Issue 43 (2014)
Vladimir Pankov: Doc.tor (2012)
reviewed by Eva Binder © 2014
The first feature film by stage director, actor and musician Vladimir Pankov opens with two shots that already give us an inkling of this film’s stylistic range. The first shot shows an actor striding to the microphone across the creaky wooden floor of a theatrical stage, resting his battered briefcase on a music stand, and lighting up a cigarette. Then there is an abrupt cut, and we see a white and typically Russian winter landscape. The wind whistles as a young man in a fur coat and fur hat walks along a deserted country road, flagging down a yellow bus coming his way. Nearby we see an accordion player, who sits on an embankment. He is a type of angelic creature with wings and he wears a doctor’s white coat. One can hear contemporary Russian ethno music. Then the voice of a narrator who is looking back at his life sets in. The first-person narrator would actually have preferred studying at an art school, but his grandmother was opposed to this. In her eyes, all artists were hairy types who drank a lot. The narrator thus completed medical school instead; at this moment he was starting his internship in a village hospital, miles away from his native Astrakhan.
Vladimir Pankov, born in 1975, began as an actor at Moscow’s Variety Theater (Teatr estrady). Shortly thereafter he founded his own collective with three others. They started to produce music for theatrical performances and, in 2003, founded the studio SounDrama. At the same time, Pankov, with his particular combination of performance and sound, succeeded as a stage director and became a rising star in Moscow’s theater scene. His second theater production, entitled Doc.tor, which had its premiere in November 2005, was well received in Russia and distinguished with several awards; it was also invited to numerous theater festivals in Europe, such as the theater and dance festival “euro-scene Leipzig” in 2006 or Liège’s theater, dance and music festival in 2007.
The theatrical production of Doc.tor was performed in Moscow’s documentary theater Teatr.doc, which was founded in 2002 and which had made the so-called verbatim technique its program. “Imported” from the London Royal Court Theatre, this technique, as Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky put it in their important study on contemporary Russian theater, implies “that the play is constructed on the basis of interviews conducted by the playwright (or by the creative team) with real people, who belong either to a particular social group or who share certain social circumstances” (Beumers and Lipovetsky 2009: 211). Accordingly, the starting point for Doc.tor is a real life history, namely that of physician Andrei Gerner of Astrakhan, which the playwright and poet Elena Isaeva condensed into a play for three persons. In order to highlight the documentary basis of her play, Isaeva published excerpts of the doctor’s depictions, which in the narrative structure and in part also in the exact wording correspond to the later piece (see Isaeva 2005).
In Vladimir Pankov’s production, as well as in the later film version, the documentary basis is retained. However, it is superimposed by a highly artificial form. Pankov set the play as a kind of musical: with dance interludes, with accompanying accordion and orchestra arrangements, with rapped text passages or with staccato-like recitations. For example, framing the provincial doctor’s initial narrative, a kind of chorus enumerates foreign-sounding Latin terms of diseases. Indeed, this superimposition of real life and a language of forms that is artistically extremely rich, serves to bring out the doctor’s storyline. The interpenetration between the documentary and fictional material sharpens our perception through the effect of defamiliarization—without ever striking up a moralizing tone or slipping into one-dimensional social criticism, even if the conventional stereotypes about how sad life is in the Russian provinces, about social grievances and about a catastrophic health care system are catered to considerably. In the film adaptation, the artistic principle of defamiliarization is not only sustained but also heightened by the interlinking of cinematic scenes and stage performance. In so doing, the cinematic scenes are enriched by techniques that break up cinematic illusions: for example, when the aged first-person narrator appears in the shot showing the young doctor, or when he is accompanied throughout the film by the winged accordion player, as if by a guardian angel. Such scenes show clearly that this film is much more than merely the filming of a play.
The doctor’s story begins in the mid 1980s with his arrival at the provincial hospital of Boriatino, which is situated in the area of Kaluga. According to the first-person narrator, after the nuclear reactor accident in Chernobyl, many doctors tried to flee the area, even though officially, no information had been announced at the time about the amount of radioactivity released. The hospital itself is in a run-down state, which appears to correspond perfectly to the state of the medical staff’s morale. When the young surgeon introduces himself to the doctor’s collective, the following incisive dialogue takes place: “Who are you?—I’m a surgeon.—What’s your name?—Andrei.—Do you play [the card game] preference?—Yes.—Ah, here’s our fourth player”.
The doctor’s story is broken down into six episodes, and in the film version the titles appear written in white chalk on the surface of a crumbling wall. These are: “Gravity,” “Kamyziak and Dzhigli-Olivekrona,” “A Philosophical Story,” “Every Surgeon has His Cemetery,” “Catastrophe,” and “Drunk Like a Surgeon.” In these episodes, the first-person narrator works through traumatic experiences and shocking moments, all of which are connected with the medical profession as such, but also with specific Russian conditions. He also muses about philosophical issues, such as the value of human life. In the second episode, “Kamyziak and Dzhigli-Olivekrona,” for example—the young surgeon in the meantime has started his second assignment, which is in the regional centre Kamyziak, near his native city of Astrakhan—the narrator describes how he was called up to do a difficult surgery during his experienced colleague’s holiday absence. A tractor driver, who was about 50 years old and a heavy drinker, was run over by his own tractor. All that remained of his legs was pulp, and there was no medical equipment for an amputation. The only thing the surgeon finds is a broken-off piece of a wire saw—a dzhigli-olivekrona, as it is called. Still, the amputation is a success. The man survives, and even years after his accident, he continues to visit the doctor, so filled as he is with gratitude. In the film version, the scene of the operation, which the narrator richly details off-camera, is transformed into a surrealistic dream from the patient’s perspective. The doctors sit and smoke in front of his wooden house in the village, they milk cows, saw off tree trunks and eventually celebrate the marriage of the young surgeon and his operating-room nurse—with a richly set banquet.
Each episode in the film version is endowed with its own stylistic accents and genre features, which enhance the hybrid form of the theatrical production. The spectrum extends from the grotesque to the eccentric, via the bucolic and poetic philosophical passages and up to a cinematic social realism that is applied in the final episode. The title of this episode, “Drunk Like a Surgeon,” relates to an insight of the now older surgeon: that vodka is some sort of survival strategy for him and his colleagues—a vital means to “protect one’s own head.” At the end of his tale, the doctor appeals directly to the sympathy and understanding of his audience: after all, someone must do this work, even without medicine and equipment—with nothing else but naked intuition. As the off-stage narrator says these words, a snowy country road appears, just like in the film’s beginning. But this time, instead of a bus, the now elderly and drunken surgeon encounters a police car, and the police end up brutally clobbering him.
In a sort of epilogue—the narrator has just left the stage—we come full circle. The cinematic narration returns to the opening scene. Yet now it is the young surgeon Sergei—not Andrei—holding a bottle of vodka and introducing himself to the doctor’s collective. “Nothing changes”—thus represents the film’s semantic core: it is a line which is alternatively and repeatedly recited by the chorus and by the main protagonists in the theatrical scene between the second and third episodes. Moreover, the first-person narrator becomes aware that a story almost identical to his own had already taken place in Mikhail Bulgakov’s short story “The Embroidered Towel”, which is part of Bulgakov’s A Young Doctor's Notebook. Yet there is an essential difference in the story by Bulgakov: when the young country doctor arrives at the far-flung village hospital to take up his first job after having finished his studies, he finds that his predecessor had left the hospital excellently equipped. Unfortunately, that was no longer the case in the Soviet Union of the 1980s, and today it is even less so.
Translated by Laurie Cohen
1] The play, which is entitled Doc.tor (Zapiski provintsial’nogo vracha), may be downloaded from Elena Isaeva’s personal website
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Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky, Performing Violence: Literary and Theatrical Experiments of New Russian Drama, Bristol, Chicago: intellect, 2009.
Elena Isaeva, “Vo Sodome, vo Gomorre,” Otechestvennye zapiski 1, 2005.
Doc.tor, Russia, 2012
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Vladimir Pankov
Script: Elena Isaeva
DoP: Aleksandr Smirnov
Music: Vladimir Pankov
Cast: Andrei Zavodiuk, Aleksandr Kudriavtsev, Sergei Rodiukov, Alisa Estrina, Tat’iana Klichanovskaia, Pavel Akimkin, Ol’ga Gerchakova, Sergei Agafonov, Liudmila Shergina, Inga Smetanina, Alina Ol’shanskaia, Aleksei Bagdasarov, Dmitrii Zhuravlev, Anastasiia Sycheva
Producer: Iurii Konovalov
Production: Zhanr (Mosfilm)
Vladimir Pankov: Doc.tor (2012)
reviewed by Eva Binder © 2014