Issue 55 (2017)
Aleksandr Barshak: Election Day-2 (Den´ vyborov-2, 2016)
reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2017
What could happen if the Presidential Administration in Russia observed strict neutrality in regional elections is the subject of this moderately entertaining satire from Quartet ”I”, or Quartet+, a theatrical collective of four actors, Leonid Barats (known as Lesha), Aleksandr Demidov (Sasha), Rostislav Khait (Slava) and Kamil Larin (referred to Kam, Kama or Kamil'). Quartet+ has been producing stage performances since 1993, and feature and television films, since 2007. The ”+” of the title is meant to include not only the collective's permanent director Sergei Petreikov but also its various collaborators, many of whom are famous musicians and media personalities.
The first of the Quartet's two winning formulas, apparently struck in their biggest theatrical hit thus far, Radio Day (Den' radio, 2001; filmed in 2008), consists of mixing, in a madcap mode, a workplace drama story line—such as a radiomarathon gone awry—with (parodies of) popular songs, composed and/or performed by the likes of Neschastnyi Sluchai [Accident], Bi-2, Chaif, Nogu Svelo [Leg Crump], Ivanushki International, Mumii Troll and Uma2rmaN. The other winning formula, typified by Faster Than Rabbits (Bystree, chem kroliki, 2014), involves the Quartet core members' confessional autotherapeutic conversations about issues to do with the midlife crisis and sudden death (KiKu has reviewed two such films previously, in issues 29 and 36 respectively).
Election Day-2 partly utilises the first of the two formulas, and deals with attempts by a team of political advisers/enablers from Moscow (played by Quartet+) to re-elect, for a third term, an amiable but insufficiently competent governor called Igor' Tsaplin (played by the well-known sports commentator Vasilii Utkin), from somewhere in the Volga region. The re-election is not an easy task, because a river bridge, newly built on the governor’s watch, has spectacularly collapsed at an opening ceremony merely a fortnight before voting day. The Presidential Administration, which likes to handpick Russia´s regional heads so much that in 2005-12 gubernatorial elections were even replaced with appointments, is understandably not pleased with the governor. However, given the short time frame, it cannot find a suitable replacement to back, and decides to hold, as a Kremlin official puts it to a bewildered colleague, ”a democratic election in the original sense of the word, i.e. s/he who gets the most votes wins”, with the current governor still in the running.
The Volga region has presumably been chosen as the film's election battleground not only because Volga often serves as a symbol of Russia proper, but also because, historically, even during Vladimir Putin´s first presidential term, in some Volga areas, gubernatorial elections were genuinely open and hotly contested. For example, in 2000 in Mari El, the incumbent ruler untypically lost the election amidst a number of campaign and registration irregularities, and in 2001 in Chuvashia another incumbent received a 40.73 per cent of the vote, with his closest rival gaining a 37.73 per cent (a case of ballot spoiling to hinder the challenger was pursued in court but the election results were not cancelled). Also, certain parts of the Volga-adjacent territory have been marked by a high protest vote. Thus, in 2000 in the gubernatorial election in the Saratov region, as many as 20 per cent voted against all candidates. Today, in the Astrakhan region, where Election Day-2 was filmed, up to 30 per cent of the electorate apparently support the opposition to the ruling United Russia party.
Election Day-2 can only be fully appreciated if compared to its predecessor, Election Day (2007), also by Quartet+. This initial installment was based on the Quartet´s 2003 stage show about an effort by a team of Moscow radio journalists (played, among others, by Barats and Khait, with Demidov as the team manager and Larin as an alcoholic technician) functioning as PR experts to promote the so-called spoiler candidate at a gubernatorial election in the Samara region (also along the Volga river)—not to win the election but to split the vote. The journalists get involved at the urgent request of their station owner, a Russian oligarch with business interests in the area. The spoiler candidate is the oligarch’s personal masseur with a criminal past, as well as a crossword hobbyist, which is apparently enough to make him qualified for the job.
Even though the journalists have only a week to fulfill their task, they manage to convince, by a combination of charm and chance, local Cossacks (10 per cent of the electorate), servicemen and their dependents (a further 18 per cent of the electorate) and the alcohol industry's protection racket (wielding substantial influence over a great deal of the electorate), that the masseur is the best candidate— and he suddenly wins the election, much to everyone’s astonishment. Those astonished include the oligarch, too. He tells the PR team that they have targeted the wrong part of the Volga basin by mistake, and sends another candidate to stand, with the team’s help, in the Saratov region a week after.
Election Day successfully caricatures the relatively recent yet fairly distant times when oligarchs played a disproportionate role in Russian politics and hired units of more or less professional political manipulators roamed the length and breadth of the country taking advantage of desynchronized regional elections, whose timing depended on a governor´s particular terms of office. The widespread disaffected attitude to elections is reflected in the title song “Elections” by the Leningrad band, which contains phrases such as ”I don't vote for you”, ”I vote against all” and ”<All> candidates are wankers”.
Election Day's predominant setting—a cruise ship full of musicians travelling along the Volga river—is reminiscent of the classical Soviet comedy Volga-Volga (1938), with which it triumphantly competes. Incisive political satire is not Election Day's only forte. In the film, certain well-known actors (e.g. Elena Shevchenko and Evgeniy Steblov) entertainingly imitate recognisable mannerisms of other well-known actors (Renata Litvinova and Oleg Tabakov respectively), and veteran rock singers such as Andrei Makarevich and Vladimir Shakhrin are gleefully miscast, the former as a guitar poet and the latter as a coupletist. Mikhail Efremov in the role of an alcoholic impostor pretending he is an orthodox priest nearly steals the show. Criminal, homosexual and transgender subcultures also get an imaginatively comical treatment. Finally, there is a fair share of accessible in-jokes (for example, the oligarch’s rare name and patronymic is Emmanuil Gedeonovich, the same as the actor father of Maksim Vitorgan, who plays a radio DJ in the film). It is hardly surprising that, at the eighth Smile, Russia! festival, Election Day was awarded the Best Comedy of the Year prize.
As often happens with sequels, Election Day-2 pales by comparison (perhaps because there are notably fewer catchy tunes in the soundtrack, even though the Leningrad song is retained in a wordless form as a leitmotif). The film is not without its moments, however, in no small measure thanks to Mikhail Efremov reprising his role.
Needless to say, Election Day´s winner is the same Igor' Tsaplin, who ten years later in Election Day-2 badly needs the assistance of the same PR team. Even though there is no longer any sight or sound of Emmanuil Gedeonovich and the team´s paths have diverged (e.g. Lesha becomes a TV presenter; Slava, a dubbing director for non-Russian TV ads; and Sasha, Tsaplin's right-hand man), its former members reunite to help Tsaplin, in order to either improve or protect their own livelihoods.
Tsaplin's main rival is the well-meaning but a little thick Colonel Balashov (Aleksei Makarov). By a quirk of fate, Lesha finds himself engaged both as Tsaplin's and Balashov's adviser. Balashov is then told to fight for the decisive vote of students and the middle class by claiming that he is fond of ballet, and promising to establish a “territory of total tolerance” in the region (e.g. allowing LGBT+ parades). In the process, to the indignation of his inner circle, Balashov develops a liking for both the art of ballet and Barats's character, who is openly gay.
Meanwhile, Tsaplin, consumed by pangs of conscience, is getting cold feet about participating in the election campaign, and finds respite in singlehandedly fixing a neglected playground for children instead. During televised debates, he has to be urgently replaced by Kamil', who simply happens to be hanging around. Kamil´ channels his frustration with his controlling wife into an impassioned electoral platform speech—and eventually wins the election with a 52.1 per cent of the vote, thus overcoming the 50 per cent threshold, below which it is necessary to hold a second round of elections. Owing to his tolerant stance, Balashov comes in second with a 28.6 per cent of the vote, and Tsaplin takes third place (13.6 per cent), for which he is immensely grateful, because he has realized, after two terms in the office, that governorship is not his thing.
Election Day-2 does not show us the allegedly most common features of electoral fraud, such as vote rigging. Yet the boss of the local election commission, upon seeing Kamil'—an unregistered candidate—debating on television, concludes that he must have lost Kamil's registration papers when drunk, and fakes them retroactively (which ensures the legitimacy of Kamil´s participation in the campaign). Moreover, after Kamil's victory, the FSB confirms his false claim that he had a secret illustrious career in its ranks (this claim was necessary to explain to the public why Kamil´ suddenly popped up out of nowhere without voters knowing anything about him previously). Thus television-induced reality replaces fact with fiction even in the eyes of those who are expected to know better.
Reality seems to have been affected by both Election Day and Election Day-2 in their own right, too. The former ironically states, eight years in advance of the Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War, that “Russians and Syrians have always been deeply intertwined”; while the latter, ten months in advance of the 2016 Boyaryshnik tragedy in Irkutsk, that some Russians drink the fictitious household chemical Green Helper, manufactured in Tsaplin's governorate, for its high alcohol content. Can it also be that the films predict the unpredictability of Russian elections, if given the chance?
UiT – the Arctic University of Norway
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Election Day-2 Russia, 2016
Color, 105 mins
Director: Aleksandr Barshak
Screenplay: Leonid Barats, Rostislav Khait, Sergei Petreikov
Producers: Leonid Barats, Rostislav Khait, Sergei Petreikov, Anna Sobinevskaia, Artem Ionin, Aleksandr Barshak
Cinematography: Sviatoslav Bulakovskii
Production Design: Konstantin Pakhotin
Composer: Vadim Kupriyanov
Cast: Leonid Barats, Aleksandr Demidov, Rostislav Khait, Kamil’ Larin, Vasilii Utkin, Maksim Vitorgan, Mikhail Efremov, Aleksei Makarov
Production Company: Strela
Aleksandr Barshak: Election Day-2 (Den´ vyborov-2, 2016)
reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2017