Issue 58 (2017)

Ekaterina Shagalova: Kurkul (Kurkul’, 2016)

reviewed by Emily Schuckman Matthews© 2017

Ekaterina Shagalova’s two-part mini-series, Kurkul, which premiered on NTV on 5 March 2017, offers viewers a banal plotline, one-dimensional characters and a simple, idealized solution to Russia’s age-old problem of government corruption, and seemingly attempts to provide a counter-narrative to Andrei Zviagintsev’s poignant and perceptive Leviathan (Leviafan, 2014). Unlike Zviagintsev’s film, Kurkul offers a neat, happy ending and a simplistic solution to all tensions, assuring the viewer that the Russian justice system works, that the average farmer can indeed stand up to a corrupt politician, and that society is in good hands with an idealistic younger generation, uncorrupted by the vigilante chaos of the 90s. Shagalova wraps up questions of government power, corruption and moral authority in a Romeo-and-Juliet-like love plot, sprinkled with loose allusions to Aleksei Balabanov’s cult-favorite Brother 2 (Brat 2, 2000) and palatable to viewers looking to be reassured about the state of affairs in the country.

kurkulThe film opens with a disgruntled man holding a sawed-off shotgun to the throat of a bloated official (“I’m not going to blow your brains out now, but next time another bastard comes by, you better think twice about destroying someone else’s life”). This scene immediately cuts to three days earlier, the aggressor, now calmly surveying his dairy farm, jovially tossing a ball with his son, blowing a kiss to his adoring wife, a giant American pickup truck parked in front of a large, contemporary home. Twangy guitar music dominates the soundtrack and helps frame this idealized portrayal of the modern Russian farmer. The scene is quickly shattered when the man, Anton Terekhov (Aleksei Kravchenko), receives notice that the local government wants to reclaim the land occupied by his farm.  Officials from the Kurkul region’s vice-mayor’s office justify the act by claiming that Terekhov is not in fact the legal owner of the property, despite his holding the deed, associated paperwork and the land being in his family for several generations. Taking matters into his own hands, Terekhov races to confront the man who delivered the papers. He returns home to find that his wide-eyed daughter, Masha (Anastasiia Shumilkina), has returned from Moscow where she is a veterinary student

A secondary plotline develops when the scene shifts to Andrei (Nikita Tezin), a lanky young man, disembarking from a chauffeured car, awed by the size of the new home his father has built—“it is a castle, not a house.” Indeed, the home is a multi-balconied villa overlooking picturesque countryside, complete with a staff of caretakers and a uniformed maid. The young man is ill at ease with this opulence and with his father, Grigorii Zhilov (Aleksandr Feklistov), the vice-mayor. Throughout their visit, Andrei repeatedly declines offers to work for his father, explaining instead that he is committed to his work as a lawyer in Moscow.

While the conflict between Terekhov and Zhilov escalates, another plotline emerges: Andrei and Masha are in love and have returned to Kurkul’ to inform their parents of their plans for marriage. Upon learning of the impending marriage, both fathers are adamantly opposed to the union. A final narrative thread depicts Terekhov’s son Kirill (Danil Steklov) engrossed in a conflict with workers on the farm—these scenes are underdeveloped and serve the sole purpose of creating context for future dramatic events that will advance the plot.

kurkulTerekhov’s frequent attempts to reason with the government, or at least get clear answers about the legal justification for the property seizure, break little new ground in terms of depicting the struggle between the average Russian and the bureaucracy, yet effectively justify the farmer’s increasingly aggressive methods of procuring information and challenging the government overreach. The audience can also easily sympathize with the incredulity and confusion of being told you lack the right to land when you are in possession of no less than a dozen official documents indicating otherwise. After again dismissing Terekhov’s documents as invalid, the vice-mayor’s assistant informs him that he is generously entitled to thirty percent of the land’s value. Angered, Terekhov lashes out, confronting Zhilov on the steps of the government building. He is immediately hauled away to the police station.

For the remainder of the film the viewer toggles between Terekhov’s increasingly aggressive confrontations with Zhilov, the vice-mayors attempts at silencing him, and the actions of the younger generation to prevent the land seizure. Despite his father’s corruption, Andrei proves to be an idealistic young lawyer, committed to the rule of law and protecting his future father-in-law’s farm. After hearing Terekhov’s explanation that he took over the land from his family in the 1990s after he was going unpaid in his job at a university, Andrei somberly notes that “the nineties were very difficult”—a message clearly gleaned more from history books than lived experience. Empathy builds throughout the film when Zhilov’s lawyer also advises the vice-mayor that the land is indisputably Terekhov’s and that he should walk away from his threats. Reinforcing the film’s message that the rule of law works and that law enforcement is incorruptible, the police chief rejects the vice-mayor’s demands that he deal harshly with Terekhov and instead makes him pay only a small fine. The only person siding with Zhilov is a sycophantic assistant who seems intent on indulging his boss’ whims and bullying would-be buyers of Terekhov’s milk to either drop the price they are willing to pay or reject the milk outright.

The stalemate between the two men is broken when fate intervenes in the form an argument between Terekhov’s son and a farm hand, resulting in a fire and accidental death of the worker. Kirill is arrested and Zhilov uses his release from prison as a bargaining chip, promising to release the young man if Terekhov turns over his land. Terekhov signs the papers only to be blindsided when Zhilov goes back on his promise and leaves Kirill in jail. This is the last straw for the dairy farmer who, in a scene reminiscent of the Brother films, saws off a shotgun and decides to take justice into his own hands. The audience returns to the opening scene of the film, with Terekhov holding Zhilov hostage at gunpoint in his dacha.

kurkulThe final ten minutes of the film are perhaps the most interesting, offering revealing dialogue between Terekhov and Zhilov, an indictment of corrupt officials, and a resolution to the conflict rooted in the rule of law. This recalls the scene in Brother 2 in which Danila confronts the corrupt American businessman, demanding an answer to the question of where power lies (“v chem sila”). For Danila, the answer, “in the truth” (“v pravde”), serves as his guiding heroic mantra. While holding the vice-mayor captive at gun point, Terekhov challenges Zhilov with questions about the root of power and the law. Zhilov tells him, “I am power, I am the law,” while Terekhov, referring to the gun shoved the vice-mayor’s face notes, “here is the power…it is here in my hands.” Ultimately, both men are wrong as the answer once again proves to be “v pravde.” The standoff ends when Masha and Andrei sprint to the scene waving a document that offers indisputable proof that Terekhov is, in fact, the rightful owner of his farm. The allusion to Brat illustrates that the type of strong-arm politics/resistance adopted by Zhilov and Terekhov that dominated the 1990s has no place in modern Russia, but that the belief in truth as the ultimate defender against corruption is still a heroic, prevailing value of the country.

The resolution of the film delivers a distinctly rosier and more optimistic portrayal of Russian government corruption than is put forth in Zviagintsev’s film or is heard in the voices of protestors ringing throughout the country demanding government transparency and accountability. In his review of Leviathan, Julian Graffy describes the film as a portrayal of the symbiotic and corrupt relationship between civic authority, police and the judicial system. Kurkul counters that narrative by casting the police and judiciary as independent, moral authorities willing to stand up to the corrupt provincial mayor, insisting that the rule of law prevails. If in Leviathan the young lawyer from the capital is sucked into the local chaos, this film illustrates the victory of idealism as Andrei saves the day, restores order in the unruly provinces and lives happily ever after with Masha. Kurkul’s made-for-television simplicity, mediocre acting and saccharine optimism might well deliver a message of hope to the millions of viewers engaged in their own local battles with bureaucracy, but it lacks grounding in a well-worn reality which very rarely allows justice for the average Russian to prevail over those entrenched in power.

Emily Schuckman-Matthews
San Diego State University

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Works Cited

Graffy, Julian. 2015. “Leviathan,” KinoKultura 48.

Kurkul, Russia, 2016
NTV, 2 series at 50 minutes
Director: Ekaterina Shagalova
Screenplay: Leonid Mazor, Aleksei Bezenkov
DoP: Aleksandr Demidov
Production Design: Igor’ Shirokov
Composers: Igor’ Krestovskii, Velimir Rusakov
Cast: Aleksandr Feklistov, Aleksei Kravchenko, Nataliia Vdovina, Anastasiia Shumilkina, Danil Steklov, Nikita Tezin,
Producer: Nelli Iaralova

Ekaterina Shagalova: Kurkul (Kurkul’, 2016)

reviewed by Emily Schuckman Matthews© 2017

Updated: 2017