Issue 52 (2016)
Vasilii Sigarev: The Land of Oz (Strana Oz, 2015)
reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2016
The Art of Living: from “An Entertaining Ethology” to “The Land of Oz”
In 2009, the nationally and internationally acclaimed playwright Vasilii Sigarev turned to film directing. His first film, Wolfy (Volchok, 2009) literally exploded the moderately celebratory flow of Sochi’s Kinotavr and divided film critics into those who unconditionally accepted the director’s new artistic world and could hear and see, understand and accept the blank nerves, the meanness, the tragedy and passion of the heroine, whose organic chemistry Iana Troianova so powerfully expressed; and those who accused Sigarev—and together with him the whole of Russian cinema—of the kind of vulgarity that people call chernukha. Three years later, Kinotavr premiered Sigarev’s second film with the affirmatively, yet questioning title Living (Zhit’, 2011), and people talked about the phenomenon of “Ural cinema.” When Sigarev declared that his next film would be a comedy, those who had not read the play Lie Detector (Detektor lzhi, 2001) could not imagine Sigarev laughing. Yet the author kept his word, and the “beeping” film received a distribution certificate, and the spectator had an opportunity to walk together with the heroine Lena Shabadinova (Troianova), who cannot find Torforezov Street, through New Year’s Ekaterinburg.
The release of The Land of Oz on December 3, 2015 coincided with the final farewell to El’dar Riazanov, the maker of Irony of Fate (Ironiia sud’by, 1975), a film that has taken a permanent slot on the television menu of New Year’s eve. The departure of the master of comedy, who managed every year—at least for some hours—to unite first Soviet and then post-Soviet people, is symbolical. The epoch of art’s unifying function has long gone, and there hasn’t been a “good guy” for some time; therefore the poet Sergei Esenin’s formula of the “poet’s gift to caress and scribble” is, for the reflective artist, true only in the second part: the poet’s gift to “scribble;” caressing is the job of the powerful industry of mass culture, and part of our atomized society receives a portion of “neighing laughter” from national comedies made along the recipe of Yolki: Six Degrees of Celebration (Elki, 2010, Elki-2, 2011, Elki-3, 2013). It is no accident that Sigarev defined the genre of his film as “anti-Yolki” (Zuzenkova 2015).
So, let’s return to Esenin’s formula: Sigarev’s gift of “scratching with his pen” was well known even before he took the camera: his Plasticine (Plastilin, 2000), Black Milk (Chernoe moloko, 2002), Ladybirds Return to Earth (Bozh’i korovki vozvrashchaiutsia na zemliu, 2001) opened a whole new world and an environment to which, apparently, you had no or did not wish to have any relation, but in this different and strange world it was possible to discover familiar phobias and affects that were excluded from official culture.
After the third film, we may confidently speak of Sigarev’s cinematic world: it is genetically connected with his plays where marginal space becomes the place for research of important anthropological features of modern man, and where violence has a routinely habitual quality. Quite tellingly, the working title of the comedy “The Land of Oz” was “Entertaining Ethology”, i.e. behaviourism. Like a scientist, Sigarev investigated the human individual in its habitat of dwelling. The director’s lens of an ethologist also marked out his first film, Wolfy, about a piercing love, which cannot be explained and does not demand any proofs and constraints: the love of a child for the mother. The social context, the environment and biography here are left to the second level, while the subject of the artist’s research was the natural thirst for life of the mother, for whom life is an infinite carnal pleasure, and the natural love of the girl. Iana Troianova plays her character with a Nietzschean will to live, and she remains alive, while the loving daughter perishes; such was the tragic exchange that, as is supposed to happen in tragedies, led to an insight: the child should love the mother, and the mother has the right to not love the daughter, but to love life in a purely biological sense. The film’s realism reached the opposite end of the scale, turning into a parable. The small town had no name, and mother and daughter were simply called Mother, Grandmother, Daughter, Boy. Despite the external rigidity, Sigarev’s film is surprisingly chaste, especially thank to the episode of the Girl’s conversation with the dead Boy.
Sigarev’s second film, Living, is the story of the possibility and impossibility of overcoming the terrible trauma of loss, the experience of the death of a close person. Three stories—three lives subjected to a painful experience, which is comparable to an ancient tragedy, where even the gods were powerless against destiny. In Sigarev’s films, the law of existence lies behind the terrible realities of life: the love that unites the living and the dead forms a link that holds the world together.
In a New Year’s comedy, of course, there should be love; so it is with a love date of the heroine’s sister that the film begins. The date with a temperamental Greek man ends for the girl from the Urals with a violent flight from the window into the snow, and a fracture of the coccyx. This event equips the heroine with her key phrase: “My sister’s fractured her coccyx,” a phrase that she will use to strike up conversations with strangers as she tries to figure out how to get to her new workplace in the kiosk where she will get 15,000 roubles pay. In this phrase truth and absurdity, semantics and pragmatism stand in neat contrast.
The film’s action unfolds like problem-solving for a task: “How to get from point A to point B”, where point A is Ekaterinburg’s Ploshchad 1905 goda [Square of the Year 1905], and point B the kiosk on Torforezov [Peat-cutter] Street, where the Andrei Il’enkov’s character (Il’enkov is also the co-author of the script) is waiting for his shift relief Shabadinova. The problem is complicated by the arrival of a new character, who knocks on the window of the kiosk in the sought-after Torforezov Street, and who is an old friend of Il’enkov, played by Aleksandr Bashirov. Point B is a variable: a kiosk where philosophical conversations are held about the meaning of life, about morals, honour and creativity between the unpublished writer Il’enkov and Bashirov, whose body is covered in tattoos to the point where it could serve as a manual for future lawyers. The director-ethologist Sigarev provides a fine description of the infantile consciousness so typical for the majority of our population, and especially clearly visible in the company of (ex)-convicts. This is reflected in the interest in the lower body parts; in recurrent jokes involving faecal language that are characteristic of Sigmund Freud’s anal stage of children’s psychological development; in the hyper-moralizing voice of a secret homosexual; and in coital philosophy as the main law of life. Bashirov’s verbal stream is juxtaposed to Andrei’s dream in the interiors of a pre-Revolutionary salon, where he is a man of dignity and honour. Point B will not see the arrival of the traveller from point A; instead, point B burns down, and the boy who comes to the kiosk to buy something and asks “Where is the kiosk?” Andrei answers: “In the Land of Oz.” Having lost his workplace, Andrei wanders through the streets of Ekaterinburg, and finds a magic ship with his shift relief Shabadinova who never reached her destination on Torforezov Street. The appearance of a huge ship in Sortirovka district is not only the sign of a romantic dream, but also a message devoted to the strange toponymics of Ekaterinburg: what may be more absurd than the name Teplokhodnyi proezd [Motorship Passage] in the mainland, industrial, snowy Ekaterinburg?
While the friends on Torforezov Street (the kiosk burns down only at the film’s end) wait for the shift relief Lenka from Malaya Lyalya, the latter honestly tries to reach the place. Having sent her sister with the coccyx fracture to hospital, having miraculously survived the car ride with a drug addict (Evgenii Tsyganov)—one of the most terrible and naturalistic episodes of the film, and having refused the help of the Mayor (Roizman), Troianova’s heroine begins a forced journey through the city on New Year’s eve. Miracles during this night happen soon: loud, populous fun gives way to the loneliness of a trustful, open man with a little dog, Gosha Kutsenko’s hero, who is almost knocked out by the fireworks of the make Hiroshima. The blast of the fireworks forces Lena into dialogue with the townspeople—nervous, suspicious, spiteful even around the beautiful Christmas tree. The external tinsel of the city decorated for New Year rhymes with the falseness of the heroes. Vladimir Simonov’s character, a bard and active internet user, offers a magnificent parody of the pseudo-intellectual, who is as infantile as Bashirov’s character: an immoral moralist who vainly mentions the name of god, and who is a complex-ridden fan of tantric sex. In his apartment, decorated with posters of priests performing solo concerts with live sound in the Lenin House of Culture and a, impeccably clean bathroom (imagine that in the kiosk of Torforezov Street!), another miracle occurs. Practically pushed over the balcony by the spiritual bard, Lena and the little dog suffer no injury or coccyx fracture, but they land another balcony next to hundreds of hand-made pelmeni and a pig’s head waiting to be turned into meat jelly. When the landlady of the flat with balcony comes to get the pelmeni, another brilliant scene ensues: psychologically exact, naturalistic, detailed and flawlessly performed.
The landlady, played by Inna Churikova, is the mother of three pubescent sons, supporting the LDPR and driving virtual tanks in a computer game. She shelters Lenka for a while; having mistaken her for a prostitute, they talk, and then she feeds her and offers her Avon cosmetics. Conversations in the kitchen are an integral part of Russian life: here in the kitchen Lena will at last explain why she left Malaya Lyalya. She explains, simply and ordinarily, “the husband beat me,” but Troianova’s intonation makes the heart stop. The same is true for the intonation from Churikova’s patient mother, who is reconciled with life and quietly convinces her son that the stolen tank will be found. The dialogue of the two women is interrupted by the sortie of the sons to use the toilet, and their appearances are not only united by the aim (to use the toilet), but also their external appearance: sloppy underpants and hanging beer bellies, as well as the door to the toilet left open. In this detail lies the important characteristic of the protagonists: their infantile, shameless, aggressive features, where nothing remains a taboo.
The silent, unperturbed and resigned character of Troianova takes in all these misadventures and leaves her semi-frozen conditions twice: she intervenes for the mother of the three LDPR fanatics and gets knocked over the head by the younger son; and she hits the police to defend the prostitutes in the costumes of Snow Maidens. Shabadinova’s patience comes to an end when she is faced with simple things, such as when the lads shout abuse at their mother, when people are suspected of something that they didn’t do…
Walking lonely through the city, Troianova’s character carries out a duty: she finds the dog’s owner (Kutsenko), who saves Shabadinova from the police and then once again rescues her when she is injured by some fools in an expensive car during the New Year, exulting at a war game.
All great directors have discovered their actors/actresses. Troianova is Sigarev’s actress, but in this film we see an absolutely new Troianova: silent (because of this semi-frozen side Kutsenko’s hero ironically calls her shebutnaia, for mischief), gentle, vulnerable and at the same time proud and strong, and very sincere. The heroine’s sincerity lies in the desire to return the dog to its owner, and in the simple answers. Here, for example, is how she returns all of us from the virtual network to reality. On the question from social networks: “Where are you?”, she answers: “Here.” This “here” is characteristic of the heroine’s authenticity as well as her decision to return to Malaya Lyalya. The reason for her return is simple: “I haven’t managed to settle down.” Sigarev also reveals an unexpected degree of sincerity in Gosha Kutsenko, who for the period of the filming left behind his showman’s allures, his professional methods and tricks.
Russian fun like a Russian revolt: senseless and ruthless. The film’s title also makes a reference to the number 03 for the Emergency Ambulance, which—from the director’s point of view—we all need. As a result of the New Year’s adventures, Shabadinova ends up on a hospital ward, along with her sister with the fractured coccyx, and Andrei Il’enkov with his phobias, and Gosha Kutsenko’s hero—otherwise he would not write and sing a song, getting the accords all wrong: “I love you to tears.” And most important: we would not see the final smile of Iana Troianova—Lena Shabadinova, who honestly says about herself: “I don’t know how to live.”
Translated by Birgit Beumers
1] On 8 April 2013 the Russian President signed a law to effectuate a change to the Federal Law Part I, Article 4 “About Mass Media”, banning the use of obscene language (netsenzurnaia bran') in the media. On 23 April 2014, the Duma passed another law on the prohibition of obscene language in the mass media, cinema and theater. The new legislation stipulate changes to the existing law on “The State Language of the Russian Federation” (‘O gosudarstvennom iazyke RF’) by adding the outlets of cinema and stage performances to the mass media. Law No. 101-F3 was signed by President Putin on 5 May 2014 and came into force on 1 July 2014. [BB]
|Comment on this article on Facebook|
Zuzenkova, Iunna (2015), “Interv’iu s rezhisserom ‘Strany OZ’ Vasiliem Sigarevym: ‘Ia sdelal kino dlia tekh, komu ne interesny ‘Elki’’”, Nasha gazeta Ekaterinburg, 28 November,
The Land of Oz, 2015, Russia
Color, 94 minutes.
Director Vasilii Sigarev
Scriptwriters Vasilii Sigarev, Andrei Il’enkov
DoP Dmitrii Uliukaev
Production Design Anton Polikarpov
Editing Dasha Danilova
Cast: Iana Troianova, Gosha Kutsenko, Andrei Il’enkov, Aleksandr Bashirov, Evgenii Tsyganov, Vladimir Simonov, Inna Churikova, Svetlana Kamynina, Iuliia Snigir’, Alisa Khazanova, Dar’ia Ekamasova
Producers Sofiko Kiknavelidze, Dmitrii Uliukaev
Production Beloe zerkalo [White Mirror]
World Rights Antipode Sales&Distribution
Vasilii Sigarev: The Land of Oz (Strana Oz, 2015)
reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2016