KinoKultura: Issue 53 (2016)
The New Russian Film Program at the 38th Moscow International Film Festival comprised 18 feature films, including 11 feature directorial debuts, four films from the Kinotavr program, four films by directors 30 and younger, and three films by female directors. There was also one Russian-produced film in the main competition program: Nikolai Dostal'’s The Monk and the Demon (Monakh i bes, 2016), which did not take home any prizes. The Russian features at the 2016 festival were dominated by three trends: films in the comedy genre; films for teens and young adults; and films that address social issues not typically represented in Russian cinema, even if most of these films stop short of making any kind of sustained statement about the social issues presented on screen.
Kind and Good: Comedy and New Russian Cinema
Seven of the 19 new Russian features at this year’s festival fell within the broader genre of comedy. Most were family drama-comedies, including veteran director Vera Storozheva’s latest film. In For Rent: A House with all Inconveniences (Sdaetsia dom so vsemi neudobstvami, 2016), three families and three generations of women end up at the same summer beach rental, together with their children. Here the standard communal apartment setting as a platform for bringing together people from different walks of life is modernized to accommodate Russia’s diverse and indeterminate middle class: all the women in the film represent a different background, a different economic level, and a different approach to childrearing. What they share is a deep sense of disillusionment with their histories of male companionship, and with the way their lives have thus far played out. Nonetheless, the film culminates in a saccharine ending that defeats any trace of a feminist message, since the women must again rely on the benevolence of men to house their families for the remainder of their vacation.
Upon introducing the film on the opening day of the festival, Irina Pavlova, the artistic director of the Russian Program, described it as “a good film. [Storozheva] can do everything but make a bad film.” At the end of the screening, the audience—or, at least, everybody sitting near me in the theatre that day—seemed delighted. “What a kind film!” “What a good film!” were the kinds of things I heard the strangers next to me saying. For critics, the employment of adjectives like kind (dobryi) and good (khoroshii) are stamps of mediocrity. For the general audience, however, these exclamations were clearly synonyms for, “Finally, a film we can watch and smile through.” Storozheva’s films are often framed as sentimental tales of female spiritual journeys, with deficient male figures and parentless children; For Rent: A House with all Inconveniences has all these elements, but it lacks the deeper, spiritual layer that made her earlier films like Traveling With Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi, 2007) and Spring Will Be Here Soon (Skoro vesna, 2009) more than just “kind” or “good.”
There were three other family drama-comedies at the 2016 festival: Aleksandr Amirov’s Teli and Toli (2015), Dmitrii Izmest'ev’s Not a Honeymoon (Ne svadebnoe puteshestvie, 2016), and Aleksandr Kirienko’s The Ivanovs (Ivanovy, 2016). Teli and Toli is set in a mountainous pass in the Northern Caucuses where a young man and woman from two neighboring villages—Teli, in Georgia, and Toli, in North Ossetia—must announce to their families that they plan to marry. Although Teli and Toli is Amirov’s directorial feature debut, in 2012 he won the Golden Eagle for Best Editing for his work on Oleg’ Pagodin’s Home (Dom, 2011). In Not a Honeymoon, Izmest'ev too uses the platform of nuptials to construct a family comedy that pivots on the crises and resolutions that come with impending marriage. When a successful businessman decides to marry his independent daughter off to the first man he sees, the couple ends up together—first out of spite for their matchmaker, and eventually, of their own accord. In Kirienko’s The Ivanovs, an absent patriarch’s return to the family forces his adult son and daughter to reevaluate their off-track lives. Kirienko is known primarily for his work in television, having directed over ten television series in the past five years. Each of these three comedies tap into familiar narrative tropes (forbidden love, unlikely love, and the absent father), but fail to offer anything particularly memorable—be it the polish of Hollywood comedy, on one end, or the contemplative-philosophical experimentation that critics have long come to expect from Russian cinema, on the other.
The most interesting comedy of 2016 was Roman Artem'ev’s directorial debut Man from the Future (Chelovek iz budushchego, 2016), which opened the Russian Program but in fact premiered a month earlier at Kinotavr. Man from the Future is an apocalypse comedy, and may be the first such film in recent Russian cinema. When a piece of the sun breaks off and begins hurtling towards Earth, a high school physics teacher determines through mathematical calculation that he must impregnate a local cashier in order to save the planet. The film is not so much a satire of the ubiquitous apocalypse/disaster genre as it is a playful jab at media sensationalism and the fickleness of stardom. The narrative and cinematography are quirky and light, but not without unanswered questions that keep the viewer guessing if this simple physicist is indeed the man from the future he claims to be. The film would likely do well in international distribution if not for the fact that viewers won’t find anything “identifiably Russian” about its content or presentation; it is no secret that Russian films tend to do better in the international arena if they play into some conception of “Russianness,” for instance cultural heritage or national trauma, in order to market themselves (for better or for worse) for the often ethnographic tastes of the global market.
Comedy wasn’t the only genre represented at the 2016 festival. There were three detective/thirller films: Renat Davlet'iarov’s film Pure Art (Chistoe iskusstvo, 2016) is an “erotic thriller,” as the producer described it, about the true story of artists who made millions creating and selling counterfeit paintings of Russian masters. Kostas Marsan’s My Killer (Moi ubitsa, 2016) is a police drama set and filmed in Yakutia about a woman who kills her identical twin and assumes her identity. The crime thriller has long been a favorite genre of Russian audiences, and while Pure Art and My Killer are entertaining and the intrigue in both films is compelling, they fall short when compared to the many current gems of the genre, for instance the BBC’s recent serialization of Sherlock (2010 - present), True Detective (2014 – present), or the meticulously styled Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012 - present). Another thriller, one with a looser plotline, is Lika Alekseeva’s debut Parallel Lines Meet in Infinity (Parallel'nye priamye peresekaiutsia v bezkonechnosti, 2015)—an erotic thriller about a brooding photographer who puts nude models in dangerous situations and captures their real-life panic from behind the lens.
New Patriotism for New Russia
In an early scene from Man from the Future, a government official apologizes to the protagonist, the savior of humanity. “Unfortunately there aren’t any presidents available to thank you in person. All the world’s leaders have been evacuated into outer space.” “Except for Vladimir Putin,” he adds, “who remained in Russia with his people.” Man from the Future is not a patriotic film, the fact that it takes place in Russia is incidental to the storyline, and this joke is not necessarily patriotic. However, there was a healthy does of patriotism this year’s festival, though nearly all of it was directed at young people.
The Box (Korobka, 2015) tells the story of a group of Russian friends who initiate a soccer tournament against local rivals in order to gain exclusive rights to the neighborhood soccer pitch. One team is a group of Russian teens with Russian parents; the other team is comprised of players born in Russia, but whose parents are from the Caucasus. Here again, as in For Rent: House with all Inconveniences, each of the boys’ families, regardless of geographic origin, represents a different social and economic background. Yet the suspense of the tournament, which is stretched out over the 99 minutes of the film, is not a vehicle for a conversation about class. Director Eduard Bordukov, who himself was a professional cross-country runner between 1996 – 2011 and earned the title Master of Sport, uses the game of soccer to advance the film’s explicit social message against racism and race-based nationalism. The demographics of new Russia are changing and, as The Box tells us, being Russian means living and working in Russia, but not necessarily having roots in Russia that stretch back even more than a generation. “I was born here, this is my home,” says the young protagonist, Damir, in response to his immigrant father’s advice to lay low, “we are guests here.” This is a kind of place-based, race/ethnicity-blind patriotism that might be unfamiliar to an older Russian audience, the usual audience at the Moscow festival’s Russian Program. But to the young cast (most now in their early 20s) and the even younger target audience (the edited version of the film is rated 12+), it is a reality and a necessity of a changing, globalizing, and demographically injured Russia—it is a call for young Russians to stick by their homeland in sickness, in sanctions, and in health. “Feel the difference from Leviathan!” one critic wrote in his review of the film. “[Leviathan] makes you want to leave Russia, but The Box makes you want to go outside and kick a ball around” (Ivanov 2016).
Another comedy at this year’s festival, Big Villages Lights (Ogni bol'shoi derevni, 2016), also projects a patriotic lesson for young people, albeit a less explicit one. Big Village Lights is the directorial debut of young director Il'ia Uchitel' (b. 1992), the son of director Aleksei Uchitel', winner of the Golden George at the 2005 Moscow Film Festival for Dreaming of Space (Kosmos kak predchustvie). In Big Village Lights, a young projectionist kidnaps Russian film star Dmitrii Diuzhev in order to make a film and earn the money needed to rebuild the town’s only movie theatre. There are times when the film is quite funny; there are also times when the Diuzhev-playing-Diuzhev maneuver is forced and overacted, especially since Diuzhev is not really playing himself but a composite of some of the seeder characters of his cinematic career. For everything to work out in the end, however, the young projectionist must first serve his mandatory term in the Army, as his best friend has already done. Don’t dodge your Army duty; your beloved will wait for you. And indeed, she does. “It’s only a year,” the protagonists agree. To the dismay of many critics who were puzzled by the film’s success among the judges, Big Village Lights won the prizes for Best Screenplay and Special Jury Mention at the 2016 Kinotavr Film Festival.
Physical and Intellectual Disability in Recent Russian Film
The most unexpected trend of the festival this year was the treatment of social and moral issues rarely represented in Russian cinema. The film Doctor (Vrach, 2016) is the directorial premiere of veteran actor Gosha (Iurii) Kutsenko and it was also included in the Kinotavr program. Doctor follows a surgeon, played by Kutsenko, as he goes about the banal events of his day: talking on the phone, walking through the hospital, driving around town, seeing patients, and accepting chocolates and money as tokens of appreciation for expedient care. The figure of the doctor was a favorite hero of the Soviet (and also post-Soviet) screen, not for the power or wealth that an American audience might associate with the profession, but because in Russia the honest doctor is simultaneously savior and everyman: saving lives despite his low salary and the crumbling infrastructure of his hospital. In its final minutes, Doctor poses an unexpected ethical question: the doctor is paralyzed in a car accident and his coworkers must decide whether to acquiesce in his wishes and assist him in ending his life. Unfortunately, the film ends before offering any philosophical reflection on the vast ethical conundrum it raises. This tentative (and in some cases naïve) approach towards social issues was a theme at the 2016 festival, as we will see in Andrei Elinson’s Two (Dvoe)—another film that misses an opportunity to address moral problems in any serious way.
In Two, a renowned research scientist, Vasilii, is paralyzed from the waist down in a skiing accident. He becomes a recluse, working along in his apartment on a prosthesis device that will help him walk again. The film is slow and pivots on a poorly developed love story between Vasilii and Mila, a woman assigned to complete 150 days of community service by assisting him with day to day tasks. Vasilii’s disability is a superfluous detail in the screenplay and there is no attempt to address the real, daily struggles that the wheelchair bound face in Russia, when less than 15 per cent of Moscow metro stations are wheelchair accessible (and the percentage is lower in St. Petersburg, where the film was shot). Even the promotional poster for the film shows Vasilii seated in an office chair and not in the wheelchair to which he is permanently bound. The naïve sentimentality of Two is in poor taste: let love in, and your disability is no obstacle, the film asks us to believe.
On the topic of mental health, the directorial debut of director Nadezhda Stepanova, I Know How to Knit (Ia umeiu viazat’, 2015), is a first-person narrative of a woman who ends up in an institution after attempting suicide. Filming began on the project in 2010, when Stepanova was still a student at VGIK. Incidentally, long gaps between conception and completion were common at this year’s festival; for instance, the idea for The Box was also conceived more than five years prior to its completion. In I Know How to Knit, the careful and repetitive practice of knitting gives the heroine structure and logic in a world without God. There is little non-diegetic sound in the film, and Stepanova admits that “there isn’t going to be a huge audience for this kind of film. For us it was important to make and complete our experiment” (Gaikov 2016). I Know How to Knit has been called a “Petersburg Amélie” because of the female first-person narration, but while the character development is on par with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), there is not nearly as much whimsy in Stepanova’s on-screen world. When the protagonist tells a friend that her father was a former Chekist with Putin in the Leningrad KGB, he replies, “There’s no such thing as a former Chekist.” There is not much room for whimsy in a joke that hits that close to home. Stepanova’s film is perhaps more productively viewed in the context of the recent wave of talented, young female directors developing female characters and female-driven stories.
The boldest film of the Russian program, and the only film that took real risks at this year’s festival, was Sergei Solov'ev’s Gum Shoes (Ke-dy, 2016). On the eve of his conscription into the Russian Army to serve his mandatory year of service, Jagger—named for his likeness to the Rolling Stones front man—goes out to buy some new sneakers. These sneakers lead him to Amira, a pedicurist who is planning to deliver her autistic son to an orphanage. Music and youth culture have been defining components of Solov'ev’s work, and Gum Shoes in this regard does not disappoint; in the way that Solov'ev’s ASSA captured an era upon its release in 1987, Gum Shoes is set to an original soundtrack written and performed by rapper Basta. Basta was originally invited to the project to record five songs but ended up playing the role of the draft office and serving as the film’s co-producer.
Shot in Sevastopol, Gum Shoes is essentially a remake of Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957). The film is mostly black and white, done “in the rainy, poetic style of Thaw cinema” (Maliukova 2016). Gum Shoes is peppered by numerous citations and musical interludes—a stylistic stamp for which Solov'ev has come to be known. Although there are nearly forty years in age between Basta and Solov'ev, the latter of whom, in his own words, “was never interested in rap,” the two come together here as a perfect pair: Solov'ev’s aesthetics of pastiche are complimented by the layers of sampling in Basta’s songs, borrowing from sources like Joan Osborne’s 1995 billboard hit “One of Us.” Towards the end of Gum Shoes, Amira races to see Jagger, holding one of his sneakers in her hand. She is late to see her beloved off to war, like Veronika in Kalatozov’s original. Shots of both women pushing through the crowds are interspliced in an elegant homage to Kalatozov, but especially to actress Tat'iana Samoilova—the breathtaking leading lady who transformed female celebrity during the Thaw but nonetheless died in poverty in the country that adored her. Instead of adopting young, orphaned Boris in her dead lover’s honor, like Veronika in The Cranes are Flying, at the end of Gum Shoes Amira returns to the orphanage and retrieves her own son on Jagger’s advice.
While Veronica eventually learns at the end of The Cranes are Flying that her lover has indeed died in the war, Jagger’s fate is less clear. When he is conscripted into the Army, Jagger is sent right to active duty. But to where? We see him only in an unmarked uniform and an unmarked tank, rolling through the snow in a nondescript landscape. On the one hand, this is surely Crimea and Jagger is one of those “little green men” who appeared in Crimea in 2014. On the other hand, this is an imagined war zone. Unlike WWI (Igor' Ugol'nikov, 2016), an almanac co-production (and the other “war film” of the festival) that seeks to unite first-person accounts of war within a universal-humanist narrative, location is irrelevant in Gum Shoes. “Who are we shooting at?,” Jagger asks. “It doesn’t matter. Just aim accurately.” As the blasting begins, an intertitle flashes across the screen: “JAGGER VS. JAGGER.”
During the battle scenes at the end of the film, the jiggle of Jagger’s helmeted head in the bumpy tank serves as a dance macabre to Basta’s original score. This scene also mirrors a longer, earlier sequence in which we watched a similar dance: Amira’s autistic son sits in the back of a jeep on his way to the orphanage, his head bouncing to Basta’s music. “Solov'ev doesn’t judge anybody [in Gum Shoes],” Larisa Maliukova said in her review of the film. She is right, but we cannot forget (and it is easy to forget) that in this lengthy, poetic sequence the boy is being driven to an orphanage by the mother who is unwilling and unable to care for him, having been convinced by social norms that he will be better off “with others like him.” Perhaps this scene is an answer to the question posed to President Putin at his April 2016 call-in session, “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,” when filmmaker Avdot'ia Smirnova asked for support for autism and other childhood intellectual and physical disabilities. Solov'ev’s film may not judge, but it gives the viewer the tools to do so.
There are moments, especially at the beginning, when Gum Shoes feels slow and the musical segments feel long, but the tension in the theatre was palpable when Jagger screamed “FOR THE MOTHERLAND! FOR PUTIN!” before firing the guns on his tank. Some people in the audience walked out; some were taking photos of the intertitles on their phones; many clapped for the title “IF ONLY THERE WERE NO WAR”; but mostly people just sat up a little bit straighter. As I was leaving, I walked for several blocks behind a middle-aged couple discussing what a “good Russian film” this was: “This was a film worth watching.” They got into a car with the ubiquitous orange and black St. George ribbon (an 18th century military symbol that was revived by President Putin to signify support for Russia’s military) tied to the rear view mirror. The symbols of war are complicated everywhere, but they are especially complicated in Russia these days. The comparison between WWII and the present is a “risky comparison,” as Maliukova put it. “Solov'ev is taking a shot at something sacred.” Gum Shoes is all the riskier, and all the more important, in the face of the complacency—aesthetic, political, and social—at this year’s festival.
Gaikov, Pavel. 2016. “Sofiko Kiknavelidze: ‘Ia umeiu viazat’ – eto fil’m-sostiazanie.’” Kinometro.ru.
Ivanov, Boris. 2016. “Korobka. Turnir raionnogo masshtaba.” Film.ru.
Maliukova, Larisa. 2016. “‘Letiat zhuravli’ i ‘Ke-dy.’” Novaia gazeta (June 24). .
Alyssa DeBlasio © 2016
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