Issue 45 (2014)
Alena Polunina: Nepal Forever (Nepal foreva, 2012)
reviewed by Meghan Vicks© 2014
Nepal Forever is the latest from documentary filmmaker Alena Polunina, whose previous works include Yes, Death (Da, smert’, 2004), One of the Cases of Bird Flu (…odin iz sluchaev ptich’ego grippa, 2005), Sacrum (Sviatoe mesto, 2005), Festival (2007), and the award-winning The Revolution that Wasn’t (Revoliutsiia kotoroi ne bylo, 2008). Polunina’s most recent work, a “documentary comedy with elements of political fantasy,” has received critical acclaim for its inventive contributions to the genre of documentary filmmaking, winning the 2013 CinemaXXI section for innovations in cinema.
The documentary features two members of the Communists of Petersburg and the Leningrad Region: party chief Sergei Malinkovich and his assistant Viktor Perov. The party is notorious for outlandish activities: advocating the re-Stalinization of Russian society, it petitioned the Russian Orthodox Church to canonize Stalin (as Malinkovich explained to the press, “Stalin has become the true national leader of Russia. He turned a backward country into an industrial giant”; Blomfield 2008), and called for the return of Stalin’s remains to the Lenin Mausoleum; its infamous activities also include writing an open letter to Madonna asking her to dress modestly and sing revolutionary songs, calling for the arrest of the “drug-pusher” Sting, and condemning the film Avatar while demanding the arrest of James Cameron for being “the plunderer of Soviet science fiction.” The outrageousness of their activities has led some to speculate that many of their antics are insincere publicity stunts, cynically designed to garner attention for their party—indeed, Polunina’s film includes a scene in which their medal ceremony is interrupted by an onlooker who accuses Malinkovich of being a “provocateur,” and not a communist.
This question of cynical provocation or sincerity is at the heart of Nepal Forever, for the film is rooted in another potential publicity stunt. Polunina stumbled upon the idea for the documentary after reading that the party was planning to send an emissary on a peacekeeping mission to Nepal. She says: “Whether or not this was true, something in this pleased me” (DOKer 2012). While Malinkovich wrote that he planned to send his assistant Perov on the mission, it appears that the main objective of the trip was to generate publicity for the party. In Polunina’s words, “from the heroes’ side it was a publicity stunt, which they called ‘an element in the information struggle,’ and from my side there was an honest proposal: ‘Let’s make the fairytale come true. And what will happen?’ And they agreed” (DOKer 2012). Hence, the film—and the Nepalese mission—both “came true” (not unlike a Soviet fairytale!) after Polunina contacted Malinkovich and Perov with an offer to purchase tickets for the two of them to Nepal. According to Polunina, that’s the extent of her “authorial meddling” in the events of the documentary.
Nepal Forever chronicles the adventures of Malinkovich and Perov both in Petersburg and in Nepal. The Petersburg scenes largely serve as a backdrop to the main event—the mission to Nepal—but they are no less important. On the one hand, these Petersburg scenes show Malinkovich and Perov participating in various party activities: reading in their tiny headquarters, honoring Lenin’s birthday by “Octobering” the Petersburg metro and giving all stations new socialist names, and parading in their pointed Red Army caps (budenovki) and red demonstration bibs. On the other hand, these scenes also show their everyday, non-party activities: we watch Malinkovich court women on online dating sites (his go-to line: “I’m very well-known”), while Perov hunts beaver in the snowy woods. After getting to know Malinkovich and Perov in their “natural environment,” we see them transported to Nepal on a mission to encourage peacekeeping talks between two feuding Nepalese communist groups: the Marxist-Leninists, and the Maoists. If their activities seemed absurd in Petersburg, the shift in setting from Petersburg to Nepal only deepens the surreality of their antics.
In Nepal, Malinkovich and Perov meet with the Marxist-Leninists, encouraging them to follow a peaceful path to socialism; in contrast, they also convene with the Maoists, agreeing with their opinion that the only way to world revolution is through an armed struggle. Once again, the question of sincerity or cynicism arises—which is the genius, I believe, of Nepal Forever, and also the source of its rich humor. Malinkovich and Perov seem so genuinely invested in their mission, take seriously their meetings with the Nepalese communists, and appear so honestly unaware of any contradictions or absurdities in their actions that they themselves aren’t cynical. Rather, the very acts of framing, recording, and watching them places a cynicism over their actions, even though Polunina works to keep neutral her camera’s eye.
Probably the documentary’s most surreal scene is Malinkovich and Perov’s spontaneous visit to the North Korean embassy in Nepal, which they undertake after suddenly learning of the death of Kim Jong-Il. Bearing a pitifully small bouquet of flowers gathered en route from someone’s garden, Malinkovich and Perov arrive at the embassy, expressing condolences in the name of Russian communists. The staff initially seem taken aback by these unexpected visitors, but invite them inside, where both parties immediately seem to fall in step with the rituals of state: the Russian communists are brought to a room featuring portraits of the late leader, under which large flower arrangements have been placed, and are instructed to include their meager bouquet with these grander flowers; then Malinkovich is asked to record his name and political status in a registry, which he solemnly does as the embassy staff members look over his shoulder and follow his every pen stroke. Here, humor emerges from a variety of juxtapositions, of which Malinkovich and Perov seem for the most part unaware: the smallness of their bouquet coupled with their serious approach to expressing their condolences, Malinkovich’s discussion of Kim Jong-Il as a great socialist leader and friend to the USSR and Russia coupled with the viewer’s knowledge of his horrific crimes, or the urgency with which they visit the embassy coupled with the suggestion that they are the embassy’s only visitors at that time. What further lends to the humor—and incredulity—of this scene is that it is totally unscripted and unplanned. As such, the serendipity of the event does most of the work for Polunina: the event is so singular, fascinating, and comedic on its own that all Polunina has to do is quietly and unobtrusively film.
As compelling as the North Korean embassy scene is, however, what truly makes it interesting are the film’s heroes—and this, more than anything, is what Nepal Forever is about: a character study of the pair Sergei Malinkovich and Viktor Perov. Many have noted that the two function as opposing archetypes: as the brain and muscles (DOKer 2012), as “a sort of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of the twenty-first century” (Kiryukhina 2013), as “Piglet and Winnie the Pooh under the red flag” (Rutkovskii 2013), or as “Asterix and Obelix” (Moiseev 2012). Witness the brain, Malinkovich, pontificate on Louis Armstrong singing “It’s a Wonderful World,” advocate more reading and writing, compose official letters to Nepalese communists, speak with the press, and correct the muscles—Perov—when he confuses the words in “The Internationale.” And then, observe his sidekick, muscles: hunting beaver, longing for the forest, breaking into a locked room, listening to socialist songs on his tape recorder, bursting into song, biking others around, often speaking in approximations and unfinished sentences (both in Russian and in English), and always quietly acquiescing to the brain’s commands and rebukes.
While both Malinkovich and Perov come across as sincere (I will revisit this notion), the documentary seems to nurture a soft spot for Perov in particular: for example, zooming in on his face twisted into an emotional frown after Malinkovich admonishes him for wanting to go into the forest when due at a meeting, or following him as he explores Nepal on his own (with no indication regarding what Malinkovich is doing in the meantime). We see, for example, Perov on the street getting a haircut and head massage, blinking his eyes in the sun; encouraging a Nepalese cyclist to let him to peddle the bike; shouting “Nepal Forever!” to passersby. As such, the documentary simply delights in Perov, lingering on his actions even when they have no real connection to the film’s main thread.
As touched on earlier, the film’s heroes can be regarded as embodying traditional sincerity: they appear to, without any irony, be truly and unproblematically committed to a simplistic understanding of socialist ideology, unaware of any contradictions or absurdity in their actions. At the same time, the very act of simply filming Malinkovich and Perov as subjects in a documentary puts a cynical frame on their sincerity—renders it a spectacle, and positions them as tricksters. In many interviews, Polunina herself characterizes Malinkovich and Perov as tricksters (see Kuvshinova 2012), and it is interesting to consider them in this light—especially in the context of Soviet tricksters such as Ostap Bender. But while Malinkovich and Perov seem entirely devoid of any pretense, tricksters like Ostap Bender operate precisely by pretending to take seriously what society deems “high” or “important”; it is through this hyperbolic idolatry of society’s most-valued truths that the Ostap Bender type is able to destabilize society’s cherished values. In contrast, Malinkovich and Perov’s trickster-nature works in an opposing manner. That is, they so honestly and overwhelmingly hyper-identify with socialist ideology that their sincere and extreme devotion overshoots into farce: their total sincerity crosses over into cynicism precisely because of its lack of pretense and doubt. Hence, filming Malinkovich and Perov go about their normal business in Petersburg and undertake their peacekeeping mission in Nepal results in sort of 90-minute sots-art film.
Finally, Polunina has emphasized that she was not so much interested in the politics of the film, but in its comedy—and in creating a “documentary comedy.” In this she succeeds, in no small part, I believe, because she manages to sustain her initial reaction: is this the truth, or not? Much of the wonder and humor generated by the film circulates around this question, and in the viewer’s difficulty in taking seriously Malinkovich and Perov. This, in my estimation, is the main achievement of the film: Polunina finds sincerity in a place that makes most viewers uncomfortable, and yet forces us to laugh.
U of Colorado at Boulder
1] For a full discussion of the trickster in Soviet literature and mythology, see Lipovetsky 2011. Regarding tricksters like Ostap Bender, Lipovetsky explains: “These characters play with anything pretending to be serious, high, or important in contemporary society. Their manipulations typically include artistic hyper-identification with, and grotesque parody of, a social role, a set of values, or a discourse. As a result, even if these categories had sacred ambitions, they would be completely devalued and discredited at the trickster’s magic touch, something which invariably provokes laughter” (p. 34).
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Blomfield, Adrian (2008), “Could Josef Stalin be made a saint?” The Telegraph, 22 July.
[DOKer] (2012), “Rezhisser Alena Polunina o boli, triksterstve i avantiurizme,” Kinote 6 December.
Kiryukhina, Yaroslava (2013), “Nepal Forever: Winnie the Pooh and Piglet under the red flag,” Russia and India Report, 31 October.
Kuvshinova, Mariia (2012). “Vrode kommunisty, no kakie-to psikhodelicheskie: Rezhisser Alena Polunina o levakakh-triksterakh i nastoiashchei nezavisimosti,” Vozdukh/Afisha, 10 December
Lipovetsky, Mark (2011), Charms of the Cynical Reason: The Trickster’s Transformations in Soviet and Post-Soviet Culture, Brighton: Academic Studies Press.
Rutkovskii, Vadim (2013), “Rimskii festival’: izrail’skie terroristy prikryvaiutsia Putinym,” Snob 12 November.
Nepal Forever, Russia, 2012
Color, 88 minutes
Director: Alena Polunina
Screenwriter: Alena Polunina
Producers: Sergei Melkumov, Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Nast’ia Velskaia
Cinematographer: Dmitrii Rakov
Sound: Viktor Mors
Editor: Alena Polunina
Non-Stop Production, Studio 013
Alena Polunina: Nepal Forever (Nepal foreva, 2012)
reviewed by Meghan Vicks© 2014