KinoKultura: Issue 49 (2015)

The Russian Pavilion at Cannes 2015: Film Politics after Leviathan

By Nancy Condee (University of Pittsburgh)

For Russian cinema in particular, Cannes IFF 2015 was a lean year: neither the Main Competition nor Un Certain Regard competition, neither Directors’ Fortnight nor Critics’ Week included Russian selections; elsewhere, even at the margins, few contributions could be found. Russia’s one moment of recognition—to which I return shortly—was its showing in the Cinéfondation shorts competition (for film-school students), with two Russian entries out of eighteen; only France shared such representation.[1] For the largest country in the world at the world’s film competition, two short films is sparse.

ruspav-logoWas this fallow field traceable to geopolitics, as some would quite reasonably suppose?[2] Or is it a mis-coordinated submissions strategy (as I struggle to assume)? Leaving aside this puzzle that does not lend itself to an answer, ciné-russophiles newly found that the Russian Pavilion—one of two Russian state venues (together with the Film Market’s Russian Booth)—was the principle source not only of information on contemporary Russian cinema, but also (for the first time in its eight years) of unplanned controversy. Representing 44 production companies, film studios, and distribution companies, the Pavilion is one of 60 such national outlets at Cannes, disseminating information on new films, co-production and distribution opportunities, shooting locations, and production services. While the Pavilion’s function is entrepreneurial, the scholar who is either unengaged from its promotional buzz or sufficiently clueless to remain indifferent will find it a valuable resource.

What follows is neither an event report nor a comprehensive review of the Pavilion’s activities, but a partial essay—in both senses of “partial”—that looks at Russia’s official account of its own contemporary cinema. At least as much is left out of the state’s promotion efforts as is included; the cautious reader will bear in mind that the Pavilion’s selective remit is hardly intended for an academic audience.

The greatest irony of the Pavilion’s 2015 offerings was this: one normally expects deafeningly pro forma dissemination at such national pavilions, in sharp contrast to steamy controversies in the mainstream Cannes competitions. This year, Fate turned the tables. While regular festival guests found little to debate and were reduced to fretting over the coveted Palm Dog award,[3] the Russian Pavilion turned out to be the site of two real-time political controversies, one day after the other.

This essay looks first at these two controversies, then turns to four areas of the contemporary cinema industry: young cinema (the Pavilion’s own Global Russians series and Cannes Festival’s Cinéfondation competition); Pavilion co-production initiatives for future Russian films; Pavilion distribution pitches for current Russian films; and—at the end of the essay—some of the cinema events that fall outside the Pavilion’s 2015 choices.

Mikhalkov and the Pirate Band

On 17 May at the Russian Pavilion’s “New Prospects, New Partners”—slated to be a routine informational roundtable to promote transnational co-production (no easy task in the wake of international sanctions)—the panel of foreign film representatives from the British Film Institute, the Israel Film Fund, German Films, and Aldamisa Entertainment USA found themselves publicly in real time taking sides with Sergei Sel'ianov and Vlad Riashin (Chair and Co-Chair, Association of Film and TV Producers of Russia) against efforts by Nikita Mikhalkov (President, Copyright Holders Union of Russia) to push forward a Russian law that would end government efforts against pirating and instead cooperate with illegal websites through a series of tax initiatives. The garnered tax revenues would be earmarked (opportunistically, it was argued) for the Copyright Holders Union, ostensibly for allocation by Mikhalkov at some later stage of implementation in ways that have not been worked out.

russian pavilionSergei Sel'ianov, together with Vlad Riashin, showed up at the Pavilion roundtable in person to express alarm that the proposed law is likely to be financially disastrous for the copyright holders themselves (such as Sel'ianov’s own CTB Company), who would thereby be unlikely to see return on their content. At its worst, the law would ensure that income from illegal activity would enrich the Copyright Holders Union while facilitating piracy. In amounting to essentially a tax on the internet (itself a WTO violation), the law would annihilate legal sites with a disastrous effect on cinemas, already struggling to maintain steady income from theatrical releases. Further along the economic chain, television ratings and advertisement sales would be negatively affected, since pirates would be legally free to continue offering broadcasts without ads. The proposed law was not only, to quote Sel'ianov, “market-destroying,” but had also entailed no prior industry consultation other than with leading members of Mikhalkov’s own production company TriTe (Rosser 2015).

Not normally a hothouse of debate, the Russian Pavilion was suddenly very publicly divided: while Sel'ianov and the Western film representatives joined in sharp criticism of Mikhalkov’s ethics, many in the audience were by no means so inclined against the conservative director, answering back to the panel that Mikhalkov must have been motivated by the best of intentions, unknown to us but worthy of support.

In the middle of this public ideological divide, the event moderator, Katia Mtsitouridze (Roskino CEO) continued to facilitate the sharp exchanges, despite the rising temperature. Finally, she took sides: the proposed new law, she said unequivocally, “could destroy everything we have built over the last 15 years. […] I support the main producers and filmmaker unions entirely” (Anon. 2015). A public split in the ranks at Russia’s official film venue was a rare event, all the more worthy of respect because—just below the surface of this civil exchange of views—foreigners and Russians of every persuasion could instantly extrapolate from Mikhalkov’s proposal to all the other ideological issues at stake in mid-2015 Russia, from recent cultural repressions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. How quickly those elements could be intermixed became even clearer the following day.

“Impartial civic activism”

On 18 May, guests at the Pavilion were treated to a second political encounter. At the end of the scheduled events, the audience was invited to stay for an additional thirty-minute documentary short, Humans Live Here (Zdes' zhivut liudi, 2014) by the young, unknown filmmaker Il'ia Novodvorskii. Accepted into the 2015 Cannes Short Film Corner, but not featured in the Pavilion’s 2015 Global Russians series, Novodvorskii’s documentary framed the Russian invasion as Kiev’s attack on the peaceful citizens of Donbass: no mention of Russian military presence; no shots of Russian uniforms; no interviews with Russian green-clad “vacationers.”[4] Introducing himself at the Pavilion as a philosophy graduate from Moscow State University who had gone on his own—with neither experience, funding, production support, nor filming authorization—to Donbass in December 2014, Novodvorskii was nevertheless able generously to provide Pavilion guests with a plentiful supply of professionally produced DVDs and ample promotional materials.[5]

novodvorskiiIt will not surprise the reader that the Russian Pavilion was immediately polarized between the audience’s majority—those who welcomed Novodvorskii’s empathic “message to man”—and those few liberals who were appalled that Roskino had allowed the Pavilion to be used for crude state-propaganda purposes. Unlike her earlier sharp allegiance, Mtsituridze took a cautious stance: the Pavilion offered exposure for contemporary cinema without regard to any given political position. She reminded the audience of the Pavilion visibility given to Andrei Griaznov’s film docudrama Tomorrow (Zavtra, 2011) about the street-art group Voina, responsible for some of the most interesting performance happenings, art pranks, protests, and—some would say—vandalism in the years leading up to the emergence of Pussy Riot in August 2011.[6] Novodvorskii’s Humans Live Here, she argued, is the other side of the same coin.

Of course, neither side at the Pavilion that day was satisfied, with alternating charges of unethical behavior—against Novodvorskii for his misrepresentation of Ukrainian events; against the Pavilion for agreeing to screen the film; against the very few liberal audience members for their undisguised contempt. What was heartening was the two spontaneous public controversies were happening two days in a row. Definitely better than the Palm Dog Awards.

A final surprise at the Pavilion was the relative absence of war films promoted to potential buyers. It is not, of course, reasonable to expect that Russia’s “war season” is over. After all, many offerings are just entering distribution; and the centenary of the October Revolution is on the horizon.[7] But at least at Cannes 2015 we had a brief reprieve from the shelling so as to appreciate other genre choices.

Sokurov’s Hand: Young Cinema in 2015

Three events at the Pavilion were dedicated to the younger generation of film directors.[8] I will focus here on the annual Global Russians, since it is the Pavilion’s major recurring event. The series normally focuses on young filmmakers from Russia’s major film schools (most typically, VGIK graduates).[9] By contrast, the 2015 Global Russians event (18 May) was organized around the mentoring contributions of Aleksandr Sokurov in shaping the future of Russian cinema through his own cluster of educational programs and foundations in Nal'chik (Kabardino-Balkaria), Saint Petersburg, and elsewhere. [10]

global russiansThe Pavilion chose five Russian shorts by six filmmakers (one co-authored). Three shorts were the work of Sokurov’s students at the Kabardino-Balkarian State University, where they studied for as long as five years with the Saint Petersburg director. These former students, Oleg Khamokov (Army [Armè], 2014), Kira Kovalenko (They Abandoned Me [Oni ushli ot menia], 2014), and Kantemir Balagov (First I [Pervyi ia], 2013) presented clips and spoke about the difficulties of filming with no local technical production base: while logistical complexities kept driving them back to Moscow or Saint Petersburg, the most fascinating content was located far from those capitals. Khamokov, for example, had just completed a version of Antigone in Kabardian (a language of the northwest Caucasus) that now faces daunting distribution and exhibition challenges.

A fourth “Sokurov fledgling,” Shamil' Iagafarov (It Was Summer [Bylo leto], 2014), is a former student of Konstantin Lopushanskii (Saint Petersburg State University of Cinema and Television, GUKiT) and recipient of a grant from Sokurov’s Saint Petersburg foundation called An Example of Intonation (Primer Intonatsii).[11] The final two young directors under Sokurov’s guidance—a Chita husband-and-wife team Denis and Ekaterina Terenichev (the short drama Your Son [Tvoi syn, 2012])—had participated in the Cinelaboratory of Aleksandr Sokurov in Saint Petersburg, where they were awarded a grant from the Saint Petersburg International Media Forum 2014.[12]

While the master’s hand was evident in some of the work—his disregard for physical violence and the assertion of power; his commitment to the transcendent potential of love—the filmmakers were remarkably distinct in their topics and approaches. Oleg Khamokov’s Army is a philosophical examination of the corrosive allure of physical abuse; Kira Kovalenko’s They Abandoned Me is a generational drama, set in the Caucasus, about a young woman who struggles to hold her own views; while Kantemir Balagov’s First I is a meditation on the efforts to live the conscious life, free of conventional dependencies. Shamil' Iagafarov’s It Was Summer is a short drama about two brothers whose loyalty for each other is disrupted by romance. Denis and Ekaterina Terenichev’s Your Son concerns a mother who finds, as she awaits letters from her soldier-son, that the postman bringing her the letters becomes a loyal companion.

The five shorts comprised a distinctly different line of Russian art-house filmmaking than selections shown at Kinotavr.Shorts 2015 and the Moscow International Film Festival 2015, where many of the shorts—neither better nor worse than Sokurov’s fledglings—were conceived as examples of specific genre choices, such as the action film (Maksim Kulagin’s Car Thief [Ugonshchik]), thriller (Aleksei Komynin’s That’s Not Me [Èto ne ia]), melodrama (Mariia Boltneva’s Boomerang [Bumerang], or comedy (Dar'ia Vlasova’s Freemasons [Masony]. The Pavilion made a smart choice in highlighting this line in contemporary short cinema; by bringing together six filmmakers who themselves were dispersed at great distance from each other in Russia, it was possible to observe Sokurov’s influence more closely in the succeeding generation.

Cinéfondation: Russia’s Success

For Russian cinéphiles, Cannes’ Cinéfondation competition is a closely-watched event for a number of reasons, among them this: Russian submissions have recently done well in this program. Russia has a stronger educational infrastructure in filmmaking than many other countries and the competition outcome often reflects that investment. In 2012 Taisiia Igumentseva won the Cinéfondation First Prize for her provocative short comedy The Road to… (Doroga na…, 2011), an award that facilitated her subsequent comedy Bite the Dust (Otdat’ kontsy, 2013). The following year, Evgenii Bialo’s drama Norm of Life (Norma zhizni, 2013) did not win a Cinéfondation prize, but was widely considered one of the strongest contributions in the competition. Other prize winners have included Nikolai Khomeriki and Sergei Luchishin.[13]

The first Russian Cinéfondation contestant of 2015, Maksim Shavkin, presented 14 Steps (14 shagov), his diploma short film from the Moscow School of New Cinema, a relatively new institution located at the ArtPlay Design Center, where Shavkin studied with director Dmitrii Mamuliia.[14] Laconic and resistant to a straightforward narrative, Shavkin’s plot focuses on Anna, a young woman who has come to the city to study, but is stalked by a man from her past. A shaky, handheld camera ensures nothing is clear, especially the outcome, which nevertheless suggests that the man from her past is murdered as Anna herself flees the city.

erkinThe second Cinéfondation entrant, Mariia Gus'kova, was a student of Irakli Kvirikadze at the Higher Courses for Scriptwriters and Film Directors. Her contribution, The Return of Erkin (Vozvrashchenie Erkina), with a cast almost entirely of Kyrgyz and Uzbek non-professional actors, traces the life of former Uzbek prisoner Erkin, who tries unsuccessfully to reintegrate himself back into his local community. To say more would be to spoil some of the best scenes in this 28-minute film; Gus'kova’s understated style and verbal minimalism produce an excellent piece of filmmaking. Apparently, at least some of the Cinéfondation jury members agreed: Gus'kova shared the Cinéfondation’s Third Prize with Ian Garrido López’s Spanish short Victor XX, before going on to win a Special Jury Prize at Kinotavr 2015.

Future Film: ISO International Co-Production

One of the major functions of the Pavilion is the promotion of international co-productions for upcoming films. Seven Russian film projects were chosen to make pitches at the Pavilion. I will comment briefly on five of these.

coprodFor the academic reader, the most interesting Russian film currently in pre-production is offered by Aleksandr Kott, whose silent film Test (Ispytanie, 2014) had won the Grand Prix at the Kinotavr Film Festival, and was immediately followed by his disability drama Insight (2015). Kott’s new project is a historical drama Philosophy Steamer (Filosofskii parokhod), scheduled to begin shooting in autumn 2016. The film is based on the 1922 expulsion of Russia’s leading philosophers, scientists, and other intellectuals on a series of ships collectively known as the Philosophy Steamer. The core historical fact involves two German vessels, the Oberbürgermeister Haken and the Preussen, which left Petrograd for the German port Stettin (now Poland) on 28 September (and six weeks later in November 1922) with 228 exiled citizens, of which 160 were leading members of the Russian intelligentsia, most notably philosophers Nikolai Berdiaev, Semen Frank, and Ivan Il'in and theologian Sergei Bulgakov. The script includes the historical figure Iakov Agranov (1893–1938), one of Russia’s most odious Chekists, implicated in almost every unpalatable event of early 20th-century history.[15] Scripted by Oleg Malovichko and produced by Sreda (Aleksandr Tsekalo), The Philosophy Steamer has an April 2017 release, pending negotiation outcomes with German and French co-producers.

A second interesting film in pre-production is Viktor Ginzburg’s Empire V (Ampir V), produced by Elena Iatsura (Trikita). Described at the Pavilion by the director as a “mystical satire on the new world order, hyper-capitalism and the new Babylon,” the film enters production in autumn 2015 and slated for completion in 2017. Based on Viktor Pelevin’s eponymous 2006 novel, the film is planned to be rich in special effects. Like Ginzburg’s previous film, the sci-fi drama Generation P (2011, based on Pelevin’s 1999 novel), the new vampire love fantasy is shot in Moscow with classic high-concept techniques typical of horror, action, and science-fiction genres.

coprodAnother ambitious effort by Elena Iatsura’s Trikita Production Company is the biopic Lenin, based on a script from Russia’s lead ideological mentor, Vladimir Sorokin. Difficult though it may be for the Western reader to believe that Russia is ready for a hipster Lenin biopic, Iatsura maintains that the action film, set in five countries (Switzerland, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia) during the decade of Lenin’s life from 1989 to 1918, will appeal to younger audiences and is timed for release during the October Centennial. With a proposed USD 6.1 million budget, Trikita is still in negotiation with the potential director and lead actor.

Among the younger Russian directors whose work has attracted considerable respect is Ivan I. Tverdovskii, son of documentary filmmaker Ivan Tverdovskii. Tverdovskii’s last film, the feature debut Corrections Class (Klass korrektsii, 2014) tackled a topic very rare in contemporary Russian cinema: not only a disability film, but also an erotic adolescent love story.[16] His second feature film, seeking international co-production, is the black comedy Zoology (Zoologiia), produced by Natal'ia Mokritskaia’s New People Studio. It tells the story of Natal'ia, a zoo administrator, who wakes up to discover that she has grown a tail. She seeks help from a whole range of social resources—the Church, the clinic, even local witchcraft. In a narrative (and physiological) inversion of Gogol'’s “Nose,” Natal'ia ends up a better woman for having grown a tail, despite her initial expectations. Tverdovskii’s original script is slated to begin shooting in Moscow in autumn 2015.

Finally, and most extravagantly, is the political-thriller Beirut, produced by Fedor Bondarchuk (Art Pictures), but still without an announced director. Promised to audiences as a kind of Russian Argo (Ben Affleck’s 2012 political thriller), and armed with a script by Eduard Bagirov (writer for the 2013 series Pepel), Beirut is shot in Morocco and Moscow, based on the 30 September 1985 kidnappings of four Soviet diplomats (a doctor, a cultural attaché, a commercial representative, and an intelligence officer who is killed in the operation). KGB agents Lantsov and Krylatov arrive at the embassy to sort things out in an eerily relevant geopolitical environment where pro-Soviet communists near Tripoli have joined pro-Syrian fighters to defeat Muslim fundamentalists in the city. Planned for a 2017 release, the film will begin its promotion campaign in 2016.

Current Film: ISO Global Distribution

To support distribution efforts, the Pavilion’s Focus on New Russian Cinema (16 May) selected six Russian films (newly released or about to be released); I will make comments on three of the films selected for this segment.[17] Nickolay [sic] Sarkisov’s 2014 Krasny is a Red Western (an “ironic Western,” in the words of its Russian-US director), set in the southern Russian town of Krasny (in Russian, “Red”). Shot in Georgia, the film is set in the early years of the Soviet government, after the Civil War.[18] Its cast includes Iurii Tsurilo, best known to Western viewers for his work in Aleksei German’s Khrustalev, the Car! (Khrustalev, mashinu!, 1998) and Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt' bogom, 2013). The premise of Sarkisov’s film is the encounter of three very different social types in the new Soviet Union: a political commissar, a noblewoman, and a Cossack.

russian pavilionSarkisov’s formula (three social types cross paths at a moment of historical crisis) is an occasional device common to several recent releases. Another common formula might be described as the “youth brigade”: a small group of young idealists (different, but tightly bound to each other by generation, past experience, or creative commitments) who reach a crossroads where their common ties are tested. An example of this formula, offered for distribution at the Pavilion, is Mikhail Mestetskii’s feature debut Rag Union (Triapichnyi soiuz, 2015]. In Mestetskii’s film, Vania, an imaginative adolescent, makes friends with three creative young visionary-artists, whose art actions seem to hold the promise of changing the world. The eccentric band comes to live in Vania’s family dacha and their extreme—at times violent—art actions become a local way of life. A male coming-of-age story, described by its producer Roman Borisevich (Koktebel' Studio) as a “tragi-comedy with mysticism and irony,” Rag Union marks the transformation of director Mikhail Mestetskii from art-house mockumentary filmmaker to full-fledged feature director.[19] Mestetskii’s film premiered at Kinotavr 2015, where its male cast was awarded Best Actor.[20

Finally, the Pavilion offered Egor Baranov’s erotic thriller Locust (Sarancha, 2014), a social commentary on the “locust generation,” out to claim what it can at great risk for the achievement of its goals. Two emblematic examples, Lera and Artem, meet at a resort, begin a meaningless fling, and move with ill-advised velocity to violence and assassination. The film is aimed at an adult audience and contains violence, but not of course (in the post-2014 environment) obscene language.

What was not at the Russia Pavilion? Three Candidates

diveThe list, of course, is infinite. I would choose two films and one event. One of the two films is already in circulation, while the other is still in search of a producer. Available at Cannes’ Short Film Corner, but not highlighted at the Pavilion was Ol'ga Gorodetskaia’s comic-thriller short The Dive (Pogruzhenie, 2015), starring Aleksei Serebriakov, whom readers will remember as the lead of Andrei Zviagintsev’s drama Leviathan (Leviafan, 2014).[21] Gorodetskaia’s hero, Leonid Platonov, a mediocre talk-show host, has been trolled by internet punkers who invite visitors to vote whether Platonov should commit suicide on air that evening. Platonov is summoned by his own television executives to discuss the details: after all, the suicide’s value for ratings (“one third of the country will be watching!”) should not be underestimated. The 27-minute film sustains a rewarding deadpan style, invoking fictional reactions to the proposed suicide from Konstantin Ernst and Vladimir Posner, who deems the voting “tough, but right.” Rich in aphorisms (“we are not people; we are prisoners of war”; “in war and television, the winners are never judged”), the film is a witty social commentary spotlighting Serebriakov at his best, at the center of a dilemma, à la Kafka, as comic as it is hopeless.

Beyond the selections of the Pavilion is a second oddball film—in the pre-production stage, currently being pitched to producers—as tenuous as it is risky. Co-directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov may be remembered for their ironic melodrama Intimate Parts (Intimnye mesta, 2013), a remarkable portrait of middle-class Muscovites and their sexual complexities. Their proposed second feature film, The Man Who Surprised Everyone (Chelovek, kotoryi udivil vsekh), tells the story of Egor Korshunov, a forester fatally ill with cancer. Having lost all hope of recovery, Egor finally decides to live his life exactly the way he had always wanted: as a woman. The villagers’ reaction is swift and merciless: Egor becomes the local pariah. With their own script and a modest proposed budget of a half million dollars, the co-directors are seeking funding and production support for a 100-minute film. The fate of the project will be a litmus test of the limits of contemporary producers’ confidence at a time of financial uncertainty.

The third element most obviously absent from the Russian Pavilion—hardly surprising, given the Pavilion’s remit as a promotional venue—was any mention of the film community’s most politically charged issue: the future of Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker and director of the drama Gamer (2011), who was arrested 11 May 2014 by the Russian Federal Security Service on suspicion of planning acts of terrorism. While Sentsov sits in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, the Russian film community,[22] as well as such members of the international film community as Pedro Almodóvar, Agnieszka Holland, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Andrzej Wajda, Wim Wenders, and Krzysztof Zanussi, appeal for Sentsov’s release. Sentsov’s lawyer is Dmitrii Dinze, who had earlier defended Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina. At the current time, Sentsov’s trial scheduled for 11 May has been postponed to 11 July 2015. Meanwhile, virtually next door at the Cannes Ukrainian Pavilion, a petition invited visitors to sign their names in support of Sentsov’s release.

As the Russian Pavilion was closing up shop after 20 May, it could quite rightly claim a fair number of successes, including sales of features and animated films to 24 countries. The biggest success for the industry was Central Partnership’s sale of four box-offices films: Nikolai Lebedev’s air-disaster remake Crew (Ekipazh), scheduled for release in 2016; Sarik Andreasian’s science-fiction action film Mafia (2015); and Oleg Stepchenko’s fantasy adventure film Kolovrat (2016), all to Korea; with an option deal for Andrei Kravchuk’s 2017 historical drama Viking. Of greater interest to the art-mainstream reader is Intercinema’s Chinese sale of television, VOD and DVD rights to two art-mainstream films: Ramil' Salakhutdinov’s Saint Petersburg drama White White Night (Belaia belaia noch', 2014) and Aleksandr Mitta’s historical biography Chagall Malevich (Shagal Malevich, 2013], nurturing hope that Russian art-house film has not yet expired.

It would be unfair to compare Cannes 2015—whether at the competitions or at the Pavilion and Film Market—to recent years, when, for example, rights to Leviathan alone were sold to over fifty countries in 2014, including Sony Pictures Classics. In fact, taken altogether, the twelve-month harvest of Russian awards has been remarkably good. Even apart from Andrei Zviagintsev’s successes (Cannes Best Script, Golden Globe, Academy Award nomination), four other Russian directors won major awards in 2014/15.[23] There is no question that the Russian film industry is moving aggressively in the direction of animation, blockbuster, and grand historical drama. Nevertheless, a number of Russian films premiering this year—Aleksei Fedorchenko’s whimsical drama Angels of the Revolution (Angely revoliutsii, 2014), Vasilii Sigarev’s comedy Land of Oz (Strana Oz), Anna Melikian’s comedy About Love (Pro liubov'), and Natal'ia Kudriashova’s Pioneer-Heroes (Pionery-geroi), all of which screened at Kinotavr 2015—give reason to hope that intelligent, first-rate films will be available in the coming months.

Nancy Condee
University of Pittsburgh


1] The eighteen selected student shorts were chosen out of 1,593 submissions from 381 film schools. The two Russian Cinéfondation entries were Maksim Shavkin’s live-action 14 Steps and Mariia Gus'kova’s post-documentary The Return of Erkin.

2] Karlovy Vary IFF, normally a venue sympathetic to its regional cinema (including Russian films), also curiously lacked in any Russian choices in any of its four competition programs.

3] Since 2001, the Palm Dog has been awarded to the best canine performance (live-action or animated) by a dog or group of dogs in the festival slate. This year the award—an embossed leather dog collar—was given to Lucky the Maltipoo in Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, the Grand Jury Prize was given to Bob in Yorgos Lanthimos’s dystopian comedy The Lobster, while the Palm DogManitarian Award was conferred collectively on the dogs trafficked in Laurent Larivière’s I am a Soldier.

4] This term is an ironic reference to an explanation (August 2014) by pro-Russian separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko (self-appointed Prime Minister, Donetsk People’s Republic) that Russian Federation soldiers were not invaders, but rather “soldiers who would rather take their vacation not on a beach but with us, among brothers, who are fighting for their freedom.” Henceforth, for the pro-Kiev intelligentsia, the term “on vacation” became a mock euphemism for “invasion” (see Reuters, 28 August 2014). The most creative pro-Maidan response to the invasion was the Ukrainian artists’ occupation of the Russian Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, when they handed out camouflage fatigues marked “On Vacation” and held a raffle for a Crimea vacation to contestants who submitted selfies dressed in On Vacation uniforms. See Kirchgaessner and Walker 2015.

5] Novodvorskii and cameraman Mikhail Kutuzov, characterized as “impartial civic activists” by the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, are part of the anti-Maidan Russian government social-media campaign Save Children from Fascism. See Civic Chamber website.

6] Among Voina’s most memorable actions was the 15 June 2010 graffiti of an erect penis painted on Saint Petersburg’s Liteinyi Bridge. When the bridge was opened, the penis pointed to the Saint Petersburg FSB (State Security) headquarters. The art action was awarded the Innovation Prize (11 April 2011) from the Ministry of Culture. Voina subsequently donated the substantial prize (400,000 RUR) to Agora Inter-regional Association of Human Rights Organizations, the Kazan’ NGO that provides legal support for victims of abuse from prison officers, police and military personnel. It was Agora legal analyst Irina Khrunova who successfully negotiated Pussy Riot member Ekaterina Samutsevich’s prison probation release on 10 October 2012.

7] For those who appreciate war films, the 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War was a bumper year, adding to what is surely (outside of Hollywood) the thickest portfolio of battle films in the world. Major new releases include Sergei Mokritskii’s Battle for Sevastopol (Bitva za Sevastopol'), separately distributed in Ukraine under the release title Unbroken (Neslomlennaia); Sergei Popov’s Road to Berlin (Doroga na Berlin); and Renat Davletiarov’s The Dawns Here are Quiet (A zori zdes' tikhie), a remake of Stanislav Rostotskii’s 1972 war film of the same title. In addition, one might count Dmitrii Meskhiev’s World War One film Battalion (Batal’on), about the First Russian Women’s Battalion (the so-called “Death Battalion”). 

8] These three events were (a) the Global Russians panel on 18 May; (b) the Russian contributions by Mariia Gus'kova and Maksim Shavkin to the Cinéfondation competition; and (c) the panel on the Youth Center [Molodezhnyi tsentr] of the Union of Filmmakers on 20 May, presenting six young filmmakers. For details on the last of these, see the Youth Center’s site.

9] For a more complete account of recent VGIK debuts, see VGIK Debut Catalogue: All Projects 2012-2015 (Moscow: VGIK, 2015). Of particular interest are two live-action features: Rustam Iliasov’s Vacant Life of the Chef (Vakantna zhizn' shef-povara, 2015) and Vitalii Suslin’s Defile (2015).

10] The five films described here comprise the DVD, Short Films by Young Russian Directors (ROSKINO, 2015).

11] In late 2013, Lenfilm Studio contracted with Sokurov’s foundation to provide technical support to young filmmakers vetted through the Foundation. See Kozlov 2013.

12] Click for information on the 2016 Media Forum, scheduled to be held in Saint Petersburg, but now with federal funding instead of municipal support.

13] In 2005, Nikolai Khomeriki won Second Prize for The Two of Us (Vdvoem, 2005). In 2001, Sergei Luchishin won First Prize for his drama Portrait (Portret, 2000).

14] A looser educational environment than VGIK, the Moscow School has attracted a wide range of major directors, including Bakur Bakuradze, Il'ia Khrzhanovskii, Kirill Serebrennikov, Sergei Loznitsa, Aleksei Mizgirev, Andrei Zviagintsev, Pavel Bardin, Vasilii Sigarev, Boris Khlebnikov, and Nikolai Khomeriki.

15] Agranov spearheaded the 1921 Tagantsev “conspiracy” (resulting in the execution of poet Nikolai Gumilev on 25 August 1921); he was a key figure in the 1930 Industrial Party Trial, as well as the 1938 Trial of the Twenty One. Agranov supervised the interrogations of Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigorii Zinov'ev after the 1 December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov. In a more personal arena, Agranov (who was, like Vladimir Maiakovskii, a lover of Lilia Brik) gave the poet as a gift the pistol with which Maiakovskii shot himself on 14 April 1930. See Gul' 1991: 29, and Makarevich 2000: 69-74.

16] Tverdovskii’s first film was one of several recent films on disability. An incomplete list would include Aleksandr Kott’s 2015 Insight (mentioned above), with Aleksandr Iatsenko playing the blind lead; Sofiia Geveiler, Sofiia Kucher, and Iuliia Byvsheva’s Spirit in Motion (Dukh v dvizhenii, 2014), originally a VGIK diploma project on the 11th Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, but eventually a 2015 television film; and Kirill Belevich’s war film Woman Alone (Edinichka, 2015), set in 1944 Poland, in which a group of deaf children (non-professional, deaf actors) are trapped under siege during the Great Fatherland War.

17] For information on the full event, see Roskino's site for the Russian Pavilion).

18] Sarkisov is one of several younger filmmakers who bracket the film industry between the US and Russia. They are different from Timur Bekmambetov, the early post-Soviet filmmaker who managed to transition to Hollywood. Instead, such directors as Angelina Nikonova and Victor Ginzburg, both of whom studied at NYU’s School of Visual Arts, and Sarkisov, a younger filmmaker with Hollywood experience, came of age in the US, with distinct disadvantages and opportunities for their Russian film careers. Whether their outsider status in Russian cinema is a function of actual differences in filmmaking (and content) is an open question. It may be that—if such “ideological outsiders” as Natasha Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov can find a place for themselves—then perhaps "topological outsiders” such as Nikonova, Ginzburg, and Sarkisov can also be able to settle into an expanded community.

19] Mestetskii’s mockumentary short Legs are Atavistic (Nogi—atavism, 2011) won three 2012 awards at Kinotavr alone— First prize (Short); Guild of Film Scholars and Critics’ Prize; and Audience Award (Shorts)—as well as Special Prize at the International Short and Animation Film Festival Open Cinema in St Petersburg (2012); and Best Student Film at the Moscow Premier Screenings (2012).

20] Other examples of the “youth brigade” formula arguably include Natal'ia Kudriashova’s drama Pioneer-Heroes (Pionery-geroi, 2015), in which three former schoolmates—now an actress, a public relations agent, and a political analyst—struggle to reconcile their late-Soviet childhood dreams of heroism with their adult, humdrum lives. A third, slightly different example is five-part 2016 almanac Adolescence ID [Russian title: Kak vzroslye], produced by Ol'ga Zhirova and Iuliia Vorob'eva (Milky Cinema Production), where the “youth brigade” is both the directors themselves (five young directors from Russia, Germany, Georgia, Malta, and France) and their protagonists, who struggle with similar problems in dissimilar countries. 

21] The Dive also stars Roman Madianov, who had played Mayor Vadim Sheveliat in Leviathan. Madianov has recently made a name for himself reprising Leviathan’s reckless bureaucrat. Madianov’s performance in Zhora Kryzhovnikov’s short comedy After Us, the Deluge (Posle nas, khot' potop, 2015) also closely replicates his Leviathan role (including the setting, the portrait of Putin, the monologue). Kryzhovnikov’s short is part of the future almanac film Wonderland (Strana chudes), scheduled for a New Year’s release.

22] The list is long, but includes such diverse figures as directors Pavel Bardin, Aleksei Fedorchenko, Aleksei German Jr., Boris Khlebnikov, Mikhail Mestetskii, Aleksei Popogrebskii, and Nigina Saifullaeva; documentary filmmakers Vitalii Manskii and Marina Razbezhkina; Russian film critics Anton Dolin, FIPRESCI’s Honorary President Andrei Plakhov, and Diliara Tasbulatova.

23] Ivan Tverdovskii’s drama Corrections Class (2014) won the “East of the West” Prize at Karlovy Vary IFF; Iurii Bykov’s social drama Fool (Durak, 2014) won the Ecumenical Prize at Locarno IFF; Andrei Konchalovsky’s post-documentary drama The Postman’s White Nights (Belye nochi pochtal’ona Alekseia Triapitsyna, 2014) won the Silver Lion for Best Director at Venice IFF; and Aleksei German Jr.’s sci-fi drama Under Electric Clouds (Pod elektricheskimi oblakami, 2015) won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution at the Berlinale in 2015.


Works Cited

Anon. 2015. “Roskino’s Co-production panel fights “industry-destroying anti-piracy law” proposed by the Russian Rights Holders’ Union. Roskino 18 May.  

Gul', Roman. 1991. Dzerzhinskii: Nachalo terrora. Moscow: Gudok.

Kirchgaessner, Stephanie and Shaun Walker. 2015. “Ukrainian artists occupy Russian pavilion at Venice Biennale.” The Guardian, 8 May.

Kozlov, Vladimir. 2013. “Russian Studio Lenfilm Signs Partnership Agreement with Alexander Sokurov’s Foundation,” Hollywood Reporter 5 December.

Makarevich, Eduard. 2000. “Iakov Aranov: Chekist, prishedshii k intelligentam,” Dialog 7: 69-74.

Rosser, Michael. 2015. “Anti-Piracy Measures will put Russian Film Business ‘at Risk’.” Screen International 20 May: 4

Nancy Condee © 2015

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