Issue 50 (2015)
Viktor Dement: The Find (Nakhodka, 2015)
reviewed by Otto Boele© 2015
Studying the discussion lists on such websites as kino-teatr.ru or kinopoisk.ru, one often encounters the notion that Soviet films produced during the Thaw and the Brezhnev years were so much more “humane” than post-Soviet cinema. Yes, they may have been part of the state’s propaganda machine, but at least they dealt with “real” people and “real” problems, not with imaginary ones, as is now so often the case. How representative this feeling really is (and how justified) is open to debate, but if there is a demand for “honest” cinema in the Soviet tradition, Viktor Dement’s debut film The Find (Nakhodka) goes a long way to satisfy it. The story is set “somewhere” in northern Russia where news travels through old media such as letters and rumors rather than through modern means of communication (the film features only one phone booth). The impression of some kind of virtuous austerity is enhanced by sumptuous pans and extreme long-shots of icy lakes and impenetrable snow-covered woods. This is a rugged, uncompromising world, and so are the people inhabiting it.
The most uncompromising of them all is Trofim Rusanov, a fifty-something fish warden whose general unsociability and hardline approach to poaching make him the most hated man in the village. One day when he is patrolling the area in his boat he catches a few fishermen on the shore of a lake slipping illegally caught whitefish into their home-made ukha. Unwilling to turn a blind eye on this minor offence, Rusanov fines the perpetrators and even kicks over the pan of soup, thus preventing them from enjoying the fruits of their transgression. One of the fishermen retaliates by knocking Rusanov unconscious, and when he regains his senses, he finds himself all alone and his boat missing. To reach the nearest village, he will have to make a difficult journey through the soggy woods and spend at least one cold November night in the open air.
What follows is an ordeal that initially only confirms Rusanov’s grim view of humanity, and the local population in particular. Especially when, on the brink of exhaustion, he finds an abandoned, but healthy baby girl in a ramshackle hut where he had hoped to spend the night, he cannot but see this as the ultimate proof of people’s irresponsibility and their unwillingness to obey the law. And yet, even if Rusanov does not succeed in bringing the baby safely back to civilization, his desperate attempt to do so sets in motion a process of inner change that will ultimately reconcile him with his fellow villagers and his estranged wife. When he manages to find the baby’s mother (an unmarried woman of Old Believers descent anxious to conceal her “sin”), he does not report her to the police, as he first intended to, but persuades her to get on with her life. In the final scene, which takes place a few months later, we see an almost completely transformed Rusanov offering a cigarette to the fisherman who knocked him down and proudly announcing that his daughter has given birth to a son. Shots of melting ice and spring torrents—standard symbolism in early Thaw cinema—suggest that the new Rusanov is here to stay.
Visually The Find is a breathtaking film with ingenuous camera work and stunning winter landscapes. Dement’s claim that the crew worked at an average temperature of minus 29 degrees Celsius seems more than plausible judging by the clouds of steam coming from the actors’ mouths (Novikov and Golubchikov 2015). Because of the almost palpable cold and ubiquitous snow some viewers have compared The Find to Fargo, though the pervasive image of Rusanov stumbling through the woods reminded me also Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Konchalovskii’s Siberiada, films with similar images of desperation and exhaustion amidst awe-inspiring forest scenery. Yet, despite the film’s overwhelming visual quality, in terms of plot development The Find may raise a few eyebrows. Here I return to the assumed “humaneness” of Soviet cinema, that is, its supposedly unique ability to arouse sympathy or compassion for fellow human beings.
That The Find is a slightly old-fashioned feel-good movie seems hardly surprising, considering that it is based on Vladimir Tendriakov’s 1965 story of the same name. Even some of the more original voices of Thaw literature, Tendriakov included, did not entirely abandon the optimistic master plot of Socialist Realism which insisted on the successful integration of the individual into society. Hence the “humane” feel of Dement’s film, which generally hews closely to the original. Interestingly, though, the film is even more optimistic than Tendriakov’s story, but in a significantly different way. The original contains references to the anti-kulak campaign and the sudden disappearance of Rusanov’s father-in-law in the 1930s, details that serve to explain how Rusanov and his wife have become such a silent and alienated couple. In the film, these issues are conspicuously absent, according to Dement, because they would take too long to explain and undermine the story’s universal appeal. For exactly the same reason the film does not contain any period details, thereby leaving the viewer in doubt as to when exactly the action takes place: under communist rule or after the breakup of the Soviet Union? By deliberately ignoring the historical setting of the original, Dement, who wrote the screenplay himself, has transferred Tendriakov’s narrative to a “timeless” Russia without a political history.
The decision to ignore the typical Thaw issues of the original, may seem a perfectly legitimate form of poetic license. After all, Dement is not obliged to follow Tendriakov in every detail, and he is at liberty to substitute some scenes with invented ones that convey a similar message. Thus, instead of showing the hero’s shady involvement in the collectivization campaign, he adds a flashback featuring an outraged Rusanov virtually drowning a poacher - a non-political and psychologically plausible equivalent to the dekulakization business. And yet, for all the inflated timelessness of the plot, it can be argued that the film itself is anything but timeless, reflecting and perhaps even propagating the hopes and preoccupations of today’s regime. Removing references to the painful heritage of Stalinism is only one example; the promotion of family values is another.
In Tendriakov’s story there is no mention of Rusanov becoming a grandfather, and the problematic relationship with his only child—a son—remains unresolved. His more accommodating demeanor at the end of the story manifests itself primarily in his attitude toward his work, even if he also becomes aware of his shortcomings as a husband. In the film, on the other hand, Rusanov’s changed work ethics is hardly an issue. At first a bullying husband and father who is prepared to renounce his own daughter, he eventually develops into a dedicated guardian of family life embracing his own role as a grandfather and saving the unmarried mother from hanging herself at the last moment (whereas Tendriakov lets her only contemplate and then reject the possibility of suicide). The conversation that ensues between the two seems not very different from the one in the story, but it is instructive to compare the exact wording when Rusanov encourages the woman to leave the past behind and look ahead. In the story, the phrasing is down-to-earth, but also hope inspiring as it makes the prospect of a normal, happy life look very real: “you will marry and have children” [zamuzh vyidesh’, detei narozhaesh’]. In the film this happy scenario is presented in the form of an imperative and an affective diminutive: “have a little baby, and not just one” [rebonochka rodit’ nado,i ne odnogo]. Hearing these words, it’s hard not to think of the state sponsored campaigns to raise the birth rate in Russia and encourage women to have more than one child. A very “humane” film addressing universal questions, The Find also advances a very specific agenda.
Perhaps this reviewer is reading too much politics into a film that he nonetheless enjoyed watching . Perhaps The Find has an uplifting and universal message to deliver, regardless of the current political situation. Even so, one should keep in mind that Dement’s debut comes very close to the sort of cinema for which the Ministry of Culture is prepared to provide funding. Of the nine officially approved themes that filmmakers must now address when applying for financial support, at least two are relevant to The Find: “literature to film: a new life for the classics” and “Family values as society’s foundation.” In this respect, The Find is a very timely film and probably indicative of things to come.
1] The nine themes were published on the website of the Ministry of Culture in February 2015.
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Novikov, Boris and Aleksandr Golubchikov. 2015. “Interv’iu s Viktorom Dementom o fil’me ‘Nakhodka’.” Filmz.ru, 1 June.
The Find,Russia, 2015
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Viktor Dement
Screenplay: Viktor Dement
Cinematography: Andrei Naidenov
Cast: Aleksei Gus’kov, Nadezhda Markina, Anastasiia Sheveleva, Vladimir Shul’ga, Mariia Sokova, Egor Kharlamov, Anatolii Uzdenskii, Marat Serazhetdinov, Aleksei Vertkov
Producers: Nataliia Budkina, Dmitrii Klepatskii
Production: Talan Film Company
Viktor Dement: The Find (Nakhodka, 2015)
reviewed by Otto Boele© 2015