Issue 57 (2017)

Aleksei Petrukhin: The Teacher (Uchilka, 2015)

reviewed by Olga Klimova © 2017

uchilkaAleksei Petrukhin’s film The Teacher can be viewed as a response to Il’ia Averbakh’s Other People’s Letters (Chuzhie pis’ma, 1975) and the Russian interpretation of a more contemporary French film, Skirt Day (La Journée de la jupe, 2008) by Jean-Paul Lilienfeld. Petrukhin’s The Teacher shares the similar narrative and characters with Skirt Day, in which a French literature teacher discovers a gun in one of her students’ bags and takes her entire class hostage. The Russian version depicts one day from the life of a veteran history teacher Alla Nikolaevna, who also obtains a handgun from one of her students and demands from her students to review the material from the entire academic year before releasing them. Like Lilienfeld’s film, in which the famous French actress Isabelle Adjani plays the role of the school teacher, The Teacher relies on the strong acting skills of the lead actress Irina Kupchenko. For Kupchenko, the part of a school teacher (and/or a school administrator), who has to face the unknown side of school children, is familiar from her previous roles in Other People’s Letters, but also Andrei Kudinenko’s The Practical Joke (Rozygrysh, 2008), and Aleksandr Strizhenov’s Iulenka (2009).

Petrukhin’s film fits well with the recently revived tradition of youth films, or school films, and contributes to the diverse portrait gallery of contemporary educators and high-school students offered by other Russian filmmakers such as Valeriia Gai Germanika in Everyone Dies But Me (Vse umrut, a ia ostanus’, 2008), Boris Khlebnikov in The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Geograf globus propil, 2013), and Kirill Serebrennikov in The Student (Uchenik, 2016). Following the tradition of a school film, the events in Petrukhin’s film take place in one of Russia’s urban schools, presumably meant to be in Moscow but filmed in Korolev. The emotional and psychological turmoil and the conflict between Alla Nikolaevna and eleventh-grade students occupy the majority of on-screen time. The cinematic space is limited to one classroom, with some occasional scenes filmed at the principal’s office, in the school hallways, and in the school yard.

uchilkaWith its intention to reveal flaws in the system and re-educate young people, The Teacher is an indirect sequel to Averbakh’s Other People’s Letters. In both films, Kupchenko plays the part of a high-school teacher who does not have high hopes for the young generation. In Averbakh’s film, she plays math teacher Vera Ivanovna and represents the generation of intellectuals, disappointed in the educational system and the society under Brezhnev in general. She uses different methods to mold one of her high school students, Zina Begunkova, into a citizen with high moral principles, but ultimately fails. The young generation, which Kupchenko’s character in Other People’s Letters does not understand and which she even fears, was born in the late 1950s and early 1960s and they lack any first-hand memory of Stalin’s Purges.

In Petrukhin’s film, Kupchenko returns four decades later as a history teacher, this time teaching the generation of young Russians who were born at the turn of the 21st century and who know about the Soviet Union and its collapse only from history textbooks. The high-school students in both films have no experience of living under the strenuous ideological and economic conditions—a fact that creates an even larger gap between the young generation and their parents or educators. To emphasize the difference between the teacher and her students, Petrukhin tends to frame Alla Nikolaevna alone, using medium-length shots and close-ups, while depicting the teenage characters alongside other young characters. At the same time, Petrukhin emphasizes some similarities between the teacher and the teenagers: they all have nicknames. Everyone, including Alla Nikolaevna’s former student Colonel Kadyshev of Special Forces Unit, refers to her as “uchilka” (teacher), while the young characters are introduced to the viewers as “Zubrila” (“Nerd”), “Zhaba” (“Toad”), “Gusia” (“Goose”), “Zaia” (“Bunny”), “Ptakha” (“Birdie”), and “Gotka” (“Goth”). The differences between the educator and the students are also erased when each of them, one after another, gets hold of the gun and uses it to express their thoughts and share their own truths. 

uchilkaUnlike other school films, most of the young characters in The Teacher are not thoroughly developed and follow recognizable stereotypes: nerd, rebel, rich kid, goth, clown, and a couple of high-school sweethearts. In the first half of the film, the majority are presented as frivolous, arrogant, disrespectful, unpatriotic, and unmotivated individuals; however, by the second half they finally develop into a collective and obtain ideological consciousness under Alla Nikolaevna’s guidance—at gunpoint. Petrukhin idealistically believes (and wants to persuade the viewers) that, under pressure, a group of high-school students may change their views and value systems and transform into a happy collective. After several hours as hostages, they all (with one exception) draw rain clouds in response to an earlier picture that the class clown Gusia presents as a sign of his uniqueness. Gusia explains that he associates himself with a giraffe enjoying the sun, while the rest of the crowd is miserable getting drenched by the rain. These drawings, along with the collective recitation of Nikolai Gumilev’s poem “The Giraffe”, symbolize their final union and the resolution of the conflict between the two generations. Thus, the power of Russian literature connects the rebellious teenagers and the emotionally and physically drained school teacher. The choice of the poem is important, because in “The Giraffe,” the pragmatism embodied by the female character is contrasted with the author’s idealism. An exotic giraffe who is wandering far away by Lake Chad in Africa stands for beauty, exoticism, hope, and romantic optimism. Therefore, Alla Nikolaevna imbues her students with the feeling of patriotism, appreciation of Russian history, and hope for the better future for their country.

Unlike Lilienfeld’s Skirt Day, Petrukhin’s film is optimistic and concludes with a happy ending that reinforces the director’s belief in Russia’s bright future with the song “The Wind of Change” from the famous Soviet film Mary Poppins, Goodbye! (Mery Poppins, do svidaniia!, 1983) by Leonid Kvinikhidze, which the educators and the students sing together while sitting around a campfire. On the film’s official website, Petrukhin defines his own film as “a story of the history teacher” with the goal of “bringing light to its viewers.” If in many school films, the directors develop both high-school students and educators as memorable characters with strong principles and belief systems, the focus of The Teacher shifts onto Alla Nikolaevna and her initial inability to connect with the young generation of Russians and her final success—under the extreme conditions—at molding better citizens.

uchilkaEven with its optimistic tendencies, Petrukhin’s film manages to offer a social commentary on several burning issues that contemporary Russian schools face in the 2010s: the disrespect towards teachers and their work by both students and the state; the reduction of the function of a school principal to a business manager; the abundance of textbooks that often contradict one another; and schools’ financial reliance on parents for meeting the school’s needs. In addition to raising problems in the Russian education system, Petrukhin also sketches out some other problems in contemporary Russian society: alcoholism, corruption and unprofessionalism of Russian media, commercialization of life, nationalistic and xenophobic tendencies, and ambiguous attitudes among Russians toward the recent conflict with Ukraine.

The producers of The Teacher and film critics have identified this film as drama or social problem film, touching upon a number of pressing issues in contemporary Russian society. However, Petrukhin’s film also includes some comic characters and situations, and also follows the genre conventions of a thriller. The episodes with the drunken school security guard or the annoying journalist (played by Alisa Grebenshchikova, the daughter of the prominent rock musician Boris Grebenshchikov) add comic relief to the emotionally charged narrative. At the same time, the intense soundtrack, typical of a thriller or even a horror film, often stands in dissonance to the visual layer, as for example in the opening scene, where the camera follows Alla Nikolaevna as she routinely gets ready for work in the morning. This non-diegetic music supplements the narrative throughout the film and contributes to the creation of suspense during the hostage scenes in the classroom. The scenes with the Special Forces Unit waiting to raid Alla Nikolaevna’s classroom also intensify the tension. Even in the opening credits, the titles falsely warn the viewers that the narrative might be filled with blood and horror, as the letters turn from white into red. However, unlike Lilienfeld’s film, there are no fatalities or punishment for wrongdoing in The Teacher, and it does not have an open ending as Averbakh’s film.

Despite the somewhat incoherent script, the inconsistent soundtrack, and the inexperienced young actors, many Russian viewers have enjoyed the film and appreciated the subject matter. Film professionals and critics have recognized Kupchenko’s ability to drive the narrative, and she has received a NIKA award for her performance, as well as a prize at Window to Europe Film Festival in Vyborg as Best Actress. The film has participated in film festivals at home and abroad, and Petrukhin is working on a sequel, The Teacher 2: The Test (Uchilka 2: Ispytanie).

Olga Klimova
University of Pittsburgh

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The Teacher, Russia, 2015
Color, 134 minutes
Director: Aleksei Petrukhin
Script : Ekaterina Asmus, Aleksei Petrukhin     
Producers: Petr Cherenkov, Aleksei Petrukhin
Cinematography : Il’ia Kondrat’ev
Production design : Alla Savina
Music: Aleksandr Bakkhaus
Cast: Irina Kupchenko, Anna Churina, Roza Khairullina, Andrei Merzlikin, Alisa Grebenshchikova, Aleksei Lukin, Aleksei Ogurtsov, Anastasiia Ponomareva, Ol’ga Egorova,
Production: Start Film Group, Russian Film Group, Arcada Entertainment

Aleksei Petrukhin: The Teacher (Uchilka, 2015)

reviewed by Olga Klimova © 2017