Issue 51 (2016)
Vasilii Serikov: 22 Minutes (22 minuty, 2015)
reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov© 2016
22 minutes. 78 minutes. A scandal over the missing 42 minutes. The saga of this dynamic action film stretched out painfully over an entire year resembling a distribution catastrophe in slow motion. What started off as a timely idea in response to Somalian piracy and the dramatisation of an actual event that would have highlighted a potentially patriotic project celebrating the effectiveness of the Russian Special Forces turned into a turgid tale of disappointment. After multiple personnel changes at the distribution company and numerous cuts, reshoots and alterations, the film’s crew effectively distanced themselves from the final cut, announcing their position in an open letter to the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinskii, begging him to save this nationally important project. The USD6.5 million film subsequently flopped at the box office, raising only USD670,000. It did not capture the Zeitgeist in nearly the way as Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2013) did a year earlier with USD3.7 million at the Russian box office and USD 218 million globally.
Comparisons with Captain Phillips will be inevitable, along with earlier piracy and kidnapping thrillers, such as Boris Durov’s Pirates of the 20th Century (Piraty XX veka, 1979) with some 88 million viewers, and Andrei Kavun’s Kandahar (2009) that made USD 14.9 million in Russia. Like Captain Phillips, 22 Minutes dramatizes a real event, but the focus is on multiple collectives: the Russian marines, the Russian tanker crew and the Somalian pirates. If Captain Phillips was more sentimental and explored the humane though tense relationship between the Captain and the Somalian pirates and the attempts of the US forces to save him, 22 Minutes is more about action, strategies of escape and competing groups with vested interests in the outcomes of the conflict. It is a far more straightforward action drama set in the midst of a highly explosive context. Neither the Russian marines nor the Somalian pirates can use their guns, because any live rounds would lead to total annihilation as the tanker is carrying highly flammable liquid gas. This leads the combatants to the use of knives, which is cinematically far more bloody than any heavy weaponry.
The action begins aboard a Russian gas tanker that is attacked by an organized group of Somalian pirates. The ship’s crew is able to send a distress signal and the Russian Navy send a destroyer to assist. Just prior to the call, new recruits are going through a ritualized bastardization process as part of their induction. One of the newcomers, Aleksandr Ezhov (Makar Zaporozhskii) cannily frustrates the ritual when he inspires the ire of his superiors. The brutal fight is interrupted by a call to action as two speed boats set off in the dark to assist the tanker that has been overrun by Somalian pirates. The boats come under attack from the Somalians, and Ezhov is knocked overboard. The marines are forced to retreat, leaving Ezhov floating unconscious in the ocean. The following day he is rescued by smiley Somalian fisherman and promptly handed over to the pirates. He becomes the go-between for the Somalian ring-leader in communicating with the Russian crew barricaded inside the engine room and the marines on board the destroyer. The Somalians do not want to hurt anyone, they just want a huge ransom in the tens of millions of dollars to be paid by the ship’s owner. The owner’s representatives refuse to make payment, leaving the lives of the crew in the hands of the Navy. Tensions build as the Somalians sacrifice a crew member with a knife to show that they mean business. The film is a taunt thriller that escalates through a series of bloody stratagems to the eventual recapture of the tanker.
The team behind 22 Minutes has a successful background in connecting with audiences. The film’s producer, Aleksei Sidorov, was the director of The Brigade (Brigada, 2002), and writer and producer on Dark World (Temnyi mir, 2010) and on the Shadowboxing trilogy (Boi s ten’iu, 2005–2011). The director Vasilii Serikov has a background in television serials and was one of the directors on a 2007 serial about the Special Forces. The cast is headlined by Viktor Sukhorukov as the commander of the Russian destroyer, reprising his role as a somewhat demented leader.
The film was commissioned by Central Partnership following the real events that took place on 5 May 2010 in the Gulf of Aden, when the Russian-flagged oil tanker “Moscow University” was captured by Somalian pirates. The tanker was carrying 86,000 tons of crude oil (worth roughly USD 50 million) some 900 kilometers off the coast of Somalia. The crew was rescued by marines on board the warship destroyer “Marshal Shaposhnikov”, which was patrolling the pirate-infested Gulf as part of an international force. After some twenty hours, Russian Special Forces stormed the ship, freeing the unharmed crew in only 22 minutes with little room for error due to the nature of the cargo. The Russian Defense Ministry was quoted to have commented that “the ‘Marshal Shaposhnikov’ came near the tanker and after establishing contact with the crew, who were taking cover in the machine area of the ship, opened warning fire from large-caliber machine guns and a 30mm artillery complex;” RUA Novosti news agency reported that the operation’s success was due to the surprise factor: “The pirates were taken by surprise. They did not expect such resolute measures from us” (Houreld 2010). After this, the facts get a little murky. The official report claimed that only one pirate was killed during the operation and the rest were taken prisoner. However, subsequent reports claimed that the pirates were released in an inflatable boat without navigational equipment and that they died at sea. This featured in various news reports, but was not investigated further, while in the film it becomes a key moment.
The scriptwriter Igor’ Porublev needed to significantly amplify the real story for the sake of cinematic exploitation: more blood, more savagery, more innocent victims and naturally a shark attack. There were far more Somalian pirates in the cast than the ten who actually boarded “Moscow University”. The 23 members of the crew of the real tanker, travelling under a Russian flag, were predominately Filipinos and Greeks. Clearly that had to be altered and the sailors transformed into simple Russian folk who would never surrender, even under immense duress. Indeed, the final battle scene was reminiscent in scope of Sergei Eisenstein’s scene of the “Battle on the Ice” from Alexander Nevsky (1938), with the Russian combatants using various metallic found objects as weapons. Perhaps the greatest change to the real story was the focus on one character, Aleksandr Ezhov, and his transformative role from a despised rookie to a respected member of the marines. The script took a clear position on the fate of the captured pirates who were released according to international law. Having survived their brutality, Ezhov is incredulous at this turn of events and takes the law into his own hands. Although completely understandable from an experiential perspective, this scene alone has significance for its unusual depiction of a Russian warrior as a pragmatic, vengeful victor.
The film had a scandal-ravaged release process that clearly undermined its effective distribution and significantly affected box office income. On 28 February 2014, the respected producer Aleksei Sidorov wrote an open letter to the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinskii, and the executive director of Cinema Fund, Anton Malyshev (Sidorov 2014) with the request to protect the film from an impending catastrophe, which he foresaw Central Partnership leading the film into. He claimed that the company had altered the storytelling structure and cut all the dramatic scenes of the characters interrelating and destroyed the storytelling logic. Sidorov accused Central Partnership of sabotage and argued that, as the film was produced with government funding, and because it featured the heroic work of the Russian Navy, it deserved artistic protection from being shredded on the editing table (Sidorov 2014). On 23 April 2014, the film’s crew wrote another open letter, stating their regret at working with Central Partnership, warning other filmmakers of the dangers of working with the same distributors and officially removing their association with the film (Troitskii et al. 2014). Clearly such internal ructions had a negative impact on audience and reviewers’ reception.
It is somewhat surprising, given the opportunities to explore a patriotic theme highlighting Russia’s military effectiveness and professionalism, that the film does not overstate the nationalistic pathos. Associated Press reported that “Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, praised his forces for a job done ‘correctly, professionally, quickly’. Sailors’ relatives felt pride and relief that the ordeal was over. ‘It ended so well that one has a warm feeling of pride for our country,’ Ludmila Kotzenko, a sailor's mother, said” (Associated Press 2010). The backroom dealings show the nasty politics of ship owners and their reliance on the Navy to do their dirty work. The marines do their job not for the Motherland, but because they are professionals and they do not leave “their own” behind. Aside from a little vodka and pickled cucumbers, there is little in the film that plays up Russian heroics as opposed to Captain Phillips. The action scenes are well made, dynamic and the cinematography is muscular and engaging. So it is a shame that the other original aspects of this story are underdeveloped.
What we have here is a perfectly effective action thriller, but audiences will be left wondering if they will ever see the director’s cut with the missing minutes reinstated. We can only imagine that the missing dramatic relationships between the key characters would fill in the gaps of engagement. The version that is currently available is a taunt on action but compromised on human drama and some degree of complexity. Instead, we have some clumsy cinematic shorthand—clumsy in that we have seen it all before—that asks audiences to care for the novice marine by giving him a scorned love-interest back home and asks audiences to despise the Somalian pirates by casting them as callous killers. The most engaging scenes are between Ezhov and the Somalian outsider, Kalash (Gaël Kamilindi) and his transformation once his brother is killed by the chief of the pirates, Amin (Eebra Tooré). Just like the relationship between Captain Phillips and his Somalian captors was an unexpected revelation, these scenes are unpredictable, innovative and new. We gain some insight into what motivates the pirates, their organizational structures and the differences in attitudes among them. Kalash’s desire to be a DJ and play forbidden music is integral to the narrative and makes audiences care for him. While he is sacrificed as a standard plot device, his role is integral in creating a connection of significance between the Russians and the Somalis. We will probably never know if these connections were further developed in the director’s and producer’s preferred version.
University of New South Wales
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[Associated Press]. 2010. “Pirate killed in Russian rescue of sailors.” The Guardian 7 May.
Houreld, Katherine. 2010. “Russian forces storm oil tanker, 1 pirate killed.” Business Week 6 May.
Sidorov, Aleksei. 2014. “Rezhisser Aleksei Sidorov vystupaet v zashchitu ‘22 minut’.” ProfiCinema, 28 February.
Troitskii, N., Iashonkov D. et al. 2014. “Otkrytoe pis’mo kinematograficheskomu obshchetsvu ot sozdatelei fil’ma ’22 minuty’.” ProfiCinema, 23 April.
22 Minutes, Russia
Color, 78 minutes
Language: Russian, English, Somali
Director: Vasilii Serikov
Screenplay: Igor’ Porublev, Denis Eleonskii, Aleksandr Novotostkii, based on an idea by Aleksandr Semin
Cinematography: Dmitrii Iashonkov
Music: Ivan Uriupin
Sound design: Aleksandar Bundalo
Production Ddesign: Viktor Shmelev
Costume Design: Marina Anan’eva
Cast: Viktor Sukhorukov, Makar Zaporozhskii, Eebra Tooré, Gaël Kamilindi, Vladislav Demin, Aleksandr Galibin, Denis Nikiforov, Ekaterina Malikova
Production: Central Partnership
Vasilii Serikov: 22 Minutes (22 minuty, 2015)
reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov© 2016