest Day as a prime example of this trend (Ardabatskaia 2012).
Leaving aside the dubious assumption that a gastarbeiter apparently cannot be considered a “little man,” Alieva’s observation in itself is certainly valid. Sergei Mokritskii’s second film generously draws on familiar notions of weakness and inaptitude as the main characteristics of the intelligentsia. Although some would argue that these features are of a universal rather than specifically Russian nature, the fact that Mokritskii turned for inspiration to a Polish film, Day of the Wacko (Dzien Swiera, Koterski, 2003), and then decided to “Russify” it, does make it a statement about the Russian intelligent today. In the final analysis, however, and in spite of what the English title would suggest, Mokritskii seems less interested in taking issue with Russia’s opposition than in delivering a timeless plea for love and stable family relationships.
Afanasii—“Afonia”—Derkach (Anatolii Kot) is a weary-looking and irritable man of forty-three who ekes out a living teaching Russian literature at a Moscow high school. His family life is a shambles. If he visits his bitchy ex-wife (Marianna Shul’ts), it is only to pay her monthly alimony or to do his fatherly duty by practicing English with his good-for-nothing adolescent son (Aleksandr Gorchilin). His own mother (Svetlana Nemoliaeva) shows no sign of gratitude when he drops in to replenish her groceries, but openly mocks him for being a deadbeat loser like his father. Except for these inevitable encounters with his relatives, Derkach leads a solitary life, desperately trying to keep the outside world at bay. How unsuccessful he is in this respect is amply shown throughout the film. In addition to being inconvenienced by noisy neighbors, Derkach has to endure treatment from a dentist, an acupuncturist, and a medical assistant taking a feces sample from him.
A language purist and great admirer of the poet Sergei Esenin, Derkach finds little gratification in his job either. Instead of arousing his pupils’ curiosity, he puts them off by quoting Esenin’s most impenetrable “imaginist” verse and by lecturing them on the sophisticated pleasure that only true poetry can give. Even without these professional deceptions, Derkach’ life is replete with little mishaps and vexations that make him lose his temper easily, as for example when he steps in fresh dog poop and takes revenge by kicking the little perpetrator through the air.
As could be expected given his professional background, Derkach harbors literary ambitions himself, and this makes him look even more ridiculous. For not only does he settle for the crime story (which, as he assures his class, is the opposite of true poetry), even when working in this genre, he fails to produce more than a paragraph a day. The irony of an intelligent lowering himself to crime novels, but then proving unable to actually write them is driven home rather bluntly by having the hero watch a news item about prolific pulp author Aleksandra Marinina, as well as an interview with a Dmitrii Bykov-like author of civic prose (Kirill Serebrennikov) who brags about never suffering from writer’s block.
Derkach’ superfluousness as a father and a son, and his ineffectiveness as a teacher of high culture bring to mind a number of familiar “types” in nineteenth-century literature. The “little man” (Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky), the “man in a case” (Chekhov) and, of course, the “superfluous man” (in particular Turgenev’s Chulkaturin) all seem to have contributed to Derkach’ DNA. The suggestion of his typicality is further underscored by the film’s time structure. Like Solzhenitsyn’s famous novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and, more recently, Vladimir Sorokin’s dystopian story Day of the Oprichnik, Protest Day follows its hero from dawn to dusk on one particular day. The Russian title (Den’ uchitelia) is ambiguous, however, allowing the viewer to interpret it as Teacher’s Day (a Soviet holiday that has survived the breakup of the Soviet Union), rather than as suggesting a snapshot of the hero’s life (a day in the life of a teacher). Although the events in this film clearly do not take place on Teacher’s Day (which is celebrated on October 5th), the associative link with what is essentially a celebratory event for teachers raises questions about the status of this particular day. How ordinary, how representative of the hero is it really?
Seen from the larger perspective of Russian politics, the day on which the events in Protest Day take place is far from ordinary. As the English title indicates, the story is set on 10 December 2011, when thousands of people gathered in Moscow to express their anger over the fraudulent Duma elections. According to Mokritskii, the massive anti-government rally was too good an opportunity to ignore and he decided to include some authentic footage (shot by him) in which his hero suddenly turns up, apparently at a loss as to what the fuss is all about. Walking in the opposite direction of the crowd, Derkach picks up scraps of crackpot discussions between political extremists, a detail that is intended (one suspects) not to ridicule Russia’s opposition, but to convey Derkach’ own estrangement and thus to emphasize once again his superfluousness and disconnectedness.
The symbolic connection between the demonstration and Derkach’s personal situation is not hard to grasp, though. If the protesters reject the patronizing leadership of Vladimir Putin (who is shown on Derkach’s mini-TV set graciously smiling in response to a roar of applause), then Derkach is planning to revolt against his meddlesome mother. It is she who prevented him from marrying his great love, Elia, with whom life would have been totally happy (or so Derkach believes). In an (imagined?) conversation with his psychiatrist, Derkach is urged to liberate himself from his mother, thereby creating the preconditions for self-empowerment and mental rebirth.
In order to be reborn as a new man, the old Derkach has to die, and there are strong indications that he does. The footage of the demonstration is accompanied by a song by the rock group Mongol Shuudan that is based on another, more digestible Esenin poem (“Da, teper’ resheno…”) in which the “I” announces his death “on the crooked streets of Moscow.” Later that night, this prophecy seems to fulfill itself when Derkach passes out in the metro and has a near-death experience. The ensuing vision compels him to face his many personal hang-ups, ranging from his fear of dogs and his troublesome relationships with women, to his obsession with cleanliness and the purity of the Russian language. Once again, however, he runs away from his biggest obsession, Elia, the woman with whom he would have found true happiness.
While there is plenty of reason to assume that the old Derkach has died, the nature of his rebirth remains vague. The film’s denouement is simply too implausible to be taken literally: convinced that he is having a heart attack, Derkach calls an ambulance from his apartment, and when the paramedics arrive, one of them turns out to be Elia. Is he miraculously reunited with her, as suggested by the final scene in which we see them together on Derkach’s couch, or is she a figment of his imagination symbolizing his reconciliation with the world? Earlier, Elia’s appearances were restricted to his dreams and his unfinished crime story (visualized by film-noir-like black-and-white images) in which he was able to mold her to his own fancy: as an understanding and caring wife or a dangerously attractive vamp. The final scene of family happiness may therefore also signify an ideal that the hero has not necessarily found, an image of what might have been had he followed his heart.
Protest Day contains a number of humorous and well-acted scenes (especially those in which Derkach visits his mother and then his son), but the ending seems somehow disconnected from what preceded it. As a result, the impression that remains is that of a feel-good movie with a somewhat contrived optimistic message about human relationships, but with no direct bearing on the position of the contemporary intelligent. In the final analysis, Protest Day is not a film about the “little man” or the Russian intelligentsia; it is about man in general and his need for love and a family.
University of Leiden
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Ardabatskaia, Elena, “Den’ uchitelia na ‘Kinotavre’,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 4 May 2012.
Protest Day, 2012
Color, 80 minutes
Director: Sergei Mokritskii
Screenplay: Sergei Mokritskii (based on the original screenplay “Dzien Swira” by Marek Koterski)
Director of Photography Ivan Maliutin
Production Design Iurii Grigorovich
Costume Design Liudmila Rybalko
Music Aleksandr Manotskov
Sound Sergei Ovcharenko
Editing Pavel Khaniutin
Cast: Anatolii Kot, Svetlana Nemoliaeva, Irina Rakhmanovs, Liudmila Titovs, Andrei Bilzho
Producer Uliana Savel’eva
General producer Natalia Mokritskaia
Production Film Company New People, with financial support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Sergei Mokritskii: Protest Day (Den’ uchitelia, 2012)
reviewed by Otto Boele © 2013