KinoKultura: Issue 57 (2017)

Kinotavr 28: Genre, Variety, Relevance

By Vida Johnson

Kinotavr offered a varied and fairly strong program of by now the usual number of 14 feature films, this year chosen from 77 submissions. There was clearly a determined attempt to select different genres, and to mix films aimed at mainstream audiences with the more typical “art-house” festival fare. 

That would explain having in the same competition program both Dead Lucky (Mertvym povezlo, better translated as “The Dead are Lucky”), a slasher film about a serial killer teaching criminals how to kill properly by murdering them himself, which is aimed at young audiences; and a film aimed at an older, educated audience who knows its classical literature by heart—an adaptation directed by Iurii Grymov of Three Sisters (Tri sestry), faithful to the Chekhovian text, but with the now aged characters still trying to get to Moscow from the dacha that keeps physically changing and losing its country charm. 

mifyFairy tales, and fairy-tale elements, were a common thread in this program. The musical comedy Myths (Mify, originally Moscow Myths / Mify o Moskve) by Aleksandr Molochnikov is a modern-day fairy tale about Odysseus coming to present-day Moscow’s social Olympus to solve the gods’ all-too-human problems. The film was perhaps the crassest pitch to mainstream audiences, as it showcased a number of popular (former and current) film stars, singing and clowning their way to an inevitably ridiculous happy ending. It clearly was meant to be pure, thought-free entertainment, but it left many critics simply wondering why it was in the program at all. Myths  played off the closing, out-of-competition film, About Love: Adults Only (Pro liubov’: tol;ko dlia vzroslykh)—a series of funny and, at times, ridiculously silly love- and sex-stories, again featuring major stars playing against type for laughs. Both of these films belonged in the outdoor, late-night screening program rather than in the festival venue.

With titles designed to attract audiences, there were two buddy road movies: Ivan Shakhnazarov’s Rock (Rok), another film aimed at young audiences, follows three aspiring provincial musicians through all kinds of ludicrous adventures on their way to play for what in the end turns out to be a burnt-out and defunct radio station in Moscow. Ivan, the son of the well-known filmmaker and director of Mosfilm studio, Karen Shakhnazarov, is yet another member of the young generation of “legacy” filmmakers, showcasing their debuts at Kinotavr. (Last year it was Il’ia Uchitel’, the son of Aleksei and grandson of Efim Uchitel’.)

blokbasterThe second “mainstream” film, aptly titled Blockbuster (Blokbaster), brought together an unlikely pair of women (Liza, a polished talk-show host, and Natasha, a sloppy but good-hearted thief) as they evade criminals in a series of misadventures not devoid of humor. The film is modeled on Thelma and Louise (dir. Ridley Scott, 1991) but without the flying-off-the cliff ending. Of the films with mainstream aspirations, Blockbuster was the most entertaining. Lisa’s cringe-worthy scenes with her insipid, roving-hands talk-show co-host, broadly played for laughs by Mikhail Efremov, certainly earned this film a legitimate place in the competition. Blockbuster also produced the competition’s most cryptic lines when the world-weary policeman, Lisa’s eventual savior and potential love interest, reflects as he looks around the desolate landscape:  “Night. Darkness. Russia” (Noch', temno, Rossiia). The overarching theme of Russia is found in the most unlikely of places….

In his reflections on Russia, both satire and fairly tale are harnessed by Andrei Silvestrov in Ice Hole (Prorub'). The first half of the film offers a hilarious take on the Russians’ national penchant for immersing  their bodies in the frigid holes carved in the ice of pools, rivers, or practically any body of water that freezes. A zany cross-section of Russians of different ages, social status, body sizes, and outfits—in various stages of undress—are glued to their eerily glowing TV sets, which dispense, in a God-like manner, reflections of Russia past and present. The funniest scenes are reserved for the conversation of the Russian President, who looks more like Yeltsin than Putin, with a fish—the all-knowing pike of Russian fairy tales. Among other things, the President wants to know how to find love.

zalozhnikiProblems arose when the filmmakers seemed to be unable to decide whether to make an entertaining genre film or offer deeper, more complex insights into Russia’s present or the Soviet past. In Hostages (Zalozhniki),Rezo Gigineishvili attempted to recreate a real historical event and its tragic consequences: the failed attempt, in 1983, on the eve of glasnost, of a group of naïve young Georgians to hijack a plane in order to gain freedom in the west. However, the director fails to fully develop the individual characters, their motivation, their relations with their families and with each other; the tragedy of their eventual deaths is overshadowed by the rapidly cut and actually confusing action sequences of the unsuccessful hostage-taking. Many critics were surprised when Gigineishvili received the Best Director award.

zhgiSimilarly, in his debut Light Up! (Zhgi) Kirill Pletnev cannot seem to make up his mind whether the film is a critical social drama, a melodrama, a buddy film, or a fairy tale. The film starts out as a Cinderella story of Alevtina Romanovna (Inga Oboldina), a rough, manly prison-guard who is transformed by a woman prisoner, herself a musician, into an operatic diva who trades her prison uniform for make-up, a red evening dress and high heels and heads to Moscow for a singing competition on a reality TV show. However, the sheer brutality of the treatment of prisoners (including by Alevtina herself)—the rape of a female prisoner by the male guards, the eventual hostage-taking that results in the death of Alevtina’s mentor—belong more in a hard-hitting social drama than a Cinderella tale. When the aspiring diva dramatically breaks off her audition and gives up her chance to transform her life in order to try and talk the prisoner into releasing her hostages, we are in the realm of melodrama. The prisoner predictably dies, Alevtina goes back home, and the fairy tale is not to be. However, as director Pletnev himself said in the press conference on the film, he chose to ameliorate the unhappy ending and reach out to mainstream audiences with an epilogue, where the actors who played both prisoners and their tormentor guards, hold hands and dance happily together while the titles run on the side of the screen. He also suggested, unconvincingly, that the epilogue was his homage to Federico Fellini, when many critics saw the film’s apparent celebration of the prison state as offensive (the film premiered on Russia Day, 12 June).

Despite offering, to a more or less successful degree, a variety and often a mix of genres  (fairy tales, comedies, social dramas, melodramas, action films, road movies) many of the films in this year’s competition had something in common: they were attempts to capture the comic absurdity and/or the harsh reality of a society still in transition from its Soviet past to its ephemeral, reality-TV and cell-phone-based present, with the ever-continuing differences and distances between city and province, center and periphery. In fact, two acclaimed film debuts, Kantemir Balagov’s Closeness (Tesnota) and Vitalii Suslin’s Head. Two Ears (Golova: dva ukha)were regional products, striking in their ability to re-create little-known parts of today’s Russia, with its people and problems. 

golova dva ukhaIn Head. Two Ears Suslin actually recreates the true story of a simple peasant, Ivan Sergeevich, who is hired away from his cows (thus the title) to be a front man for petty criminals from the city. He is to take out small loans that, of course, will not be repaid. When they no longer need him, the criminals abandon him (tellingly at McDonald’s, that symbol of western consumerism and encroachment into Russia), and he eventually goes back home, but not before he dreams of a fairy-tale relationship with the girl-thief. The peasant plays himself in the film, in a kind of comic docu-drama and a cautionary fairy tale. Like Hostages and Closeness (discussed below), Head. Two Ears is a filmic recreation of real events, part of the attempt to capture what is relevant and real in present-day Russia. 

The contemporary “relevance” or the richer-in-connotation Russian word “aktual'nost',” was the order of the day at this year’s Kinotavr, to be discussed in more detail below. The festival’s most memorable, and arguably best films—the two regional films mentioned above, and three hard-hitting social dramas, Boris Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia (Aritmia), Yusup Razykov’s Sella turcica (Turetskoe sedlo), and the somewhat less successful Nearest and Dearest (Blizkie) by Kseniia Zueva, all explore family or human connections in present-day Russia.

Electronic gadgets and reality TV vs. authentic experience
A number of films in this year’s program raise the question of how films can project authentic personal inner experiences or family and social relations; how can they truthfully represent recent history as humans are increasingly separated by (and often hide behind) all sorts of electronic gadgets (TV screens, iPads, smartphones, etc.) that make human communication and truth-seeking not easier but more difficult. For this year’s competition films I would add “authenticity” to “relevance,” as directors try to reflect not only upon their personal experiences, but also to capture the pulse of Russia today, both within and outside of the Moscow-Leningrad axis… There is general agreement that that the best films in the program have a kind of believability rarely seen on screen.

TV sets have starring roles in films such as the above-mentioned Ice Hole, and All Will End Soon (Skoro vse konchitsia), where a machine tool maker—a worker reminiscent of a Stakhanovite—lives a solitary existence ruled by blasting TV propaganda of the war in Ukraine, his visits to a whorehouse, and attempts to create a pseudo-family with a prostitute, who in the end uses him, in an ironic twist of events, to get money to treat her Ukrainian boyfriend/husband—a war victim with severe burns—in a hospital in Berlin. The hero finds out in a TV documentary that the money he gave the prostitute was not for her sick mother, but for what TV tells him is Russia’s enemy. The consumption of reality TV with saccharine shows such as “Save Love!” in Blockbuster,the TV obsession with Russians’ toughness as they gleefully dive into freezing waters in Ice Hole, or the TV show that discovers Alevtina Romanovna and opens up for her the artificial world of, again, reality TV—all these films, at times ruefully, present a world devoid of authenticity. 

tesnotaBut there were also filmmakers like Kantemir Balagov, who in his debut film Closeness draws on his own experience and uses formal filmmaking techniques: scrupulous attention to visual detail, sets, hand-held camera work, lighting and color—to present a sense of tactility. In his press conference, Balagov mentioned that learned about this tactile feel for objects (and about humanism) from his mentor, Aleksandr Sokurov, who actually helped him edit Closeness.

Balagov’s dedication to authenticity got him in trouble with western critics. Reviews following the film’s screening in the program Un Certain Regard at Cannes heavily criticized the director for breaking a film industry taboo by including what was called a “snuff” video of the gruesome killing of Russian prisoners by Chechen paramilitaries. The director included the above-mentioned grainy video, which he actually saw with his friends at age 14, because these films circulated at the time, and they presented the frightening reality of the ethnic conflict next door. The director stated at the Kinotavr press conference that he had considered shooting an acted version of the video, but he wanted to reflect as accurately as possible the real experience of living in this specific town and region set against war and violence.

Closeness also created the biggest buzz at Kinotavr. It earned the recently renamed Daniil Dondurei prize (the critics’ award of the Guild of Russian Film Critics and Film Scholars), as well as the jury prize for Best Debut. The director begins the film with a first-person voiceover narration identifying the city and region where he grew up: Nal’chik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic in the North Caucasus, where the true events of a local kidnapping of a Jewish couple by Kabardinians took place. This is not just some distant Russian province, but a remainder of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Russian, and later Soviet empires, where different ethnicities live together in close proximity. (Hence the film’s title.) The discourse of empire is thus played out through the story of local Jews and their Muslim neighbors. The film is also a study in generational conflict, with the young wanting to break out of deep-rooted cultural and religious traditions.

The actual story that unfolds in the film took place in 1998, and the director wanted to give a sense of the provincialism and modest living conditions, and social stresses in his city at the time. After the voiceover narration introducing the place and the time, the film focuses on a young girl, dressed like a tomboy in jeans, baggy shirt and sweater, fixing cars in her father’s tiny garage. It is a coming-of-age story, as we see Ilana rebel against the strictures of her religion and her mother’s attempts to make her into a nice Jewish young lady. Ila is physically uncomfortable in the conservative brown dress her mother physically forces her to wear for her brother David’s engagement. Ila’s rebellion against the dress codes and Jewish customs extends prominently to her sexual life. In an early scene she seems to be too close physically to her brother, pulling playfully on his belt. She is also very unhappy when he becomes engaged. Ila clearly pushes boundaries. She reserves her true sexual rebellion for her totally inappropriate boyfriend—a burly, mostly silent Kabardinian gas-station jockey, who services not only cars, but also Ila herself. She seems always to be the sexual aggressor. When her brother and his fiancée are kidnapped for ransom by local Kabardinians, Ila’s family, after exhausting the community’s help and selling their garage, commit to an arranged marriage for Ila. But Ila’s response in front of the nice young man who loves her is: “I will screw every passerby.” Even though she thus dishonors herself, the young man still leaves the money to rescue her brother. Ila’s rebellious reaction to her mother trying to sell her off is to have sweaty, rough sex with her ever-obliging boyfriend. The scene, as so many others, is shot with tight framing, through partially blocked spaces, verticals of doorways, in dim light—all emphasizing the enclosed nature of Ila’s world. The use of a hand-held camera and the 4x3 frame size force the characters into extreme physical proximity. The scene of Ila’s mother trying to physically restrain her newly released son from going to his wife and instead making him leave town with the family is shot in disturbing close-up. The raw emotion of this scene reminded this viewer of the mother-son reunion at the end of Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, 1959), although there the mother is loving whereas here she seems more like a monster. 

The family leaves without David, taking along only Ila, who once again fixes the car as it breaks down on the way out of town. The tight, enclosed, and dark spaces within the town now give way to long shots of the hills of the Caucasus. Standing against the background of all this severe beauty, the mother now tries to hug her daughter, whose words once again demonstrate that the family conflict may only be partly resolved: Ila, who had previously accused her mother of loving only David, now says: “Do you have no one else to love?” Daria Zhovner’s riveting performance as Ila gives us a real insight into the psyche of the film’s heroine, and through her, of the struggles of a young generation wanting to lead their own lives.

blizkieLove and Not-Love: Are all unhappy families alike?
Perhaps it is time to rephrase Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Because the patterns of relations in unhappy families seemed eerily similar in several competition films, as well as in Andrei Zviagintsev’s much-discussed new film Loveless (Neliubov'), which screened out-of-competition at Kinotavr. The vicious fights of a divorcing couple that result in the son running away in Loveless, and in Nearest and Dearest the harridan mother who lashes out at her husband and/or children (daughter especially), as well as the rebellious teens of the selfie generation, are all permutations of the seemingly ever-present breakdown of families and the resulting absence of understanding, if not of love. In her debut Kseniia Zueva offers a family drama based on her own experiences in what she herself has called a sincere and honest film. The sullen bulimic teenager and her unhappy mother fight; mother and father fight; the son comes home drunk; the daughter is mistreated by her friends, especially by the boy who pretends to love her in order to have sex with her. The ignored grandmother decides to run away, which we see at the film’s beginning and again, coming in full circle, at its end. It is only the grandmother’s death and the heroine’s rape (when she hails a car) that lead to a tentative coming-together of the family, especially mother and daughter. In Loveless Zviagintsev makes clear that modern life, with all its electronic and other gadgets, its consumerism, fancy apartments, search for money and things, has all but destroyed love. His bleak, uncompromising view of the world stands out against films such as Nearest and Dearest, Closeness and the winner of the Grand Prix, Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia, all of which—despite offering  an unflinching look at families in Russia today—find some possibility of reconciliation. 

aritmiaOne of the last films screened in the competition, Arrhythmia, charmed the audience and immediately became a favorite for the Grand Prix. The highly respected director, who has had his share of Kinotavr prizes, brings contemporary relevance, or aktual'nost' to the screen, together with authenticity, in his film about a paramedic whose great diagnostic talent and sheer dedication saves the lives of many, while he seems to have no energy left to nurture his stagnating relationship with his wife. The doctor, Oleg (Aleksandr Iatsenko), also has to fight bureaucratic idiocy and a new boss who insists on applying the absurd twenty-minute rule: 20 minutes to get to the patient, 20 minutes for treatment. Khlebnikov had medical consultants on the film, who controlled literally every movement of the actors’ hands, so that the procedures used by paramedics were realistically presented. (I happen to walk out of the film with a woman doctor who affirmed that the film did an excellent job of portraying an emergency doctor’s work in the field.) Iatsenko earned the Best Actor award for his utterly believable, low-key performance as a man who drinks too much, works too much, and cannot express his feelings for his wife until she is about to leave him. Of course, Iatsenko has played in a number of films of the “novye tikhie” directors, the new quiet ones, and has received many awards for playing a quiet Russian everyman, whose feelings burn deep inside. What assured this film the Grand Prix is not just the excellent acting and direction, but the film’s humor that is manifest as Oleg cajoles his patients and responds to the complicated relationship with his wife, which may have some future after all. And Oleg will continue to fight both his bureaucratic boss and the traffic that stops the ambulance from getting to his patients…This was the most quietly optimistic film in the whole competition.

sellaAre we being watched? And can we be saved?
The excellent veteran director of large and small screen, Yusup Razykov, has not received recognition for his individual films or his oeuvre. This turned out to be true once again this time, when the Best Director award went to Gigineishvili. The Diploma from the Guild of Film Critics and the Prize for Best Music in his film just did not do justice to this excellent film. Sella turcica is not only Razykov’s best film of his career in Russia, but it is an impeccable study of a character which has been ever-present in the Soviet Union: the toptun, or the everyday spy who blended in and followed people in order to report their goings-on to the police. (Razykov himself talked about feeling all his life that he was being watched….) The script was specifically written for Valerii Maslov, an actor whom Razykov met several years previously and for whom he wanted to write a story. Maslov offers a brilliant performance of a man whose life is controlled by his rigidly patterned behavior, which we see slowly unfold on the screen—from his morning exercises to his careful cooking of eggs, to the care he takes getting dressed…  We follow the aptly named Il’ich as he follows people, most of whom are innocent of any wrongdoing. He is even accosted by a businessman who tells him:  the times are different now. This is the Russia of today, where the spy is retired and relegated to a security guard, the most deadening job possible. Yet he cannot help himself from following people and even creating in his head, in black-and-white, various scenarios of their actions. Il’ich’s life begins to change when a young couple moves into the flat above him, and he begins to hear a beautiful operatic voice. He begins to follow the young woman, even stealing her bike, so he can more easily follow her on foot, but he never captures her in the act of singing. Yet his face begins to soften and he begins to look more human and less like an automaton every time he hears the glorious voice. There is even a moment when he stops in the middle of having sex with his obliging cleaning woman, overwhelmed by the music. Razykov is an excellent scriptwriter, and the story takes a totally unpredictable turn (not to be revealed here), which leads not only to murder, but to a kind of redemption through suffering for the hero. Razykov’s deeply humanistic message is that there is something human and redeemable in all of us. Every aspect of this film is technically perfect: from the acting, the cryptic dialogue, the carefully arranged mise-en-scenes, the cinematography, to the director’s unapologetic determination to make an authorial statement that belongs firmly in the art-house tradition. Sella turcica ended up being a kind of counterweight to the increasing mainstream orientation of Kinotavr itself, and along with Arrhythmia offered a cautiously uplifting message of the possibility of human communication, even love, in today’s world.

Independent productions
Besides the variety of films and genres, the appeal to mainstream audiences, and the focus on contemporary relevance and authenticity, some new developments deserve mention: it is noteworthy that this year more than half of the films (9 of 14) were independent productions, funded privately and without support from either the Film Fund or the Ministry of Culture. In fact, every time a director or a producer noted this when introducing a film to the generally appreciative and large Winter Theater audience, a murmur of approval or applause could be heard. It is as if these independent productions were received by the audience as somehow freer, with a more authentic expression of the artist’s intentions. Perhaps this also explains why many of the films had multiple producers, all of whom busy procuring funding. There were also quite a few new names among producers this year. Considering Kinotavr’s self-professed goal of identifying and showcasing new directorial talent it would not come as a surprise that half of the films (7) were debuts, often by students of major filmmakers, such as Aleksandr Sokurov, Karen Shakhnazarov, Marlen Khutsiev and Vladimir Khotinenko. Both of the the two above-mentioned regional films were also debuts. And, as is already tradition at Kinotavr, the winners of “Kinotavr.Shorts” of the previous two years came back (although suprisingly quickly this time) with full-length debuts: the winner of 2016 (the short “Credit”), Vadim Valiulin, offered a gory send-up of the slasher genre in Dead Lucky, while Kirill Pletnev (winner in 2015 for “Nastya”) came back with Light Up, the above-discussed prison film veering from comedy and fairy tale into melodrama with musical aspirations. This time, neither of these two debutant director was recognized by the jury, with only the well-known actress, Inga Oboldina, as the prison guard and aspiring diva Alevtina Romanovna, receiving the Best Actress award for Light Up.

Where have all the women directors gone?
Another point worth mentioning, which did not receive much notice or discussion at Kinotavr, was the paucity in this year’s competition of women directors or producers. Just one film, Nearest and Dearest,was directed by a woman—an actress trying her hand at directing, and produced by a team that included one woman. Two others, Razykov’s Sella turcica and Gigineishvili’s Hostages included a woman on the team of producers. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in the last few years, which have seen increasing numbers of female directors and producers (in 2014, seven of the competition films were directed by women; in 2015 four; in 2016 five woman directed films, including the opening omnibus film made by women). In these recent years there were also many more women producers than were represented in the competition in 2017. It is tempting to conjecture that it might be easier to get independent funding for men rather than for women filmmakers. In any case, we should all be looking to see what next year’s Kinotavr brings. This development certainly goes against the general trend of encouraging and supporting women in film.

zhgiBut all was not bleak for women. There were a number of meaty roles and notable acting performances by women, including Viktoria Isakova playing the prisoner as foil to Oboldina’s prison guard in Light Up; Svetlana Ustinova and Anna Chipovskaia in the buddy film Blockbuster; Elena Chekmazova and Nadezhda Ivanova playing the mother-daughter tandem in Nearest and Dearest; and most memorably, Daria Zhovner’s rebellious daughter in Closeness, which should have earned her an award…. One director, Roman Volobuev, who created a mini-scandal by withdrawing his name from Blockbuster because of cuts carried out the producer, also called himself a “feminist” in the press conference on his film; he reaffirmed that “men need to consider themselves feminists.” This fell on deaf ears, and needless to say, he was the only male director who made this radical claim. Considering the pejorative meaning this word has in Russia today, this was a bold statement. In one press conference Volobuev managed to raise two important issues that will play themselves out in future Kinotavr festivals: first, the struggle between producer and director over creative control, especially if producers lean towards entertainment, comprehensibility, and mainstream audiences, and are having the final say while directors try to present their own individual creative visions of the world (Or have the directors also adopted the producers’ imperatives?). And second, is this year’s absence of women filmmakers and producers just a blip, or is this likely to be the trend in an increasingly independently funded cinema? 

Vida Johnson,
Tufts University

MAIN PRIZE: Arrhythmia by Boris Khlebnikov
BEST DIRECTION: Rezo Gigineishvili (Hostages)
BEST DEBUT: Closeness by Kantemir Balagov
BEST ACTRESS: Inga Oboldina (Light Up by Kirill Pletnev)
BEST ACTOR: Aleksandr Iatsenko (Arrhythmia by Boris Khlebnikov)
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Vladislav Opeliants (Hostages by Rezo Gigineishvili)
GORIN PRIZE FOR THE BEST SCRIPT: Vitalii Suslin, Ivan Lashin (Head. Two Ears by Vitalii Suslin)
TARIVERDIEV DIPLOMA FOR BEST MUSIC: Aleksei Artishevskii for Sella turcica by Yusup Razykov
SPECIAL DIPLOMA OF THE JURY: Blockbuster by Roman Volobuev (For the new level of genre cinema)

Vida Johnson © 2017

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Updated: 18 Jul 17