KinoKultura: Issue 46 (2014)

History in a Time of Premeditated Amnesia: The 25th Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival

By Nancy Condee, U of Pittsburgh

“Everyone who writes of the Spanish War writes as a partisan,” asserted George Orwell in his 5 February 1938 review comparing Arthur Koestler’s Spanish Testament and G. L. Steer’s The Tree of Gernika (Orwell 2001, 263-266). Here it is no different. In a region rife with incursions, Russian cinema and its related events have become platforms of intense debates on history, memory, and authenticity. I will focus here on several specific aspects of the 2014 Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival, with no aspirations to an exhaustive account, available online from the Kinotavr site. If the Festival contained a single historical event, it would unquestionably be the Russian premiere of Andrei Zviagintsev’s extraordinary drama Leviathan (Leviafan). The film deserves the broadest international exhibition.

Losers and Winners

The greatest unanticipated loser of Kinotavr was Iurii Bykov, whose contribution was the social drama Fool (Durak), produced by Aleksei Uchitel'’s St. Petersburg company Rock Film. The film features a flawed hero whose status as a doomed social loner is tenuously reminiscent of Balabanov’s justice-seeking hero in Brother 2 (Brat 2, 2000). Bykov’s film portrays the efforts of Dima, a brooding, honorable plumber, called out to a nighttime repair job on a broken water pipe. This working-class hero discovers that the entire, rundown workers’ dormitory is in danger of imminent collapse. With the lives of 800 residents at stake, immediate evacuation is the only solution. Dima’s all-night efforts to enjoin the corrupt (even Gogolian) city officials to effect an evacuation are met with indifference, mutually protective complicity, and evidence of long-term fiscal malfeasance.

durakAs in many films that lend themselves to the supposition that “house = homeland,” Bykov’s drama was received by many festival guests as a radical diagnosis of a corrupt Russia. The film divided the Russian Guild of Film Scholars and Film Critics into those who would laud the film as a brave political manifesto and those who found it to be a crudely drawn social drama. The skeptics won out: Bykov’s film missed the Kinotavr Grand Prix, awarded instead to Aleksandr Kott’s silent drama The Test (Ispytanie), a prize outcome replicated in the Guild’s much-disputed ranking. In the fervid midnight arguments surrounding the Main Competition, critical support of Bykov’s candidacy became an imperfect litmus test for independent moral and political thinking.

Awarded the Gorin Prize for Best Script, as well as the Guild’s Diploma “For an uncompromised artistic message”, Bykov’s The Fool went on after Kinotavr to the competition of the Locarno International Film Festival, where it won several lesser awards. While Bykov’s earlier cop drama The Major (Maior, 2013) had been misperceived by some critics, both at Cannes and at Kinotavr, as cynically pro-government, this new work more explicitly agitates—in a fashion redolent of publicistic culture of the late 1980s—against endemic government fraud.

ispytanieIn the context of these considerable disagreements, the 2014 Kinotavr Grand Prix was awarded to Aleksandr Kott’s 2014 much milder drama Test (Ispytanie). The film initially presents itself as a romantic triangle among a young Kazakh woman, her Kazakh suitor, and his rival, a Russian assistant camera operator for a Moscow film crew, newly arrived in the Semipalatinsk region to film the first Soviet atomic bomb. Loosely based on the 1953 explosion of the Soviet Union’s first hydrogen bomb, the film is historically more closely consistent with the earlier 29 August 1949 atomic explosion in Semipalatinsk of RDS-1 affectionately known in US intelligence circles as “Joe-1” (in honor of Stalin).[1]

More interesting than Kott’s minor historical sleight-of-hand, however, is the fact that his film is completely without words. The script—a mere ten pages long—describes actions, but contains no dialogue. Since his first arrival in the mid-1990s at VGIK, Russia’s premiere film school, Kott had been interested in wordless cinema.[2] To his credit, he has no proprietary illusions: he readily acknowledges his debt to such predecessors as Jos Stelling’s comedy The Illusionist (De illusionist, 1983), Stelling’s drama The Pointsman (De Wisselwachter, 1986), and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011). Kott welcomes the recognition gained by Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s drama The Tribe (Plem'ia, 2014), shot entirely in sign language without subtitles, which won three awards at the International Critics' Week in Cannes.

Kott’s old-fashioned narrative style, recognized by the director himself (Luk'ianova 2014), did not inhibit the 2014 Kinotavr jury from awarding him the festival’s top prize. The jury’s citation “For the realization of a dream” underscores Kott’s commitment to wordless virtuosity rather than the film’s social message. Kott’s film also won the top prize (White Elephant) from the Guild of Film Scholars and Film Critics; his DoP Levan Kapanadze won the Festival’s prize for Best Cinematography.

To be sure, Kott’s film was a safer choice than Bykov’s The Fool; the majority of critics would argue that it was also a better film. History will judge.

Eve’s Justice or Clio’s March?

Independent of these debates, the greatest surprise at 2014 Kinotavr was this: eight of the fourteen directors who premiered at the Main Competition were women. For those interested in mathematics, this is 57 per cent of the Main Competition.

What does this mean? Ready-made answers abound. Two explanations in particular are—as the late Christopher Hitchens often said—superficially compelling. First, the creeping “feminization” of a profession (it is often claimed) is irrefutable evidence of a decline in the industry’s prestige. Women’s rising numbers are taken to signal (among other things) economic and professional deterioration. Does this make sense? The cinema industry (despite stubborn problems of piracy and distribution networks) is doing well by most conventional indicators. [3] The box office rose by 9.7 per cent to $ 718.6 million (RUR 24.49 billion) in the first six months of 2014 from the corresponding period in 2013. The Russian share of the box office has also been on the rise. From January through June 2014, Russian releases accounted for 24 per cent of the total box office, up from 18 per cent a year ago, marking the best performance since 2008 (Kozlov 2014).[4] A second line of ready-made analysis tenders the opposite logic: women’s overall social position is steadily improving; the concomitant increase in women directors is “therefore” evidence of that amelioration. Too poorly formulated to be an effective indicator even of itself (never mind of cinema), this explanation cannot rise above the level of social chatter.

welkome homeA third explanation—less satisfying, but more plausible—is this: in an environment of fiercer economic competition, the initial stages of the Russian cinema career—those stages with the most immediate impact today on younger filmmakers—have become increasingly rationalized. Competitively-based innovations in film education (including admissions), diploma film production, shorts and debut production, pitching competitions, festival debuts, then—at a later stage of the profession—other aspects including jury composition, distribution and exhibition practices are developing strategies better coordinated to the global market. In this more competitive environment, other priorities—more time-sensitive than the habit of keeping women at the periphery—have come to the center. These priorities, internal to the industry, have produced a largely absentminded waning of older preferences, including gender bias. The incremental breakdown of patrimonial custom is gradually producing a change better described as professionalization than as feminism.

Four of the women directors presenting their work at Kinotavr are already familiar to most scholars: Oksana Bychkova, whose best-known work is the 2006 comedy Piter FM, presented the melodrama Another Year (Eshche odin god), a stylish remake of twenty-somethings in love. Anna Melikian premiered the 2014 comedic melodrama Star (Zvezda), following her earlier successes with the comedy Mars (2004) and the drama The Mermaid (Rusalka, 2007). Angelina Nikonova presented Welkome Home, an edgy comedy about the New York diaspora, her second feature after the Twilight Portrait (Portret v sumerkakh, 2011). Svetlana Proskurina—best known from the Kinotavr premiere of her drama Truce (Peremirie, 2010)—presented the melodrama Goodbye Mom (Do svidaniia mama), loosely based on Lev Tolstoi’s novel Anna Karenina.

Another four “Kinotavr women” are relative newcomers to full-length, live-action film: Tamara Dondurei premiered the documentary 21 Days; Vera Kharybina premiered Ask Me (Sprosi menia); Natal'ia Meshchaninova presented the drama Hope Factory (Kombinat Nadezhda, 2013); and Nigina Saifullaeva presented Name Me (Kak menia zovut).

21 denOf these eight, two were noteworthy because (among other reasons) they are “budget-less” films, worthy of mention here both for their quality and their unlikely access in the US. Tamara Dondurei’s film (at 70 minutes, one of the shorter entries and the only documentary in the Main Competition) broached difficult problems of end-of-life care and its politics. Her 21 Days is a documentary about Moscow Hospice No. 1; its title refers to the term patients may normally stay in hospice care. Although Moscow Hospice No. 1 functions insofar as possible an out-patient facility, it takes only end-of-life patients (without restriction on length of stay), Dondurei’s film takes this “structuring logic” in order to track Irina Mikhailovna and Sergei Aleksandrovich—two patients with very different outlooks—as they speak of life, death, and the ways in which the transition in between accrues meaning. The film’s quiet, slow-paced style withholds judgment and conventional worldly values in favor of observation, regard, and attention to minute-by-minute perception. A student of Marina Razbezhkina, Tamara Dondurei has shot a stunning documentary that deserves greater attention, both as art and as social document.

sprosi meniaAt fifty-six minutes (and so the shortest entry in the competition), Vera Kharybina’s Ask Me was another outlier, difficult to describe and elusive of normative cinematic categories.  Its eight episodes—eight individual characters, each with his or her own unbroken monologue, delivered en face—reveal the interior life of very distinct Moscow residents in a cohesive cinematic style that draws on the verbatim style of theatre and cinema.[5] Its eight sovereign micro-worlds, each more eccentric and insular than the next, seem at first to be documentary portraits rather than acted fiction. What gradually emerges is a unified acting style that ties together the eight episodes into a singular artefact that challenges conventional conceptual categories of acted cinema.

da i daThe eight selected here for Kinotavr do not exhaust the current Russian cohort of talent. Valeriia Gai-Germanika’s melodrama Yes and Yes (Da i da, 2013) and Larisa Sadilova’s She (Ona, 2013) were not entered into the 2014 Kinotavr competition; Vera Glagoleva’s Two Women (Dve zhenshchiny), based on Ivan Turgenev’s five-act play A Month in the Country (written 1848-50; published 1855) was not yet ready for submission to Kinotavr.

Taking into account this larger inventory, can anything sensible be said about emergent themes among women directors? The best case for a recurrent theme is the difficulty of sustaining the romantic relationship: in Oksana Bykova’s Another Year, Svetlana Proskurina’s Goodbye Mom, Valeriia Gai-Germanika’s Yes and Yes, Vera Glagoleva’s Two Women, and Larisa Sadilova’s She, the potential unsustainability of romantic love is at the center of the narrative, shaping such other elements as camera work, music, and screen time.

Narratives of romantic interiority (“failed love” as the preferred option) are well suited to follow up festival premiere and big-screen circulation with television broadcast. In that regard, they may represent a relatively safe investment choice for the producer. Are we therefore looking at “the woman’s perspective” or “the TV producer’s prospective”? Like most false dichotomies—as if it could not readily accommodate both perspectives—the answer is a matter of the most subjective of arguments.

Independent of directors, one sign of the industry’s health is the increasing number of highly talented (and highly visible) women professionals—producer Natal'ia Mokritskaia, Ul’iana Savel’eva, and Sabina Eremeeva; Kinotavr Program Director Sitora Alieva; documentarist-teacher Marina Razbezhkina—who contribute towards “normalizing” the profession, if “normal” means more equal representation. The balance evident in June 2014 at the Sochi Winter Theater is likely to be a reasonable, if sporadic, outcome in future competitions. Whether the math says anything about quality or ideology is an entirely separate question.

Best Debut: Ivan, Son of Ivan

correction class A dominant concern of the Kinotavr festival has always been the newest names, regardless of gender or provenance. The Kinotavr Best Debut (as well as the Film Distributors’ Prize) was awarded to Ivan Tverdovskii’s drama Correction Class (Klass korrektsii). Based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Saint Petersburg author and children’s psychologist Ekaterina Murashova, Tverdovskii’s portrait of adolescent children—assigned to a Special Education class for an unmanageably broad range of physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms—is a film in the rich Soviet cinematic tradition of Thaw and Stagnation teen drama that includes works by Pavel Arsenov, Dinara Asanova, Il'ia Averbakh, Il'ia Frez, Ernest Iasan, Pavel Liubimov, Sergei Solov'ev, and others.[6]  

Tverdovskii, a student of Aleksei Uchitel' and the son of documentary filmmaker Ivan Sergeevich Tverdovskii, has shot several shorts—both documentary and fiction—before his first full-length fiction film presented in this 2014 competition. More sober than Valeriia Gai-Germanika’s coming-of-age drama Everybody Dies but Me (Vse umrut a ia ostanus’, 2008) and more socially oriented than Dmitrii Astrakhan’s fanciful thriller Kids (Detochki, 2013) or Konstantin Lopushanskii’s sci-fi Ugly Swans (Gadkie lebedi, 2006), Tverdovskii’s film shares with them a dystopic interest in children as a collective entity, as well as in their encounters with bureaucracy and institutionalization. At one level, Tverdovskii’s film is a thwarted love story; at another level, it is a fatalistic social critique, only partially redeemed at the end by what critics variously ascribe either a miracle or a physiological anomaly.

Where Giants Walk…

Two festival events may, with no trace of irony, be described as worthy of the great historical record: these were the master classes taught by Aleksandr Sokurov and Andrei Zviagintsev. It is a tremendous tribute to Sitora Alieva’s talent and skill that—in the midst of festival glitter—she brings together events of indisputable long-term importance. The former, present to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Opening Ceremony, suddenly went off script in the middle of the television broadcast. In a moment clearly unanticipated (for the festival) and planned (by the director), Sokurov addressed the camera: “So many people are deprived of freedom in our country. There always were, are, and will be people who will protect the interests of democracy in our country, which is now in an unhealthy state. If I had my way, I would address the president [Putin] and say, ‘Mr. President, free all those who are imprisoned!’”

Silence followed, then standing applause. The remark was neither included in the festival’s daily newspaper (Kinotavr Daily 1, 2 June 2014), nor currently available in video online, but nevertheless repeated briefly the following day during Sokurov’s master class.[7] On the whole, however, Sokurov’s master class tended to focus on less political issues, including sound technology and his recent efforts teaching film at Kabardino-Balkar State University at Nal'chik, where twelve young students, some of whose work was presented at Kinotavr, were studying with him.

leviathanA second master class was offered by Andrei Zviagintsev, who also led Kinotavr’s Main Competition Jury and later at the Closing Ceremony presented his most recent film, the drama Leviathan. Zviagintsev had recently arrived from the Cannes International Film Festival, where he won with the award for Best Screenplay (together with co-author Oleg Negin). The film had already sold distribution rights to over fifty countries, and was awaiting its US premiere at Telluride Film Festival.

The distribution fate for Leviathan in Russia at the time of the festival remained uncertain: on 1 July 2014 the law on obscene speech (four words in particular) took effect, banning that lexicon in most public fora after that date. Zviagintsev’s film contains its share of non-normative speech, as it is sometimes called, that would have to be cut or substituted in a fashion substantially altering the film. 

Zviagintsev’s master class could well have lent weight to Sokurov’s unexpected prisoner appeal: preparatory work for Leviathan had included consultation with prison activist and journalist Ol’ga Romanova (affiliated with the prisoners’ right group Rus’ sidiashchaia). As in Sokurov’s master class, however, Zviagintsev’s remarks largely avoided political topics, focusing instead on issues of casting, editing, the financing of future projects, the logistics of location shooting, and his work with the film’s two lead actors, Aleksei Serebriakov and Elena Liadova (Ardabatskaia 2014).

Playing the Fiddle while Rome Burns

prikazanoThe political malaise that has permeated much of the contemporary cultural scene makes it difficult to focus on issues not directly related to debates on (for shorthand’s sake) civil society. Films that—under other conditions—are worthy of analysis run the danger of appearing trivial or distracting in the context of the current gathering storm. The Crimean arrest on 11 May 2014 of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov for plotting terrorist acts still remains in force until at least 11 October 2014. The uncertain status of Khusein Erkenov’s feature film Ordered to Forget (Prikazano zabyt’, 2014) on the 1944 NKVD murder of 700 villagers during Chechen-Ingush deportations leaves little anticipation of distribution rights in the near future. Deemed “historically unreliable” because the events described were not confirmed by documents in the NKVD archives, the film was screened briefly at the beginning of the Moscow Film Festival with a misprinted annotation in the catalogue, where a Kazakh film was substituted in its place (Sul’kin 2014).

This context overshadows much of the discussion on contemporary cinema. Such films as Mikhail Segal’s thoughtful A Film about Alekseev (Kino pro Alekseeva) and Nataliia Meshchaninova’s harsh Hope Factory, raise important issues of memory, generational succession, and the future of the country’s youth. Meshchaninova in particular cannot flourish as a young filmmaker in a culture where a plausible depiction of the contemporary social order must include neither swear words (a trivial issue, it might seem) nor credible social treatment (a closely related issue). In other features of the Main Competition, issues of racism and social difference, as in Evgenii Sheliakin’s comedic B/W (Ch/b), received a light-hearted treatment as a buddy film about Russian nationalist Iaroslav and his Caucasian sidekick Nurik. But in the absence of a serious treatment of race, is this light and well-meaning comedy Russia’s most talented contribution?

A recurrent image in many of the films screened at the 2014 Festival was a portrait of Putin, hanging behind those characters whose actions sanctioned a deeply corrupt and clannish Russia. Seldom was the connection explicitly made, but its culture is traditionally a place where the explicit is unnecessary. In this respect, Zviagintsev’s Leviathan figured as an act of visual absolution. Scheduled for theatrical release on 31 December 2014, the film is a rare example where one might find knitted together the off-screen troubles with the on-screen woes.

Nancy Condee
University of Pittsburgh


1] This Soviet bomb (Izdelie 501 Pervaia molniia /Device 501 First Lightning), similar to the US plutonium bomb Fat Man, was in fact a precursor to the 1953 Soviet hydrogen bomb (the putative event of the film). This detail matters because it helps to explain the negligence in failing to evacuate local inhabitants in proximity to the test site. See the interview with Aleksandr Kott: “Mertvaia tishina,” Kinotavr Daily 4 (5 June 2014): 3.

2] Among subsequent efforts, his wordless script—that is to say, his text without spoken dialogue—Zav'ialov and Iula (2012) was awarded a prize at the 2012 Tekstura Festival on contemporary theatre and cinema. Kott has described the genre of wordless cinema as “my format […] where I scramble at the first opportunity; my parallel world.” See Tokmasheva 2014.

3] Among the more pressing problems in the industry are two: first, producers’ stubborn orientation toward what they can spend, not what they might recoup; second, the growing imbalance between a sustainable growth of cinema halls and the attendance figures (halls are built at a rate that is beginning to outstrip attendance growth). While considerable debate has also centered on the “success rate” of films—it is estimated that about 80 per cent of films produced each year (roughly 64 of 80) never enter into festival circulation, exhibition, or broadcast—cinema experts such as Daniil Dondurei and Oleg Berezin would argue that this is an international norm. According to Movie Research Company’s annual almanac KinoStatistika 2013 (18), the 25 top earning films for 2013 included (quite respectably) five Russian films: Fedor Bondarchuk’s war film Stalingrad (2013) occupied first place; Timur Bekmambetov’s almanac Yolki 3 (2013) occupied fourth place; Nikolai Lebedev’s drama Legend No. 17 (2012) occupied tenth place; Zhora Kryzhovnikov’s comedy Wedding Kisses (Gorko!, 2013) occupied fourteenth place; and Vladimir Toropchin’s animation Ivan Tsarevich and Grey Wolf 2 (Ivan Tsarevich i seryi volk 2, 2013) occupied twenty-first place. According to Variety Russia 24 (June 2014: 26), the country’s fifteen most profitable box-office films for the period from 1 January to 18 May 2014 included three Russian releases: Oleg Stepchenko’s fantasy thriller Vii (2014) in first place;Marius Vaisberg’s and David Dodson’s comedy Love in the Big City (Liubov’ v bol’shom gorode, 2013) in seventh place; and Dmitrii D’iachenko’s comedy Kitchen in Paris (Kukhnia v Parizhe, 2014) in eleventh place. For qualitative analysis and discussion, see Daniil Dondurei and Oleg Berezin, “Prodat' mozhno tol'ko sobytie,” Iskusstvo kino 2 (2014): 77-89. See also Viktor Matizen’s interview with Sergei Sel'ianov, “Zritel' zhestche gosudarstva,” Iskusstvo kino 2 (2014): 4-17 and the roundtable “Aktual'noe kino: predely dopustimogo,” Iskusstvo kino 1 (2014): 86-99.

4] One rarely finds consistency across published sources. According to KinoStatistika 2013 (34), the number of released Russian full-length feature films increased significantly from 84 (2012) to 110 (2013) to occupy 20.6 per cent of overall releases in Russia. Domestic box-office profits for Russian feature films rose from 15.5 per cent (2012) to 18.5 per cent (2013) (KinoStatistika 2013 49), a figure that does not preclude a further rise (January to June 2014) to 24 per cent (as cited by Hollywood Reporter), although the rise appears steep. Attendance at domestic films likewise grew from 16.4 per cent in 2012 to 19 per cent in 2013.

5] Over the last two decades, verbatim has been a technique—most evident in British and Russian theatres—in which the script is initially derived from real interviews, testimony, and legal records of eyewitnesses or other participants in a political or social event such as a disaster, protest, sports event, or crime. Committed to oral authenticity (its accents, intonation, and local semantics) as well as to lived experience, the script is then composed of such interviews, court records, or other social documents.

6] For an invaluable analysis of Soviet teen drama, with a focus on the Stagnation period, see Klimova 2013.

7] See Séance blog (3 June 2014). An abbreviated version of Sokurov’s remarks was read aloud in a broadcast on the program “Evening Sochi” for 3 June 2014, but subsequently taken offline. This was not the first time the director had spoken out on contemporary politics: in February 2014 Sokurov wrote an open letter in defense of the independent television news channel Dozhd’ (Rain), then under threat of closure. For an English-language version of the letter, see “Film Legend Sokurov Writes Open Letter in Support of Free Speech and Tolerance,” Calvert Journal 12 February 2014. See also the 8 April 2013 broadcast "Nuzhnoe podcherknut’" ("To Stress what is Necessary") on the St. Petersburg channel TV100.

Works Cited

Ardabatskaia, Elena. 2014. “Andrei Zviagintsev skazal na Kinotavre…” Мoskovskii komsomolets 3 June.

Klimova, Olga. 2013. “Soviet Youth Films under Brezhnev: Watching between the Lines,” Diss., U. of Pittsburgh.

Kozlov, Vladimir. 2014. “Russia's Biggest Movie Theater to be Inaugurated,” Hollywood Reporter 18 July.

Luk'ianova, Eleonora. 2014. Interview with Aleksandr Kott. Vecherniaia Moskva 24 June.

Orwell, George. 2001. Orwell in Spain: The Full Text of Homage to Catalonia, with Associated Articles, Reviews and Letters from the Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. Peter Davison; introduction by Christopher Hitchens. London: Penguin.

Sul’kin, Oleg. 2014. “V Moskve pokazali zapreshchennyi fil’m pro deportatsiiu chechentsev,” Golos Ameriki 22 June.

Tokmasheva, Mariia. 2014. “Aleksandr Kott: Kino bez slov – eto moi parallel’nyi mir,” Interview. ProfiCinema 25 May.

Woodside, Alexander. 1975. “American Attitudes towards History,” The Nation, 13 December, 614-17.

Nancy Condee © 2014

Comment on this article on Facebook