Issue 57 (2017)

Il’ia Uchitel’: Big Village Lights (Ogni bol’shoi derevni, Russia, 2016)

reviewed by Holly Myers © 2017

ogni bolshoi derevniBig Village Lights is a comedy about a young man trying to save his village’s only remaining cinema. Fedor (Kirill Frolov) has been working alone at the old, dilapidated cinema for some time. He is a dreamy-eyed romantic, a young man with an old soul who loves classic cinema and works tirelessly to protect it. In an early comedic sequence, we watch Fedor sell an elderly woman a ticket, rush out from the ticket booth to overtake her at the theater door to collect her ticket with great solemnity, then sprint from the theater seats to the projection room upstairs to start the film reel. The cinema needs repairs and clearly attracts very few patrons: the elderly woman is the only person in the audience. Enter Fedor’s charismatic best friend Stepa (Maksim Emel’ianov), a recently demobilized soldier, who comes up with the idea to shoot their own film, hoping to earn enough money in ticket sales to make the necessary repairs to the cinema. Stepa will be the producer, they decide, and Fedor the director. They recruit Il’ich (Vasilii Kortukov), a wedding photographer with aspirations of “great” art, to be their cameraman. The three of them hold open casting auditions, to which only one person comes—the beautiful young karateka, Zhenia (Anastasiia Mytrazhik)—whom they enthusiastically cast in a leading role. Temporarily stymied by the lack of actors for their film, Fedor and Stepa serendipitously stumble upon a severely intoxicated Dmitrii Diuzhev (played by himself) late one night at the train station. They decide to kidnap him and force him to “star” in their film—while he is kept gagged and chained to a wheelchair, furious and endlessly attempting escape.

ogni bolshoi derevniOf course, in this trio of director, producer, and cameraman, there are three very different artistic visions for what kind of film they should make. While they debate, each character describes his film idea in a spoken narrative that becomes a voiceover in a trailer, featuring himself as the lead actor. Fedor’s film is Bartholomew: The Shy Vampire, a thinly veiled reference to the Twilight saga. (His imagined trailer for the film quotes from one of the books: “As a famous writer once said, ‘hell isn’t so bad when you have an angel.’”) Il’ich objects to the lack of substance in Fedor’s vampire movie and wants to go “deeper.” In his voiceover, Il’ich begins with a famous line from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. His trailer is in black, white, and red, with a long shot of a piano on fire standing in an open field and other such inscrutable scenes. We in the audience understand that it is a parody of avant-garde experimental art-house films and their overuse of reverse-motion and other cinematic trickery. Departing from Fedor’s sappy romance and Il’ich’s unintelligible art, Stepa envisions an action film. He calls it Bartholomew: Bloody Pulp, and it is obviously inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s films: there is a leather-clad, sword-wielding, eye-patched heroine, an animated action sequence, and a great deal of gratuitous violence and blood. In the end, logistical consideration ends the debate in favor of Stepa’s artistic vision. They go through a hilarious amount of ketchup in the making of his Tarantino-style film.

ogni bolshoi derevniAs emphasized in the film’s title, the village setting is significant. Life in this rural community (with people of various ages, professions, ethnicities, etc.) seems harmonious and happy enough; the problem lies with the corrupt village mayor and his lackeys. At first the young mayor seems like a good guy and promises to help Fedor save the cinema, but that turns out to be a deception: he already has plans in motion to convert the cinema into a store for expensive fur coats. He orchestrates a bureaucratic issue with the cinema’s failure to meet fire safety codes. When that does not immediately lead to the cinema’s closure, he and his thuggish co-conspirator set fire to it. (An incongruous dark moment in the film occurs when the mayor’s thug insists that Diuzhev must be shot point blank with a rifle, because he had witnessed the arson.) Fedor, Stepa, and Zhenia come to Diuzhev’s rescue, uncover the mayor’s wrongdoing, and try to blackmail the mayor into rebuilding their cinema. When the mayor admits that he cannot raise the necessary funds, he publicly apologizes to the villagers (assembled for the premiere of Bartholomew: Bloody Pulp) and resigns from office. Thus a small group of amateur artists save the professional actor—and, in fact, the entire village— from this corrupt politician and his dangerous, self-serving schemes.

ogni bolshoi derevniThe rundown village cinema is named “Rodina,” or Motherland, and the humorous attempts to save “Rodina” by producing a film clearly connect to larger concerns about the fate and role of culture in Russia. But, it turns out, culture is not the motherland’s only concern. Throughout the film, Fedor has managed the thwart all attempts by the village’s hapless draft officer to enlist him in serving his mandatory one year in the army. Fedor has climbed out of windows, jumped onto moving vehicles, even given the officer a minor role in the film as a distraction—all to put off his required service. At the end of the film, however, during Bartholomew: Bloody Pulp’s premiere, Fedor suddenly stops running from the officer and willingly signs his draft papers. The officer, nodding in approval, tells him, “As they say: film is film, but you must pay your debt to the Motherland [Rodina].” Fedor returns from his army service one year later, smiling, strong, and more confident than ever in his handsome uniform. In the final scene of the film, he enters the newly rebuilt village cinema—a ritzy, extravagant complex complete with 3D screens—and seems to finally connect with Zhenia, whom he has pursued since their first encounter at the beginning of the film. Fedor has paid his debt to the “Rodina”/Motherland through military and cultural service to his country, and for that, the film shows us, he is richly rewarded.

ogni bolshoi derevniGiven the nationalistic bent to Big Village Lights, it is a bit odd that the characters imagine films that draw so heavily on foreign/international cinematic influences. Even the name of the film Big Village Lights (Ogni bol'shoi derevni) is a reference to the classic Charlie Chaplin film from 1931, City Lights, which, in Russian, is translated as Ogni bol'shogo goroda (or, Big City Lights). Beyond the mere title, there are also parallels in the genre (romantic comedy), basic plot outline (hero falls in love a woman he meets on the street; hero befriends an alcoholic millionaire) and the use of physical comedy. The reference to Chaplin’s late silent film—a bold achievement in the twilight of a dying art form soon to be overtaken by the new “talkies”—may also speak to Uchitel’’s aspiration to save what he sees as another struggling art form: Russian cinema. As if a reminder of the great traditions of Russian cinema, the Soviet classic I Walk Around Moscow (Ia shagaiu po Moskve, 1963) is playing at the beginning and again at the end of the film.

Although Big Village Lights is Il’ia Uchitel’’s directorial debut, the recent VGIK graduate has filmmaking in his blood: his father, Aleksei Efimovich Uchitel’, and his grandfather, Efim Iul’evich Uchitel’ were both award-winning directors. The entire film was shot in less than a month with a modest budget of 40 million rubles. Uchitel’ (the younger) personally arranged the casting and selected locations for the shooting. The film was shot in Vyshnii Volochek, a town in the Tver region, and—appropriately enough—most of the film’s actors are amateurs: residents from the local village or members of the film crew.

Holly Myers
Columbia University

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Big Village Lights, Russia, 2016
Color, 81 minutes
Director: Il’ia Uchitel’
Screenplay: Konstantin Chelidze
Composer: Murat Kabardokov
Editor: Aleksandr Koshelev
Cast: Dmitrii Diuzhev, Anastasiia Mytrazhik, Kirill Frolov, Maksim Emel’ianov, Vasilii Kortukov, Iurii Bykov, Tagir Rakhimov, Karen Martirosian, Kirill Poluzhin, Anna Vorkueva, Konstantin Sukhar’kov, Gleb Puskepalis.
Producer: Filipp Pastukhov

Il’ia Uchitel’: Big Village Lights (Ogni bol’shoi derevni, Russia, 2016)

reviewed by Holly Myers © 2017

Updated: 09 Jul 17