Issue 40 (2013)
Andrei Griazev: Tomorrow (Zavtra, 2012)
reviewed by Tim Harte © 2013
The opening scenes of Andrei Griazev’s Tomorrow (Zavtra, 2012) will surely come across as disconcerting for the uninitiated. A small group of casually dressed thirty somethings—with a young child in tow on the back of one member of this group—descend upon a series of St. Petersburg stores to pilfer various goods, prompting angry security guards to confront or pursue them. The presence of the child and the unabashed shoplifting—along with jittery handheld camerawork and raw video footage that vividly convey all the anarchic action—help create an atmosphere of uneasiness that is compounded by the group’s insolent, carefree attitude. When the tallest and most authoritative member of the group begins reciting verse by Vladimir Mayakovsky, there can be little doubt that these are no ordinary “hooligans.” Indeed, Tomorrow highlights the activity of the street-art group “War” (“Voina”), which since 2006 has staged politically oriented acts of protest in Russia. Having gained notoriety in 2010 for rolling over a police car in front of St. Petersburg’s Marble Palace (a “Palace Revolution” they cleverly called it), which resulted in the arrest and trial of two members of “War” for “hooliganism,” the group subsequently played a prominent role in the anti-Putin protests of 2011 and 2012. Merging Mayakovsky’s declarative brand of futurism with the self-sacrificing impulses of Tsarist Russia’s Decembrists (also mentioned in the film), the street-art group “War” provokes and prods, whereby Griazev’s Tomorrow highlights the artists’ defiant street performances and defiant challenge to Russian leadership and society.
At the outset of his 90-minute documentary, Griazev provides remarkably little background information that might shed light on what occurs, thus allowing the camera to play almost a participatory role in the performance art while placing the viewer in the position of “War” member. Able to film the group on the street and in their apartments over the course of almost two years, Griazev strives to remain in the shadows and keep his own voice, as much as possible, out of the picture (we only hear him asking the husband and wife leaders of “War” how they met). Whether accompanying the artists of “War” on their shoplifting raids, documenting their overturning of automobiles, or sitting in on the heated plotting of future events at home, Griazev provides a revealing window into the chaotic lives of these controversial artists. Although Griazev provocatively claims at the outset that the events of the film may not have any connection to reality, it quickly becomes clear that his handheld camera has captured “life unawares,” to use Dziga Vertov’s term; yet this is no ordinary life, for the members of “War” have merged life and performance in a manner suggestive of zhiznetvorchestvo, the early 20th-century concept adopted by the futurists and others that presented everyday life as a form of creative expression. Placing video footage (often Griazev’s own work) of their acts on the internet, they find a receptive audience for their disorderly behavior. Layers of reality, performance, and video thus make Tomorrow all the more complex and provocative.
Throughout Tomorrow Griazev maintains a somewhat elliptical approach to his portrayal of “War,” as he eschews direct interviews and dispenses with chronology when documenting the collective’s stunts. And it is not until a scene showing a member of “War” inserting chewing gum into the keyhole of an office door for United Russia (Edinaia Rossiia), Vladimir Putin’s political party, that the ideological platform of “War” becomes apparent. Griazev generally refrains from glorifying the actions of “War,” but one wonders whether a scene in which they come to the aid of an ailing, drunken old man is necessary. Yes, the group has advocated for the poor and donated prize money from a Ministry of Culture Innovation award to the human rights group “Agora,” but this act of kindness toward the old man runs counter to the film’s otherwise balanced and unromanticized vision of the group and their lives.
As the acknowledged founder of “War” and a modern-day Mayakovsky, Oleg Vorotnikov exudes a charisma and authority throughout Tomorrow that seem quite in keeping with the verse (he recites Mayakovsky’s 1927 “Voz’mem vintovki novye…” [“We’ll take brand new rifles…”]) and larger-than-life persona of the futurist poet. Vorotnikov aggressively orchestrates not only the shoplifting, but also the overturning of automobiles and the theft of a Military Day banner that hangs over a wide city street. As the father of Casper, the young boy present at virtually all of the group’s “performances,” Vorotnikov maintains a powerful paternalistic presence, even when he is behind bars in St. Petersburg’s Kresty Prison. As Tomorrow documents, Vorotnikov and his fellow “War” member Lev Nikolaev served four months of confinement before posting a 300,000-ruble ($10,000) bail. Griazev refrains from mentioning that this bail was provided in part by the British street-artist known as Banksy, an admirer of “War” who came to the group’s defense, but his inclusion of courtroom speeches by the defense for “War” offer the clearest explication for what the group has aimed to accomplish with their work.
At the heart of the film is the toddler Casper (approximately one and a half years old at the time of his father’s trial), who witnesses everything with open eyes. Griazev focuses repeatedly on Natalia Sokol (aka “Koza,” Vorotnikov’s wife and fellow “War” member) teaching her son various words and colors, and the precocious boy appears to benefit from the creative chaos all around him. As if to imitate his rabble-rousing parents, a naked Casper sprays water on various sleeping members of “War” to wake them up in the apartment where they are squatting. And in one of the film’s most touching scenes, clay figures and a toy car belonging to Casper feature in a short animated film in which the “Palace Revolution” is playfully reenacted. Ultimately, Casper’s ubiquity in Tomorrow becomes loaded with significance: on the one hand, he clearly suffers when his father winds up in jail or when his parents and their fellow “War” members clash with the police, but on the other hand little Casper can be seen as the ultimate beneficiary of all the protest. He—along with a future sibling who is shown, by means of an ultrasound, to be on the way—is the embodiment of the film’s title, and he gives purpose and meaning to all the various displays of anarchy.
The anti-Putin protests may have come and gone in today’s Russia, yet Griazev’s Tomorrow nevertheless provides a fascinating window into contemporary Russian society. The 2012 arrest and sentencing of the feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot, whose members originally belonged to “War,” reveals a Russia increasingly wary of and resistant to scandalous protests creatively calling into question the authority of the country’s leaders and police. As if to accentuate the defiant spirit of “War,” Griazev ends Tomorrow with one of the group’s more conspicuous (and humorous) acts, presenting rough video footage from 2010 of the group jumping onto the Liteiny Bridge in St. Petersburg and spray-painting an enormous phallus on one half of the drawbridge. As the drawbridge slowly rises, up comes the phallic drawing and what must surely be construed as an affront to Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB), located nearby on Liteiny Avenue. Playful yet subversive, the street art of “War” provides a creative check on the powers that be in Russia. And it is when participating in this playfulness that Tomorrow proves so illuminating, powerful, and effective.
Bryn Mawr College
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Tomorrow, Russia, 2012
90 minutes, color.
Director and Scriptwriter: Andrei Griazev
Camera: Andrei Griazev
Editing: Andrei Griazev
Sound Editing: Alexander Dudarev
Cast: Leonid Nikolaev, Natal’ia Sokol, Casper Vorotnikov, Oleg Vorotnikov
Producer: Andrei Griazev
Andrei Griazev: Tomorrow (Zavtra, 2012)
reviewed by Tim Harte © 2013