KinoKultura: Issue 53 (2016)
For twenty-seven years Kinotavr has maintained its status as the barometer of Russian filmmaking. This year, the trusty barometer indicated that for the past twelve months Russian filmmakers have been primarily concerned with (in no particular order) women, disabilities, and unpaid mortgages. Or any combination thereof. As the lights of the Winter Theater (Zimnyi Teatr) went down on the dazzling vanity fair that is the festival’s opening night, myriads of marginalized, weary and burdened, deaf and mute, terminally sick and morbidly depressed characters entered the screen in a week-long film marathon. Many of the protagonists were women, many were victims of the evil “ipoteka.” Yet not without exceptions.
The opening film, Petersburg. Only For Love (Peterburg. Tol’ko po liubvi) ushered in the festival’s topical subject: women filmmakers. Comprised of seven independent novellas by seven different women directors, the film follows the almanac model of Paris, Je t’aime (2006) and New York, I Love You (2008). This narrative structure seems to have lost momentum several years ago; however, it was surely revivified by the zany take on St Petersburg by the film’s ladies-only crew. Each of the seven vignettes focuses on a female subject, partially explaining the film’s original title, Selfie. While the buzzword never made it to the final production of the almanac, it became the title of Aksinia Gog’s novella. Arguably the film’s most beautiful and stylistically accomplished piece, it tells the love story of a suicidal beauty, who seems to have stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting by way of a volume of gothic poetry, and a Petersburg punk-rocker who ultimately saves her from her morbid inclinations. Many selfies are taken along the way. “Joseph’s Dreams,” the film’s final and perhaps most anticipated novella, takes up the task of providing a mise-en-abyme episode. It features the story of the filming of a fictionalized documentary on Joseph Brodsky, starring Renata Litvinova and her three “daughters” (including her real-life daughter, Ul’iana Dobrovskaia). Though undoubtedly elegant, it is out of sync with the almanac’s aesthetic in terms of style, tone, and length. Neither an ode to St Petersburg nor a tribute to Joseph Brodsky, the piece comes closest to paying homage to Litvinova herself.
In the wake of a number of sick and/or handicapped characters featured in the daytime short film program, the first feature-length film to address the subject of physical pain and extreme bodily discomfort was Gosha Kutsenko’s directorial debut, Doctor (Vrach). The film follows the daily routine of a neurosurgeon, Iurii Mikhailovich (Kutsenko), who specializes in brain tumors. The majority of screen time consists of him meeting with patients, including his first love (Alena Khmelnitskaya), at a local hospital in Saratov. The film relies heavily on television series aesthetics, inviting comparison with Grey’s Anatomy (2005–), ER (1994–2009), and even House M.D. (2004–2012). Among the features that save the film from completely slumping into this style is the remarkable work of Evgeniia Opel’iants, Kutsenko’s cinematographer, and the film’s finale. Not entirely unexpectedly, a car accident at the end of the film leaves Iurii Mikhailovich tetraplegic. Before his blissful smile dissolves into a stream of bright light, viewers see the full version of the video that Iurii Mikhailovich had recorded on his cell phone a few days before. In it, he is intoxicated and states that if he were to fall victim to a terminal illness, he would not want to be saved. On first viewing, the message of this sequence may appear to echo that from Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside (Mar adentro 2004): if you love someone, you will let them die. However, during the film’s press conference, Kutsenko categorically dismissed this and that the film had any conscious position regarding euthanasia. Perhaps, contrary to the montage logic of the film’s finale, the intended message is the opposite of that suggested by the video recorded by Kutsenko’s protagonist.
Anna Matison’s After You’re Gone (Posle tebia), starring Sergei Bezrukov, expands on the theme of extreme physical pain and injury resulting in death. The film follows the last few months in the life of a fictional ballet dancer-turned-choreographer, Aleksei Temnikov (Bezrukov). Temnikov had suffered a tragic injury that ended his dazzling international career. Now in his early forties, Temnikov is the owner of a dance school in provincial Kursk, where he seems just as out of place as his flashy sports car and designer apartment are. He is arrogant, brash, and brutally discouraging to anyone who expresses interest in ballet, including to the daughter he previously didn’t know he had. She is presented as essentially the only person who can truly understand his inner darkness. A shocking medical report – the dancer has one month before a pre-existing back condition leaves his paraplegic – spurs Temnikov to embark on a search for the venue where he will stage his final masterpiece, a ballet for Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements”. The deus-ex-machina appearance of Valerii Gergiev, who offers Temnikov full artistic freedom to stage his ballet at the Mariinskii Theater, revitalizes the dancer and gives a chance to his masterpiece-in-the-making. Just days before the opening night, Temnikov gives a sensational live televised performance on a mainstream talk show Let Them Talk (Pust’ govoriat). At the highest point of melodramatic excess, he falls to his death after his last spectacular jump. The film ends with a clip from a saccharine documentary about Temnikov. With its generic plotline and easily discernable topoi of a “ballet film”, Matison’s work has noticeable inconsistencies that were amplified at the press conference following the film’s Sochi premiere. For example, Matison and Bezrukov’s staunch denial of any parallels to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2011) is a strong and hardly plausible statement. The fairly common (not to say hackneyed) death-on-stage motif in Matison’s film not only inevitably harkens back to Aronofsky’s grand finale, but also does not follow the logic of the film’s script. In the beginning of the film, Temnikov is diagnosed with the impending leg paralysis, not death. The reason why he decides to perform on Let Them Talk remains unclear as well. The fact that Matison chooses Splin’s “Romans” as the film’s closing theme—while previously dismissing the band’s music through Temnikov’s sharp criticism—simply appears to be another gross oversight.
The motif of a precocious child helping a traumatized and alienated adult find himself is continued in Alena Davydova’s feature-length directorial debut, Ivan. The film depicts one day in the life of Ivan (Kirill Polukhin), a somber and reticent ambulance driver in his mid-forties. As we later learn, Ivan had been a helicopter pilot and survived a tragic accident that left him with an insuperable fear of heights and obvious signs of a PTSD. His life begins to change after a charming child, Tonia, appears on his doorstep. A day spent with her has a transformative effect on Ivan and he eventually surpasses his fear of heights, takes a new job, and generally breaks out of his self-imposed isolation. In a classic—and unsurprising—denouement, Tonia turns out to be his daughter. While Polukhin’s stellar performance could have earned him the Best Actor prize, the predictable narrative and perhaps overly sweet character of Tonia (who is always accompanied by her cute puppy dog, Tuzik) leaves the film open to less favorable reviews.
The winner of the Film Critics Guild Prize, Ivan I. Tverdovskii’s Zoology (Zoologiia) explores the theme of physical discomfort and alienation through allegory. The unquestionable festival favorite, Zoology tells the story of Natasha (Natalia Pavlenkova, the winner of Best Actress award), an aging woman who one day discovers that she has developed a tail. Tverdovskii, whose Corrections Class won the Best Debut Prize at Kinotavr in 2014, creates a perfectly orchestrated allegory that subverts all generic and narrative expectations throughout the film’s 88 minutes. After discovering her “problem”, Natasha goes to the hospital where she meets a charming young radiologist (Dmitrii Groshev) who appears to fall in love with her. He shows no surprise at the sight of her tail and helps Natasha as much as he can. The burgeoning romance transforms the woman. In a familiar “before-and-after” sequence, we see her change from a grey-haired spinster into a young-looking woman with a pixie cut and flare for style that would make even the most blasé of hipsters jealous. As the familiar change of guises lulls the viewer into believing that Zoology is just a quirky take on the easily recognizable metaphor of acceptance and transformation through love, Tverdovsky subverts the impression with perhaps the most jarring episode in the film. When Natasha and her young suitor finally attempt to consummate their relationship in an empty zoo cage, their passionate embrace ends with a close-up on him fellating her tail, suggesting a fetishistic interest in the atavism rather than genuine romantic attraction. By combining different genres and tropes with allusions to such works as Svetlana Razguliaeva’s cartoon Why Banana Snarls (Pochemu banan ogryzaetsia, 2014) and Jaco van Dormael’s 2015 film The Brand New Testament, Tverdovskii creates a stellar auteur work that is sure to have an outstanding festival destiny.
Undoubtedly culminating in Zoology, the subject of physical discomfort and disability reveals itself as a versatile metaphor for an ailing society, which is simultaneously alienating and alienated. The motif became central to the various expressions of cinematic discomfort at this year’s Kinotavr and was sustained and reinforced in the short film selection as well. There, the “preferred” disability was deafness—an easily legible metaphor for isolation and debilitating disenfranchisement. In tandem with the themes of gender inequality and financial ruin, the representations of physical impairment became a powerful way to speak about the kinds of marginalization in contemporary Russian society. While not proposing a solution, the festival’s program offered a thorough exploration of the precarious position and the liminal social space occupied by those marginalized by their sickness, their gender, or their insolvency.
This year’s Kinotavr main competition featured two documentary films: Ol’ga Stolpovskaia’s Year of Literature (God literatury) and Denis Shabaev’s Not My Job (Chuzhaia rabota). While being very different stylistically, both films fit well with the festival’s dominant trends and themes this year.
As 2016 is the “Year of Cinema,” so the year 2015 was proclaimed the “Year of Literature” by the Russian Ministry of Culture, yet the reason why Stolpovskaia chose this as a title remains unexplained until the end of her film. A student of Boris Iukhananov, Stolpovskaia presents a deeply personal story about the adversity of adoption processes in Russia. From the outset of the film, the viewer learns that several years before, Stolpovskaia lost an infant son who appears to have suffered from Down syndrome. The years that followed his death were marked by a series of unsuccessful attempts to adopt. As she and her partner, Aleksandr Snegirev, go through the disheartening bureaucratic complications of the adoption process, they are also shown to be dealing with various other vicissitudes, the most prominent being the news that a highway is to be built across the plot of land where their house stands. As the film draws to a close, Stolpovskaia and her partner get the first glimmer of hope for adoption and—in a clear parallel—the safety of their home. The closing sequence is voiced over by Snegirev, who reads from the story that won him the Russian Booker Prize in 2015. This rather straight-forward literalization of Anna Akhmatova’s oft-cited lines “If only you knew what trash gives rise / To verse, without a tinge of shame” becomes the crowning example of Stolpovskaia’s generous use of metaphors and intertextuality across media, putting her film in sharp contradistinction to Shabaev’s Not My Job.
The winner of Best Debut Award, Denis Shabaev’s documentary is a bona fide product of Marina Razbezhkina’s Studio. Not my Job follows the story of Farrukh, a young gastarbeiter from Tajikistan, who is working at a construction site on the outskirts of Moscow. His family is crammed into a tiny plywood shack, which creates the feeling of intense claustrophobic discomfort among the viewers. Having been filming the family for almost eighteen months, Shabaev presents his audience with a unique chance to look at the family’s most intimate moments: the daily prayer, a wedding, the day when Farrukh sees his wife after being away for almost two years. At least two episodes in the film invite a meta-cinematic reading: the moment Farrukh and his brother find an old projector in a pile of scrap metal, and, later in the film, when they discover a discarded piano and discuss whether they should take it home. However, during the press conference, both Razbezhkina and Shabaev denied any kind of symbolic exegesis, in adherence to the principles of Razbezhkina’s school. Notwithstanding a few such nuances, Shabaev creates a multifaceted, intimate portrayal of the life of migrant workers in Russia and makes the choice of subject, in his case, anything but opportunistic.
Women on the verge of supernatural powers
Another feature-length directorial debut, Guillaume Protsenko’s Wake me Up (Razbudi menia), continues the exploration of unusual female subjects. The film deals with the story of Zhenia, a young border patrol officer in one of Moscow’s airports. Following the mysterious disappearance of her lover, Zhenia (played by Irina Verbitskaia) discovers the ability to see prophetic dreams. Her newfound gift helps her catch a “courier” (border patrol argot for drug traffickers who smuggle heroin in their stomachs). Through her participation in the investigation, she becomes embroiled in the criminal underworld. Paradoxically, as she becomes more aware of her “gift”, her ability to distinguish between the dream world and real life diminishes at a startling pace. In a beautifully executed manner, Protsenko progressively blurs the line between the real and the imagined in the film by gradually aligning the spectator’s point of view with Zhenia’s. This soporific disorientation culminates in a very real gunshot that brings Zhenia and the viewers out of the world of dreams and suggests the death of either her old lover or her new flame, the chief investigator. The film was awarded the Mikael Tariverdiev Special Diploma.
Anton Bil’zho’s Dreamfish (Ryba-mechta) also plays on this theme and presents viewers with an even more enigmatic female subject. From J.W. Waterhouse’s nymphs and naiads to Mikhail Lermontov’s “Taman’” to Jos Stelling’s The Pointsman (1986), the film is overlaid with rich visual and narrative allusions, most of which center around ethereal otherworldly females. The film follows Roman, an editor who comes to a reclusive Estonian resort to work on an encyclopedic volume of Baltic Sea ichthyology. While rafting, in an attempt to spot the elusive sea cockroach, Roman (played by the professional photographer Vladimir Mishukov) falls overboard and is rescued by a glimmering naked beauty, Helena (Severija Janušauskaite). Shortly thereafter, a steamy love affair ensues between the unassuming – and initially completely asexual – Roman and the mermaid-haired Helena, who is as exotic as she is weird. The eccentricities of her behavior unequivocally suggest some sort of mysterious pelagic provenance. As Roman eventually grows weary of Helena’s love and sexual appetite, she becomes involved with the local macho (Maksim Vitorgan). Having realized that he has made a mistake, Roman kills the man and, with Helena’s help, throws his dismembered body off a boat. Predictably, Roman kills Helena later on, too.
Time to save the “Motherland”!
Roman Artem’ev’s A Man from the Future (Chelovek iz budushchego) and Il’ia Uchitel’’s Big Village Lights (Ogni bol’shoi derevni) departed from the festival’s various themes of cinematic discomfort and provided comic relief after seeing an array of variously afflicted characters. Uchitel’ Jr.’s first feature-length film, Big Village Lights, brought the 23-year old director the award for Best Screenplay and the Special Diploma of the Jury. The film follows the story of twenty-year old Fedia (Kirill Frolov), the owner of the rundown “Rodina”(“Motherland”) movie theater that is scheduled for demolition by the avaricious city mayor (Iurii Bykov). In an attempt to save the venue, Fedia decides to make a movie with the help of his friends. Together, they kidnap a movie star, Dmitrii Diuzhev, and force him to play in his film, perhaps in a nod to Frank Oz’s 1999 comedy Bowfinger. Uchitel’’s comedy itself surely capitalizes on Diuzhev’s participation and the scenes that reflect the protagonists’ ideas of what their groundbreaking film should be. Fedya imagines it as a spoof on Twilight (2008). His cameraman has an art-house film in mind, and his best friend insists on a B-movie in the style of Robert Rodriguez’s Machete (2010).These scenes become the film’s most attractive feature and, through their comic relief, abate the bombast of Uchitel’s press conference statement: “It’s time to save “Rodina”— this is what the film is about.”
Roman Artem’ev’s A Man from the Future also deals with a saving mission of sorts, but of a somewhat larger scope. The director’s feature-length debut (and a collaboration with Sergei Sel’ianov) features the story of middle-aged physics teacher Merkur’ev (Aleksandr Chislov) who claims to have saved the world from impending doomsday through meticulous calculations that helped him find the future “mother to mankind’s savior” in the person of a young cashier at a local supermarket. Praised and worshipped across the world, Merkur’ev enjoys his fifteen minutes of fame until the school principal exposes him. After escaping the pursuit and finding a suitable hideout, he dedicates himself to finding an error in his calculation. A year later, he is located by, first, an alien power, and then the Russian government that informs that his calculations were correct and sees him reinstated in his status of the world’s savior. The film was met with an overall positive response that was likely conditioned by the outstanding performance of Chislov and Aleksandr Bashirov. However, with its rejection of the 2016 feature-length version happy ending, Artem’ev’s original 2013 short film The Saviour (Spasitel’, content identical to the first fifteen minutes of A Man from the Future), is likely a more nuanced and versatile work.
Is it Easy to be Young?
Oksana Karas’s Good Boy (Khoroshii mal’chik) became the surprise winner of the festival’s Grand Prix. The film features the story of one tempestuous week in the life of a fifteen-year-old Kolya Smirnov, played by a promising young talent Semen Treskunov. With the film script penned by Mikhail Mestetskii and Roman Kantor, Good Boy boasts several intriguing plot twists and a few attempts to include the elements from different film genres. However, the final product gravitates most towards a coming-of-age comedy interspersed with certain aspects of a musical. The choice of filming locations constitutes one of the film’s most attractive features. Most of the film’s action is set in the Northwest of the Moscow, in the neighborhood of Sokol and River Station—one of the very few remaining islands of greenery within the city limits. In fact, it is not until later in the film, when Karas gives her audience the panorama from Kolia’s apartment, that one can be sure that the action takes place in Moscow. This delayed recognition of the capital became one of the director’s most successful and elegant artistic decisions in her award-winning film. A well-done work in its genre, Good Boy also is the only film in the competition that is practically devoid of any social commentary. With this in mind, the jury’s decision to give it the festival’s highest award is sure to raise questions.
Another feature-length debut by a woman director, Nadezhda Stepanova’s I Know How to Knit (Ia umeiu viazat’), provides a foil to Karas’s Good Boy. The film follows the story of suicidal Tania after she decides to take her life. Following Tania’s unsuccessful attempt to poison herself and her waking up in a seedy mental institution, the film alters among flashbacks to Tania’s unfulfilling alienated past, prior to her suicide attempt, and to her even bleaker present in the clinic. While promising to offer an unvarnished picture of an extreme case of adolescent escapism and alienation, the film’s script is not without irritating inconsistencies. Among them are the questions of why Tania is released from the mental clinic (she can’t get better, as she says) and, consequently, what pulls her out of her depression. The film’s first-person narrative further complicates these issues. On a more minute level, by lingering on grim, soiled, and decrepit images of St. Petersburg, the film provides a look into the darker side of Russia’s Northern Capital and offers a city portrait quite different from that of Petersburg. Only for Love.
Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student (Uchenik)—although the French translation, Le Disciple, surely does more justice to this juggernaut of a drama—was arguably the most awaited premiere at Kinotavr this year. Based on Marius Von Mayenburg’s play The Martyr, Serebrennikov’s film tells the story of Veniamin (Petr Skvortsov), a high school student who claims to be the only person able to dictate moral standards by throwing around Biblical quotes. Veniamin behaves disruptively in school and turns against the young, progressive biology teacher Elena L’vovna (Viktoriia Isakova). Shunned by his peers, he finds an acolyte in the outcast, crippled Grisha, who is ready to do and believe anything the teenage self-proclaimed prophet says, as he is completely in love with him. As the two of them start to plot the murder of Elena L’vovna, Grisha attempts to kiss Veniamin. Driven to rage, Veniamin kills Grisha. The film’s closing scene takes place at the principal’s office and shows the teachers – including the school priest – slowly beginning to trust the teenager and verbally attack Elena L’vovna. As the film’s dramatic tension reaches its apex, Isakova’s performance reaches the height of her mastery. As she grabs the hammer and nails from the table, the viewers await a violent, self-mutilating catharsis à la Lars von Trier. However, Serebrennikov’s heroine nails only her shoes to the floor of the school, in order to demonstrate her determination. The film ends with an aerial shot of Grisha’s body guarded by two police officers.
Serebrennikov’s exploration of religious fundamentalism is meticulously nuanced and markedly not anti-clerical. This approach allows him not only to engage with an array of contentious subjects (the life of the LGBT teenagers in Russia, sex education, anti-Semitism, etc.), but also to escape the heavy-handedness of the blatant expression of anti-institutionalism in the manner of Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan (2014), for example. In a preemptive endeavor to intercept potential accusations of “insulting religious beliefs” (a federal crime in Russia), Serebrennikov voices Veniamin’s “diagnosis” through Isakova’s character, who is likely the director’s mouthpiece in the film: “pseudo-prophetic hysteria.” Whether or not this will prove to be a shield strong enough to protect Serebrennikov, The Student’s destiny in the domestic market is sure to spark much interest – and controversy.
Bank Credits and Absolutely Free Snow
The risks and dangers of unpaid mortgage constituted another leitmotif at this year’s Kinotavr. The unanimous winner in the short film completion, Vadim Valiullin’s Credit captures the theme of bank credit vs. life most astutely and originally. The film’s main conflict is between a young woman and the bank clerk who haughtily elucidates the mortgage agreement to her. The film’s narrative is intercut with brief intertitles stating the young woman’s income, her husband’s income, the price of her clothing, her cigarettes, her beer, and most importantly—the exorbitant sum of her mortgage. In this amassment of numbers, an endearing intertitle saying “And suddenly, the snow began to fall. Absolutely for free” has a sobering effect. As the young woman realizes the full extent of servitude that she has subjected herself to by signing the mortgage contract, she finds out that she has late stage cancer, and that her husband just died in a plane crash. Showing no signs of remorse or despair, the young lady sends a triumphant, obscenities-filled text to the bank clerk saying that, with two state compensations combined, she will be able pay off her debt. Through mercilessly combining all three previously discussed types of marginalization (gender, illness, poverty) in one character, Valiullin’s final shot of a terminally sick woman who just exchanged her life for a mortgage turns the film into a coda for the entire festival program.
Aleksei Krasovskii’s dark monodrama The Collector presented an unusual take on the subject as well. The winner of the festival’s Best Actor award, Konstantin Khabenskii, stars in the role of Artem, the expert “collector” of large debts. Unscrupulous and aggressive, he does not shy away from digging up the dirt and blackmailing the bank debtors. Until a bereaved widow of one of Artem’s victims takes her revenge on him by leaking a fabricated video that captures some unspeakable crime he committed. After refusing to leave his office when his boss fires him in the wake of the scandal, Artem has until morning to prove his innocence. Krasovskii, who made his debut both as Collector’s director and scriptwriter, allows Khabenskii to fully explore his artistic potential and talent in the film: a task which the accomplished theater actor pulls off with flying colors. However, the film’s overall structure and dependence on a single character, perhaps, makes the script more suitable for a solo stage production.
The festival’s closing film, For Rent: A House With All Inconveniences (Sdaetsia dom so vsemi neudobstvami), directed by Vera Storozheva, returns viewers to where the festival began—women directors and their female protagonists. Storozheva’s film features the comedic encounter of four different women who seem to have rented the same vacation house through a sublet scam. The star-studded cast diligently performs the assigned roles of four different types of women squeezed into a small house and forced to deal with each other’s differences: the city vixen (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the work-obsessed single mother (Viktoriia Isakova), the provincial miniskirt-clad darling (Irina Pegova), and the doting, elderly middle-school teacher (Nina Dvorzhetskaia) who obsessively attends to the children that the women brought with them. While the genre that Storozheva chose does not presuppose any particular depth, the narrative and dialogues revolve exclusively around men and children, confirming the across-the-board Bechdel test failure of the majority of films that focus on female subjects, short and feature-length alike. While the laudable attempt to put women in the spotlight is very evident, little is done to extract the female subject from the conventional representation of gender binaries and social constructs.
Kinotavr Main Prize: Good Boy by Oksana Karas
Best Director: Kirill Serebrennikov (Student)
Best Debut: Not my Job by Denis Shabaev
Best Actress: Natal’ia Pavlenkova (Zoology by Ivan I. Tverdovskii)
Best Actor: Konstantin Khabenskii (Collector by Aleksei Krasovskii)
Best Cinematography: Denis Firstov (Collector)
Best Script (Gorin Prize): Konstantin Chelidze (Big Village Lights by Il’ia Uchitel’)
Best Music (Tariverdiev Prize): Giorgio Giampa, Igor’ Vdovin (Wake me Up by Guillaume Protsenko) (“For the exactness and accuracy of the intonations”)
Special Diploma of the Jury: Big Village Lights by Il’ia Uchitel’ (“For the best film about cinema”)
Main Prize of the Shorts Competition: Credit by Vadim Valiullin
Prize of the Russian Guild of Film Critics and Film Scholars: Zoology by Ivan I. Tverdovskii
Diploma of the Russian Guild of Film Critics and Film Scholars: Not my Job by Denis Shabaev
Daria Ezerova © 2016
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