Issue 56 (2017)

Nadezhda Stepanova: I Know How to Knit (Ia umeiu viazat’, 2016)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes © 2017

I Know How to Knit is an elegy to the melancholic beauty of St Petersburg and a young woman’s search for meaning. Tania is a non-descript twenty-year-old with an alcoholic father, a quiet, alienated mother, and a boyfriend who brings other women back to their apartment. With few prospects of employment and no real sense of community, Tania escapes into knitting and existential reflection, until one day she decides to commit suicide. After a failed attempt, she finds herself in a psychiatric hospital where the troubled patients seem to differ little from those on the outside. But after her release, life takes an unexpected turn for the better when she suddenly finds a new friend in Masha and romance with a stables owner, the much older Mikhail Sergeevich. The debut of director Nadezhda Stepanova, I Know How to Knit is an understated and touching tale of how a young woman comes back to life and begins to find meaning amidst difficulty.

I know how to knit Very much an art-house production that resists generic convention and a traditional narrative arc, this is, as the filmmakers describe it, an “experimental” and “atmospheric” film. One critic cleverly described the film as the “Russian Amelie” for its idiosyncratic portrait of a young girl’s adventures and process of self-discovery, but it differs greatly in tone and style from the former. Rather, I Know How to Knit is very much a film about the city of St Petersburg, as the filmmakers suggest (“Petersburg and the heroine are equally important”) (“Press Conference” 2016). But Stepanova’s update to the Petersburg myth, longstanding in Russian cultural production, is closer to that of Dostoevsky, with its dark corners and haunting beauty, than recent glossy treatments on screen like Oksana Bychkova’s Peter FM (2006) and the almanac film Petersburg: Only for Love (Peterburg: tol’ko po liubvi, 2016). The city is populated with brooding and pensive characters, each grappling with his or her own existential dilemma. The bartender Miron, who constantly quaffs liquor from his bar and rarely speaks, is estranged from his wife and son and has only limited visitation. Tania’s father, an ex-KGB agent now adrift in the post-Soviet period, dispels ennui too through drink. Vasia jealously resents her more lofty and ethereal sister Tania, and she symbolically draws a line down the middle of their shared bedroom.

I know how to knit As always, Petersburg is more than a backdrop, anthropomorphically trapping all of the characters in one way or another. The city is meticulously captured by cinematographer Dmitrii Uliukaev who, for example, demanded that the crew rise at dawn to capture the pale lighting of sunrise (Gaikov 2016). Like a Dostoevskian character, Tania is entirely consumed by metaphysical reflection, expressed through the metaphor of knitting. It is only in the end that she declares meaningfully “I’m not going to knit any longer,” and she seems to set aside morbid self-reflection for a more active life, integrated into some kind of community. In the film’s final scene, a motley crowd of Tania’s connections appear in the little café where she works to see a German rock band dressed as Pioneers. The audience listens stoically to the eerie, beautiful song sung in German (appropriately estranging), coming together in a sort of modern-day sobornost’.

I know how to knit The film had a rather tortuous production history. Originating in the autobiographical script of writer Tat’iana Bogatyreva, it won the 2011 scriptwriting contest Lichnoe Delo (‘Personal Matter’) held by the journal Iskusstvo Kino—and selected by some of Russia’s best art-house directors, including Aleksei Balabanov, Bakur Bakuradze and Nikolai Khomeriki. Producer Sofiko Kiknavelidze then searched for a suitable director for the film and, through various twists of fate, chose an unlikely student of Moscow’s VGIK Film Institute, Nadezhda Stepanova. It was shot entirely in 2012, but editing decisions delayed its completion by a full three years until 2015. In 2016, I Know How to Knit was finally shown at several festivals around Russia—including Kinotavr, the Russian program of the Moscow International Film Festival, “East and West” in Orenberg, and the Pacific Meridian Festival in Vladivostok—to a very positive, if somewhat muted, reception

I know how to knit While certainly not kino dlia vsekh, Stepanova’s film will find many satisfied viewers among independent filmgoers and auteur appreciators. Its sincerity and tasteful austerity worked for this reviewer. The writing is specific and idiosyncratic, telling a story of coming-of-age that rings true and avoids the formulaic characters and dialogue so prevalent in Russian blockbuster cinema today. Not surprisingly certain moments betray the debuting director’s inexperience. It is heavily laden with metaphors: knitting as existential rumination; darkness, which “never goes away, only hides when we turn the lights on;” and the elicit fruit that Tania eats, plucked from the bartender’s fruit basket. Certain lines of the plot hang like unused appendages, begun and never developed. Still, the performance of debut actress Alina Khodzhevanova as Tania is memorable and affecting. She fits somehow organically into this vision of Petersburg. If we compare Stepanova’s debut effort to those of other directors who have gone on to fruitful careers, I Know How to Knit is indeed an auspicious beginning. 

Justin Wilmes
East Carolina University

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Works Cited

“Press Conference for the Film I Know How to Knit,” YouTube, 12 June 2016.

Gaikov, Pavel. 2016. ‘Sofiko Kiknavelidze: Ia umeiu viazat’ – eto fil’m-sostoianie,’ 11 June  2016.

I Know How to Knit, 2016
75 minutes, color
Director: Nadezhda Stepanova
Scriptwriters: Tat’iana Bogatyreva
Cinematography: Dmitrii Uliukaev
Editing: Sergei Ivanov
Sound Editor: Aleksandr Kopeikin
Producers: Sofiko Kiknavelidze and Dmitrii Uliukaev
Cast: Alina Khodzhevanova, Vladimir Svirskii, Irina Gorbacheva, Oleg Dolin

Nadezhda Stepanova: I Know How to Knit (Ia umeiu viazat’, 2016)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes © 2017