Issue 46 (2014)
Evgenii Sheliakin: Black/White (Ch/B, 2014)
reviewed by Laura Todd© 2014
The creation of a film about nationalism would be a complicated topic for filmmakers in most countries to approach. Multiculturalism, and all its attendant pluses and minuses, is a constant and heated topic of media discussion in an increasingly globalized world. However, the creation of a film about nationalism in Russia is more disturbing a topic than most directors and scriptwriters have to face. Discussions on interethnic conflict in present-day Russia conjure images of beatings and beheadings, filtered through social networks since the rise of these websites in the mid-2000s. Surprisingly, or rather unsurprisingly considering the conservative atmosphere fostered by the Russian government in recent years, filmic discourses on interethnic conflict in Russia are a rare occurrence.
Perhaps the most famous film to highlight interethnic tension in Russia was Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997), which made the phrase “black-assed scum” a catchphrase of the post-Soviet era. In the meantime, neo-Nazi and skinhead characters have appeared in various films, but have rarely resulted in any deep discussion of extreme nationalism. An exception to this, Pavel Bardin’s documentary-style film about a Muscovite neo-Nazi group, Russia-88 (2008), was banned in Russia for its potential to incite ethnic hatred, in spite of the declaredly anti-fascist stance of the film. It would seem that creating films about nationalism and racism in Russia is low on the list of priorities, yet the Russian Ministry of Culture does not wish to appear to be adverse to dramas addressing social tensions. In 2011, ‘films about interethnic relations and problems of tolerance in society’ were placed on the Ministry’s list of priority topics in fiction film to be funded by the state [LINK]. Nevertheless, there has been a distinct lack of directors willing to champion the discussion of interethnic conflict and nationalism in Russia, particularly when using government funding. So, it is with an intrepid sense of adventure (and an apparently generous private sponsor) that Evgenii Sheliakin has directed his first feature-length film, Black/White, which attempts to approach the problems of everyday, banal nationalism in present-day Russia.
Somewhere in Moscow, a man called Nurik (Merab Ninidze) is released from a prison cell; simultaneously, a young nationalist, Yaroslav (Aleksei Chadov), is picked up by a group of his friends in a minivan. Both groups head for a confrontation with a shady businessman, Alkhan (Sergei Makovetskii). Nurik and Yaroslav have grudges against Alkhan, who landed Nurik in jail and forced Yaroslav’s ex-girlfriend, Vika (Mariia Andreeva), out of her flat. In the process of robbing Alkhan, Nurik is disturbed by Yaroslav and his balaclava-clad gang who are trashing the restaurant below. Nurik and Yaroslav meet on the stairs and, after a struggle, Nurik is fatally stabbed with his own knife. Yaroslav passes out from shock and when he wakes up, he is tied up on a rusty boat in the middle of a lake. It transpires that Nurik has agreed to be Yaroslav’s guardian-angel for five days. Yaroslav is predictably unimpressed with his Caucasian guardian angel and is desperate to get back to Moscow where he is due to be a witness at a murder trial. The path back to Moscow is not easy; Nurik has been given a transportation device, but it is faulty at best, and the pair resort to hitchhiking their way to Moscow instead. Meanwhile, Alkhan is tracking them, using a chip he planted in the safe Nurik stole from him. The road-trip proves to be a transformational experience for Yaroslav as he learns to appreciate that human qualities are more important than ethnicity.
Prior to the release of Black/White, Evgenii Sheliakin worked as a scriptwriter for comedy television shows, such as Happy Together (Schastlivy vmeste) and 33 Square Metres (33 kvadratnykh metra). It is no surprise, therefore, that Sheliakin chooses comedy as the means by which he can approach the taboo topic of nationalism and xenophobia. The director states that he and his co-writer, Andrei Galanov, wanted the film’s narrative to focus on the nasty jokes, stereotypes and clichés of everyday xenophobia, rather than extremist nationalism (Tokmasheva 2014). The audience, potentially the carriers and promoters of these stereotypes, clichés and nasty jokes, is the narrative’s prime target. Perhaps the greatest hurdle that films dealing with social issues, such as nationalism, face is the sense that the “reality” portrayed on film is distant from the reality that people experience on a personal day-to-day level. By using familiar stereotypes, the narrative ensures the audience is not alienated from the characters and their experiences. However, comedy alone cannot communicate the moral fable of the story. The film employs the genre of tragicomedy to foster a sense of understanding between the characters, and between the characters and the audience.
The film’s tragicomic elements allow Sheliakin to highlight the humans behind the stereotypes. In particular, the tragic subplot develops around Nurik’s family life and Yaroslav’s difficult relationship with Vika as a means of humanizing these subjects. In particular, Nurik’s desertion of his wife and abandonment of family life is a generational characteristic associated with men in general in contemporary Russia, rather than a characteristic specific to his ethnicity. Broken families are a recognizable theme in Russian cinema and the introduction of this particular topic into the narrative prevents the uncomfortable issue of nationalism from controlling the narrative. In this way, the narrative also acknowledges that different social issues have taken precedence in people’s lives – the decline of the nuclear family structure is depicted as being more important to society than tackling latent nationalism. This is clearly articulated when Vika tells Yaroslav that she does not care about his nationalism, she just wants her children to have a father—the inference being that he cannot do that if he is in jail or dead. While it is tragic that Nurik’s death at Yaroslav’s hands prevents him from ever being reunited with his family, Yaroslav is able to replace him and resolve the breakdown of the family set-up. Yaroslav realizes that having a proper family life and future with Vika is more important than nationalism.
Yet tragicomedy is not the only genre at work in the film; the characters must be given the space to develop an understanding the other’s human qualities in the first place. This need for understanding explains why the majority of the film’s genre adheres more to the road movie than tragicomedy. The road movie is the genre of changing perspectives and learning life lessons, but is also frequently comedic. Nurik and Yaroslav’s experience of being exposed to each other in bizarre and difficult situations is essential for fostering an understanding between these two opposing sides. The film sees the pair of them confined to small spaces where confrontation and mediation is unavoidable. However, the incorporation of elements from a classic road movie is also useful for instigating change at a different level. The protagonists’ hitch-hiking experience allows the film to poke fun at the inferred eccentricities of life outside the developed metropoleis of Moscow and St. Petersburg, by dispatching them to their suburban counterparts, Pereslavl-Zalessky and Pavlovsk. Life outside the capitals may be odd, but it is definitely not as brutal —even the police in the film are relatively effective. If Nurik and Yaroslav exemplify the interethnic struggles taking place in Moscow, those outside the cities characterise the sense that nationalism and xenophobia are a distant problem to most people’s lives. To highlight this contrast, one of the men with whom they hitchhike treats Nurik as a kind of curiosity from city life, which he does not see as anything particularly hostile or threatening to his existence. The driver deems Moscow to be equally as alien.
While the film is not particularly revolutionary or controversial in the way that it approaches xenophobia, it does make tongue-in-cheek references to Putin-era patriotism as a fertile site for interethnic tensions. In a hotel where Nurik and Yaroslav hide out, the comely receptionist asks “Vova” (the diminutive of Vladimir), the father of her child, when he is going to see his offspring. It appears from the conversation that Vova is too busy at “Seliger” to see his child. “Seliger” is the patriotic youth camp held annually and established for members of the pro-Putin youth movement “Nashi.” This subtle reference to “Nashi” (Ours) is important; the youth organization exemplifies Sheliakin’s conception of nationalism being part of the everyday, and highlights arguments that the state promotes nationalism, disguised as patriotism, amongst Russia’s young people. In this, the film clearly takes a stab at Putin’s infamous extramarital relations and his promotion of patriotic projects – something that is made clearer when the film’s English subtitles change “Seliger” to “Sochi”, another pet project of Putin‘s administration. Of course, the President himself is also partial to publicly partaking in the kind of derogatory language that is under attack in Black/White. The script does not shy away from subtly condemning the attitudes of the authorities in making xenophobia more official and accepted.
Black/White also acknowledges the role that culture, and post-Soviet cinema in particular, has played in the formation of ethnic stereotypes in recent years. The significance of casting Aleksei Chadov in a film about interethnic tensions in Russia is not lost either on audiences or on the actor himself. Chadov is a very high-profile actor, having acted in a number of box-office hits, but is well-known for his performance in Aleksei Balabanov’s film War (Voina, 2002). War split audiences at home and abroad over its portrayal of the Second Chechen War and of Chechens. At the film’s press conference at Kinotavr, Chadov spoke of the many emotional conversations he had had with people after the release of War as one of the reasons that motivated him to take part in Black/White (Kinotavr 2014). In the same press conference, Ninidze recalled that, when reading the script a line where he is referred to as “black-ass” reminded him of a time when he was also called this by a woman working in an airport in Moscow. The experience of the two actors corresponds to the different experiences of everyday xenophobia in Russia, which translates neatly into the action on screen.
The conclusion of the film offers a confused perspective of heroes and villains, which is relatively common in films about nationalism, but also reflects of Sheliakin’s desire to represent neither side in black-and-white terms. Yet in the process of trying to approach this serious social issue through stereotypes, Sheliakin runs the risk of perpetuating the problem, especially by using these stereotypes in comic situations. In Sheliakin’s defence, he, his cast and crew have sought to address a social problem very few people are willing to tackle. As one critic at the film’s press conference at Kinotavr pointed out, the film is a difficult one to pitch for general cinematic release. After all, interethnic conflict in Russia is a very public issue that generates very mixed reactions. Either way, no discussion can begin until someone opens the topic up for debate and Black/White goes a way to initiating this, without alienating its audience from the outset.
University of Nottingham
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Ministry of Culture of Russia. 3 February 2011. Prioritetnye temy natsional'nykh fil'mov dlia osyshchestvleniia v ustanovlennom poriadke gosudarstvennogo finansirovaniia ikh proizvodstva v 2011 godu.
Tokmasheva, M. 2014. Evgenii Sheliakin: ‘Nash fil’m ne pro natsionalizm kak takovoi, on pro cherno-beloe vospriiatie deistvitel’nosti. Proficinema. 27 May.
ORKF “Kinotavr”. 2014. Press-konferentsiia konkursnogo fil’ma “Ch/B”, rezhisser Evgenii Sheliakin, 8 June
Black/White, Russia, 2014
92 minutes, color
Director: Evgenii Sheliakin
Script: Andrei Galanov, Evgenii Sheliakin
Producer: Rashid Sardarov
Cast: Aleksei Chadov, Merab Ninidze, Sergei Makovetskii, Guram Bablishvili, Beso Gataev, Kakhi Kavsadze, Ekaterina Rednikova, Mariia Andreeva, Mariia Zvonaraeva, Andrei Rudenskii, Sergei Godin, Ruslan Iagudin, Maksim Kostromykin, Igor’ Zhizhikin.
Director of Photography: Daian Gaitkulov
Art Director: Iraida Shul’ts
Costume Designer: Liudmila Gaintseva
Music: Sergei Shnurov
Editor: Daniel Ovrutskii
Evgenii Sheliakin: Black/White (Ch/B, 2014)
reviewed by Laura Todd© 2014