Issue 48 (2015)

Vera Kharybina: Ask Me (Sprosi menia, 2014)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes© 2015


Ask Me (2014) comprises eight monologues in which young immigrants in Moscow tell about their daily lives, family origins, and aspirations: a Moldovan girl talks about the boy she likes at school and how she misses her father, who remained at home in Kishinev; a Central Asian taxi driver recites Pushkin and proclaims his love for Russia; the lone native of Moscow explains her thoughts about immigrants and her passion for theater; a Ukrainian cook dreams of going to college.  As the title suggests, Ask Me is a film about listening and trying to understand others and Others. While the very nature of the film promotes tolerance of difference, it nonetheless resists simple ideological narratives about Russia as either a harmonious mosaic of cultures or a place of rampant xenophobia. The characters alternately lament the discrimination they encounter, pine for home, and beam with optimism about their future in Moscow.

ask meKharybina’s film is part of a larger cinematic discourse on Russia’s gastarbeiter in recent years, along with the shorts He’s Gone (Uekhal, Khlebnikov and Gai Germanika, 2007), Moscow(Moskva, Bakuradze, 2007), and the feature-length Gastarbaiter (Razykov, 2009), Another Sky (Drugoe nebo, Mamuliia, 2010) and She (Ona, Sadilova, 2013). Like these films, Ask Me attempts to humanize and individualize immigrants, giving voice to a group that cinema traditionally has marginalized and caricatured. Such rhetorical practices of multiculturalism and postcoloniality have begun to emerge among Russian intelligentsia in recent years, [1] partly as a reaction to chauvinistic attitudes that predominate in mainstream media. However, the unstructured and deeply philosophical monologues in Ask Me proffer much more than simply an examination of immigrant life. These contemplations flow freely from one character to the next, creating a composite image of human experience reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001). 

ask mePerhaps what is most striking about Ask Me is its unusual format. Shot with ascetic minimalism as a series of seemingly unscripted interviews, the film at first appears to be a documentary. In the opening interview, a young man begins: “What am I supposed to say? Why are you filming me? I don’t understand….”  He describes his work in the warehouse of a floral vendor, the unfortunate death of his father, and the remittances he sends home to his wife and daughter. Although he was once assaulted by three Russians when walking home, he generally gets along with them. Despite current political tensions and war, he considers Putin a brilliant leader. His unique diction, like each of the other narrators, evokes a specific social type in Russian society, a sort of “dude from the ’hood” (patsan s raiona).

As the film progresses, a few theatrical moments raise the suspicion that the speakers are, in fact, actors. When an Armenian dentist answers multiple telephone calls during his interview, smiling and winking in the viewer’s direction, one is bewildered by his camera-ready charm. As it turns out, Ask Me is a docu-fiction film, a novel attempt to transpose the verbatim method, so prevalent in Russian theater, to cinema. The verbatim method entails conducting interviews with real-life “people on the street,” which are transcribed, edited, and then performed by theater actors. Kharybina—who graduated from the VGIK director’s faculty, and has made both documentary and feature films—wanted to experiment with the verbatim technique on screen.

ask meThe imitation of everyday language and mannerisms creates an effect of authenticity that is, at first, engrossing, drawing the viewer into a strong emotional identification with the speakers. Soon, however, ‘the spring begins to come out of the mattress,’ for these first-time actors are at times overly pensive or ecstatic. A kind of unintended Brechtian distancing occurs, and one begins to notice their dramatic pauses and studied eccentricities. A degree of hesitation between documentary and theatrical perception continues through the film’s conclusion, as we wonder whether or not these caricatures are simply the oddballs that we sometimes encounter in real life. Director Kharybina rebutted criticisms about the film’s theatricality and the narrators’ over-acting, remarking that a majority of viewers, less sensitive than critics to subtleties of acting and intonation, believed that Ask Me was a documentary.

ask meDespite the minimalistic aesthetic, the film is not devoid of formal innovation. As part of Ask Me’s documentary illusion, each character is interviewed in his/her natural milieu. A down-and-out girl from the village is interviewed on a suburban commuter train (elektrichka), while in the background a female huckster peddles cheap goods and a man plays an accordion. The Central Asian taxi driver is interviewed in his cab while the lights of Moscow flicker behind him. During interviews the camera unpredictably cuts to new and different angles for shots of the speaker, creating a sense of dynamism and literalizing the “new perspective” on the characters that the audience is gaining. The shifting camera angles combine with an atonal jazz score, imparting a modern feel to the film.

Much to the filmmakers’ surprise, Ask Me received a standing ovation at the Kinotavr Film Festival in summer 2014, where it was included as part of a “women’s wave” (zhenskii sdvig) in current Russian cinema. However, the subsequent press conference revealed that the auditorium was deeply split about the film, with some applauding its touching and authentic portrayal of real-world characters, and others who found the acting unconvincing and contrived. The film was not awarded any prizes at Kinotavr, and also received a mixed reception a few months later at the Kinoshok festival in Anapa, Russia. Ask Me was not widely distributed in movie theaters and its page on the popular cinema website KinoPoisk.ru shows no ratings. This minimal resonance is not surprising, considering the experimental and low-budget nature of the film, as well as its hit-or-miss performances.

Ask Me reflects the recent trend among Russian auteurs of “speaking cinema” (govoriashchee kino), which privileges language and dialogue over action and cinematic expression. Films such as Delhi Dance (Tanets Deli, Vyrypaev, 2013), Dialogues (Dialogi, Volkova, 2013)—and to a lesser extent Oxygen (Kislorod, Vyrypaev, 2009), Wolfy (Volchok, Sigarev, 2009), and Short Stories (Rasskazy, Segal, 2013)—reveal the clear influence of language and theater aesthetics on cinema. It is no coincidence, of course, that the directors of these films—Kharybina, Volkova, Vyrypaev, Sigarev—move freely between cinema and stage productions. Their aesthetic choices, moreover, are often influenced, if not entirely determined, by financial exigencies. Ask Me’s cinematographer Ivan Makarov remarked: “There was no money for this film. We had no lighting technology. We borrowed mics from friends and shot it on my personal camera. The idea was to realize this project in the absence of a budget” (Press-konferentsiia 2014).

One could argue that such ‘filmed plays’ are a continuation of what film theorist Mikhail Yampolsky described as Russia’s logocentric “cinema without cinema” (Yampolsky 1994). Yet  inasmuch as they are loosely structured and present ambitious experiments with language and methods of acting, they have little in common with the narrative- and script-driven films of the Soviet period. Ask Me’s foray into the verbatim technique and its bold attempt to adhere to the unstructured principles of reality—free flowing monologues, pauses, dull moments, individuals’ strange and unflattering mannerisms—reveal that it is perhaps more difficult to play “real people in the street” than fictional characters. Though the film is not entirely successful as an integral whole, its strengths lie in this careful “observation of people” and its ambitious attempt at ever-elusive authenticity.


Notes

1] For example, in 2014 a School of Migrant Languages (Tajik, Uzbek, Kazak and Moldovan) was opened at the Muzeon Park in Moscow with the goal of creating dialogue and increasing tolerance.

Justin Wilmes
Ohio State University

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Works Cited

Kinotavr: Press-konferentsiia konkursnogo fil’ma Sprosi menia (rezh. Vera Kharybina),” 4 June 2014,

Yampolsky, M. 1994. “Cinema without cinema.” Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost, eds. M. Brashinsky & A. Horton, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, pp. 11-17.


Ask Me, Russia, 2014
Color, 56 minutes
Director and Editor: Vera Kharybina
Scriptwriters: Vera Kharybina and Ivan Makarov
Cinematography: Ivan Makarov
DoP: Maksim Karmen
Composer: Iakov Iakulov
Cast: Sergei Podol’nyi, Vera Ivanko, Andrei Neginskii, Il’ia Orshanskii, Kseniia Efremova, Iuliia Ermakova, Andrei Ivanov, Ol’ga Antipova
Producer: Maksim Karmen

Vera Kharybina: Ask Me (Sprosi menia, 2014)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes© 2015

Updated: 20 Mar 15