Issue 41 (2013)

Dmitrii Fiks: The White Moor (Belyi mavr, 2012)

reviewed by Daria Shembel © 2013

bely mavrThe White Moor by Dmitrii Fiks—best known for his work on television, particularly, for the series The Balzac Age, or All Men are Bast…(Bal’zakovskii vozrast ili vse muzhiki svo..., 2004)—unfolds as a succession of vignettes organized around the intimate lives of three married, “middle-class” (Fiks in Mukhina 2012) men living in Moscow. There is Misha, a stage actor and television soap star, one half of an unhappily married couple on the verge of breakdown; the successful businessman Andrei, torn between his scheming and controlling wife and a young mistress waiting for his divorce; and the owner of a group of dental offices, the closeted homosexual Leonid (“Lenia”) trapped by the obsession of his wife to conceive another child from him after their son left to attend college in the US. 

bely mavrMisha’s perspective dominates the narrative and it is through him that the film reveals its connection to Shakespeare’s Othello. Jockeying back and forth between theater and television, Misha performs Othelloin a modern theatrical adaptation of the play. As the scene of Othello’s murder of Desdemona runs throughout the film multiple times, the story of Othello engages with the film’s different perspectives, informing the fabula and re-enacting the play’s main themes of vengeance, intrigue, betrayal, and murder. By transposing one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and disturbing plays onto the shenanigans of ritzy Moscovites and the lowbrow genre of television melodrama, Fiks seems to reflect on the burden of striking the balance between commercial practices and high art—a struggle that Misha and, perhaps, Fiks himself wrestle with. Having graduated from the Theater Institute (GITIS), Dmitrii Fiks began his career as director by making documentaries on Maksimilian Voloshin (Maks Voloshin, 1992) and Osip Mandel’shtam (Flowers for Mandelshtam’s Stone/Tsvety na kamen’ Mandel’shtama, 1991). Within a few years, though, he found himself directing a tremendously popular show on Channel One, Old Songs About the Main Things (Starye pesni o glavnom), in which the pop stars of the contemporary Russian stage performed old Soviet hits. The program not only became the Channel One’s flagship show and the commercially most successful project in its history, but it also sparked a new direction in the channel’s strategy to promote expensive, star-driven shows.

bely mavrThe White Moor is different, though. Fiks secured the financing himself, and thus enjoyed the luxury of the freedom to explore themes that may be more attuned to his interests and personal taste. In this context it is appropriate, therefore, to look the way in which the immortal Shakespearean tale of class, gender, and ethnicity has been adapted onto the tableau of modern-day Moscow, and how Fiks explores these themes, unburdened by commercial pressures.

In the theatrical production of Othello featured in The White Moor, the actress playing Desdemona wears dark make-up, while Othello—played by Misha—is a white man. This “photo-negative” take on Shakespeare’s characters might hint at the twist on gender representations that strikes the viewer at first. As the main male characters are introduced, the film seems to exhibit a matriarchal emphasis, showing “tough” women over “weak” men. During the course of the film the men are routinely called “softies” (triapka) and “hysterics” by their women; they are controlled by their wives’ fertility needs, harassed by their children, manipulated by their mistresses, and generally move through the film at a pitch of near hysteria. However, the film is far from any discourse on female empowerment. In the same way that The White Moor “unmoors” the male characters, it demonizes its “tough” heroines, who consist solely of villain-esses, bitches, and monsters.  They commit adultery, carry out their evil intrigues in the fashion of Iago’s diabolical schemes, and spew ethnic slurs (for example, Natasha’s unbridled references to gastarbeiter as second-class citizens). And, as if this is not enough, two of the female characters become involved in actual murders. After killing a man in a car accident, Andrei’s wife Natasha never reports the accident, instead forcing her husband to help her get rid of the body. Ironically, later in the film, after refusing to grant her husband a divorce, Natasha herself falls victim to a plot by Andrei’s mistress, who convinces him that they need to resort to “extreme measures” and hire a hitman to murder Natasha. Andrei’s young mistress is a particularly cartoonish, overly-sexualized representation of women, who in the film is usually depicted in one of three states: consuming, performing fellatio, or executing a murderous plot.

bely mavrWhen the weeping men of The White Moor have a chance to reassert their manliness in the second half of the film, they do so at the expense of the women. Both Misha’s and Andrei’s newfound angst transforms them from wimps into tyrants, who exert domestic violence. When Misha reaches his breaking point, he suddenly begins to display some sort of machismo in a café on Kamergersky, even attacking his lumpen fans with a baseball bat (What self-respecting Russian wouldn’t carry a baseball bat in his trunk?) Next he rushes home and tries to smother his wife. What is curious, though, is that these philandering and hysterical men are still so desired by their women who, like Desdemona, repeatedly try to win them over and lure them back to the nest. Despite an attempt to reverse the traditional gender assumptions by “unmooring” the men, the film espouses a disturbingly strong misogynist message and seems to be less about male neuroses than about vilifying women and promoting damaging, sexist stereotypes.

bely mavrIn the same vein, the film’s representation of homosexuality is rather problematic. Lenia, the dentist, feels claustrophobic in his marriage to Vika, a woman who is obsessed with having another child with him. Lenia’s true affection lies with his business partner, who is also a married man. In fact, their relationship appears to be the most solid, but Fiks is not interested in their true love. Instead, he devotes much screen time—and nearly all of The White Moor’s comic relief—to the sexual aspects of Lenia’s double life, showing him popping Viagra to perform his conjugal duty. Vika and Lenia’s relationship is grounded in traditional heterosexual hallmarks: Lenia is the provider for his family, and their relationship and conversations are dominated by parental concerns—a baby at the end of the film seems to reinforce the heterosexual framing of their relationship. The film consistently “heterosexualizes” the gay men, suggesting that homosexuality is variable and must be normalized. 

bely mavrFiks proves to be faithful to his word when he states that The White Moor is not an auteur but genre film (Fiks in Mukhina 2012), for the film definitely follows the conventions of a television melodrama or soap opera in terms of its narrative structure, mise-en-scene, discursive presentation, and thematic content. In line with most melodramas, the film centers around potentially endangered, adulterous families, and also plays out some of the most popular soap opera clichés, such as a hospitalized character in a state of delirium and deception about paternity (Vika eventually succeeds in conceiving a baby with someone other than her husband). The film is rich with familiar soap opera settings—the private home, the hospital, the restaurant, the hotel, the courtroom, and the car, which overwhelmingly dominates the mise-en-scene; indeed, European luxury cars provide the stage for almost all of the narrative explosions and revelations. The same is true at the level of narrative structure. The film employs multiple characters and plots, abrupt segmentation, emphasis on dialogue, stylized over-acting, shot/counter-shot patterns, and frequent zoom to close-up at the end of sequences. 

bely mavrWhile the film floats free of any socio-political context, Fiks insists zealously that this picture is about the Russian middle class and that it is made for middle-class viewers (Fiks 2012). Fiks even singles out his team’s dedication to being among the few who pay any attention to the problems of the middle class in Russia today: “this is a story about the middle class, which normally does not feature on television” (Fiks in Mukhina 2012 ).

Some serious reservations have been recently advanced by sociologists, concerning the existence of a middle class in Russia that corresponds to its Western understanding in terms of labor production, institutions of democracy and law, limitation of ruling powers, and the participation in free elections (Glassman, in Samson and Krasil’nikova 2012). And while the debate remains open, it would seem obvious that television soap celebrities, owners of multiple medical offices, and entrepreneurs with mansions and servants as depicted in the film are not typical representatives of the middle class. But then, if it is questionable whether the concept of a middle class is applicable at all as a class distinction in the context of current socio-economic and political conditions in Russia, maybe there is no need to force a square peg into round hole, planting Western middle-class characters onto the Russian scene and pretend that there is no difference. Russian cinema would be better served by deeper investigations into the lives of its evolving socio-demographics instead of constant attempts to de-ideologize the concept of class, and focus on the libidinal desires of the highly-polished Rublevka inhabitants. However, most contemporary Russian directors avoid social and political taboos. They refuse to invite the viewer to question the propriety of the existing system.

In one scene in The White Moor, Zhanna Epple’s character Vika corrects her gay husband in bed when he aims incorrectly during intercourse: “not there.” Sadly, the same words could be addressed at Dmitrii Fiks for his attempt to show us the true “middle class.” He may be in the general area, but definitely “not there!”

Daria Shembel
San Diego State University

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Works Cited

Glassman, Ronald (1995), The Middle Class and Democracy in Socio-Historical Perspective. Leiden and New York: Brill. 

Mukhina, Mariia (2012), “‘Belyi Mavr ili tri istorii o moikh sosediakh’ Dmitria Fiksa: Problema v tom, chto eto kino uzhe okupilos’,” Interview with Dmitrii Fiks, Biulleten’ kinoprokatchika, 4 June.

Samson, Ivan and Marina Krasil’nikova (2012), “The Middle Class in Russia: An Emerging Reality or an Old Myth?”, Sociological Research, 51.5: 3–25. 

The White Moor, or Intimate Stories about My Neighbors, Russia, 2012
Color, 94 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Fiks
Screenplay: Maksim Stishov
Cinematography: Andrei Makarov
Production Design: Aleksei Nazarov
Music: Il’ia Dukhovnyi
Cast: Andrei Sokolov, Ekaterina Strizhenova, Aleksandr Galibin, Anna Iakunina, Evgeniia
Morozova, Igor’ Vernik, Zhanna Epple
Producers: Gennadii Kostrov, Nikolai Solovov, Maksim Stishov, Dmitrii Fiks, Mikhail Kurbatov
Production: Motor Entertainment

Dmitrii Fiks: The White Moor (Belyi mavr, 2012)

reviewed by Daria Shembel © 2013