Issue 48 (2015)
Ella Manzheeva: The Gulls (Chaiki, 2015)
reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2015
Ella Manzheeva completed her education as a sound technician at the State University for Cinema and Television (GUKiT) in St Petersburg, followed by the Higher Courses of Scriptwriters and Directors (VKSR) in 2009 (class of Khotinenko, Finn, Fenchenko); as a student she made several short films. The Gulls is her debut feature, and an impressive one at that. Unusually for a debutante, the script had already attracted attention and was published in Iskusstvo kino in 2012 (Manzheeva 2012). The project was pitched at Kinotavr in 2013 by the well-known and experienced producer Ella Glikman (and without Manzheeva, who had just given birth), winning the main pitching award (Sycheva 2013). The project suggested a film about a wife who loses her husband and marries his younger brother, as is usual in Kalmyk tradition. This turn of the story (the marriage to the younger brother) has been somewhat relegated to the background in the film, which focuses instead on the heroine’s relationship with her husband.
The film was shot in Manzheeva’s native Kalmykia (in the towns of Lagan and Elista and the small settlement Ketchenery), which no doubt gets the film some attention. Moreover, Manzheeva cast the internationally known Kalmyk fashion model Eugenia Mandzhieva in the main part of El’za, choosing a face from the covers of Vogue and other fashion magazines, but without professional actors’ training.
Yet what makes the film a class of its own, and certainly enough to be selected into Berlin IFF Forum program, is the combination of a solid script and stunning performance with the exquisite photography by Aleksandr Kuznetsov, which lies not just in capturing an exotic location. The shots of the frozen lake and river are impressive, especially in their juxtaposition with warmly lit interiors for the mother’s house, the local convenience shop, and the Buddhist temple that stand in contrast to the frozen landscape but also to the cold colors of the hospital, the police-station, the bank and the school, which are all kept in the green-blue range, as well as the home of El’za and her husband Dzhiga (Sergei Ad’ianov), pained in hues of blue.
Moreover, the fine production design assists the camera in its framing, following characters from the inside to the outside and back inside, through a series of doors and window frames that allow only gradual access into the house. Windscreens of cars and mirrors also separate characters from others and themselves. Thus, Elza never looks at herself in the mirror until the very end of the film, when she reveals her face: she washes her face and looks at herself in the mirror. She never looks at other people directly: the fortune teller avoid her gaze and sends her away; the saleswoman in the shop does not look at her but is preoccupied with her cell-phone call; the headmistress may look at her, but in the conversation with El’za she is out of the frame and appears only as a reflection in the mirror while El’za stares at the real figure, outside the frame.
El’za is meek and faceless. She obeys her husband without ever questioning his orders; she answers, but never asks. She prepares the food but does not eat with him, setting herself apart from a world where men use a hunting knife to eat meat at the dinner table. She serves the food for Dzhiga and his friends China and Batyr, and leaves the room when one of the men suggests that this is the proper way for a wife to behave. She washes up along with the fiancée during the formal proposal of Sanal to Gilyanka, her husband’s younger sister. El’za is there, but she does not belong there: she is an outsider, a stranger at home.
From a conversation Dzhiga’s mother has with her son, and a later altercation between the mother and Elza, we understand that, in her eyes, Elza has not fulfilled her role as a wife: she has not born Dzhiga a child. It is difficult for the viewer to make out El’za’s character: her psychological drama is well hidden, apparently deliberately so and certainly not through lack of acting: El’za is enigmatic, a riddle to herself as much as to others. At the beginning of the film she frantically gathers her things and makes off to the bus stop. There she stands, waiting for the bus, alone in the steppe, followed only by the dog. Yet she does not board this bus once it arrives: she is unable to leave her husband. As appears later, she already knows at this point that she is pregnant, so it is possible that this early attempt to leave is also a first attempt to visit town and terminate the pregnancy, a journey she will complete at the film’s end, when she reaches the town, but does not go through with the abortion (for which it is too late anyway). She returns home and is brought back to the family by Dzhiga’s younger brother Ulan (Evgenii Sangadzhiev), who told the family that El’za is pregnant: Only now she is accepted by Dzhiga’s mother. She understands that the gulls—the souls of the dead fishermen—guard her while they circle over the house. In a departure from the pitch, the film offers no union of El’za and Ulan; there is only proximity and understanding, support and friendship. Ulan works in Moscow; he is educated and apparently a better match for El’za. But there are no advances: it is Ulan who tries to bring her to the family, knowing about her pregnancy; he watches over her.
Dzhiga is an honest and strong man, who does not want to have to rely on others. He considers that he needs to take care of the wedding arrangements for his younger sister, and instead of borrowing from Ulan or talking a loan (as his mother proposes), he rents a boat with his friend Batyr from the crook Ledzhin, hoping to go fishing illegally out of season. They wait for the ice to melt enough to make a passage onto the sea, but they are betrayed by Ledzhin who is caught with drugs by the police and strikes a deal in order to get himself out of a prison sentence for drug trafficking. Dzhiga does all the “manly” things: he drinks with his pals, but not excessively; he goes on an illegal fishing trip for the right reason, namely to look after his little sister; he is the man in the house, but he is also capable of gentle caresses for his wife.
There are a few traditional elements that introduce the “exoticism” of Kalmyk culture, but these are sparse. There is some singing of folk songs and toasts during the proposal ritual; there is El’za’s visit in the temple in Elista; there is a visit to the national opera house—and those scenes are all relevant to the plot and peripheral to the film itself, which focuses on the heroine El’za: a woman torn between tradition, which she understands only too well, and her inability to fit in because she has lost herself. She follows the rules and conventions, but she does so half-heartedly. Her narrative voiceover at the film’s beginning—about the wife who has to believe in her husband and hope for his return—is recited without feeling and stands in sharp contrast to the convinced enunciation of the same phrases by Dzhiga’s mother, who presumably has also lost her husband to the sea. Yet the mother believes; El’za does not. Her self-doubt is visible from the distance she maintains while her husband eats, buys vodka, entertains his friends: a distance that speaks not of humble respect but of an arrogance that rejects the manners of eating, drinking and making merry as beneath her own refinement and grace, presumably the result of an urban upbringing that is if not matched, than at least understood only by Ulan. Her colleagues at work respect but do not befriend her; her superior, Inna Badmaevna, engages and converses with her, and she is someone with urban manners. Belonging to a community means more than living, loving, respecting and adhering to conventions, or making a donation to the widow of the second fisherman, Batyr, who perished along with her husband, as he too wanted to earn extra to feed his family of a wife and three children. What is cruel, though, and not at all brought out, is the fact that 100,000 rubles which El’za obviously possesses right from the start (we see her flicking a book with money as she packs her bag), and which she eventually pays onto the account of Batyr’s wife Saga, are certainly more than enough to pay for Gilyanka’s wedding, making her husband’s trip to the sea that cost him his life completely redundant. In this sense, El’za has more than one thing to blame herself for.
Overall, The Gulls is a beautifully shot film, with an enigmatic heroine who does not open up to the audience but attracts attention: we can empathize with her because she reveals the dilemma of a woman between her role in society and the community that she has chosen for herself. Her ability to grow into that role and make that mask her own face create the suspense in the drama, tracing a development that eventually allows El’za to see her freshly washed face in the mirror at the film’s end.
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Sycheva, Alena. 2013. “Pitching 24 ‘Kinotavra’ sostoialsia,” Proficinema 9 June.
Manzheeva. Ella. 2012. “Chaiki.” Iskusstvo kino 4.
The Gulls, Russia, 2015
Color, 87 minutes
Languages: Kalmyk, Russian
Screenplay: Ella Manzheeva
Director: Ella Manzheeva
Director of Photography: Alexander Kuznetsov
Production Design: Director: Denis Bauer
Composer: Anton Silaev
Cast: Evgeniia Mandzhieva, Sergei Ad’ianov, Evgenii Sangadzhiev, Liubov Ubushieva, Dmitrii Mukeev, Andrei Oskanov.
Producers: Elena Glikman, Iaroslav Zhivov
Production: Telesto, with the financial support of the Ministry of Culture
Ella Manzheeva: The Gulls (Chaiki, 2015)
reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2015