Issue 57 (2017)

Sergei Solov’ev: Ke-dy (2016)

reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2017

solovievHow do you make a film after all the good films have already been made? And, more problematically, what if thirty years ago you had made a film (or even, say, three of them)[1] that managed to genuinely reflect the everyday reality, to show the viewer something about their world they could not or did not see before? What if you were the author of ASSA, the cult film that “changed everything”? How do you go on? As one overly optimistic reviewer put it (before even seeing the film): “The film Ke-dy might become a cult film for the generation of the 2010s, as Sergei Solov’ev’s ASSA was for the generation of the 1980s” (Mikhailova 2016).

In Ke-dy Sergei Solov’ev returns to his favorite theme: youth. Shot in color, but converted into black and white (or nearly so) in post-production, the film is a “day-in-the-life” of a young man named Sasha (Nikolai Suslov)—who goes by the nickname “Jagger” because of his resemblance to the rock star—as he is about to leave to serve in the Russian army. The film, as Solov’ev himself and many of his viewers noted, is literally “about nothing”:

The film is basically about nothing. Without any globally important thought, without a deep idea. The film is about banal sneakers. Maybe, most likely—it’s about one’s motivation in life. When one is young, as our hero is, it is important to feel like a pioneer making your way for the first time in this wide world. The picture is most likely about this (Alekseev 2016).

kedyHaving received his draft letter telling him to report for military duty, Sasha decides that he must first buy a pair of sneakers (the kedy of the title), so that he has something to look forward to on his return from the army. The sneakers prove somewhat uncomfortable, so Sasha goes for a pedicure, where he meets a young woman named Amira (Aglaia Shilovskaia), and invites her to spend the rest of the day together: first at the mall, where he plays video games and she borrows a skateboard from a group of young hoodlums who then violently attack Sasha in the bathroom; then at the apartment of his friend “Krasnyi” (“Red,” played by a non-professional actor and real-life mechanic Il’ia Nagirniak), where he is found by his draft officer (played by Vasilii Vakulenko, better known as the Russian rapper “Basta,” who also provides the soundtrack for the film); and then at the seashore, where they are joined by Amira’s autistic son Mitia (Dania Gavrilenko), before dropping him off at a children’s home.[2]

The “philosophy” that guides the film is one of incompleteness: Amira wants to make sure that Sasha can shore up enough memories of his last days as a civilian, so that he has something to look back on while in the army; but above all, she wants him to leave something unfinished. As an example, she tells him the story of finding an incomplete copy of The Children of Captain Grant (Deti kapitana Granta, the Russian adaptation of Jules Verne’s In Search of the Castaways) in the attic of a summer dacha—a copy missing the last few hundred pages. To this day, she says, she doesn’t know if the children ever do find their father; as far as she knows, they are still sailing toward Patagonia.

kedySolov’ev’s film, which opened the 38th Moscow Film Festival in 2016, is based on a 2011 short story, “Paradise Found,” by the contemporary writer Andrei Gelasimov, which was composed in the form of a blog and published on-line in Snob. Solov’ev preserves most of the original storyline and dialogue, but fills out the film with long, wordless sequences and picturesque scenery. The main changes from the short story are Amira’s profession and looks: in Gelasimov’s story, Amira is a hairdresser who shaves Sasha’s head in preparation for his army service. An Arabic “princess” (Amira means rich and princess in Arabic), she is dark-haired and, presumably, dark-skinned—in the blog’s comments she is referred to as “black” and immediately identified as a gastarbeiter by Sasha’s former girlfriend, who worries that Amira will marry him for his residence permit (the propiska that would allow her to legally live in Moscow). In Ke-dy, Amira is a blond pediatrician, a change which removes the racial subtext and allows the protagonist to preserve his Mick-Jagger-looks until the end of the film. The split in the word “ke-dy” of the title is meant to signal the two halves of a pair: symbolically, Sasha gives one “keda” to each of his two friends, Krasnyi and Amira, to be reunited with them on his return. Metaphorically, we are probably meant to understand that Sasha and Amira are also a pair that will be reunited sometime in the future.

In typical Solov’ev fashion, but also echoing the blog format, the film is divided into chapters and separated by intertitles and stand-alone musical numbers, including a surreal music video. At the end of this sequence, Solov’ev’s former wife and muse, the actress Tatiana Drubich, makes her inevitable appearance, sitting at the piano like an apparition. The title reads: “A special invitation for Tatiana Drubich”.

kedyReferences to Soviet films, and specifically to the 1936 Soviet adaptation of The Children of Captain Grant (Deti kapitana Granta, dir. Vainshtok) and The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, dir. Kolotozov, 1957), remind us of the legacy of Soviet cinema, a legacy to which Solov’ev often pays tribute. In this instance, the film is from the start dedicated to the memory of the filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov and the cameraman Sergei Urusevskii, with “special appearances” by Tatiana Samoilova, Aleksei Batalov, Nikolai Cherkasov and Tatiana Drubich. The film’s climax is a repeat of the famous long-take tracking shot of Veronika (Samoilova) rushing to say goodbye to Boris (Batalov) in The Cranes are Flying, with an identical sequence, shot from the same angles, of Sasha going off to the army. Amira’s happily smiling face as she waves the sneaker that Sasha has given her for safe-keeping contrasts sharply with the close-ups of Veronika, tearfully clutching her bag of sweets as she watches Boris and the other men going off to certain death. The melodrama of the “always too late” of Cranes is here replaced by the banality of the present tense. Indeed, a brief glimpse of Sasha’s time in the army at the film’s end confirms what we already suspected: shot like a first-person shooter, there is no tangible difference, on screen, between service in the Russian army and virtual reality, no moment when shooting from an inside of a tank while shouting “For the Motherland! For Putin!” (Za rodinu! Za Putina!) is different from playing a video game at the mall. The fact that in both cases the reverse shot, showing us things exploding, is left in color, further cements the visual match. “Who are we shooting at?” asks Sasha naively. “Who cares?” responds his commander, “Just make sure you don’t miss.”

kedyThe insistently present tense of this film is partly what makes it difficult to locate in space and time. Some viewers, confused by the use of the black-and-white palette and Sasha’s seventies’ shag, initially assumed the film was set in the Soviet past and were surprised by the sudden appearance of cell phones and similar markers of contemporaneity. References to Putin, to gay rights, sanctions, and empty, Western style shopping malls all seem to place the film squarely in the present day, yet the dilapidated state of Krasnyi’s communal apartment (as well as his nickname), the run-down country house where Amira’s mother lives, and the old mattress hanging on the fence of the Soviet-era internat where they drop off Mitia—all these speak to a kind of late Soviet or post-Soviet continuum, where nothing much has changed since 1987. In general, unlike the short story which is written in contemporary internet slang, the film is less interested in situating us in present-day Russia, with all references—from The Cranes are Flying and The Children of Captain Grant to Mick Jagger, Che Guevara and Maya Plisetskaya—seemingly pointing us back in time. Solov’ev’s choice of Sevastopol rather than Moscow for his shooting location, besides being another reference to ASSA, also makes it possible for him to give us views of a city and its environs little transformed by Putin-era petrodollars and glamur.

kedyIt is not clear whether the film was initially meant to be something entirely different. An official trailer featuring Suslov as Sasha, Drubich as his mother, and Basta as his commanding officer and father, set to Basta’s “When I look up at the sky, I am flying” (Kogda ia smotriu na nebo, ia letaiu), imagines Sasha’s army service as war-time fighting that leaves everyone dead. Similarly, a YouTube video for Basta’s “Mama, I am a partisan” (Mama, ia partizan), written specifically for the film, consists of a series of images of partisans and the Red Army during World War II (mostly newsreel footage, but probably with some shots taken from Soviet feature films). It is possible, in other words, that this film about “nothing” was at least at one point meant to go into the more usual direction of a war film, with the parallel between the current Russian state of emergency and World War II drawn more sharply. In the end, however, Ke-dy does nothing of the sort. Sasha’s army service is treated like a video game rather than real life, and the final sequence shows us Amira picking up Mitia from the internat to take him home. The sequence is left in color, to signal optimism and change. Yet the prolonged good-bye between Mitia and the friend he is leaving behind in the internat—which echoes and transforms, rather than simply copying the goodbye sequence from Cranes— leaves us with a sense of each individual’s profound isolation instead of giving us the joy of a child reunited with his mother. No one really connects in this film—the dash of the title remains forever there; and the sense of the “unfinished” that guides this narrative is, in the end, less about the possibility of ever arriving in “Patagonia” (or the paradise promised by Gelasimov’s title), as it is about the certainty of never reaching it.

kedyIn this sense, perhaps the most significant change Solov’ev makes to Gelasimov’s story is the time he spends on two seemingly secondary characters—Krasnyi and Mitia—each with a disability specifically affecting their speech. Amira describes her autistic son as “not all there,” as if a part of him remained behind and was only partially downloaded into this world. This is part of her philosophy of incompleteness, but together with Krasnyi’s stutter, Mitia’s lack of speech (but an ability to sing beautifully), and the long non-verbal sequences of this film, remind us of another Soviet film, likewise shot in discreet segments that shift from color to black and white (or sepia tone), likewise referencing WWII, and likewise filled with incompleteness and loss.

This is not to say, of course, that Solov’ev’s Ke-dy is anything like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975), but only to suggest that Tarkovsky’s opening sequence of the boy being cured of his stutter might give us a clue as to how to read Solov’ev’s film. When, at the end of the prologue, the boy in Mirror turns to face the camera to declare, still in a somewhat halting voice, “I can speak” (Ia mogu govorit’), we understand this as Tarkovsky’s own authorial–narrative voice attempting to break through the silences to speak about memories of his childhood, of Stalinist repressions, and the horrors of World War II. In Ke-dy, Mitia is not a stand-in for the author (whether we take that to be Solov’ev or Gelasimov), but he is a stand-in for the other characters in the film, none of whom are able to clearly express their desires or articulate a coherent identity. This is perhaps, and finally, the meaning of the dash between the syllables “ke” and “dy” of the title: it marks the space in between where meaning breaks down, where the film is no longer able to communicate anything other than its own belatedness and incompleteness.


Notes

1] To date, Sergei Solov’ev has directed 19 films, including the cult “trilogy” ASSA (1987, starring rock musicians Afrika (Sergei Bugaev), Viktor Tsoi, Sergei Ryzhenko; Black Rose is an Emblem of Sorrow, Red Rose is an Emblem of Love (Chernaia roza—emblema pechali, krasnaia roza— emblema liubvi, 1989); and The House Under the Starry Skies (Dom pod zvezdnym nebom, 1991).

2] The film was shot with the support of Russia’s Union of Mental Health (Soiuz okhrany psikhicheskogo zdorov’ia).

Lilya Kaganovsky
University of Illinois

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Alekseev, Vladimir. 2016. “Kedy ot Solov’eva.” Argumenty nedeli 26 February.

Gelasimov, Andrei. 2011. “Paradise found.” Snob 10 June.

Mikhailova, Mariia. 2016. “Moskovskii kinofestival’ otkroetsia ekranizatsiei rasskaza Andreia Gelasimova.” Novye izvestiia 15 June.


Ke-dy, Russia, 2016
Color and black&white, 96 minutes
Director: Sergei Solov’ev
Script: Sergei Solov’ev, based on Andrei Gelasimov
Soundtrack: Basta
Music: Anna Solov’eva
Cinematography: Timofei Lobov
Production Design: Sergei Ivanov
Cast: Nikolai Suslov, Aglaia Shilovskaia, Basta, Il’ia Nagirniak
Producer: Sergei Solov’ev, Natal’ia Treushnikova
Studio: Mosfilm

Sergei Solov’ev: Ke-dy (2016)

reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2017

Updated: