Issue 55 (2017)

Ol'ga Veremeeva and Elena Demidova: A Touch of Wind (Prikosnovenie vetra, 2016)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2017

prikosnovenie vetra Fredric Jameson famously characterizes all third-world texts—literature, film, etc.—as national allegories. Works by ethnic groups and other minorities within the so-called first or second world are similarly grouped into what Jameson calls the “internal third world.” He argues that as national allegories, these texts are always about collective experience, never solely about the private or the individual. Such works are weighted as public narratives, so that their cultural or social contexts are always imbued with a broader political dimension. Beyond the rather cringe-inducing label of “third world,” perhaps a more useful way to read Jameson is to tether this characterization to us as the reader/viewer: we cannot help but consider such texts within the framework of national allegory. We always approach such works with the expectation of the public and political, and our comprehension and interpretation constantly reaches for the allegorical. Indeed, it seems that those films that conform best to our formulation for nationality writ large are the most likely to pick up distribution deals and play on the international festival circuit. What, then, do we make of a film that intrudes upon the internal third world from the position of a privileged, even if troubled, outsider? Does the national allegory become ethnography, or does the allegory become multinational?

prikosnovenie vetra Working both within and against this conceptual framework is the fantastic A Touch of Wind. The conceit of the film is simple: Julia (Julia Aug)—a fair-skinned, red-haired, overdressed voluptuous Muscovite—has come to Buryatia in search of a man with whom she was in a relationship some twenty years ago when they were both students at a Moscow theater school. In her long draping cobalt blue dress, wide-brimmed flimsy hat, and low-slung heels, she is as striking and stylish as she is absurdly out of place. In the absence of her former paramour, she imposes upon his younger brother Ed (Eduard Zhagbaev), who we are to understand is an everyday Buryatian going about his daily life doing chores, maintaining the farmstead, and tending to a race horse while also singing bass in the local opera house. They strike up an uneasy friendship and he shows her the religious sights and geological wonders of his land. She, in turn, experiences emotional growth and eventually reveals two secrets.

prikosnovenie vetra But A Touch of Wind is so much more than a tale of spiritual tourism. Throughout the film we see interviews—audition footage—of Julia Aug and three other women discussing the role of our protagonist and their interpretations of the film. Early on, for example, one prospective actress muses, “I don’t know… I think that most likely the heroine will die.” Since they are speaking about a role that ultimately was not theirs, are these other would-be actresses offering alternative or resistant accounts of the film? In her bright crimson velvet dress, shawl, and lipstick, Aug stands apart from the other actresses as well as her own character in the film. Yet her attachment to the film seems deeper and more profound, and she insists in her interview footage that “I think I need you as much as you need me.” But what is her secret?

prikosnovenie vetraThe film was written and directed by Olga Veremeeva, while all the documentary scenes in the film have been directed by Elena Demidova. We do not just see the actresses’ test footage, but also watch Veremeeva and the members of her seemingly all-Russian crew discussing the logistics of filming on location, eating together and chatting casually about Buryatia, taking respite at Lake Baikal, and even being stopped by the police for having suspicious out-of-town license plates. These documentary scenes recall two glorious hallmarks of cinéma vérité: Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961) and William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968). In these films, those involved both in front of and behind the camera participate in a critique of their respective film and the filmmaking process as part of the very content of the film itself. As A Touch of Wind progresses, the continued alternation back and forth between fiction and documentary blurs the line between the two and creates deeper resonances by calling these categories into question.

prikosnovenie vetra Is it Julia the character who is here seeking Ed’s older brother, or is it Julia the actress who has taken advantage of this role so that she can get to Buryatia to seek the actor Ed’s actual older brother? The film’s self-reflexivity works to underscore the documentary impulse of such films about a white protagonist’s first encounters with native peoples on their land. Onscreen titles appear in the seeming fiction sections, identifying locations just as they would in a traditional documentary: “Buryatia, in the South-Eastern part of Russia, 6,000 kilometers from Moscow,” “Khaliutinsky Radon Springs,” “Genghis Khan Plateau,” “Ivolginsky Datsan, center of traditional Buddhism in Russia.” Moreover, the film crew just so happens to be in town on the advent of a major cultural celebration, replete with a parade, traditional costuming, and heritage sports competitions. We even see the film crew negotiating the filming of these events with local religious leaders. This being Buryatia, of course reference and reverence must be paid, as the onscreen titles inform us, to the “everlasting body of Pandito Hambo Lama Itigelov XII head of the Buddhists of Eastern Siberia in the early twentieth century.” Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov served as the 12th Pandito Khambo Lama from 1911 until his death in 1927, after which his corpse purportedly did not decay. His preserved body has been an officially designated religious object and tourist attraction for well over a decade.

prikosnovenie vetraAre the locals staring at Julia because she is so physically different or because of the small film crew surrounding her as she walks through and interrupts their everyday life? We see footage of her being filmed as she is being filmed, which of course means that there is a second cameraperson. If the first camera is recording the so-called fictional story while the second camera is documenting the first—and they are both filming the same subject and location—then indeed fiction and documentary are not altogether alternative modes but rather simply matters of degree and distance. 

prikosnovenie vetraOne would demand that a film set in this locale give us sweeping vistas—again, the documentary impulse. The filmmakers most definitely do not disappoint and make great use of a drone to regularly give us aerial shots of breathtaking landscapes. The overall style of the film is rigorously conceived, with well-planned shot compositions and a soundscape that musically hints at the film’s thematic concerns before we are even aware of them. Surely the most bravura shot of the film takes place as Julia and Ed visit the site where the face of the Goddess Yanzhima, a celebrated patron of the arts, appeared on a stone. We begin at the empty space of the shrine and then for more than half a minute pan slowly to the right for a full 360 degrees to end up at exactly the same space before the shrine, only now occupied by Julia and Ed. This temporal play at the level of the scene bears even greater force when the first shot of the film reappears toward the end to stunning effect.

prikosnovenie vetraThe film’s ending neither resolves the questions it raises concerning the distinction between fiction and documentary, nor settles the issue of allegory. As one of the prospective actresses proclaims: “Well, I… I don’t understand the ending. I don’t understand what it is all about. What was the point of all this? The film went on and on. The plot is going and going, and what is in the end? Nothing. I don’t get it.” Both documentary and allegory seem overridingly concerned with the quintessential notion of truth. For Julia, this pursuit is occupational: “I come out on to the stage and I say the truth. That is the only way to tell the truth.” For Ed, this pursuit is geographical: “Baikal water is like the truth. At first it is scary, but then you wade in and begin to tell the truth. And when you are in it, you feel lightness and happiness.” With sophistication and an emotional punch, A Touch of Wind reasserts the value of fiction in its mysterious union of occupation and geography.

prikosnovenie vetra Interestingly, A Touch of Wind was financed via crowdfunding on Planeta.ru with over 700,000 rubles raised from more than 300 individual contributors. Perhaps it is telling that this film was made without any kind of national subsidy. The film had its Russian premiere last August at the 24th Vyborg “Window to Europe” Film Festival, where it won two awards: for creative achievement and for Julia Aug’s performance. It has played at a few other festivals, including the World Film Festival in Montreal and the Eurasia International Film Festival in Almaty. Since opening more broadly in Moscow in November, however, the film unfortunately has not gained the wider audience it deserves.

 

Vincent Bohlinger
Rhode Island College

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Works Cited

Jameson, F. 1986. “Third-World Literature in the Age of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15: 65-88.

Jameson, F. 1990. “Modernism and Imperialism.” In T. Eagleton, F. Jameson, and E. Said (eds). Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, pp. 43-66. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


A Touch of Wind, Russian Federation, 2016
Color, 77 min.
Producer: Anastasia Razlogova
Director and Scriptwriter: Ol’ga Veremeeva
Director (documentary scenes): Elena Demidova
Music: Andjei Petras
Director of Photography: Sergei Maksimov
Production Design: Vitalii Trukhanenko
Sound: Julia Bordacheva
Producers: Marina Kuchkova, Kirill Iline, Andjei Petras
Cast: Julia Aug, Eduard Zhagbaev, Natal’ia Perel, Kseniia Zorina, Svetlana Mikhalisheva
Production Company: Kamer-Ton-Film-Russia, Cinema-Profi

Ol'ga Veremeeva and Elena Demidova: A Touch of Wind (Prikosnovenie vetra, 2016)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2017

Updated: 09 Jan 17