Issue 43 (2014)

Aleksandr Veledinskii: The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Geograf globus propil, 2013)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2014

Imagine being taught geography in a provincial Russian secondary school by someone with a degree in biology. Incompetence is not that teacher’s biggest problem, though. He beats up some of his tenth-grade students and flirts with others. He also drinks alcohol, smokes and plays cards with them—often while in the classroom. Moreover, he puts their lives in serious danger by taking them on a field trip involving a rafting of Grade 4 difficulty, for which they are ill-prepared. Who said learning in Russia can’t be fun?

geograf globusThe newly appointed geography teacher Viktor Sluzhkin (Konstantin Khabenskii) is not doing all this because he is an irresponsible pretender craving for cheap popularity among pupils, or a passionate believer in the educational benefits of carrot and stick, who explores, for better or worse, the sadomasochistic side of the knowledge transfer. He is not even sure who discovered the North Pole, Nansen or Amundsen, but accepts the job nonetheless, because he badly needs one to provide for his wife and little daughter—and the biologist’s post has already been filled. Sluzhkin’s lack of experience and enthusiasm does not help, of course, and neither do his unruly students constantly trying to provoke him—by giving him a compass as a birthday present (to find a direction in life), or by urinating on his chalkboard wiper, for example. So Sluzhkin deserves a bit of sympathy when he eventually addresses his class in the following soliloquy: “You are despicable. I am beyond [being] sick of you. If it was up to me, I’d kick you out of every one of your classes and wear a gas mask while walking in the street, so I wouldn’t breathe the same air with you. [...] You are a stupid, angry, smelly mass devoid of any soulful feeling. It isn’t geography you don’t need. You don’t need anything, except for mobile phones, porn and drugs.”

Sluzhkin’s professional woes are compounded by trouble at home. His wife is not particularly appreciative of his salary. She’d rather enjoy herself in the company of Sluzhkin’s old friend, a well-off businessman whose political connections stretch all the way to the capital. Sluzhkin nobly steps aside—and refuses the advances of numerous potential lovers who literally throw themselves at him when they learn about his marital problems. Explaining himself to one such individual, Sluzhkin claims that he would like to lead the life of a “modern-day saint in this secular world. Nobody would depend on me for their happiness and I wouldn’t depend on anyone else for mine. Yet I would still love people and people would love me. It would be a kind of perfect love, with a capital L.” He is in fact a positive character, you see. He may inadvertently lead by negative example at times, yet this proves to be very efficient on the rafting tour when his students learn to rely on themselves, not on him, to navigate successfully their rites of passage (which are depicted with occasional nods towards Apocalypse Now and Deliverance).

geograf globusThe film by Aleksandr Veledinskii, known mostly for co-scripting and directing respectively the 2002 cult TV series The Brigade (Brigada) and The Law (Zakon), is based on the eponymous novel by Aleksei Ivanov (written in 1995 and published in 2003), a popular writer from Perm (near the Urals), where most of the action was shot (although such a school could admittedly be found pretty much anywhere—including beyond Russia). A faithful screen version as far as it goes, The Geographer omits memorable scenes from both Sluzhkin’s childhood (e.g. his school’s ceremonial mourning for Brezhnev) and the rafting trip (e.g. chancing upon an abandoned labor camp). However, the funny dialogue is frequently lifted straight from the novel, and Ivanov’s strikingly poetic descriptions of nature find their equivalent in Vladimir Bashta’s camerawork (the frames with people’s shadows walking in the mountains, as well as the irresistibly attractive polluted cityscapes, are especially worth mentioning). Khabenskii is entirely convincing as the jaded ne’er-do-well clowning his way through an impasse. His compelling performance is seminal in holding The Geographer together, despite its slow pace. The fact that his character in the film has been made at least ten years older than Sluzhkin was in the book lends additional poignancy to his predicament. By the same token, the action has been moved from the 1990s to the present, which enhances the film’s relevance.

geograf globusIn keeping with Vasilii Shukshin’s motto adopted by Veledinskii—“Bend over backwards in order not to scream in an empty cinema” (Vyvernis’ naiznanku—no ne krichi v pustom zale)—The Geographer, neither an art-house nor a blockbuster endeavor, is likely to find a large and grateful audience among those with an appetite for real-life stories that are simply told and not too shocking. The film’s soundtrack, mixing Jew’s harp with Russian folk tunes, chanson, heavy metal and rap, is indicative of Veledinskii’s intentions of wide appeal. Financed to the tune of $2.5 million in celebration of the annual Teachers’ Day, as part of the Kremlin’s drive to produce more films with an optimistic message (which is ironic, given the absence of a happy ending), The Geographer has already become a favorite at the Kinotavr and Odessa film festivals (securing a Grand Prix on both occasions), and seems to resonate fairly well with audiences at home and abroad. It has recently been released in 650 copies (Veledinskii’s earlier effort Russian [Russkoe, 2004], a biopic of the National Bolshevik leader Eduard Limonov, managed only 22 copies),[1] grossed over 4 million dollars so far in Russia alone, and featured at festivals as distant as Israel (Haifa), Iceland (Reykjavik), Poland (Warsaw) and Norway (Tromsø). After a screening in Iuzhno-Sakhalinsk, an Honored Teacher (zasluzhennaia uchitel’nitsa) of the Russian Federation said to Veledinskii: “You’ve portrayed a negative role model for teachers—yet a positive one for human beings” (Kichin 2013). The juxtaposition of teachers and human beings notwithstanding, the Russians of today may well be discovering in Sluzhkin a new, suitably flawed hero of their time.[2] It is doubtful, however, whether the film can be helpful in discovering anything really new about Russia itself.


Notes

1] For a review, see Scope: An Online Journal of Film Studies, Issue 3 (November 2005).

2] Ivanov’s conscious parallel with Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1841) becomes especially evident in the novel’s section about the field trip, with the narrative suddenly changing from a third-person to a first-person perspective, just like when it comes to Pechorin’s diary.


Andrei Rogatchevski
University of Tromsø

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Works Cited

Valerii Kichin (2013), “Bez liubvi pravda—lozh’: Aleksandr Veledinskii o svoem fil’me Geograf globus propil”, Rossiiskaia gazeta, 5 November.


The Geographer Drank His Globe Away, Russia, 2013
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Veledinskii
Screenplay: Aleksandr Veledinskii, with the participation of Rauf Kubaev and Valerii Todorovskii, (based on Aleksei Ivanov’s eponymous novel)
Director of Photography: Vladimir Bashta
Production Design: Vladimir Gudilin and Sergei Gudilin
Music: Aleksei Zubarev
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Elena Liadova, Aleksandr Robak, Anfisa Chernykh, Il'ia Il’inykh, Andrei Prytkov
Producers: Vadim Goriainov, Valerii Todorovskii, Leonid Lebedev
Marmot-film (production) and Krasnaia Strela (distribution), commissioned by the “Rossiia 1” TV channel, with the support of the Federal Film Fund

Aleksandr Veledinskii: The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Geograf globus propil, 2013)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2014

Updated: 06 Jan 14