Issue 54 (2016)
Il’ia and Anton Chizhikov: The Guy from Our Cemetery (Paren’ s nashego kladbishcha, 2015)
reviewed by Anna Nieman© 2016
I'll cross it, though it blast me.
Stay, illusion! [...] Speak to me:
If thou art privy to thy country's fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid, O, speak!
Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it: stay, and speak! Stop it, Marcellus.
Shall I strike at it with my partisan?
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Re-enter Ghost, or Bogatyr’ for the times of impasse
Il’ia and Anton Chizhikov’s debut, The Guy from Our Cemetery, announces its genre roots with an appropriately spooky exposition: at an old cemetery, a night watchman is pursued by mysterious, cloaked figures. Terrified, he jumps out of the window of his guard shack and disappears into the foggy night, leaving behind what may or may not be a pool of blood. Soon after, the fresh-faced security guard Kolia (Aleksandr Pal’) steps off a bus he rode from some provincial town. He is excited about the prospect of a well-paying job in Moscow, promised by his presumably accomplished uncle, Vasilii Petrovich (Aleksandr Il’in), to help pay for a new roof over his grandma’s home. Quickly these expectations are dashed: the uncle drives a diminutive used car, and not a luxury SUV as Kolia had assumed, and the job is not quite what was promised. Not only will he never set foot in the capital or get a cushy security job, but the unsuspecting provincial youth is about to encounter the horrors that lie beyond the cemetery gates. The hero is not the only one whose expectations are betrayed; the viewer may also find that the film is not quite the horror flick the exposition promised, nor a continuation of the well-known Soviet melodrama A Guy from Our Town (Paren’ iz nashego goroda, 1942, dir. Boris Ivanov, Aleksandr Stolper).
The sense of foreboding is subverted as Vasilii Petrovich, halfheartedly trying to warn his nephew about the graveyard shenanigans, quotes The Elusive Avengers (1966, dir. Edmond Keosayan): “The dead are lined up along the road… and all is quiet…”. The popular line belongs to the comically cross-eyed target of the Avengers’ prank played by Savelii Kramarov. The Avengers have so deeply traumatized the poor fellow with the artfully staged cemetery haunting that he retells his story to anyone who would listen. The Chizhikov brothers, with their eclectic cardboard cemetery full of Celtic crosses, are far less serious about frightening their audience than the brave teenage fighters of the 1966 “eastern”. They employ a hodgepodge of horror genre conventions only to immediately undermine them to produce mild comedy. For example, the extreme close-up of the hero slicing bologna and bread to make a sandwich on his first night at the cemetery spoofs “the violence in the mundane” of the opening credits of the Dexter (TV series, 2006–2013; Albinson 2010). The scene cuts to another often-used horror treatment: a black and white point of view shot of someone (a creature? a werewolf? a vampire?) running through the cemetery and tripping the elaborate wire alarm set out by Kolia. The tension quickly dissolves when “the creature” turns out to be just a stray dog that our hero immediately befriends by sharing his sandwich. Because no real horror follows the scene, it functions as a parody of the genre.
The new guard is not a frightened outsider in a strange eerie location, but a down-home earnest fellow who immediately sets about domesticating the graveyard. First, the guard shack is cleaned up, his father’s photo is placed over some pin-ups, and the graves are examined and catalogued in his digital camera. Next, the area is secured with traps and alarms, and Kolia has armed himself with a nail bat. While taking his job with a level of seriousness more appropriate for some top-secret locale, Kolia nevertheless remains the type of a person Russians call a svoiskii paren’: “one of our own.” He possesses a natural grasp of the community’s core unspoken rules and rites, truly a “guy from our cemetery.” Unafraid of the ghosts that are possibly haunting his cemetery because “they don’t care about precious metals,” Kolia sees the dead as more deserving and more “worthy” than the living. As his new friend Sveta (Kristina Kazinskaia) sums up, he is here to “protect the dead from the living.” Kolia’s allegiances are clear from the very beginning.
The cemetery turns out to be a busy place: almost immediately Kolia is beset by numerous unwelcomed guests both during the daytime and at night. This makes it difficult for the hero to fulfill his main responsibility—keeping everyone out and away from the graves, lest they dare to erect a gravestone without bribing the corrupt Vasilii Petrovich. In his cemetery only the graves of the deceased local gangsters get impressive life-like monuments. With all the living trying to get in, Kolia becomes, without realizing it at first, a liaison between the living and the dead. His earnest desire to protect the graves immediately endears him to the twin of a dead gangster. With the life-size granite etching of one brother to his left, and with the living twin to his right, Kolia finds himself looking at both the dead and the alive man at the same time. This scene will be replayed several times throughout the film though the parties will change.
When the hero inevitably faces off with the ghosts, he discovers that the hooded cloaks are hiding some familiar, even dear, faces. The ghosts reveal that the haunting is only a “test” to make sure that Kolia is “the right guy for the job.” Of course, the test was completely unnecessary: it is obvious that Kolia, the provincial whose moral superiority is a given, has always been the svoiskii paren’. He belongs in his cemetery the way Jack Torrence of The Shining belonged in The Hotel Overlook; he “was always here.” The Guy From Our Cemetery presents the contact with the ghosts as something to be desired and be rewarded for. The cemetery soil itself, instead of contaminating, has a purifying effect on the film’s villains. Both the local thug who was menacing Kolia and his uncle are changed for the better after coming in contact with the cemetery soil: the thug breaks his leg after falling into a fresh grave and later repents by sending flowers, Vasilii Petrovich suffers a short out-of-body episode and wakes up a changed man, ready to set things right.
The cemetery becomes a place of a purifying equalizing Utopia: the spectral police detectives and gangsters exist as one posthumous community of equals and demand the same communal integrity from the living. Headstones for everyone! Overcoming the ghosts and escaping the cemetery as the canon of the horror genre would have it, would undermine Kolia’s wholesomeness. Even if he wanted to, escape is not truly possible: the cemetery encompasses the entirety of Kolia’s world. As the film progresses, the outside world disappears. Even when the characters leave the locale the focus of the action remains on the cemetery and its front gate where the world of the living enters. As for the dead, eventually they will also leave, exiting through the back gate. Where they go is not known. They simply dissolve into the fog.
Within the narrative of the film the world of the living is no more defined than the afterlife. Only twice is Kolia seen outside of the clearly marked confines of the cemetery. First, as he steps off the bus, before his service begins. Second, when he ventures to confront the wreath-stealing flower merchant. The outside world is either directly connected to the chronotope of the cemetery, or is presented as ambiguous. As a matter of fact, Vasilii Petrovich explains, Kolia’s initial destination, Moscow, is not even a place, but a “loose concept”: “Pretty soon they’ll stretch it all the way to Magadan!”
Kolia’s back story resembles the premise of a fairytale, pushing the outside world even further to the edges of the narrative. The unseen grandma acts as a Baba Yaga of sorts using her connection with the dubious uncle to infuse Kolia’s initial destination and status with ambiguity. She is the one who has sent Kolia to the “know not whither place,” thus initiating his contact with the world of the dead. In this world the young hero will be tested by its inhabitants, combat the villain, emerge victorious and be rewarded with a treasure, a girl, and a throne (he will take over the cemetery from his uncle). The functions of a fairy tale, as defined by Vladimir Propp, are present with one notable exception: Kolia never returns home from his trip to the know not whither place. That is, perhaps, an appropriate outcome for the hero. He feels perfectly at home in the netherworld idyll. In his interactions with the outside world he is not just a representative of the cemetery administration, but a daytime stand-in for the dead. To punish the florist he deploys a traditional weapon of choice in a zombie war, the nail bat. Kolia manages to appear on a second tier TV show about the paranormal. Through some creative editing, the show presents the guard as possessed by dark forces. Waiting for his beloved Sveta to disappear into the fog, Kolia attempts to lighten up the mood by saying: “It’s like I’m seeing you off to work.” In his view the separation is temporary and somewhat routine: “Poka!,” he says, “See ya!” As he settles for a living girl, coming to his decision as he stands between the florist’s daughter and Sveta’s grave, it is clear that she is a temporary replacement until Kolia and Sveta meet again. The cemetery is fulfilling all of Kolia’s needs, making his departure both impossible and unnecessary. In the end of the film, outfitted with a costume shop quality mustache signifying his maturity, Kolia, now the director of the cemetery, joins the ghosts dancing among the graves as the credits roll. Kolia’s failure to conclude his journey with a successful return from the “other side” is an actual fulfillment of his mission to make the cemetery ours—a corruption-free Utopia, built upon the graves with the funds from a criminal enterprise, a netherworldly City of Sun.
Kolia, a modern version of Ivan the Fool, with his lanky body of an overgrown teenager and goofy grin bears undeniable resemblance to the zeitgeist hero of the 90s, Danila Bagrov (Brother/Brat, 1997 dir. A. Balabanov). The similarity of the two characters is evident, as has been noted by several critics (Gol’man 2015; Solntseva 2015). Incidentally, the film was developed by Aleksei Balabanov’s lifelong producer, Sergei Sel’ianov who discovered newcomer Vladimir Seryshev’s script and brought the Chizhikov brothers on to direct. Indeed, Kolia, a guard who is “alert while a watchman is asleep,” approaches the cemetery as a mock war zone. The hero’s complicated system of tripping wires would make Danila Bagrov proud. Almost wistfully he listens to army broadcasts and dreams about modernized Makarov pistol. Yet, unlike Danila, Kolia does not seem to have served in the army. He is free from the burden of the experience that gave poignancy and depth to Sergei Bodrov’s character. In Kolia’s case the war-centric worldview that defined Danila is a little more than play-pretend that brings him closer to the ideal of his officer father who perished in the line of duty. Kolia bloodlessly succeeds where Danila fails: he is accepted by the occupants of his cemetery while Danila is expelled by the bums for contaminating their home with the bodies of those he killed.
In her review, Solntseva (2015) notes that “today’s little ‘Brother’ is unthinkable without the ironically mocking tone.” The Guy From Our Cemetery, a lighthearted, smirking affair, is still a product of its time. The late Aleksei Balabanov ended Brother with a shot of an open road leading to Moscow, but concluded his last film with the main character dying trapped in a churchyard surrounded by bodies, a kind of eternal inescapable cemetery. In recent years, characters of Russian films struggle to reach or leave a destination, but the impasse is unyielding. From teenagers drunkenly rambling through the breathtakingly vast spaces and tragically claustrophobic relationships of hopeless Norilsk (Hope Factory/Kombinat Nadezhda, 2014 dir. Natal’ia Meshchaninova), to the awkwardly detached Lena (Land of Oz/Strana Oz, 2015, dir. Vasilii Sigarev) making every effort, but never making it to her menial job in a kiosk—the struggle brings on a deadly conclusion, sometimes symbolic, sometimes real.
Unlike the young heroes of those harsher and more complex films, Kolia is content with his entrapment. When the reporter from the paranormal TV show comes to the cemetery, Kolia keeps the gates locked, deterring the intruder with a blank stare and a show of his trusty nail bat. In a cemetery populated by ghosts of “the wild 90s,” from both sides of the law, Kolia is so much apart from the outside reality that he is a kind of ghost himself, or more precisely, a shadow of a national hero, a dead-eyed bogatyr’ for the times of impasse.
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Albinson, Ian. 2010. Interview with Eric Anderson. Art of the Title. 27 September.
Gol’man, Nailia. 2015. “Paren’ s nashego kladbishcha: komediia pro mertvetsov, zhivushchih po poniatiiam.” Afisha 7 September.
Propp, Vladimir. 1968. Morphology of the Folktale, Austin: University of Texas Press
Solntseva, Alena. 2015. “V chem uzhas, brat?” Kommersant, 31 August.
The Guy from Our Cemetery, Russia, 2015
Color, 84 minutes, 1:2.35, Dolby Digital 5.1
Directed byIl’a and Anton Chizhikov
Screenplay: Vladimir Seryshev
Cinematography: Aleksei Shubakov
Production Design Nadezhda Shakhovskaia
Music Oleg Krylov
Editing Andrei Kompaniets
Visual Effects: Pavel Donatov
Cast: Aleksandr Pal’, Aleksandr Il’in, Kristina Kazinskaia, Igor Zhizhikin, Vladimir Sychev, Polina Shashuro
Producer Sergei Selianov
Production Film Company СТВ
Distribution (RF) Nashe kino
Il’ia and Anton Chizhikov: The Guy from Our Cemetery (Paren’ s nashego kladbishcha, 2015)
reviewed by Anna Nieman© 2016