Issue 50 (2015)
Aleksandr Melnik: The Territory (Territoriia, 2014)
reviewed by Holly Myers© 2015
Patriotism without Propaganda?
Born in 1958 in what is now the Luhansk Oblast (the easternmost province of Ukraine), Aleksandr Melnik graduated from the Odessa Institute of Hydrometeorology in 1980. In 1992 he went to Moscow, where he founded the publishing company Andreevskii Flag and the St Andrew Foundation. In 2003, Melnik turned his attention to film and founded a film company, also called Andreevskii Flag, with which he directed his debut film, Terra Nova (Novaia zemlia, 2008), as well as his second and most recent film, Territory.
Melnik’s Territory is based on the popular Soviet novel of the same title, written by Oleg Kuvaev in 1973 and published in the literary journal Nash sovremennik (Our Contemporary) in 1974. The novel became a so-called “backpacking book” that geologists and others often took with them on trips (Antipode website). Melnik himself says that he always packed the novel on his expeditions around the USSR, in Kamchatka and Chukotka, Sakhalina and Primorye (territoriafilm.ru). Long Russian novels with several characters and multiple plot lines can be difficult to adapt to the screen; Kuvaev’s Territory is no exception, but Melnik’s film also consciously deviates from the novel in certain significant ways.
The film begins in 1960, when the Soviet Union is in dire need of gold to finance reconstruction after a devastating war, as well as to fund growing military and space programs that must compete with those of the United States. However, gold discoveries are slowing in the Soviet Union’s far northeast, a vast region called simply the Territory. The region’s Main Geological Administration, located in “City”—5902 km from Moscow—holds a meeting and concludes that the geological surveying and gold prospecting in the Territory must cease.
The legendary lead geologist Il’ia Chinkov (Lavronenko), having sat silently throughout the meeting, stands up and declares his refusal to stop prospecting, convinced that there is gold in the Territory. Promising the Administration that he will find gold, he leaves the City and travels 1410 kilometers back to the Settlement, which is the center of the geological administration of the Territory. Sergushova (Kutepova), a beautiful young journalist newly arrived from Leningrad, announces that she wants to write about the gold of the Territory, and follows Chinkov back to the Settlement. (In fact, she is the one telling the story; her character narrates the film.) Chinkov recruits several more geologists to join him on his mission, sending them off on expeditions—alone or in pairs—across the frozen land to prospect along several rivers where Chinkov believes there might be gold deposits.
Here, the story fragments to follow these (and other) new characters on their various adventures. Many of these stories seem to be unfinished or missing significant details, so that it is sometimes difficult to understand what has happened to whom and why, unless you are familiar with the novel on which the film is based.
One example is the story of Malysh, about whom we know very little. A teenage prospector known only as Malysh, or “Kid,” (Nazimov) confesses to his boss, Vladimir Mongolov (Beroev), that he sent some of the gold home in a letter to a girl he wanted to impress. Mongolov is outraged. “Is it your gold?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s the state’s gold, you criminals…” Malysh offers to turn himself in, but Mongolov dismisses the idea of destroying his life over one stupid mistake, and instead lets him go. It would be easy not to notice Malysh at all, but for this dramatic scene with one of the most memorable lines of the film. After all, according to Melnik’s interviews, a main idea of the film is that these men dedicated their lives to serving the state above their own needs. The director even contrasts this story to the American Gold Rush:
We have something to tell, to show. They’ll never make a similar film in America because this history of Territory is not typical for Americans. There, as we remember their Northern singer Jack London, everyone fought for gold for himself. But we mined gold in order to support the country after the war, to build, to launch Gagarin into space… This is a very important moment (Chernykh 2015).
The film may follow young Sergei Baklakov’s (Dobrygin) journey more closely than that of any other character, even Chinkov. (In fact, the first character we see in the film is Baklakov: he is running naked across a frozen lake to chase down his dogsled team, spooked by a wolf howling in the distance.) Recruiting his team of dedicated geologists to help him fulfill his promise to find gold, Chinkov asks Baklakov to travel 500-600 kilometers alone by foot (a 15– to 20–day trip), and cross the Vatap River, in order to look for gold in Ketung. It is a treacherous trip, which should be traversed only in a group or by a highly experienced hiker. Baklakov, of course, agrees to do it. We watch his progress across vast and beautiful but frighteningly barren expanses of land, water, and ice (in a montage set to Musya Totibadze’s “Ballad of the Big Mother-Bear’s Children”). Coming to the impossibly wide and swiftly flowing Vatap River, he strides in, attempting to ford it without a moment’s pause—and is eventually overcome by the current and swept away.
Then, we meet Tamara (Obutova) and her grandfather, K’yae (Vasil'ev), native people of this northern land. They hear a single gun shot in the distance. K’yae goes to investigate and finds Baklakov, dying alone in a tent, a black bird tearing into carrion on the ground nearby. K’yae and Tamara nurse Baklakov back to health using magical rituals and folk medicine. Friendship and mutual respect develops between Baklakov and his rescuers. Tamara gives him a ride to Ketung on her reindeer-sled, and he completes his mission. He makes it back to the Settlement, but he is almost immediately sent out again, and again. On what will be his final expedition, he sets out with a partner, “Gray-Haired” Kadorin (Shapkov).
On this trip, Baklakov discovers a huge gold deposit. Unfortunately, when the guileless young man tells Kadorin about the bit of gold he has retrieved, in order to show Chinkov, his partner betrays him—taking the gun and shooting Baklakov in the chest. Another geologist, Zhora Apryatin (Abashin), passes by sometime later, finds Baklakov shot, and risks his life trying to drag Baklakov’s body back to the Settlement. Refusing to leave his comrade behind, but nearly exhausted to death, Zhora sends up an emergency flare. In the Settlement, the team has just learned that Gagarin made it into space. Celebrating and looking up at the sky in wonderment, “Kefir” Gigolov (Balakirev) happens to see the emergency flare and starts running towards it. The other men notice that Kefir is running, see the flare, and join him in the rescue. In one of the final scenes of the film, Baklakov—whom we assumed was a corpse—suddenly opens his eyes. The camera is focused on his face from directly above, so Baklakov’s face fills the screen as he stares directly at us. No longer a simple, lighthearted, earnest and eager young man, he seems to have transformed into an old man, with deep lines on his hard, frozen face, his hair, beard, and eyebrows turned white with the frost. But now we know that everything will turn out as it should: Baklakov can tell Chinkov about the massive gold deposit, and the gold will go to the state, where it rightfully belongs. This is a more dramatic ending than the one in the novel, where we do not see how or by whom the gold is discovered, nor is Baklakov or anyone else shot for greed.
This is only a portion of some of the plot lines involving only a handful of all the many characters in this film. The other characters in the film include: “Scarab” Kutsenko (Shelestun), Bog Ognya (Sokolov), “Sashka Tsygan” Salakhov (Zhalsanov), Vas’ka Feniks (Sharakois), Andrei Gurin (Tsyganov), Konstantin “Uncle Kostia” Vasil’chikov (Fedorov), and Liuda Gollivud (Kras’ko).
Melnik appears to have several personal connections to the film. He claims to have treasured Kuvaev’s novel since it was published, carrying it with him on expeditions around the USSR. Also, as a young man, he spent some time in the region near where the film takes place. Melnik worked with a team on silver deposits in the Magadan region on the far northeastern coast in 1976. Four years later, he worked at a polar station on the Laptev Sea, participating in expeditions to the Lena Delta near the Arctic Ocean (territoria.ru).
The message of the film is likely even closer to the director’s heart than its setting. Melnik has long had ties to organizations involved in remolding Russian society along traditional values. The St Andrew Foundation, of which Melnik was president from the organization’s founding in 1992 until he left to begin directing films in 2006, carries out projects intended to form positive attitudes in Russian society toward the state, the church, and the army. According to its official website, it stands “for the awakening in man of spiritual foundations that are firmly connected with the history and culture of the people” (RIA Novosti).
St Andrew, the first disciple of Jesus, was named the patron saint of Russia for his role in converting Rus’ to Christianity. St Andrew is also an important figure for the Russian Navy: the Russian Navy Ensign, designed by Peter I and reintroduced in the Russian Navy in 1992, is known as the Andreevskii Flag because it depicts St Andrew’s Cross, two blue diagonal bands on a white background. (Andrew is said to have been crucified on an X-shaped cross, which he supposedly requested, because he deemed himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus. The X-shaped cross has since become known as St Andrew’s Cross.) The symbol for Melnik’s Andreevskii Flag Film Company is St Andrew’s Cross with a man’s figure at the center.
As is evident from his interviews, Melnik certainly intended for his film to form positive attitudes in Russian audiences toward the state, to nurture pride in at least this part of Russian history, and to bridge the generational gap between today’s grandchildren and grandparents. While not overtly Christian, the film promotes Christian values, including faith, humility, and fraternal love; resigning or submitting oneself to a higher power and larger plan; sacrificing oneself to serve the greater good. Indeed, Sergei Baklakov might be considered a St Andrew figure. After all, he is Chinkov’s first “disciple” of sorts, readily agreeing to do as Chinkov asks of him, with unwavering faith in his leader. Other characters in the film describe Baklakov as a good and kind man, with a “simple soul.” He endures physical hardship in order to save his rival’s life. And, perhaps most significantly, Melnik alters the novel’s plot involving Baklakov: at the end of the film, a greedy “Judas” (who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver), shoots Baklakov and takes the gold. We have no reason to think that Baklakov has survived the shot. As Zhora tries to carry, then drag, his body back to the Settlement, Baklakov never moves or makes a sound. He seems to be a corpse, until the moment when Kefir and others begin running to his rescue, and his eyes suddenly open. Betrayed and then resurrected at the end of the film, is he perhaps even a Christ figure?
There may also be political overtones to the film and its production. Territory premiered, after all, in the State Kremlin Palace, where journalists, actors, critics, veteran explorers, students of geology, as well as several state ministers were present. Sergei Donskoi, Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology of the Russian Federation, welcomed the audience and emphasized the film’s role in promoting geology among young people (VIS). It might not be an accident that a film about large Russian gold deposits premiered in the middle of an economic crisis, amid plummeting prices for oil (or “black gold”) and an increasingly devalued ruble. Fear not, says Melnik: you may think that there is no more “gold” left in Russia, but it is here. The country only needs new heroes, with faith and self-sacrifice, to find it.
When asked about the intention of the film, Melnik spoke about patriotism without propaganda and “the people living on our land [who] deserve respect for what has been, for what they have accomplished” (Chernykh 2015). Olga Allenova (2015), conducting an interview for Kommersant, seemed skeptical and challenged Melnik to refute her suggestion that the film is an idealization of the Soviet Union, of the state and its citizens, or an ideological project. “I think that the authorities will like your film, because you can build an ideology of sorts on it,” she stated. Melnik responded that there is an ideology of the state, as well as an ideology of each individual person, which is his or her “worldview”—but that individual ideology is lacking today, as is any sense of personal responsibility for what goes on in the world. We are left, he said, without any internal orientation, searching for “some reference point.” In Melnik’s opinion, this is what his film offers viewers: an example of how to bridge state and individual ideologies, how to live one’s own life but to live it morally, responsibly. Territory, he repeats, is a patriotic film, not a propagandistic one.
The film was budgeted at approximately 12.4 million USD. It brought in 305,000 viewers in Russia and grossed around 1.5 million USD at the box office (75 million rubles) (Kinopoisk).
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Allenova, Olga. 2015. Interview with Aleksandr Melnik. “Zdes’ net propagandy, a est’ dobryi patriotizm,” Kommersant 2 February.
Chernykh, Evgenii and Denis Korsakov. 2015. “Rezhisser ‘Territorii’ Aleksandr Melnik: Amerikantsy iskali zoloto dlia sebia, a my – chtoby Gagarin v kosmos poletel!”. Interview with Aleksandr Melnik, Komsomol'skaia Pravda 16 April.
“Fond Andreia Pervozvannogo,” RIA Novosti. no date.
“‘Territory’ Movie Premiere, Produced with VIS CG Financial Support, Was Held at the State Kremlin Palace” (Press Release), VIS Construction Group, 12 February 2015.
Antipode Sales Website for Territory
Territory, Russia, 2014
Color, 157 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Melnik
Scriptwriters: Mikhail Aleksandrov, Aleksandr Melnik, Oleg Kuvaev
DoP: Igor’ Griniakin
Composer: Tuomas Kantelinen
Editor: Ekaterina Starovoitova
Production Design: Eduard Gizatullin
Producer: Anton Melnik
Film Company: Andreevskii Flag
Cast: Konstantin Lavronenko, Grigorii Dobrygin, Egor Beroev, Kseniia Kutepova, Evgenii Tsyganov, Vladislav Abashin, Gerasim Vasil’ev, Konstantin Shelestun, Konstantin Balakirev, Oleg Shapkov, Petr Fedorov. Viktor Zhalsanov, Oleg Sokolov, Andrei Nazimov, Dmitrii Sharakois. Ol’ga Krasko, Tamara Obutova
Aleksandr Melnik: The Territory (Territoriia, 2014)
reviewed by Holly Myers© 2015