Issue 53 (2016)
Vladimir Bek: Little Bird (Ptichka, 2015)
reviewed by Rita Safariants© 2016
Vladimir Bek’s second feature film Little Bird is an atmospheric meditation on the liminal space between childhood and adulthood, exploring in a decidedly brooding key the pain and confusion of this utmost universal and familiar transition from early to late adolescence. Filmed on location at a real-life summer camp outside Moscow, Little Bird tells the story of an unrequited love “quadrangle” among two adolescents, Lenta and Dima, and their older (presumably college-age) counselors, Rita and Pasha. Frustrated by a series of futile attempts to cajole romantic reciprocity from the objects of their affections, Lenta and Dima forge an alliance and attempt to ease their shared misery by staging elaborate supernatural séances of their own invention in an abandoned barn in a nearby village. Meanwhile their camp counselors, Rita and Pasha, embark on their own clumsy romantic entanglement, marked by mundane sexual impulses that mask the absence of emotional depth. Bek uses the two parallel narratives to contrast youth and adulthood, casting the former as a spiritually transcendent human state with its heavy reliance on dreams and magical thinking, and the latter as a period marked by loss and the prosaic monotony of carnal desire.
Despite a carefully constructed plotline with multiple interweaving cinematic and literary allusions, Bek’s insistence of exalting the mysteries of the young mind and heart at the expense of sexual and emotional maturity comes across as reductive and predictable in an otherwise highly promising cinematic narrative. One of the main problems of the film is its thematically underutilized setting of a refurbished Soviet-era children’s summer camp and its historical significance. In fact, it is the camp itself that made Bek’s film project possible in the first place. In his interview with the BBC, Bek said that he did not initially plan to make his second film about a summer camp: “First came the invitation to shoot on location at a children’s summer camp, not the idea to make a summer camp film. Only then did I begin to think about this possibility and began to re-watch some films [in the genre.]” (Slobodchikova 2016). Bek’s admitted impulse to research the summer camp film may, in fact, have derailed Little Bird’s stylistic originality, resulting instead in an overly faithful pastiche of well-known Soviet summer camp classics, narratively pared down and cinematographically dressed up to impersonate American independent cinema. The juxtaposition, while compelling in theory, falls flat in practice in its failure to engage with any aspect of Soviet cinematic nostalgia that the summer vacation genre naturally offers. The initial production offer to shoot on location outside Moscow was envisioned as a way to integrate the camp’s participants in the making of a film project. The camp’s administration even pitched the idea of using their setting to remake a Soviet summer camp comedy classic, The Adventures of Petrov and Vasechkin (Prikliucheniia Petrova i Vasechkina, obyknovennye i neveroiatnye, dir. Vladimir Alenikov, 1983). Bek declined. Instead, it is as if with Little Bird, Bek is consciously refusing to acknowledge the rich socio-cultural legacy of Soviet childhood leisure in the summer “pioneer camps,” which up until the collapse of the USSR in 1991 contained a heavy ideological component, meant to build character and a sense of community among the young Soviet “Pioneers” (a Soviet youth organization that bore a nominal resemblance to the American Boy Scouts).
Although the conflict of generations and the juxtaposition of two different types of youth, (that of schoolchildren and newly independent young adults entrusted with the campers’ wellbeing), is among the primary themes of Little Bird, the notions of the passage of time and of Russia’s historical and sociopolitical transformation are entirely missing from Bek’s film. This, in turn, makes Little Bird’s abundant references to the Soviet summer camp film genre even more confusing to the historically-minded viewer. While making only cursory allusions to Petrov and Vasechkin, as well as its precursor, Welcome, or No Tresspassing (Dobro pozhalovat’ ili Postoronnym vkhod vospreshchen, dir. Elem Klimov, 1964), Bek turns to Sergei Solov’ev for a more auteurist take on the summer camp love story. In the BBC interview, Bek admitted to have used Solov’ev’s A Hundred Days After Childhood (Sto dnei posle detstva, 1975) as the inspiration for his film, adding that his project should not be seen as a remake or a sequel (Slobodchikova 2016). However, the sheer amount of borrowing that Bek’s film allows itself would beg to differ. There is the unrequited love triangle, shots of young girls reading French literature, the attempts of the young campers to win over their crushes by way of self-inflicted physical injury, insults inscribed on wooden fences, surreptitious surveillance of the camp’s romantic drama by a nerdy loner, all bookended by a steady stream of literary allusions. Little Bird seems to follow Solov’ev’s cinematic tropes to a distractingly close extent. In Solov’ev’s film, for example, the romantic hero Lopukhin places a fake cast on his leg in order to seem enfeebled after reading Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and coming across a passage that states that the female gender finds lameness irresistible. Bek’s answer to this detail is decidedly Shakespearian. His lovesick Lenta (Aleksandra Rybakova) channels Hamlet’s Ophelia in her repeated drowning attempts to get attention from Pasha (Petr Skvortsov), the camp’s counselor and swimming coach.
It is in his portrayal of female protagonists that Bek finally makes a desperately needed thematic departure from A Hundred Days. In contrast to Solov’ev’s heroine, Ergolina (Tat’iana Drubich), who personifies the object of adolescent romantic desire with her long flowing hair, bohemian flower crowns and a penchant for French literature, Bek’s Rita (Margarita Tolstoganova) fills her time reading Sartre and despondently scanning her surroundings as if unsure of why she finds herself at a children’s summer camp. While Lenta’s crush on Pasha is psychologically understandable, Dima’s romantic obsession with Rita is unsettling. Throughout the narrative, Pasha is shown as a helpful and engaged member of the camp staff when he teaches the kids to swim and later outfits Lenta with half a dozen of inflatable armbands to prevent her drowning attempts. Rita, on the other hand, does not exhibit many (if any) positive or nurturing qualities one might expect from someone working with children. Soon after she arrives at the camp, she asks Pasha how he manages with the kids; a short while later she tells Lenta that she is “little, annoying and boring.” Rita’s first interaction with Dima occurs during an outdoor game that closely resembles “Spin-the-bottle,” which ends with Rita kissing Dima on the cheek to his bewilderment. The scene is both innocent and vaguely disconcerting, showing the emotional vulnerability of an impressionable pre-teen and the inexperience and recklessness of a not-quite-adult female counselor. Bek’s ability to visually articulate the moral and psychological ambiguities present in each of his protagonists’ actions is among the film’s primary strengths.
The film’s sonic and visual landscapes further serve to illuminate Bek’s preoccupation with showing the generalized pain and awkwardness of adolescence, which also allow for a stylistic exit from Solov’ev’s influence. Little Bird’s heavy use of an ambient soundtrack and the stylized hazy cinematography recalls the early work of Sofia Coppola, most vividly her first feature film, a cinematic adaption of Jeffery Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides. Bek’s choice of soundtrack is almost identical in sensibility to Coppola’s collaboration with the French electronica duo Air, whose psychedelic downtempo minimalism has become a textbook instrumental accompaniment to twenty-first century meditations on the confusions of prepubescent sexuality. Bek’s insistent, somewhat distractingly omnipresent ambient soundtrack allows for a sustained psychological tension throughout the languid camerawork, sparse dialogue, and heavy reliance on emotionally charged close-ups of the main protagonists. The coming-of-age theme is further underscored by a marked absence of adults in the film: they simply appear as voices that give imperative statements and as providers and/or enablers. Bek never shows us the staff responsible for camp dining, for instance. Within the liminal space of psychosexual maturation, adulthood is presented simply as a function rather than a fully-fledged human state.
Although Bek has been vocal about making sure that Little Bird is not meant to be a “social issues film about how everything is horrible,” (Slobodchikova 2016) he nevertheless makes an elegant nod to Vasilii Pichul’s Little Vera (Malen’kaia Vera, 1988), a classic of the late-Soviet chernukha genre of grim naturalism, a film that unapologetically painted young adulthood as a clumsy mash-up of violence, confusion and hopelessness. Bek borrows from Pichul’s famous discotheque scene, where the eighteen-year-old Vera meets Sergei, her ill-fated lover, amidst the chaos of loud music, fighting and canine police units. Pasha and Rita find themselves in a similar setting, drinking and dancing to a remixed version of Sofia Rotaru’s “It’s not enough” (a musical arrangement of Arsenii Tarkovsky’s original verse), the easily recognizable anthem used by Pichul in his legendary film—except that, whereas Pichul used the song as a foreground of the ensuing personal drama, Bek uses it to essentially shut the door on any hope for Pasha and Rita. After a stumbling walk back to the camp, replete with a drunken fight and clumsy copulation, Rita wakes up to a phone call that brings her back to her regular life beyond the camp’s perimeter. The film ends with Rita being driven away by a much older man, after she has frustrated Pasha’s hopes for a sustained relationship, choosing adulthood over adolescent ambiguity. And it is towards the end of the film that many of the hidden Chekhovian undertones begin to appear in Bek’s film. Having witnessed Pasha and Rita’s sexual encounter, Dima takes out his anger and frustration by killing a small red bird. Meanwhile Lenta destroys the magical shrine she worked so hard to build and nurture. The death of the bird, whose lifeless body Dima places on his bare chest, acts as a rather heavy-handed, but apt metaphor for the loss of not only childhood, but rather universal human innocence. Even though Vladimir Bek envisioned his sophomore cinematic effort as a story that exposes the unbridgeable gap between childhood and adulthood, the outcome is a reflection on the disorienting effect of any human experience, bound by time and space, for which the vocabulary is just a smidgeon out of reach.
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Slobodchikova, Olga (2016). “Fil'm Ptichka: kogda deti bol'zhe ne veriat v chudesa”. BBC Russia. February 4.
Little Bird, Russia, 2015.
Color, 88 minutes.
Director and Scriptwriter: Vladimir Bek
Director of Photography: Kseniia Sereda
Production and Costume Designer: Nina Vasenina
Composer: Dmitrii Evgrafov
Editing: Vladimir Bek
Cast: Petr Skvortsov, Margarita Tolstoganova, Matvei Ivanov, Aleksandra Rybakova, Timofei Shubin
Producers: Elena Yatsura, Iurii Krestinskii, Vladimir Bek
Production: Trikita Entertainment
Vladimir Bek: Little Bird (Ptichka, 2015)
reviewed by Rita Safariants© 2016