KinoKultura: Issue 59 (2018)

Short Films 2017: Homo Ludens, Memory, Oil and Milk

By Lilya Nemchenko

A number of festivals have taken place between June and December 2017 which specifically present short films: first, over three days in June the Shorts Competition of Kinotavr showed 28 films; second, in August the Kaliningrad short film festival with the sonorous name “Koroche” (“Shorter”) presented 38 fiction films; and third, in December the International Festival and Workshop for Film-Schools “Kinoproba” in Yekaterinburg included 102 short films in the competition in best animation, documentary and fiction films.

lalai-balalaiFor a long time it has been the case that films which started their path on the coast of the Black Sea (at Kinotavr) would later meet on the Baltic shore (at Koroche). There was no exception here this year. The comedy Lalai-Balalai by Ruslan Bratov, which won the prize for Best Short at Kinotavr, had this status confirmed in Kaliningrad. The priority genre of both festivals was comedy, a genre which, by definition, assumes an unexpected collision of contrasts, a mode of “familiar affinity,” opening up new perspectives. The perspective offered by Bratov and his scriptwriter and producer Grigorii Dobrygin first unfolds the picture of the adventures of some drunken men, about whom Friedrich Nietzsche remarked: “In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.” In the film, this natural desire is satisfied on the carousel, which can, however, not be easily stopped: this requires literally a sacrificial feat of the boss, Oleg Maratovich (Evgenii Sytyi). Along the concise sketches of the intoxicated men and their corresponding behavior gradually emerges a metaphorical meaning of the event: the image of improbable expense for an unproductive activity, the discrepancy of the aim and the means of the achievement, and most important, the endless and vain efforts to stop the carousel. The film’s finale leaves no hope that the absurd circulation might end: “sonny” asks “mummy”—Iana Troianiva’s heroine: “I want to play like these uncles.” Mum replies with a metal voice: “You’ll grow up to be a man, and then you play!” This confidently optimistic answer is absurd, ridiculous and terrible all at once: “The show must go on!”

molokoDar’ia Vlasova’s absurdist drama with tragicomic elements entitled Milk (Moloko), which was awarded at Kinotavr the award of the Guild of Film Scholars and Critics, also received a prize by the company Yandex Taxi at Koroche. The stylish and witty film had already been shown at the Berlinale 2017 in the Generation section. In the apartment of a family, located on the 14th floor, a cow suddenly appears. The cow becomes a mediator for family conversations, forcing everyone to talk of their secret wish: the children want a dog, the mum wants to sing, and the grandfather outs himself as spy. Vlasova beautifully works with advertising images: a newspaper for dad; intellectual glasses for the boy; shoes instead of slippers for mum as a sign of the contemporary housewife. The surprise caused by the appearance of the cow is quickly replaced by a rather functional use of the animal in the huge, minimalistically designed kitchen, a place for family gatherings. The family members begin to dry towels on the cow’s horns or lean against it; most importantly: the cow does not produce any excrement. The growing affection of the children and parents for the cow is interrupted when the grandfather fires a shot: a former security officer (chekist), he puts order into the house. At then film’s end, when the whole family amicably consume the animal, the voice of the boy narrating about love and the first discovery of death can be heard. This voice reminds us of the boy from Andrei Platonov’s shot story “The Cow” (“Korova”), only the story is about irreplaceable loss—unexpected, alive and bleeding, while the boy from Vlasova’s film stoically accepts the cow’s death without surprise; then this stoicism turns to judicious indifference, and love turns into the recollection of the meat that has been eaten.

molokoAt the beginning of the last century the artist Fernand Leger confirmed: “The mistake in painting is the plot. The mistake of cinema is the script.” None of the authors of the short films subscribed to that avant-garde tradition by producing a piece of plot-less cinema. On the contrary, they invented stories and, paraphrasing Leger, one could say: “The mistake of cinema is a weak script.” The weakness of the script is a common phrase for short film programs, and it is especially annoying when authors cannot handle the realities of life that they discover. So, the brilliant beginning of Leonid Rybakov’s film Gods of Oil (Bogi nefti) from Kinotavr fails to reach a distinct culmination. The film represents the national mythologem of believing in miracles. This miracle is oil, which the protagonist celebrates. Gods of Oil is a variant of a social mythology; it is mythologisation of hydrocarbons in Russia. At the center of the mythological picture of the world is not man, not the spirit, not the economy, but the pipeline. The film starts with a close-up of the valve of a pipeline. The protagonist (Timofei Tribuntsev), a sharp-witted rural man who has no name, knows about oil. For a third of the film he is alone on the screen, talking to invisible interlocutors, checking the secret of the resource, and calling the pipeline either Mother or Wet Nurse. Tribuntsev’s hero offers a simple syllogism: “Oil is given to the people by god; take it, give it away, and then you also become god.” The main thing is to find a pipeline and steal the oil. Curiously, in archaic mythology theft was legitimate only in someone else’s territory; in Rybakov’s film such territory is the whole of Russia, vast and owner-less.

The only film of the Kinotavr program concerning issues of the individual, freedom of choice, the attitude to authority, and the strategy of nonconformist behavior, is the film How I Shed my Skin (Kak ia sbrosil kozhu) by Aleksei Shabarov, produced by Andrei Konchalovskii’s film company, which was recognized as Best Director’s work at the festival Koroche.

ia sbrosil kozhaThe story begins with a mother who brings her 14-year-old son Daniil to a swimming pool for a trial training session. Daniil is behind for his age and cannot swim. From the first frame the mother’s intonations draw attention when she signs the documents, but so does the voice of the manager who checks the paperwork. The mother’s tone is searching and begging, while the manager sounds lazy and suspicious. The worn metal doors of the locker-room by the pool are as familiar as the cold and neglected shower-room, and the police vocabulary of the trainer, who places all verbs in the imperative

In the first episode, when filling in the questionnaire, the mother’s strategic final instruction is: “Don’t pay attention.” With an emphasis on gender stereotypes, she will repeat after the first training session: “He shouts, because he’s a man. He’s a man, you’re a man… you simply don’t pay attention, you stubbornly get on with the job…” Three training sessions are required for the protagonist to rise against the trainer—a classical sample of the tyrant-sadist, enjoying authority over the boys by using camp methods to direct the collective. At the first session he receives the nickname “Granny;” at the second he witnesses the finesse of totalitarian pedagogy when the trainer threatens the smallest in the group with the nickname “Cap” that if he hits the wall once again, the whole group has to swim 20 lengths with their hands behind the back (a familiar prison/camp rhetoric). The next frame shows the whole group floating with their hands behind the back; then we see the boys’ punishment of the culprit, or rather the results of that punishment. Daniil, who comes into the shower room last, cannot open his locker and calls the security guard; when the guard opens the locker, the beaten-up boy is sitting inside. The third training session is final one: the protagonist leaves the pool, having accidentally thrown the trainer in the water; he goes quietly to the locker room. A real man, the trainer runs after the teenager, whipping him with a wet towel and shouting: “You’ve probably never been flogged as a child;” when the boy retaliates, he goes to the floor. The following panning shot shows the trainer in a pool of blood, while the teenager calmly gets dressed. But then the small boy (Cap)—earlier the victim of humiliations from the group and the trainer—jumps on the trainer and starts to trample him down, in step repeating the trainer’s favorite phrases: “Get up! Count one-two! Into the water, toads, into the water! You’ve come to sleep here? What’s hurting you? Leave everything that hurts at home!” The monstrosity of the scene leaves an ambiguous ending. On the one hand, before us we have the exact reproduction of the teacher’s violence; on the other hand, violence carries the function of reanimation. The child (the victim), joyfully jumping practically on a corpse, thus reanimates his torturer. The circle comes to a close. It is impossible to remain in this closed space, and the protagonist’s departure is the only true solution. Sometimes one may not obey mother.

Shabarov’s film raises a very important issue for the modern Russian spectator: the ability to resist authority. Thus the film balances between the reality of a concise material texture (the closed space of the pool) and the abstract model of the relationship between trainer and collective, between executioner and victim. The genre framework of the film is blurred: it is neither parable nor social drama, but also no teenage film.

penelopeThe festival Kinoproba, held in Yekaterinburg for the 14th time in December, showed not only Russian but also foreign debut shorts. If at Kinotavr and Koroche the awarded films were comedies, then at Kinoproba the comedy genre dominated only in animation. The brilliantly witty version of Odyssey’s return by the student of the Estonian Academy of Arts Heta Jäälinoja received the prize for Best Student Animation. Her film Penelope is a female story for all times, because it is not so much about expectation as about the unexpectedness of a meeting, about the incredible female energy of transformation, about the capacity to do several things simultaneously. Penelope, who inhabits a messy apartment where the cobwebs have already become part of the interior, is woken by a call. The sleepy Penelope instantly changes the tempo from lento to presto: she tidies the apartment and pays attention to her own appearance. Iaalinoja effectively works with objects, just as Buster Keaton once did: a vacuum cleaner, a brush, a cloth—all this masterly serves for cleaning the apartment, cleaning teeth, drying hair. The director perfectly masters details: the hole that Penelope finds in her only stockings disappears under a toe, and just at that point the door opens; before her stands a barefooted, filthy Odyssey…

One key theme of debut cinema, strangely enough, is the theme of memory. Maksim Kulikov’s best animation debut Button (Knopka) concerns the memoirs of an adult man, a bachelor who sits in front of a computer monitor. Accidentally he has come across a school note, and we are taken to the school class with a girl who was given a fish. The author tries to fill in the missing things, the challenging words of the poet “do not return to an old love,” and although the poet was, of course, right, the journey to Leningrad Street became an important moment in the life of the computer technician, completing a feat at last.

cubeA journey into the past is undertaken by the heroine of the Kazakh debut film by Maksim Kodarov, The Cube (Kub), which received the main prize of Kinoproba’s student jury. Two real spaces—the space of a musical school with entrance stairs, wide corridors and spacious classrooms; and the space of the school cleaner’s small apartment are united in the memory space of the winner of the International Competition of Violinists in 1976. Kodarov does not explain why the heroine’s destiny changed so sharply, but this is unnecessary; in this film the facts are not important, but mood and intonation. The basic event is the cleaner’s advice to the beginning violinist to tighten a string. The elderly woman, looking around, confused, struggling with the desire to take the instrument in her hands, wiping her hands on the jacket, helps the boy play a set tune and then returns to her bucket with water. The muddy water in the bucket is a prelude to future memories, the reality of which you trust without any explanations and proofs.

The inhabitants of the Republican Psycho-Neurological Hospital in Abkhazia live with memories about war and peace; they are the heroes of the documentary Monologue by Otto Lakobi, a student of School of Documentary Cinema and Theatre of Marina Razbezhkina and Mikhail Ugarov, which received the jury diploma for camerawork. The film reveals a profound respect for the heroes and their liminal conditions, facilitating an approach to true human existence.

The skill to capture an original, authentic existence distinguishes the films of he students from Razbezhkina’s school. Another competition winner is Anna Bedinska with the film In Another World (V drugom mire), which was named Best Student Documentary. The author, and the viewer with her, witness a dramatic choice for a young woman, mother of two teenagers, when she learns that her third child will be born with Down Syndrome. Razbezhkina once said that she does not allow her students to invent metaphors, but that metaphors should be born from the material. In Bedinska’s film the tubes of the medical equipment that check the fetus’s heartbeat remind of the umbilical cord connecting two worlds: the cozy maternal world and big unknown world. For the arrival in that big world only the parents are responsible.

malenskii poezdThere are films where the stylized circumstances and events do not prevent the rendering of authentic experiences and when the magic feeling emerges that the pioneers of cinema dreamt about. Tamara Dondurei, who received the debut prize for The Little Train (Malen’kii poezd), possesses that secret of the old masters. The heroes are a strange family: the mother is French, the father Russian, and the six-year-old boy does not speak any language. With documentary accuracy (Dondurei is also a past graduate of Razbezhkina’s school) the film shows the classical behavior of an autistic child, incapable of entering into communication. Of course, before us is not a textbook on the treatment of autism, although we see sessions of the psychologist with the boy. What matters in the film is the inability to make out, to see and hear the own child: the inability to look into oneself; the pitfall of stereotypes (“there is help abroad”); and the unwillingness for genuine and sincere work.

The Grand Prix of Kinoproba went to Mariia Sediaeva’s film Tanya, a four-minute film which combined documentary cinema and animation. It is also a cinematic memoir, where the real heroine gets on a plane and cries, since she does not know how to live; she leaves for the Czech Republic and finds that she can actually live. Sediaeva’s film, with its narrative frame of departure and arrival, is about the boldness of an act, about risk and uncertainty.

Short films are a space of freedom, not only in the detection of new meanings, but also in the new interpretation of old themes, in the discovery of a new language. All this demands boldness that is not always comfortable.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Lilya Nemchenko
Yekaterinburg, Ural Federal State University

Lilya Nemchenko © 2018

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Updated: 2018