Issue 55 (2017)
Vladimir Mirzoev: Her Name was Mumu (Ee zvali Mumu, 2016)
reviewed by Eve Ivanilova© 2017
“The story is based on outright lies”
The directing career of Vladimir Mirzoev is an organic part of his identity as a public intellectual. He has taught at the University of Michigan, as well as the University of Toronto and York University in Canada; he has published three books with Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie. In March 2010 Mirzoev signed a public letter “Putin must go,” the most straightforward public plea of the Russian opposition, and three years later he made this film about the opposition’s leaders. However, the film did not cause any media sensation: its screenings took place over a long stretch of time, and the audience consisted only of members of the artistic and intellectual elite; after the closed premiere in January 2016, the film was screened at the Amur Autumn Film Festival, followed by a screening in New York and one more on the Russian channel TNT.
The plot of Her Name was Mumu is based on actual events: a big media scandal around the key figures of political stonewalling in Russia. At the dawn of the protest movement of 2011–2013, the liberals Viktor Shenderovich and Il’ia Iashin, the odious right nationalist Aleksandr Belov and the National-Bolshevik writer Eduard Limonov independently from each other spent time in the apartment of the same prostitute, Katia Gerasimova, by the sobriquet “Mumu.” None of these opposition leaders knew about the hidden camera installed in Gerasimova’s apartment. The proprietor of this apartment, of the camera and of Gerasimova herself were allegedly Kremlin’s secret services, and the porn videos with the leaders of “fifth column” appeared on the website of the youth branch of the party United Russia.
Despite the actual accuracy of the story, Mirzoev’s film begins with playful warnings that “all coincidences are random,” “all characters in this work are fictitious” and “the story is based on outright lies.” As soon as the viewer learns about the “fiction” of the upcoming film, the black background of the titles is replaced by a sequence with girls in bikinis. They have tablets with black serial numbers in their hands and wear high-heeled black shoes. The girls talk sluggishly, making a selfie as they cat-walk step by step around a colorless gym. After a few seconds, a flowing female voice-over provides a comment to the drowsy sequence: “Dear Father Frost, please help me get out of here.” The criticism of the voluntary female self-objectivation, already silently diagnosed by the camera, now speaks out loud. Unnatural pauses between words emphasize the fake rhythm of the models’ gait and the infantilism of bended postures reminds us of magic children’s shows. The invisible voice continues: “When I was kid, everybody just intimidated me with stories about the Council of Deputies. But now, when everything is forbidden—cigarettes are forbidden, sex, foul language, sneakers are forbidden, well… Father Frost—I understood my already sulk country is turning into a big dark shit-ass”. Sarcastic accents are developed by the camera: the final part of the phrase is accompanied by a close-up of a wobbling punching bag, the seam of which splits the frame in half. Against the background of the black punching bag we see a gym ladder (a road to nowhere) and a blurred circle of pacing models, which refers to the tedious Russian New Year’s tradition of circle dancing in the school gym. While also developing the metaphor of a vicious circle, the camera and the voice-over shape the critical discourse against limitations, repetitiveness and inertia. “And while I’m not yet a zombie and adequately understand that there is no life in here, and won’t be any, please help me get away.”The reference to an external source repeated in the phrase “there is no life in here and there won’t be any” has acquired the status of a meme thanks to a popular video on Russian YouTube, which has gone viral at the beginning of the 2010s, and was later used with the music of the popular Internet group SPBCH. In the video, a Russian family sends greetings to a relative. They give him the friendly advice “not to come back ever,” because “there is no life and there won’t be any.” The place whence the relative has moved (abroad or, for example, Moscow), remains obscure from the video message. By virtue of the absolute centrality of Russia’s social space, these options are equal and the argument that “there is no life in Russia” is universal as well. Wishes about not returning are persistent, and their ritual origins are recognizable: as in a charm ritual, they are pronounced in a stentorian and then in a gentle voice; in a farewell rite, the important part of the celebration is the feast. Of course, the rituality occurs only in a structural way, because the “folk” life in post-Soviet Russia is desacralized—old apologetics have fallen into oblivion, but new symbolic goods are only available in Moscow or in the media world. Thus a secular language emerges as a means of charming and self-defense. Ritual terms of folk life are incidental—they appear in the compelled recurrence of behavioral acts.
Whilst I am not claiming that the short phrase at the beginning of Mirzoev’s film and the YouTube video form a deliberate intertextual connection, it seems that the wish to get out and the concern to not come back are typologically similar and represent the same discourse, which is interesting to me.
For example, the voice possesses a Russian provincial type of consciousness, combining an apocalyptic feature with strong hierarchy and the fascination with glamorous simulacrums. To live well and to never return is exactly what the girl asks Father Frost for: this is her chief motivation in life fulfilled partly as the girl escaped from the provinces to Moscow. That is why her lamentations are not good-natured and helpless (as those of the provincial family from the YouTube-video), but possess the scorn of a Muscovite: there are no reasons to defend oneself against the off-putting squalor, where everything sparkles and shines.
The gym is switched to Moscow New Year’s Eve exteriors. People cross the road between Gogol Boulevard and Kropotkinskaya metro station. Curiously, the background toponyms accurately debase the idea of a revolt against social inequality and underline its similarity to the grotesque of carnival. The crowd comes towards the camera and looks like a visual continuation of the previous frame with a spotted bra oncoming. The background music does not change, neither does the girl’s intonation. The camera moves with the crowd and turns clockwise while following it. “And the whole crowd of my relatives is dreaming to get me married to some goof… I don’t care to who.” A girl is moving towards the stream of people. The camera lingers on her gaze. This is Ira, whose voice the viewer has heard so far.
The wizard addressee of Ira’s laments calls the girl by her name and surname in a teacher-like manner. His intonation is deliberately exaggerated. Father Frost takes off his artificial beard and the boundaries between naturalistic and fantastic images are finally blurred: “Pashka…So what? Do you work as Father Frost?” Pashka answers: “I’m just distributing the flyers.” Ira tells almost nothing about her workplace: “Nothing special, here and there”—after that she hastily flees, obliging an old friend to find her on Vkontakte—for both of them this is the second available alternative reality after personal memory.
The plot continues to be devoted to Ira’s work, which she precisely describes with the euphemism “here and there.” The gym is a venue for a super-elite prostitute audition. Ira has passed it successfully by stripping the bra off her body and hanging it on the punching bag. Now staying in a rented apartment, the girl hosts men from different sides of one social field.
The elderly martinet is the first. He tells stories of his combat experience in the present tense. By stating that the war has ended not so long ago, he unconsciously claims that it has not happened yet. The military parlance is the only possible verbal language, while his body language refers to attack. The gallant “Russian Soldier” in his unfastened bathrobe jumps onto the girl, imagines her as an external enemy and asks her to surrender. Ira doesn’t resist this in-game violence, but neither can she play along, so she laughs at him. The man has to put a grenade with an open ring in the girl’s hands to somehow aggravate the situation and finally get excited.
So far the characters’ behavior has been a total travesty and served for them (as provincials in the capital) as means of regression. The soldier explicitly shows how dangerous such a quality might be. He is also traumatized—not by provinciality, but by a militarist ideology. Like the provincial Ira, the martinet is an adept of the regime, which he himself believes to criticize. The insistent question of the reason of young soldiers’ deaths comes along with his dissatisfaction of the inaccurate depiction of war on screen. In his second scene he admits that he is ashamed to wear his state medals, because a state giving honors to former enemies is rotten. Then it turns out that the martinet does not understand the artificial nature of real militarism and the concept of the enemy. Ira’s daring playfulness, which looks as if it is designed to bring down bourgeois values, can only be expressed in either a letter to Father Frost or cocaine. But the martinet, playfully bringing out his trauma, causes violence to spread. He and Ira have the same social configuration, and both view themselves as rebels: he believes to fight against an external enemy, while she believes to struggle against the dull life of her relatives. But neither of them is a rebel. Moreover, they consistently reproduce a deterministic power discourse, without revealing any contradictions in themselves.
The protagonist does not want an open struggle or opposition; all she wants is a “normal life.” According to her idea, this life resolves itself to carefree bourgeois flanerie. Ira does not think that this is any less stagnation than the wretched existence of a philistine. Her reasoning is naive, meaningless and dangerous, too. Escaping from a provincial town, and later from a backward country, climbing the symbolic vertical of the dominant order is her American dream with the flavor of the “girl from the Russian province” syndrome. Throughout the entire film, the slow-moving and ironic camera captures the illusory nature of Ira’s dreams and takes account of how she tries to think independently. However, this ability is not very developed yet.
“In fact, her character is a lack of character. She was to be ordinary and dull. Just like a fish” (Denisova 2016)—these words belong to the leading actress Irina Vilkova from Teatr.doc in an interview for Radio Liberty. According to Vilkova, Her Name was Mumu “is neither about Katia, nor about Mumu, nor the opposition, nor about Putin.” Defending the position of the filmmaker’s crew, Vilkova says that their film tells the story of a mind emerging in an empty head (ibid.).
In my opinion, the opposition constructed by Vilkova is unnecessary and excessive. Shifting the focus to Ira’s personal story (and not of Katia) works for the specification of the topics of the political unconscious and unawareness, as well as the narrative demonstration of these ideas. The character has the same name as the actress, because Ira “Mumu” is the artistic project of the director Vladimir Mirzoev and the actress Irina Vilkova. In the above-mentioned interview, Vilkova speaks a lot about Siberia and the industrial city of Novokuznetsk where she spent her childhood. Thus, the actress’s mental map was formed in a provincial town. In the project, Ira “Mumu” Vilkova uses her personal experiences to create a bodily documentary, a sort of “deep improvisation” in the best tradition of Teatr.doc. Therefore the character of Mumu is interesting not so much for the indirect relation to its prototype, as for its performative content. Even the nickname “Mumu,” in combination with another name, provides both a fascinating and performative effect. In the film, “Mumu” is not the girl’s nickname, but the name of her favorite plush dog. During the story, Ira becomes “Mumu,” too, with her muteness and passivity. Exactly in the middle of the film, the head of Ira’s toy dog is torn off, and the plot develops henceforth in a fundamentally different way.
In the film’s world the control over the body is total. The grandmother tells Ira off via Skype for her being too thin; one of the aunts criticizes that she is single. A female conflict psychologist, who regularly comes to Ira to test her, makes her take some pills and shave her armpits. The psychologist is taking the same pills herself, and moreover, as we later discover, is always intoxicated by cannabis. This turns out to be the only thing that helps her keep down her self-critical view.
On the other hand, Ira “Mumu” has no reason to keep anything down, as there is nothing that can make her feel truly alive, except for the grenade incident. The heroine’s alienation from all kinds of activities and her permanent clownery become more and more intrusive. When she has sex with her second lover—a silver-haired political scientist who clumsily tries to get on well with a girl from a different social group—the bored Ira turns on her singing plush dog Mumu and begins to dance from a dog-style position. Ira is not unique in her alienation in Mirzoev’s film. The political scientist says in an expert tone that “everyone always lies,” while the psychologist advises to “stick to one’s own business,” and the opposition satirist gives away his nostalgia for Soviet education. Only the contused military man successfully internalizes his professional jargon in the body (but this still can’t be good). The rest of the professionals, including the “professional revolutionary,” are alienated from what they do and appear thoroughly false.
Once Ira makes some harassing comments on the Facebook page of a famous opposition blogger, Tishchenko. In the background, the Dozhd television channel covers the events of Maidan, and the episodes of the Ukrainian street revolution are mixed with fragments of the Facebook revolution in Russia. The artistic logic of the film constantly exaggerates the naturalistic incarnation of the plot lines, so when IKEA’s delivery man comes to Ira and tells her, in Ukrainian, that he does not speak Russian, the girl just blankly stares at him.
The blogger Tishchenko turns up with his mother and searches the apartment, while his mother tells the astounding story about the revolution and children’s “leggings.” That is when Tishchenko tears off the dog Mumu’s head. After this visit, Ira’s speech sounds genuinely tense, not because of Tishchenko or even Mumu as an innocent victim, but because of the disappearance of Pashka, Father Frost. Ira had been waiting for his visit, but he has gone in fairy-tale manner after turning round the corner of her house. She practices her speech in front of the mirror again and again, imagining herself being on air in the television news. But during the imaginary show, she starts crying and reports the disappearance of Pavel Ivanov, dressed as Father Frost. Then the blogger Tishchenko breaks into the apartment again, and a semi-conscious Ira invites him to “fuck in the hallway,” because there is no camera there. During the act, Tishchenko’s cellphone rings: Radio Liberty calls him, where actress Irina Vilkova had her long interview about the film. Ira is annoyed by Tishchenko’s pathetic comments (“We made the power to be afraid!”), and she turns him out. Now more and more things start to annoy her.
In the sequence showing the family visit, where Ira’s mother, sister and two aunts show up, the viewer learns where is surveillance camera is hidden. Grandma Mania, who participates in the feast via Skype, suddenly freezes on the screen. One of the aunts starts to thump the laptop, while another claims hearing some noise in the apartment. Meanwhile, the viewer’s eyes meet the picture, which shows a furious hound biting into a cow’s head covered in blood. The compositional unity illustrates the image of Mumu that has developed throughout the film. The camera hides right behind the eye of agonizing animal.
The caring relatives decide not to wake Ira and leave her flat, whispering: “Look, she’s smiling. She sees happiness in her dreams.” In some way, they are right. The next morning a piano appears from nowhere in the middle of Ira’s living room, and Pasha–Father Frost is playing it. Ira, in fancy dress, begins to sing for the adults as if in a New Years children’s matinee. “And I was happy, feeling your steady gaze,”—this line is extremely rich in meaning. Suddenly the light goes out. Pasha–Father Frost disappears and Ira is naked. Ira’s mother is sitting right in the centre of the hall, looking away shyly. Ira accompanies herself on the piano, and then she notices the wagging tail of a dog. She comes closer and sees a dog licking Pasha’s bloody corpse. The editing turns hysterical. The dream’s psychedelia increases through a staggering tumbler toy and the audience move their fingers to their eyes (showing that Ira has missed a lot).
The signs of self-destruction and of an infantile way of seeing the world, scattered everywhere in the space, finally take shape for Ira. The picture from the wall comes to life in her dream. It’s the first time the girl grasps the external violence she has been subjected to and sees the public trample over her body. Immediately after this scene the videos of Ira having sex with opposition representatives go online. Her cousin and one of the aunts watch them.
“Why does this hurt so much!”, Ira yells when her psychologist epilates her armpits. Every time Ira tries to ask about Pasha, the woman tears off a wax strip. Finally, Ira rebels against her body’s expropriation: “Get lost with your armpits... It hurts, and I’m scared. That’s it, I don’t want it anymore.”
Alas, the discourse of power is equally total for both the expropriator and for the victim of expropriation. While representing power over Mumu’s body, the psychologist tells her several times that she doesn’t understand why she even has to do this, but she was told to, so she does. Right before their common enslaver pays a visit, the women smoke the pipe of peace—a joint, which the therapist always has with her.
A man comes to the apartment and declares: “When a state has no soul, one should work all by oneself.” He probably works for the Federal Security Service. He opens the tumbler toy that contains cocaine, snorts some and proceeds: “Ira, Ira, Ira, Ira, Ira… Father Frost doesn’t exist, do you understand? It’s all fairy tales for kids.” With an awful naturalism, the “employer” threatens to send her body parts to Ira’s relatives. The psychologist’s mechanical voice translates these threats into officially permissible language: “Ira, you are spoken to.” The scene becomes more tense, while Ira’s sarcasm and buffoonery get more crazy. She offers to have threesome sex, starts to play ape, gulps down some alcohol from the contused soldier’s flask. Then she pours the rest of the liquid over the Christmas tree and sets it on fire. After Ira turns subjective, the camera does as well.
The final scene radically changes the film’s modality. The focalization on heroine changes to a focalization through her. Ira finally gains her own vision, though only the most extreme forms of power intervention could make her gain it. Through the visual discomfort of the final scene the viewer can physically relate to the strange feeling of the heroine’s new vision. Nevertheless, the subjective camera captures only the first steps of the new Ira. She smashes the agent’s nose on the door frame, takes a glance at the therapist, laughing demonically—a scene hardly imaginable from the therapist’s everyday robot-like camouflage. Ira, together with the camera, looks over the burning Christmas tree and the man wiping away blood, and then she rushes to the hallway, takes a jacket and runs away from the haunted apartment. Once she is outside, the subjective camera switches to a computer game regime, the main option of which is running like hell. Ira has nowhere to go. The film ends with her running across a bridge without any slowing down. However, for the first time during the whole film, her movement stops being false.
Moscow State University
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Denisova, Inna. 2016. “Byt’ Katei Mumu.” Radio Svoboda 7 February.
Her Name was Mumu, Russia, 2016
Color, 96 minutes
Directed by Vladimir Mirzoev
Screenplay: Anastasiia Palchikova
Cinematography: Maksim Trapo
Production Design: Eduard Galkin
Music: Aleksandr Manotskov
Editing: Georgii Letoninskiy
Cast: Irina Vilkova, Evgenii Buslakov, Iurii Sysoev, Ol’ga Lysak, Igor Vorob’ev, Efim Shifrin, Petr Fedorov, Elena Koreneva, Valeriia Prikhodchenko, Ekaterina Riabushinskaia, Ol’ga Lapshina, Tamila Nesterenko, Tat’iana Ukharova, Irina Butanaeva, Kirill Lednev, Liudmila Stognii, Aleksandr Iatsentiuk
Producers: Sergei Bogdanov, Andrei Annenskiy, Ekaterina Mirzoeva
Vladimir Mirzoev: Her Name was Mumu (Ee zvali Mumu, 2016)
reviewed by Eve Ivanilova© 2017