KinoKultura: Issue 49 (2015)

Kinotavr 2015. Fourteen Shades of Gray

By Birgit Beumers

kinotavrThis year’s Kinotavr festival presented a fine selection of films over eight days (7–14 June) in an exceptionally sunny Sochi—apparently the city got all the rain on 25 June in a catastrophic downpour that flooded much of the Adler region. However, both the competition and the shorts program were marked by a certain shade of grayness, which is not the result of selection but rather production. All the films were eminently “watchable” and professionally made; the directors, even debutants, appeared to be aware of audiences—art house and mainstream alike—which in itself is a good sign. Yet what was lacking from the competition programs was the drive for experimentation, for risk-taking and trying to do something unusual. Therefore there were several fine and worthy films, but nothing that would bowl you over and make you think: here is a new way of looking, of extending the borders of visual narratives, as has sometimes—not always—happened in the past. And whilst this sense of flatness maybe due the result of rather high expectation, I was puzzled and concerned that the same grayness prevailed in the short film competition, which has always contained a few surprises that would make you remember graduates and young filmmakers for the future—Mikhail Mestetskii was one such memorable name, and his feature debut appeared in competition this year.

Let us take stock of the competition program first: among the fourteen films, there were four titles which had previously screened at international festivals: Andrei Zaitsev’s 14+, Ella Manzheeva’s The Gulls (Chaiki), and Natalia Kudriashova’s Pioneer Heroes (Pionery-geroi) had all screened at the Berlinale in the Generation, Forum and Panorama sidebars respectively, while Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Angels of the Revolution (Angely revoliutsii, 2014) had screened at Rome IFF and Rotterdam—and has already been reviewed for KinoKultura. Ella Manzheeva’s The Gulls is a stunning debut from Kalmykia and has also already been reviewed. So I refrain here from adding any wisdom to the existing review on Angels and repeating myself on The Gulls. Instead, I shall survey the remaining competition films and explore the shorts competition.

Thus we are left with ten new films in competition, and seven out of the total fourteen—exactly half—are fiction film debuts, by the screenwriter Denis Rodimin, the documentarists Viktor Dement and Artem Temnikov, and by the young filmmakers Ella Manzheeva, Natalia Kudriashova, Il’ia and Anton Chizhikov, and Mikhail Mestetskii. To satisfy the gender-debate that has surrounded many festival selections (including Cannes) in recent years: four competition films were by women directors (down significantly on last year, when half of the competition films were by women), including the winner of the Grand Prix, and the fourteen competition films involved twelve women in the role of producers (Elena Bren’kova, Nataliia Budkina, Natal’ia Drozd, Sabina Eremeeva, Ekaterina Filippova, Elena Glikman, Ol’ga Granina, Anna Kachko, Sofiko Kiknavelidze, Svetlana Kuchmaeva, Anna Melikian, and Asya Temnikova). Most films were made by independent, small production companies; only Sergei Sel’ianov’s CTB presented two films, both debuts, alongside the studio Third Rome (Tretii Rim), founded in 1995 and hitherto mainly engaged in TV production. Of the major studios, only the Gorky Studio was involved in the production of one film, reflecting the abandonment of art-house and mainstream cinema by the big studios, which are primarily focused on blockbusters. By and large, the production companies are therefore director-based (Zaitsev’s company Sentiabr, founded 2012; Fedorchenko’s 29 February; Melikian’s Magnum) or project-oriented (Eremeeva’s Slon; Filippova’s Atlantik; Glikman’s Lad’ia, Roman Borisevich’s Koktebel, Kiknavelidze’s Beloe Zerkalo, Kuchmaeva’s Valday Film). Therefore, we see a shift in the production platforms, where art-house experimentation is driven out of the major studios (with the notable and honorable exception of CTB, to emphasize its role once again; see also Kudriashova in Kuvshinova 2015) and into the independent sector, sometimes subsidized by the Ministry of Culture (which requires delivery of a supported project within a year) or the Cinema Fund “Fond Kino” (with a more generous completion date of three years). Nevertheless, the financial risks are high, and this is reflected in the avoidance of creative risks by the filmmakers. The freedom from financial issues and market concerns that is needed especially for debut projects, where filmmakers maximally try to find their own language, unspoiled yet by advertising jargon and serial thinking, is something that would seem to be under threat in the increasingly market-oriented business of culture—however paradoxical that term itself may be.

Migrants from New Drama

spasenie With a theatrical background, I start this journey to Kinotavr with the theater production by Vasilii Sigarev at Tabakov’s Studio in Moscow on 5 and 6 June, where he premiered his stage version of Gogol’s Vii, stripping the story of all phantasmagoric and mystical elements, turning it instead into a plain and very concrete tale of a man plagued by his conscience and suffering rightly so, in a violent and oppressive setting dominated by cages—for people and poultry alike. On 19 and 20 June, Ivan Vyrypaev’s play Illusions (Illiuzii, 2011) pre-premiered in a new stage version by Viktor Ryzhakov at the Moscow Arts Theatre. These New Drama “migrants” (from theater to cinema) both presented their new films at Kinotavr. Vyrypaev’s Salvation (Spasenie) continues in an immensely determined fashion his research into the theme of religion and its role in the contemporary world. As Vyrypaev made abundantly clear at the press conference, his concern is not with the story, but the theme, and art is merely one means of expressing his thoughts on the topic. Here, he chooses the journey of a Polish Catholic nun, Sister Anna (played by Polina Grishina) who is sent to a mission in Nepal. On her delayed journey, Anna encounters reality for the first time, and whilst her faith remains unshaken by her experiences, she tests the real world both in material terms (adapting to the rough climate and the landscape of Nepal with purchases of clothing) and in intellectual terms (through conversations with the people she meets). Whilst the film follows quietly the nun’s journey with an unobtrusive camera, it needs few words. From this silent, observational mode several stark conversations stand out that Anna has with tourists who share their experiences of the land with her and thus test her ability to defend her faith through words. These conversations are almost banal in their content, and “speak,” as it were, of the irrelevance of words, especially when set against Anna’s sensuous experience of the majestic mountains. The film’s languages are Polish (in the opening scenes) and English as a language in which the locals and the tourists can exchange words—rather than communicate; Vyrypaev himself provides a voiceover to the Russian version, thus creating a narrative distance to the spoken dialogues, which is typical of his theatrical method: in Oxygen (Kislorod, 2002) a DJ narrated the protagonists’ actions and prompted the recital of their exchanges, while the film version (2009) reflected this structure in choosing the form of a music album. The narrative as an additional layer to the dialogue devalues the spoken word, making it secondary, rehearsed and repeated, rather than an original source of expression or communication. In Delhi Dance/Tanets Deli, 2012), entire segments of the dialogue are repeated in different contexts and by different characters, making verbal communication secondary to (emotional, tactile, rhythmic) sensations, which also stand in the foreground in Euphoria (2006). Polina Grishina plays the nun Anna: Grishina studied painting at Palekh and then trained as set designer at the Theater Institute RATI; subsequently she worked as set designer and actress at Dmitrii Krymov’s Workshop (School of Dramatic Art) and other theatres, as well as in animation. She deservedly garnered an award for her outstanding performance, absorbing the world rather than projecting her inner self. The theater connections here certainly helped Vyrypaev discover Grishina for the screen.

strana ozSigarev’s Land of Oz (Strana Oz, originally titled Zanimatel’naia etologiia/Entertaining Ethology) is the filmmaker’s first foray into comedy, following his two dramas Wolfy (Volchok, 2009) and Living (Zhit’, 2011). Although receiving an award for the script, it would appear that the film’s text in fact much depends on improvisation of dialogues and on acting performances. On the one hand, Land of Oz boasts a series of star appearances in vignettes and episodes rather than properly developed and full-blown roles—for example, Evgenii Tsyganov plays a drugged and drunken driver; or Inna Churikova appears as the elegant and sophisticated mother of three completely useless and immature lads. On the other, the film relies on the stunning performance of Iana Troianova as Lenka. Her character is somewhat reminiscent of Danila Bagrov in Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997)—a character without a past and without a future, who reacts to the situation in which he finds himself; after each episode he turns a page in his life, making it possible to write a new biography for himself every time. Troianova’s Lenka is also like a blank page onto which any story can be written, but she lacks the ability to react to anything that happens around her. Lenka has no aim, no sense of identity, no meaning or purpose in life. She flatly repeats some banal and meaningless sentences, without reacting or taking any action, without any spark of initiative: she gets into a car that stops and takes her in the wrong direction; she watches her sister fall from a balcony and, for most of the rest of the film, stubbornly repeats “my sister has broken her tailbone (coccyx)”, to anyone who wishes (or not) to hear a word from her. Similarly, she tells almost everyone she meets that she “needs to get to work on Peat-cutter Avenue”—Prospekt Torforezov, a real street name in the industrial Ekaterinburg where the film is set. At this address stands a kiosk, the new workplace for the young woman who has just arrived in town. The kiosk provides a links to the film’s sub-plot, since the salesman on duty cannot leave his shift as there is no-one to take over, and he has a visitor (played by Aleksandr Bashirov), who wreaks havoc in the kiosk. Lenka in the meantime strays from one encounter to the next: she ends up with a lapdog, whose owner (Gosha Kutsenko) she eventually finds; she follows a sex-obsessed man to his home to get out of the cold, but his wife and daughter return early, and climbing (not falling) off his balcony she ends up in the flat of the mother (Churikova) of three grown-up immature men where she is offered some pelmeni that the dog consumes; she gets herself arrested and discharged from a prison cell that she shares with two prostitutes (gem performances of Dar’ia Ekamasova and Alisa Khazanova); but she never arrives at the kiosk and she never starts her new job. She is unable to decide or react in any meaningful way, instead being pushed from one place to another and from one situation to the next. All this happens, by the way, on New Year’s Eve, with that special allowance for comedy and carnival. Nevertheless, the comedy results from the absurdity of life: the film exaggerates (permitted by the carnival of New Year’s Eve) the banality of everyday life and the lack of energy in contemporary Russian society, where any form of action (including protest) seems to have been moved onto the pages of social media. Sigarev manages to extrapolate the entropy prevalent in Russian society and inflate it into grotesque proportions through the character of Lenka, who becomes, therefore, a new “type” in cinema.

Generation 14+ and above

14plus Alluding with his title to the new age classification for Russian films, Andrei Zaitsev’s 14+ is a film about a budding teenage romance which first screened at Berlin’s Generation. Social media have played a significant role in the process of scripting, facilitating the exploration of gang culture among schoolchildren, as well as helping with the casting. The script actually used blogs from the internet for the teenagers’ dialogues. The project, which pitched at Kinotavr 2012 under the title Celentano, follows the original concern with youth culture, but abandons the line of Celentano’s music, partly because of legal issues and partly for reasons of the deflated role that Lesha’s father plays, as the film focuses on the relationship between Lesha and Vika, two fifteen-year-olds. 14+ is a romcom that references, however, serious social problems such as single motherhood, gang culture, and suburban crime; yet these issues do not prevent the main characters from adhering to a strict moral code and believing in true love. 

pioneer-heroesNatalia Kudriashova’s Pioneer Heroes also screened at Berlin (Panorama) and it, too, deals with the theme of youth culture. The three protagonists Olia, Katia and Andrei grew up in the late Soviet era and suffer up to the present day from the trauma of a Soviet childhood. However, it would appear somewhat of an exaggeration to blame this trauma alone for the protagonists’ “failure” to realize their personal lives and suggest it to be the sole responsible factor why people cannot find fulfillment in life: Katia, a successful PR manager, perishes in a terrorist attack; Olga is an actress who suffers from agoraphobia; and Andrei, a political analyst, withdraws to a monastery. Such sharp and drastic turns in people’s lives may quite possibly have been motivated by the turbulent and chaotic 1990s and the social upheaval that came with the collapse of the Soviet economy and its value system, but the exclusive blame on the Soviet childhood—a great historical setting for the flashbacks— seems somewhat artificial and constructed. The film looks particularly superficial when set against Andreas Dresen’s As We Were Dreaming (Als wir träumten, 2015), which screened in Berlin’s competition and which offers a much more subtle portrayal of the collapse of a value system as experienced by a group of teenage boys in the GDR; true, they are older and experience both socialist education and capitalist society more consciously, but their lives are drawn in a much more profound way than those of the flat, cardboard figures in Kudriashova’s film.

tryapsoyuzMikhail Mestetskii’s Rag Union (Triapichnyi soiuz) deals with a group of young men, who spend the summer on a dacha to avoid paying rent in the city. In the absence of any social commitment (other than protesting against the monument to Peter the Great on the Moskva River), they form a “union” of four, including the introspective Vania, and embark on a series of adventures. Set in the late 1990s, when there was no ideology, the film lacks clear temporal and historical references that would allow the viewer to easily place the action, and seemingly suggesting that such a youth culture still prevails today, fifteen years later. As a historical statement about a lost generation, the film would benefit from an anchoring in the present (of which Kudriashova’s film has too much), but overall the film offers a rich and dense portrayal of this teenage generation of the Yeltsin era. The complex editing, moving between character lines and urban/rural settings, adds to the experimental spirit in which the film has been made, rejecting a linear narrative in favor of more episodic structure.

parenAnother view onto the young generation is offered in Il’ia and Anton Chizhikov’s Guy from Our Cemetery (Paren’ s nashego kladbishcha), where the young Kolia (Aleksandr Pal’) arrives in Moscow to work for his uncle, who places him as a guard at the entrance to a cemetery on the outskirts of the megapolis, which entirely moves into the background. In the cemetery, Kolia makes friends with the dead who rise at night and helps preserve their rest. By helping the dead, Kolia makes peace with his own life and converts his corrupt uncle into a kind and generous man. For a debut, the Chizhikov brothers have worked admirably well within the genre conventions of a ghost film rather than a horror movie, and they do not forget the comic side of the story either.

no commentA far less successful venture into making a film focused on young people is that of the well-known scriptwriter Denis Rodimin, The Guest (Gost’). Two young geophysics students are out to analyze natural phenomena associated with a meteorite impact in Siberia, but they soon encounter extraordinary—the living dead, and quickly reach their limits. In the end, however, it appears that the journey was only a dream, leaving a lot of facts unaccounted for and making the protagonists’ quest utterly pointless. Artem Temnikov’s No Comment is another disappointing debut, as the filmmaker remains too preoccupied with moral messages, most notably the danger of religious fanaticism and the lack of parental understanding. The young German student Thomas is infatuated with a young Turkish girl and, to get closer to her, adopts Islam; subsequently he aggress to fight in the Caucasus. Whilst addressing a topical issue of Islamic State and using documentary footage for the scenes in the Caucasus, Temnikov’s film is far too cliché-ridden to provide a genuine insight into the motivation for joining IS. Moreover, Thomas’s dispatch to the Caucasus may add a Russian dimension to the film, but it is not really a topical hot spot at a time when the world turns its attention to Syria, not Chechnya. Temnikov here missed an opportunity for a nuanced and original portrayal of a rather unexplored phenomenon and instead lapses into propaganda and moral messages.


The topic of adaptation seems to preoccupy contemporary Russian cultural debate, although it would also seem that this shift in attention to the issue—Kinotavr devoted a roundtable the topic—is less motivated by a conceptual interest in screen adaptation than a funding issue: should the Ministry fund adaptations that break away from the original “sacral” text? This debate, in turn, would appear to have been triggered not so much by screen adaptations than the controversies around departures from the classical text on the theatrical stage, in particular Konstantin Bogomolov’s controversial contemporary readings of classical texts—from Dostoevskii’s Brothers Karamazov (MKhT, 2013) to Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (Lenkom, 2014)—and in the aftermath of a far bigger scandal, that of Timofei Kuliabin’s production of Tannhäuser which premiered at Novosibirsk’s Opera House on 20 December 2014. After receiving massive critical acclaim, the production was accused of insulting religious feelings and the local metropolitan Tikhon took the matter to court. On 13 March 2015, the Ministry of Culture summoned the theater’s director Boris Mezdrich and ordered changes and announced that it would not finance “such productions;” following an audit at the theater, Mezdrich was relieved of his post; the production has been removed from the repertoire.

nakhodkaKinotavr’s program included only two adaptations—although many more are in production or even completed, ranging from Vladimir Kott’s The Lower Depths (Na dne) to Roman Shaliapin’s Demons (Besy) and Ella Arkhangel’skaia’s The Cage (Kletka, based on Dostoevskii’s The Meek One/Krotkaia). This low number of a larger pool of films in competition may well reflect a broader trend towards traditional, speak dull, adaptations: both of Kinotavr's screen versions adhere to their literary models. Viktor Dement’s The Find (Nakhodka) is a traditional adaptation of Vladimir Tendriakov’s novella of the same title, written in 1965. The film follows the style of the 1960s and adds no contemporary dimension to the story, which remains temporally and morally distant from the viewer who is, however, hugely impressed by the nature shots of Karelia and Finland provided by Andrei Naidenov, who duly garnered an award for cinematography. Elena Hazanov’s Puppet Syndrome (Sindrom Petrushki) is adapted from Dina Rubina’s novel and offers scope for the exploration of the relationship between puppeteer Petia (Evgenii Mironov) and his “puppet” Liza (Chulpan Khamatova). However, the portrayal of Petia lacks the obsessive drive and sexual energy that would allow him to master the vitality of his “puppet.” The performance of Merab Ninidze as Liza’s psychiatrist, by contrast, offers an admirable insight into the character’s emotional restraint. The outstanding music of Nicolas Rabaeus has been recognized through an award.

All we need is love?

insight Of course, the theme of love permeates a number of films already discussed here, but it is foregrounded in two competition entries. Aleksandr Kott’s Insight engages with the theme of marital and extramarital relationships, focusing on Nadezhda (Agrippina Steklova), a nurse in an eye clinic, who is married but who falls for one of her patients. When Pavel Zuev (Aleksandr Iatsenko) suddenly loses his eyesight, he initially does not cope well with his predicament and Nadia helps him. In the visible and real world, Nadia’s marriage is based on habits and trust, but without emotional vibes; she wants a child, but does not conceive: even sex is habitual. Kott extends his story’s scope into the social theme of blindness, exploring what society has to offer to a blind man. However, the focus remains on the fairy-tale world that Zuev builds and that Nadia enters, where she is a beautiful princess. She likes the role, she pretends to marry Zuev, fakes a trip to Moscow, gets herself pregnant—and leaves Zuev to be with her husband, continuing a stable and dull life where two people co-exist, but where she is real, not some figment who can deceive Zuev and tell him any lie she wants. Kott has compared Nadia’s dilemma to that of “tell a lie once, and you have to keep lying,” in Nikolai Dostal’s Paradise-Cloud (Oblako rai, 1991). In the juxtaposition of real life and the imagined world of the blind man, the gritty touch is better than the glossy lie: Kott offers a bold appreciation of the real world with this film.

pro liubovAnna Melikian’s About Love (Pro liubov’) is the winner of this year’s festival and probably the most impeccable mainstream film in competition. Four novellas about love are strung together in an ingenious manner, as a sex therapist (Renata Litvinova) gives a public lecture on love. The stories concern a Japanese girl who comes to Moscow to find love, having arranged a series of meetings on the internet—and falls for a Japanese fellow-traveler. In another story, a secretary sleeps with her boss (Vladimir Mashkov) to keep her job and pay for her unemployed husband’s obsession with gaming. Yet another story takes us into the world of Japanese anime, where a pair meets regularly under the guise of anime characters, while in real life they have nothing to say to each other. And finally, there is the story of the graffiti artist with two mistresses. All these stories are linked through characters who cross each others’ paths, while the lecture on love’s sensory qualities leads to a final episode, where the lecturer visits her ex-husband and tells him everything about his new girlfriend, asleep in his bed. When she leaves, she bumps into the graffiti artist who has just made an escape from his demanding mistresses: he appears to be her perfect match. An outstandingly funny film, with a lot of humor at the expense of the Russian suitors (of the Japanese girl) who fail to pay the restaurant bill, ask her for money, and think of nothing but themselves.

Russian Cinema Abroad

The festival concluded with a special screening of Petr Buslov’s film Motherland (Rodina), about the daughter of a death-stricken oligarch who gets lost in India—a film that contains several convoluted layers of interpretation of what one might hold as “motherland.” One crudely simplified version suggests that the daughter of a Russian oligarch, raped by Russian drug-traffickers in Goa, is blessed by a Catholic priest to carry the child and ask her father for forgiveness: such a story, says the priest, “has happened before,” turning the girl into a Mother-of-God figure who subsequently returns to Russia and, lacking experience, education and knowledge, ignores the counsel from her advisor. The film, which according to Boris Nelepo offers “a universal story that will be interesting to the whole world,” reminds me more of a chernukha film of the 1980s than of contemporary (world?) cinema. One thing is certain: Russians abroad are certainly not shown from a particularly flattering side.

Ultimately, though, we should consider less the portrayal of Russians abroad, but the fate of Russian cinema in the international context: we want to see these films in international competition or even distribution. And here I return to the shades of gray. Most of the competition films are fine: they are professionally made, with a potential art-house market in their own country. However, according to Sel’ianov the figure of art-house audiences has remained unchanged at 50,000 over the last fifteen years. Overall, the figure of audiences has grown twenty times at the same time. This signals a limited potential of art-house cinema on the domestic market. Moreover, the demographics reveal a drop in the birth rate from 2000 onwards, meaning that the teenage audience is now smaller than ten years ago.

pro liubovLet us reconsider the competition program and ask: which films are geared at an international market? Sigarev, maybe. But the context and the jokes are intrinsically tied to Russian culture, even though the void character of Lenka is symptomatic of today’s generation and potentially universal. Melikian, maybe. But a lot of the humor is attached to Litvinova, to the self-representation of Russians on-line, to the figure of Mashkov as a (recognizable) sex symbol, etc. Kott, maybe—because of the disability theme, which also helped Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe (Plem’ia, 2014), and because of the universal story of the habit and the passion of love, and a fine performance by Steklova. And the rest is silence.

So the absence of Russian titles in Rotterdam, Cannes and Karlovy Vary has little to do with sanctions, but more with a lack of internationally and universally legible films. Bakur Bakuradze’s Brother Dejan (shown as work in progress in Sochi, and slated for competition in Locarno in August 2015) makes an exception as an art-house film with an internationally known story and as a Russian-Serbian co-production. The relative lack of state funding for co-productions has and will have a continued detrimental effect on the international appeal of Russian cinema—but maybe it wants to seclude itself from world cinema, refraining from co-production and from thinking in a universal film language, dwelling on the unique Russian life experience instead, and laying the blame at sanctions that temporarily exclude Russia from the international (film) market. A convenient answer, certainly, that goes easily with the “everything-is-fine” mode prevailing in contemporary Russian culture and the media. Buslov’s film is great (Nelepo 2015); the Moscow International Film Festival was a success (press bulletins issued during MIFF following—rather than before—the events to make sure the journalist community sings from the same hymn sheet); Russian co-production is working fine (Condee 2015). Well, I am not satisfied with such a mode of contemplation and achievement, and instead remain baffled by the sense of entropy that underlies, or is reflected in, such discourses. Political and social engagement happens in the (social) media only. In reality, people close their eyes and prefer the role of Kott's Zuev, whilst they play that of Sigarev's Lenka. Everything is fine.

Kinotavr. Shorts

In a roundtable on young cinema (8 June) Anna Gudkova stated that in European film schools the rule of thumb is this: out of 100 students, about 90 make a first film; about 60-70 a second, and only some 3-7 students make a third film. Those figures are discouraging for film students, but reassuring in the light of the number of potentials and hopefuls that emerge in any given short film competition, and helps to justify and contextualize the lack of outstanding works in this year’s competition. Gudkova made another, more worrying comment, which I share with her: the lack of education in the humanities and the lack of a sound general knowledge, combined with an inability to listen and absorb that we observe in the young generation of filmmakers; these kids know it all. In this “gray” light, let us look at the shorts competition. The first striking thing is the wide range of awards and the lack of any duplication from the shorts' jury in the film critics’ awards: in other words, there was no single, outstanding film on which the jury, let alone the critics, unanimously converged, but a range of films that deserved an award; I would go even further and suggest: the jury couldn’t decide, so they awarded three diplomas and a main prize.

erkinThe shorts program was, let us say, mediocre, and again this is not a question of selection but production. Clearly, Maria Gus’kova’s film, already noted at Cannes, is good and professionally made. The Return of Erkin (Vozvrashchenie Erkina) deals with Erkin’s return from a prison sentence that he has served for murder. The film does not explain the circumstances of the crime, but focuses on the actions of Erkin following his release: he tries to make peace with the victim’s family, but is chased away by the victim’s brother. Erkin’s wife has remarried and he is not welcome at his former home. A friend who owns a cotton factory gives him work, which Erkin humbly accepts and carries out. Invited to a wedding, he is once again out of place through the presence of the victim’s brother. Underlying Erkin’s attempts to re-integrate is a different attitude to religion in the family of the victim who attend the mosque, thus offering a hint (which can be followed through in the language) at the inter-ethnic conflicts in south Kyrgyzstan between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz people. Gus’kova’s subtle observation makes it possible to read this politically charged backdrop, whilst she remains almost stubbornly focused on the universal human story of redemption and forgiveness, where punishment through the legal system is not sufficient, and only reciprocal violence makes Erkin a possible neighbor to the victim’s family. In the finale, he shares a bench with the victim’s father after having been badly beaten up by the aggressive brother. At Cannes, Gus’kova’s film stood out by its high level of professionalism, especially next to Maksim Shavkin’s 14 Steps (14 shagov), filmed with a hand-held camera that shakes too much to make is possible to stay with it for the 38-minutes of the “short” film, which is the result of the training—or lack of it—at the Moscow School of New Cinema. The emergence of new independent film schools is a positive development, offering an alternative to the state system, but—as Irina Liubarskaia also lamented at the roundtable on 8 June—the quality of training varies hugely at the new schools.

nastyaThe winners: Kirill Pletnev’s Nastia is a nice enough film, but with rather traditional story-telling that is complemented by the fabulous acting performance of Inga Oboldina as the policewoman Nastia, who arrests the post-woman Nastia, who has been stealing pensions rather than delivering them. As they await a prison transfer, the personal tragedies of the women’s unfulfilled lives come to the surface. A scene of melodramatic crying is over the top even of the most traditional acting, yet it is not exaggerated enough to be funny: here, for me, the film failed. The presence of the adopted Tajik daughter makes Nastia all too calculated in terms of Russia’s ethnic brotherhood and solidarity. Vladlena Sandu’s Kira concerns a girl who leaves prison and finds constraints in the world outside, too, echoing the theme of Gus’kova’s film. Maksim Kulagin’s The Car Thief (Ugonshchik), on the other hand, is a nicely conducted experiment in the horror genre, as car thieves hijack a car that contains the body of an infected woman. Kulagin intelligently uses parallel editing and close ups to render the scariness of the situation for the thief. Portfolio by Nikita Tamarov starts innocently with a funeral car driving along the road; next, the driver stops to buy food at a supermarket. The apparently everyday setting soon changes when the undertaker receives a call to retrieve a handbag from a coffin of a client he has just buried. Then he is required to return the dead body and dress him as a living man, all so that the relatives may properly claim the inheritance. All the time he acts under the threat of losing his job. Yet the dilemma of how far his ethics will stretch to keep his job becomes secondary in Tamarov’s version, which delights in the slapstick arising from the resurrection of the dead man. Thus, while the film is funny, it is also exaggerated and overdone, and therefore ultimately tends towards a banality that neglects the potentially serious issues at stake here. Dar’ia Vlasova’s The Freemasons (Masony), on the contrary, deals better with the balance of the comic and serious: her funny and lighthearted tale belies a deeper meaning. Four men meet regularly to decipher coded messages from their lodge; in the latest message, they are told that their lodge is to be dissolved. Taken aback by this development, they travel to the printers where the newsletter with the coded messages is produced, in the hope of finding the grandmaster there. Yet only one of the men actually visits the factory and discovers that theirs is the last and only lodge. The discovery might be too disturbing for the other men, so he keeps this secret and continues the pretense, highlighting the need for the men to believe in something, even if it is faked.

ugonshikOther interesting films included the actress Tatiana Dogileva’s debut as filmmaker with Horizon (Gorizont), a film set in Latvia, which tells the story of an elderly couple (Emmanuel Vitorgan and Dogileva) who live on the Baltic coast where he is to recover his health. They engage a Latvian girl as a nurse, yet she fails to do her job and acts in an overly aggressive way—the viewer is left to wonder why they keep her. Even better: the couple helps her, and when she is pregnant they provide her with money so she can follow her boyfriend abroad; when the relationship breaks apart, they raise her child, and even learn Latvian so the girl has no problems with integration. Politically, the film sends an overly correct message to Latvia at a time when the Baltic countries fear a Russia invasion following the annexation of Crimea (something not helped by recent debates about the legitimacy of the independence declaration of the Baltic republics in 1991), and at a time when a large number of Russians migrate to Latvia and purchase real estate there in order to make a safe home away from their native Russia.

fedorExciting projects were rare; they include Aksinia Gog’s Fedor’s Journey through Moscow at the Turn of the 21st Century (Puteshestvie Fedora po Moskve nachala XXI veka), which was in my view the most interesting film in the program. Gog experiments with different views offered by the camera lens: at the beginning the camera captures the boy’s head upside down; later it illustrates a news report that talks about cars going backwards to avoid traffic jams. Visually innovative, the film probes the experiences of the boy Fedor as he spends a few days with his aunt, who takes him to lectures on antiquity at a college, who looks after granddad who is glued to the television (watching absurd news reports in a mockery of the medium), and who helps him pull a tooth. The film shows the experiences of the boy in an exaggerated manner, as if seen through his eyes. In yet another layer, the film comments on the lack of love in the contemporary world: quite grotesquely, people die from a virus that has transmuted due to a lack of love, mocking the “new morality” that is promoted by the Ministry of Culture’s sanitizing acts (see the Kuliabin affair above) and the legislation on the prohibition of vulgar language, which is strangely confined to four words (obscene words for male and female genitals, for prostitute, and for copulation), without any restrictions on the abusive vocabulary describing homosexual relationships or defecation.

Tat’iana Rakhmanova’s My Brother is a Superhero (Moi brat Betmen) is one of the projects that has benefitted from Sokurov’s foundation “Primer intonatsii”, more widely represented at Cannes’ Global Russian event this year (see Condee 2015). Rakhmanova sets her film in the suburban wasteland of St Petersburg, where her attention is on two brothers: the elder dresses up as Batman to alleviate the pain and grief of the younger, seven-year old Sergei, over the loss of their parents. While the film’s narrative is built on a nice idea and the visuals render well the inner devastation of both brothers, the film unfolds in a somewhat tedious manner and only reluctantly develops characters and slowly advances the plot. Zhora Kryzhovnikov’s After Us the Deluge (Posle nas khot’ potop) is an extravagant pseudo-sci-fi comedy that is most elegantly made. A UFO with two extra-terrestrials visits earth on New Year’s Eve—a time when everything is possible. The two seek shelter with a man who has been left by his wife and, although causing havoc and almost getting him arrested, in the end his wife and son come home for a visit, making that “new year’s fairy tale” come true.

The only thing that remains is for the fairy tale of exciting, extravagant and crazy new film projects to come true—unlikely at a time of financial crisis, but then we may all have that dream of a new star to be born in Russian cinema. Not in 2015, though.

Birgit Beumers

Competition Awards:
Grand Prix: About Love by Anna Melikian
Best Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko for Angels of Revolution
Best Debut: The Gulls by Ella Manzheeva
Best Actress: Polina Grishina (Salvation, dir. Ivan Vyrypaev)
Best Actor/Ensemble: Vasilii Butkevich, Aleksandr Pal’, Pavel Chinarev, Ivan Iankovskii (Rag Union, dir. Mikhail Mestetskii)
Best Photography: Andrei Naidenov (The Find, dir. Viktor Dement)
Best Script: Vasilii Sigarev, Andrei Il’enkov (Land of Oz, dir. Vasilii Sigarev)
Best Music: Nicolas Rabaeus (Puppet Syndrome, dir. Elena Hazanov)
Special Jury Diploma: 14+, dir. Andrei Zaitsev (“For the talented and genuine view on the generation of VKontakte that recognises the eternal value of love”).

Prize of the Distributors’ Jury
About Love by Anna Melikian

Guild of Russian Film Scholars and Film Critics
Land of Oz, dir. Vasilii Sigarev
Angels of Revolution, dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko
Diploma: Pioneer-Heroes, dir. Natalia Kudriashova

Short Competition Awards:
Grand Prix: Nastia, dir. Kirill Pletnev
Diploma “For a laconic form and deep content”: The Return of Erkin, dir. Maria Gus’kova
Diploma “For unified artistic expression”: Kira, dir. Vladlena Sandu
Diploma “For style and love for genre”: The Car Thief, dir. Maksim Kulagin

Guild of Russian Film Scholars and Film Critics:
“Elephant”: Portfolio, dir. Nikita Tamarov
Diploma: The Freemasons, dir. Dar’ia Vlasova

Works Cited

Condee, Nancy. 2015. “The Russian Pavilion at Cannes 2015: Film Politics after Leviathan.” KinoKultura 49.

Kuvshinova, Mariia. 2015. "Natal'ia Kudriashova: Moe detstvo prokhodilo v ogromnom, v serom." Seans-Blog 22 June.

Nelepo, Boris. 2015. “V Moskve sneg poshel.” Seans Blog 19 June.


Birgit Beumers © 2015

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