Issue 49 (2015)
Aleksandr Baranov: Fool’s Day (Den’ duraka, 2014)
reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2015
All That Remains: Co-Producing an Anti-Corruption Comedy with the “Russian FBI”
“Den’ duraka,” the Russian term for April Fool’s Day, is the title of Aleksandr Baranov’s most recent feature, which the producers planned to unveil on 1 April 2014, but released only on 13 November of that year. Though loosely based on the premise of Nikolai Gogol’s satirical play The Government Inspector (Revizor, 1836), the film is set in contemporary Russia. Satire is usually best when it is topical, as demonstrated by Leonid Gaidai when he updated Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical play Ivan Vasil’evich (1935-36), about Ivan the Terrible’s visit to Moscow, and placed the characters of his film Ivan Vasil’evich Changes Profession (Ivan Vasil’evich meniaet professiiu, 1973) in contemporary Moscow. While Baranov’s decision to tackle present-day Russian problems using the classic satire is laudable, the result of his travails is questionable.
A seasoned professional who started his career in the mid-1980s, Baranov has numerous highly successful projects for cinema and television to his credit. Trained as a scriptwriter at VGIK, he co-authored with Bakhyt Kilibaev the screenplay for Rashid Nugmanov’s cult perestroika film, The Needle (Igla,1988). After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he made several melodrama-serials, including the miniseries Police Station (Uchastok, 2003) for Channel One, produced by Konstantin Ernst and Anatolii Maksimov, and Ekaterina (2014) for Russia-1 Channel, produced by Vladimir Men’shov. Since 2011 Baranov has been working for Timur Bekmambetov’s Bazelevs Production, where he directed one of the vignettes in Six Degrees of Celebration 2 (Elki 2, 2011) and co-directed Gentlemen of Fortune (Dzhentl’meny udachi, 2012), a remake of Aleksandr Seryi’s 1971 comedy. In Fool’s Day Baranov relies more on his experience as a Bazelevs Studio comedy filmmaker than on the satirical tradition of Russian theater. Set in snow-clad Russia, Fool’s Day, according to film critic Stas Tyrkin, sooner recalls a traditional “New Year’s film” than a satire (Tyrkin 2014).
Baranov’s comedy consists of several loosely connected comic episodes about the protagonist, Ivan Ivanov’s (Aleksei Veselkin), adventures in Moscow and the Russian provinces. The film’s tame mockery of corruption functions not as the dominanta of a satirical narrative, but rather as a device for several comic turns. If there is a satire in the film, it is certainly very choosy in its targets. The case in question is the honest and persistent debt collector Sergei Sergeevich (Aleksandr Lykov). He tracks down the protagonist, who owes a bank 1.5 million rubles, which he has no intention of paying because, according to the film, that is how all Muscovites operate. Ivan lies to Sergei, claiming that his father is a rich farmer who can pay his debt to the bank—a fib that, in the spirit of Gogolian itineraries, launches their journey to Ivan’s imaginary rich father and ends up in a provincial town where the local mayor and his minions take them for the government inspectors from the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee. Several scenes mocking Russian bureaucracy, servility, bribery, and police brutality ensue, but the film makes sure that corruption is depicted as a social evil endemic only to backward provincial bureaucracy. The film even has a romantic subplot that helps Ivan to escape the local thieves when they discover their mistake. Just as satire permitted during Catherine the Great’s era did not mock the central government, Fool’s Day never implicates anything even remotely related to corruption in the capital. Accordingly, since Ivan is taken for a federal civil servant, he accepts no bribes.
When Ivan is exposed as an impostor, the romantic subplot helps to defuse any possibility of satire hinting at systemic kleptocracy, so prominent in Gogol’s plot and the topic of a recent, definitive Anglophone study of Putin’s Russia (Dawisha 2014). As payment for not reporting the embezzlement of government funds, the corrupt mayor offers Ivan money and, eventually, his daughter. Though Ivan refuses the money and initially is not interested in Masha, with time the two fall in love (though not very convincingly). Romance resolves all tensions and social issues exposed by the satire.
In view of the film’s soft touch in dealing with corruption it is quite ironic that Fool’s Day is the first Russian film made with the direct participation of The Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee (Evstifeev, Baranova, Shipilov 2014), sometimes referred to in colloquial Russian as the “Russian FBI”. When the Committee learned that Bekmambetov was producing a comedy based on Gogol’s Government Inspector, one of its members contacted the studio and offered assistance that the studio, apparently, could not refuse. The head of media liaisons for the Committee, General Vladimir Markin, in the spirit of Horace’s utile dulci, noted that they wanted the satirical comedy to educate as well as entertain: the young protagonist learns firsthand how harmful corruption can be (Anon. 2014a), and viewers can imbibe this lesson. According to the post on the portal bobfilm.net, the Committee not only defined the genre of the film as an “anti-corruption comedy,” but also reviewed and approved the screenplay. Indeed, Investigative Committee officials previewed and endorsed the film’s narrative angle, especially the “correct” dose of satire in the film (Anon. 2014b). One of the key changes that the Committee suggested was for the corrupt officials to mistake Ivan, not for a government inspector with an unidentified affiliation, but for an official from the Investigative Committee. Finally, General Markin assisted the production of the picture in the most crucial way by appearing as himself in the film.
As an institution, The Investigative Committee is a major presence in the film. Fool’s Day’s main narrative is framed as Ivan’s flashback about his adventure in the provinces, which he recollects during an interview with the officials from the Committee. After Ivan returns to Moscow from the corrupt provinces, he burns with only one desire: to become a student at the newly-opened Police Academy of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation. During the interview the real General Markin and his colleague ask Ivan why he wants to study at the Academy, and why he did not take the bribe during his provincial odyssey. Ivan responds by asking them whether they know what a thrill it is to know that one is a person of integrity among thieves and embezzlers. Markin and his colleague retort that, as civil servants of impeccable probity, they could hardly be more familiar with that thrill. At this point the filmmaker could have stopped the narrative, having provided a perfect example of a story that observes the rules of the late-Stalinist theory of conflictlessness: there are only honest, incorruptible civil servants on the Investigative Committee, and the good civil servants of the present will cede to even better civil servants in the future. Baranov amplifies this borrowing from late-Stalinist culture with another one, this time on the narrative level. Markin and his colleague invite another applicant for the Academy, who will fight against the vestiges of corruption apparently remaining in some remote provinces of the Russian Federation. This new applicant, as the last frame of the film’s main narrative reveals, is Masha, the corrupt governor’s daughter. Should Baranov decide to make a sequel to Fool’s Day about the daughter, he might want to review the story of Pavlik Morozov and rethink his sequel as an anti-corruption slapstick comedy in which Masha investigates her own corrupt father.
In addition to Gogol’s satire, the comedy tradition of the New Year film, and the educational narratives of the Investigative Committee, Fool’s Day relies on devices of the folktale, notably the plot paradigm of the youngest child tale. Baranov’s Ivan perfectly matches Ivan the Fool, the central character of such tales in the Russian folk tradition: lazy, devoid of ambition, simple-minded, and self-destructive, Ivan the Fool invariably succeeds by luck or chance and with the aid of a magic helper. The film’s very title evokes this famous unheroic protagonist of oral tales, and Baranov’s Ivan, indeed, benefits from magic helpers, miraculously escaping from the villains and returning home to Moscow with the princess. Since the Bazelevs Film Company contemporary version of Ivan the Fool is even simpler-minded than his folkloric counterpart, he needs two helpers: in the first part of the film, the debt collector Sergei, who saves him from the Russian police and later from the difficulty of being unmasked as an impostor. In the film’s second half, Ivan’s romantic interest, Masha, fulfills the second role of a helper who facilitates Ivan’s escape from her father and his thuggish administration. And the film’s conclusion follows the pattern of such folktales, with General Markin’s appearance as the benign ruler blessing the characters, who will live happily ever after.
Like many Bazelevs productions, Fool’s Day targets young moviegoers who favor the Internet over television and feel most at home on social networking websites, liking their friends’ posts and expressing themselves by manipulating the digital reality they surf. Mobile devices, smart-phones, tablets, and computer monitors dominate the film’s mise-en-scene. This much is evident from the opening credits of the film, which mimic the layout of Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte. Names of the shooting crew, characters, and actors who play them appear as names of VKontakte users. The invisible, implied viewer navigates through the names with her or his computer cursor as the rest of us get acquainted with the film’s characters. For example, the protagonist, Ivan, is introduced when the cursor within the frame clicks on a comment on a VKontakte page. The first and last scenes of the film assume the form of videos uploaded and played in VKontakte. At the film’s end the corrupt mayor appears in the web banner ad for his re-election campaign, and the banner spams the screen, despite multiple cursor clicks by the implied viewer. The filmmaker and his producers make sure that the movie-going experience does not alienate and displace fickle audiences from the virtual environments where they feel most comfortable in their everyday experience.
Ivan’s power as a trickster likewise is connected to social media and the ability to manipulate digital images—specifically, the creative usage of the graphics editor Adobe Photoshop. The fake images of Ivan hobnobbing with Vladimir Putin and Dmitrii Medvedev appear in the opening credits as part of Ivan’s VKontakte page and later deceive troglodyte provincial bureaucrats, who naively believe in the authenticity of the edited photographs they discover while pillaging through Ivan’s car. Accordingly, the corrupt provincial bureaucrats are mocked not only for the embezzlement of public funds, but also for lagging behind in digital literacy.
Of the many modes of laughter described in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, official Soviet culture used few—those which were instrumentally useful for its mobilization efforts: namely, “negative satire” to assassinate verbally and visually its political enemies as well as “recreational drollery deprived of philosophical content” as a tool for engaging the masses in rituals of performing loyalty to the regime (Bakhtin 1984, 12). These two types of official Soviet laughter came to be known as “purgative laughter” and the “laughter of the victors” and found its manifestation in Soviet film comedy from the mid 1930s till 1980s, Leonid Gaidai being one important exception confirming the rule. Since the era of Gorbachev’s perestroika the range of cinematic laughter broadened enormously, thanks to such filmmakers as Iurii Mamin, Aleksandr Rogozhkin, Aleksei Balabanov and many others. But when the government, yet again, begins to “help” the filmmakers in comedy film production, the range of permitted modes of laughter somehow shrinks back to the good old purgative laughter and the bubbly, servile laughter of the victors. Amidst this feel-good laughter there is no place for Gogol’s “silent scene.”
College of William and Mary
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Anon. 2014a. “Bekmambetov i Sledstvennyi komitet sniali fil’m po ‘Revizoru’.” Gazeta.ru 11 November.
Anon. 2014b. “Na s’emkakh ‘antikorruptsionnoi komedii’ Aleksandra Baranova ‘Den’’ duraka.” Bob-Film 10 June.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
Dawisha, Karen. 2014. Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Putin’s Russia? New York: Simon & Schuster.
Evstifeev, Dmitrii, Kseniia Baranova, and Evgenii Shipilov. 2014. “K nam edet general.” Gazeta.ru 25 June.
Tyrkin, Stas. 2014. “Timur Bekmambetov: Nash fil’m Den’ duraka operedil real’nost’.” Komsomol’skaia pravda. 6 November.
Fool's Day , Russia, 2014
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Baranov
Screenplay: Aleksandr Baranov, Arkadii Kazantsev
Cinematography: Il’ia Melikhov
Cast: Svetlana Chuikina, Antonina Divina, Aleksandr Lykov, Vladimir Markin, Aleksei Veselkin, Aleksandr Vorob’ev
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov and S’iuzanna Muazen
Production: Bazelevs, Serebra Film
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Iva Stromilova
Production: Bazelevs Production
Aleksandr Baranov: Fool’s Day (Den’ duraka, 2014)
reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2015