Issue 53 (2016)
Aleksandr Kott: Insight (2015)
reviewed by José Alaniz© 2016
As demonstrated by the recent dust-up in the US and UK over Me Before You (dir. Thea Sharrock, UK, 2016), the representation of people with disabilities may be entering a new, post-ableist phase in 21st-century global cinema. (And none too soon.) The film, a tearjerker about a quadriplegic man romancing his caregiver, then choosing to end his life rather than “burden” her, sparked protests on both sides of the Atlantic from Disability Rights groups such as Not Dead Yet. Their main issue with the movie: what they consider its unexamined assumption that a disabled life is not worth living (Quinn 2016).
Not all those protesting have disabilities. The last decade has brought a remarkable development: as the disabled’s profile in Western society grows, the brand of critique they’ve long leveled at Hollywood ventures beyond their community and into the wider culture. It's not just that messages like that of Me Before You seem increasingly offensive, not unlike those of Million Dollar Baby (dir. Clint Eastwood, USA, 2004): it’s better to commit assisted suicide than continue on as a quadriplegic; Rain Man (directed by Barry Levinson, USA, 1988): autistics are adorable savants who cannot live independently; and Scent of a Woman (dir. Martin Brest, USA, 1992): the blind loathe themselves and are hell-bent on self-slaughter, until saved by a well-meaning assistant. Beyond the egregiously inaccurate and dehumanizing portraits, all of these disability-themed films feature able-bodied actors in disabled roles—an utter and absolute marginalization of actual disabled people from the field of representation. As Martin Norden concludes in his book Cinema of Isolation, “[t]he history of physical disability images in the movies has mostly been a history of distortion in the name of maintaining an ableist society” (Norden 1994: 314). But as the furor over Me Before You shows, we may look back on this era as the breakthrough moment when mainstream acceptance of such depictions started giving way to more inclusive and collaborative visions. (Hit Western television series of the last few years, including Breaking Bad, American Horror Story: Freakshow and Game of Thrones all feature disabled characters in disabled roles.)
If all that comes to pass, viewers of the future (to say nothing of cinema historians, Slavists and Disability Studies scholars) will most likely remember Insight, a film released in Russia in 2015, as a particularly blatant, retrograde vestige of the past. Indeed, what other than “retrograde” can we call a film in which a man goes blind, falls in love with his nurse, gets tricked by her into believing they have gotten married and honeymooned in Moscow after traveling there by train from their provincial town, then finds himself abandoned after she successfully conceives a child, leaving him to commit suicide by automobile? “Retrograde” seems among the milder possibilities.
Writer/director Aleksandr Kott apparently has in mind some sort of Petrushevskaya-style fairy tale for grown-ups, but his crass and dehumanizing work only shows how mind-numbingly banal a bluntly literalist approach to cinema can be. A demeaning plot better suited to black comedy (along the lines of Heathers’ [dir. Michael Lehmann, USA, 1988] treatment of teen suicide, perhaps) instead gets pressganged into a stultifyingly sullen and hollow drama which in any case tells us almost nothing about the actual lives of Russian blind people. This seems particularly repugnant in an era when centers for the real, flesh-and-blood blind are closing throughout the country due to “budget problems” (Bessarabova 2016).
“They Live Normally”
Pavel Zuev (Aleksandr Iatsenko), a blank slate with no family, friends or profession other than playing solo table tennis, already appears visionless and rootless as he rides a tram. After exiting it in long shot, he suddenly (and unconvincingly) stumbles and falls. I would imagine Kott is striving for some sort of tiresome metaphor at the outset here, but the effect seems heavy-handed and no more effective than the oddly barren bus stops, city squares, medical facilities, indeed the whole setting; as my viewing companion noted, “It looks like only four people live in all of Russia.”
Soon Zuev finds himself in a near-empty hospital of some sort, cared for by the nurse Nadezhda (Agrippina Steklova) and an avuncular doctor (caricaturist Andrei Bil’zho, whose presence only makes the proceedings even more absurd). With the bandages off, Zuev learns his sudden blindness—of “unknown etiology”—will most likely remain. In short order, the patient attempts suicide for the first time, jumping out a window fortunately only a couple of yards off the ground. Nadezhda had lied and told him they were on an upper floor; in fact, their relationship develops wholly out of her falsehoods: she tells him “everyone’s watching” in the hospital cafeteria when they’re actually alone (Zuev doesn’t question why all those prying diners make no noise).
Out of hospital, our hero adjusts to his new circumstances as he can, returning to his old apartment, where he takes up a job assembling clothespins. Scenes of Zuev at work; visiting a center for the blind (again, a strangely empty one); and interacting with a young courier (Filipp Avdeev) who picks up his finished pieces tells us all this film will reveal about the life of blind people in Russia: we learn—through Kott’s excruciating pauses between lines of dialogue—that they make light switches as well as clothespins; that the men have access to “wives” (blind as well), provided by the center; that “they live normally.” Somewhere offscreen.
All the same, Insight does contain hints of what a disabled lived reality, even a blind Weltanschauung, might encompass: several close-ups show Zuev’s hands and fingers on a tree trunk, on family photos he can no longer see, and on his lover’s body; an out-of-focus shot steadily resolves into her face, standing before him in the rain. Yet these tantalizing dribs and drabs of a better movie melt away in scenes like the one in which Zuev refuses a service dog because he is “not alone anymore.”
What Did the Blind Man See?
About that “not alone anymore”: Insight’s cluelessness about the lives of disabled people meets its rival in the film’s degrading portrait of women as monstrous liars and baby-crazed opportunists. Nadezhda (yes, “Hope”) embarks on her loathsome swindle of Zuev because, as her doctor colleague tells her, “Nadia, you need to have a child.” Her blind former patient, he adds, would make a good “sperm donor.” Not quite “be but sworn my love, /And I’ll no longer be a Capulet,” but his friendly advice has the desired effect.
And so, in a reversal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Nadezhda temporarily abandons her passionless able-bodied husband to tryst with a disabled breeding stud. The bedroom scenes that follow—their mood varies from soft porn gauziness to puerility inspired by Chaif’s rock number 17 in the diegesis—cheerily extend the film’s theme of distorting blind people’s lived reality beyond recognition. Kott too cannot resist the infantilizing, de-sexed image of disability which persists in popular culture—even when depicting sex! Insight, a film marketed through its “scandalous” intimate plot, shows an abled-bodied woman undressing first herself, then her disabled lover. Because, you know, the blind can’t undress themselves.
Despite such pitfalls, Insight does deserve some credit for not participating in the long cinematic tradition of simply denying the disabled a sexuality. As noted by the pioneering sociologists Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova and Pavel Romanov, for most of the 20th century such a topic was considered taboo. Even in the more liberated post-Soviet era, such a depiction—in popular discourses including film—remains fraught:
The sexual identity of the disabled appears as an additional means for constructing [able-bodied] gendered identity and falls still more closely under the society’s control. This manifests in the medicalization of the sexual experience of the disabled (with the most attention paid to men), whose sexuality is considered problematic, as well as in the representations of their hyper-masculine sexuality. Meanwhile, the real heterosexual lives of disabled people are presented as the experience of some foreign culture, thereby somewhat exoticizing them, while a homosexual disabled identity goes virtually without any discussion at all (Iarskaia-Smirnova and Romanov 2006: 142).
In practice, such attitudes produced the 20th-century cinematic figure of the blind “sweet innocent”—a sexless, treacly bundle of defenseless virtue (Norden 1994: 228). This global image persists into the present day; as Benjamin Fraser has recently written, “[N]arratives of disability—filmed or otherwise—rarely incorporate sexuality, preferring a sanitized image of platonic or amorous love instead” (Fraser 2016: 6).
Perhaps this explains why, ultimately, and despite his courage in at least broaching the topic of able-bodied/disabled sex, Kott falls back to a familiar Russian cinema trope: the spiritually pure blind person wronged by a dissolute world. “I made everything up,” a tearful Nadezhda tells Zuev. “You’re good. I’m not.” “I don’t believe you, “Zuev answers. “We were there. I saw it all.”
What did the blind man see? Not the false “wedding” in the store room of a food shop, with triumphant music on boombox, the role of officiator played by Nadezhda’s friend/accomplice Mariasha (Ekaterina Filippova); not Moscow, with its “Pushkin Monument” (actually a statue of Lenin), “Bolshoi Theater” with its grand pillars (Vladimir Lenin House of Metallurgists) and “Old Arbat” (the outdoor market of some provincial town). Muslim Magomaev’s 1964 ode to Moscow, The Best City in the World, on the soundtrack only makes the situation more pathetic and mocking—at Zuev’s expense.
And yet, the blind’s capacity to see beyond the material world (because of their guilelessness) has too congealed into a common subtheme in post-Soviet Russian cinema: the narrator calls a blind woman an “angel” in Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002) and the blind residents at a boarding school for the disabled receive similar treatment in The Night is Bright (Noch’ svetla, dir. Roman Balayan, 2004). We can compare such “spiritual” depictions with the self-sacrificial portraits of the Soviet era, e.g. The Fighter Pilots (Istrebiteli, dir. Eduard Pentslin, 1939), in which the hero loses his sight to save the life of a child.
Insight crystallizes the contemporary “blind who see beyond our world” theme in a top-down medium shot showing a post-coital Zuev and Nadezhda in bed: a shaft of light falls on his eyes, while hers remain in darkness.
Conclusion: “Us” Before “Them”?
Insight’s writer-director says he conceived of the film’s story after a friend lost his vision. During a visit, Kott surreptitiously filmed his sightless acquaintance, who appeared to him “as if from another planet.” As he told an interviewer, he learned that “a blind man starts to believe everything and everybody.”
The anecdote—and Kott’s conclusion—argues strongly for turning over all the sooner the means of cinematic production to disabled people, so they may represent themselves. It also reflects, as I have argued, some entrenched presumptions about the disabled that shape their filmic representations—which in turn affect how the disabled themselves are perceived in contemporary Russian culture. And the cycle persists. As argued by Fraser, the cinematic depiction of disability forms “a visible counterpart to the less-often visible social representations that mediate the way disability is conceived, perceived and lived” (Fraser 2016: 2).
These entrenched presumptions are evidently shared by some of Kott’s reviewers, who found Zuev’s deception not only plausible but dramatically satisfying: “a cruel illusion which, indeed, only a blind man could believe” (Iuriev 2015). And yet the plot of Insight goes beyond the mere preference for an imaginary world over a dreary reality. In order to believe Zuev could fall for such an obvious fraud, one would have to already think of blind people as credulous, dovelike fools at the mercy of society – in other words, as martyrs to able-bodied wickedness. (And in this case, female able-bodied wickedness.)
The other common move involves metaphorization of the disabled, such that their “plight” becomes our own. As reviewer Denis Iuriev puts it: “Looking at Zuev, you start thinking, maybe there are a lot more such blind people around us than at first seems apparent? And lack of vision in this context is absolutely not important” (Iuriev 2015). Yes, because we can readily compare the sort of “blindness” (moral, or whatever) of the able-bodied to the job discrimination, lack of services, and social stigma which the, you know, blind blind have to sort through everyday. There is no difference, really. All in all, I prefer Katerina Tarkhanova’s more cynical verdict on Kott’s work: “[S]o that we may finish the film and not get bored, we have to look upon blindness as a symbol of insight” (Tarkhanova 2015).
It is of course not Kott’s job to present a cinéma vérité documentary masterpiece on the real lives of blind people in Russia. But neither should it be his task to distort those lives to such an extent as to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of them as helpless, gullible and desperate to kill themselves. Insight, after all, is a movie in which a heartbroken blind man wanders in traffic to Dieter Meier’s tune Loveblind (“An unexpected smile,/the blink of her eyes/he’s acting stupid,/losing the Cupid”) before the inevitable end. Kott insisted on tragedy; as he said in an interview: “[W]e understood the film had to have exactly this ending” (Sychev 2015).
The auteur’s work and words pose a critical choice for Russian filmmakers: will cinema about the disabled always bear that burden of ineluctable pity, grotesquerie and doom? Will they hover towards grand elaborations on the duped blind woman’s plight from On Freaks and People (Pro urodov i liudei, dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 1998)? (Though when Balabanov did it, at least it worked as épater la bourgeoisie.) To put it bluntly: in a 21st century of expanding horizons for the disabled and disability rights, will films about these human beings continue to look like Insight, the Russian Me Before You?
1] In what has become a grim joke in the disability community, able-bodied actors eager to win an Academy Award tend to do very well by starring as disabled people in the movies; 2015 proved a banner year, with the Best Actress Oscar going to Julianne Moore for playing a woman with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice (dir. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, USA, 2014), while Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor for his interpretation of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh, UK, 2014).
5] Avdeev had a prominent role in a much better film about disability in Russia, Corrections Class (Klass korrektsii, dir. Ivan Tverdovskii, 2014).
6] These close-ups evoke the tactile, unmediated impressions which constitute the phenomenological world of the deaf-blind, as described by Irina Sandomirskaia: “‘Immediate’ presupposes touching the world skin-to-skin, not reflecting on it through a linguistic metaphor” (2008: 330). See Sandomirskaia’s article for a fascinating account of early Soviet pedagogical approaches to the deaf-blind.
7] Kott lurches toward Chekhovian marital despair when he has Nadezhda’s feckless husband (Dmitrii Muliar) recall a moment from their youth. “You kept yelling that you’re a bird!” he sputters, in laughter. And indeed, the stage actress Steklova played the role of Nina in a 2010 Satirikon production of The Seagull.
9] Tarkhanova (2015) reads both the deception scenes and those with Nadezhda’s couch potato husband as referencing the masculine existentialist statism of contemporary Russia, where everything equals everything else: “It makes no difference where you drink vodka with no chaser – in a blind alley or the square in front of the Bolshoi Theater”.
10] And not only in cinema: Tatyana Tolstaya’s short story “See the Other Side”(1999) features a blind man who seems privy to things unseen, and contains this passage: “Because we are just as blind—no, a thousand times blinder than that old man in the wheelchair. We hear whispers but we plug our ears; we are shown but we turn away. We have no faith: we’re afraid to believe, because we’re afraid that we’ll be deceived”. The sentimentalized, vaguely supernatural image of the blind of course has a long pedigree in Russian literature, going back to Vladimir Korolenko’s The Blind Musician (1886), through Alexander Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri (1832) and beyond.
University of Washington, Seattle
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Bessarabova, Anna (2016). “Nevidimaia beda: 1 aprelia strana ostanetsia bez tsentrov reabilitatsii slepykh.” Pravmir.ru (March 28).
Fraser, Benjamin (2016). “Introduction: Disability Studies, World Cinema and the Cognitive Code of Reality.” In Cultures of Representation: Disability in World Cinema Contexts, edited by Fraser, 1–17. London: Wallflower Press.
Iarskaia-Smirnova, Elena and Pavel Romanov (2006). Politika invalidnosti: sotsial’noe grazhdanstvo invalidov v sovremmenoi Rossii. Saratov: Nauchnaia kniga.
Iuriev, Denis. (2015). “Obychnie, nichem ne prinimatel’nye den’ki.” KinoPoisk (June 25).
Norden, Martin F. (1994). The Cinema of Isolation : A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Quinn, Ben (2016). “Disability Rights Campaigners Protest at Premiere of Me Before You.” The Guardian (May 25).
Sandomirskaia, Irina (2008). “Skin to Skin: Language in the Soviet Education of Deaf-Blind Children, The 1920s and 1930s.” Studies in East European Thought 60.4: 321–337.
Sychev, Sergei (2015). “Aleksandr Kott: slepoi chelovek nachinaet verit’ vsemu i vsem.” Film Pro.
Tarkhanova, Katerina (2015). “Seraia bolezn’. Insayt, rezhisser Aleksandr Kott.” Iskusstvo Kino. 6.
Tolstaya, Tatyana (2007). “See the Other Side.” Trans. Jamey Gambrell. The New Yorker (March 12).
Insight, Russia, 2015
90 minutes, DCP, color
Director Aleksandr Kott
Scriptwriter Aleksandr Kott
Director of Photography Petr Dukhovskoi
Production Design Sergei Avstrievskikh
Costume Design Alana Snetkova
Music Andrei Kurchenko, Anna Kalinicheva
Sound Vladimir Priamov, Aleksandr Fedenev
Editing Vadim Kranitskii
Cast Aleksandr Iatsenko, Agrippina Steklova, Andrei Bil’zho, Filipp Avdeev
Producer Ekaterina Filippova
Production Atlantic Film Company, Pan-Atlantic Studio
Aleksandr Kott: Insight (2015)
reviewed by José Alaniz© 2016