Issue 46 (2014)
Natalia Meshchaninova: Hope Factory (Kombinat Nadezhda, 2014)
reviewed by Otto Boele© 2014
The irony at the beginning of Natalia Meshchaninova’s debut film is hard to miss. Once the title Hope Factory has faded, we see a young man posing in front of a smart phone and declaring his love for his native Norilsk while being showered by water spurting from a rusty, leaking pipe. A few moments later, we are at a vodka-drenched open-air party of local youths drinking to the “northern character,” and in particular, to the health of the Norilchane. Ominously, the sun is out, but already setting; in the background, we see smoking chimneys against a desolate industrial landscape. Welcome to Norilsk, one of the most polluted and isolated cities in northern Siberia built on the bones of GULAG prisoners in the 1940s and 1950s and still a major pillar of Russia’s metallurgical and mining industry. As the opening scenes suggest, the city has little to offer in terms of hope except for the local metallurgical plant and its fringe benefits.
For Sveta, a seventeen-year-old student nurse at the factory’s health department, staying in “fucking Norilsk” (bliadskii Norilsk) is not an option. She is determined to begin her adult life on the “mainland” (a local metaphor for the urban world beyond Norilsk), even if her ambitions don’t go beyond being reunited with her boyfriend Max, who is seemingly enjoying the good life in some unspecified city in the south. Sveta’s plans of leaving Norilsk arouse sarcasm in her bitchy boss at the factory and disbelief at home. Her parents have even bought her a flat for her upcoming birthday, assuming that she would spend “her whole life” in Norilsk. When she insists on joining Max and moving to the mainland, her father makes an argument that Sveta encounters more than once in the course of the film: “Who needs you there? Life is completely different on the mainland.”
As the story wears on, the relationship with Max deteriorates. With each new Skype session, he appears more alien and indifferent to the prospect of Sveta coming to visit. At this point, it becomes clear that Max isn’t so much living it up at the sea shore, as fighting his frustration over having his toes amputated after being brought in with frostbite the winter before. Angered by Max’s hostility and her own inability to raise the money for a plane ticket, Sveta turns her anger onto Nadia, a semi-hooker whom she blames for having seduced Max, and thus, for making him lose interest in her. On her eighteenth birthday, after having received the keys to her new flat, Sveta takes revenge on a whim by pushing Nadia into the ice-cold water of the Yenisei. Nadia drowns and Sveta hurriedly leaves for Moscow, having secured the money for a ticket by plundering her brother’s stash.
The chronotope of the provincial town, the daily tusovka of local youth, the meddlesomeness of the older generation, especially Sveta’s well-meaning parents, and finally, the heroine’s desire to leave this whole world behind—all this makes Hope Factory look a bit like a modern version of Little Vera (Malen’kaia Vera, 1988), Vasilii Pichul’s perestroika box office hit. But if Vera’s father was an alcoholic truck driver, a plebeian prone to violence, Sveta’s father seems an educated, sensitive and even homey man who likes to cook fancy meals for his family. While we may sympathize with Sveta’s desire to escape Norilsk and live her own life, her father’s objections seem reasonable enough: Max may not be the ideal husband that Sveta imagines him to be, and without a proper education, she is unlikely to find a decent job on the mainland.
The safe and viable, if somewhat bourgeois alternative that Sveta’s parents represent is just one element that makes Hope Factory stand out against other recent films depicting life in the Russian provinces. In contrast to Kirill Serebrennikov’s Yuriev Day (Iur’ev den’, 2008) and Katia Shagalova’s Once Upon a Time in the Provinces (Odnazhdii v provintsii, 2008), in which the heroine’s trajectory from the capital to her native village implies a process of moral purification, Hope Factory has a more “nineteenth-century-like” plot structure that sees the main character moving in the opposite direction in search of personal fulfillment. Echoing the Chekhovian “to Moscow, to Moscow” cliché and offsetting it against the financial certainties of a settled life in Norilsk, Hope Factory is much more than merely another film on social squalor in some undefined provincial town. No longer a ZATO, or “closed city” in the strict sense of the word, Norilsk is not particularly open either and this makes it an intriguingly ambiguous setting for a drama involving high school graduates. Whereas Sveta wants to escape to the mainland, her more Zen-like brother Lesha has no desire to do so. He seems quite happy working on his technique as a magician and earning an extra ruble for his performances in a local restaurant.
Considering the positive counter example of Lesha, one may ask if the title “Hope Factory” is entirely ironic. How bad a place is Norilsk really? Shouldn’t the sense of suffocation permeating the whole film be attributed to Sveta alone? Although we rarely see Sveta’s own point of view, the hand-held camera indirectly conveys her perception of her daily surroundings, making her parents’ apartment look more cramped than it really is. Similarly, the absence of any establishing shots, even in outdoor scenes, creates a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia that turns out to be more peculiar to Sveta than to any of the other characters. It is telling, for example, that one of the film’s few extreme long shots occurs during a scene in which Sveta has no part. We see Lesha and Nadia sitting together in a chair lift staring at the vast surroundings of Norilsk while Lesha explains how visiting this spot helps him cope with stress.
Among critics, the inclination to construe the film as an unambiguously negative portrait of Norilsk and the Russian provinces in general has nonetheless been quite strong. At a press conference at the Kinotavr film festival in Sochi, Meshchaninova directly addressed the issue when she stated that quite a few of her characters do see the point of staying in Norilsk and that Sveta’s choice to leave the city should not be interpreted as a “manifesto [of the makers], as a call to abandon the provinces.” Indeed, Hope Factory depicts life in Norilsk in a highly nuanced way by showing that its inhabitants have different options and make different choices.
Even more offensive than the perceived besmirching of the Russian provinces is the pervasiveness of foul language in the film. Sveta and her friends are not the only ones guilty of swearing and cursing; even the head of the health department (a middle-aged woman of the Soviet stamp) bursts into a tirade of curses when Sveta decides to quit her job. At the Sochi press conference, most of the questions were about the use of this language and its appropriateness in a product of “high art.” Meschchaninova countered the criticism by claiming that the swearing was realistic, but this did not convince everyone. If the makers had invested more time in studying the region, one critic argued, they would have discovered that the local population still includes many “cultured people”—descendants of political prisoners!—who would never talk like that. Defending the use of foul language as realistic, Meshchaninova nevertheless admitted that she feared for her film once the new law banning all swearing in the media would take effect (it did on July 1; the press conference took place a few weeks earlier). In order to “save” her film, she had even shot certain scenes twice, she explained, asking her actors to express the same emotions in curbed language. That is how things stood in early June. Only a month later, Meshchaninova announced that she refused to mutilate Hope Factory and would stick to the more explicit version (Anon. 2014). This makes the chances of the film being shown in a Russian movie theater close to nil.
University of Leiden
1] The entire press conference can be viewed online.
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Anon. 2014. “Rezhisser fil'ma ‘Kombinat "Nadezhda"’ otkazalas' urodovat' kartinu radi prokata,” Interfaks 9 July.
Hope Factory, Russia, 2014
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Natal’ia Meshchaninova
Screenplay: Natal’ia Meshchaninova, Ivan Ugarov, Liubov' Mul'menko
Cinematography and Editing: Ivan Mamanov, Evgenii Tsvetkov
Producer: Aleksandr Plotnikov, Zaur Bolotaev, Elena Stepanisheva
Production: ZAO “Luk-film”.
Cast: Dar'ia Savel'eva, Danil Steklov, Maksim Stoianov, Mikhail Troinik, Polina Shanina, Ivan Prill', Sergei Ovchinnikov, Kseniia Radchenko, Aleksandra Makarskaia, Stepan Devonin, Dmitrii Kubasov, Serge Udovik, Marina Ivanova, Irina Gavra, Gennadii Semionov.
Natalia Meshchaninova: Hope Factory (Kombinat Nadezhda, 2014)
reviewed by Otto Boele© 2014