KinoKultura: Issue 61 (2018)

Watching Experiences: Kinotavr 2018

By Birgit Beumers

This year’s edition of Kinotavr ran a day longer than usual (2-10 June), in an unusually sunny Sochi that seemed to be gearing up to the FIFA World Cup by keeping the football pitch at the Fisht arena dry and rain-free. The festival presented its usual feature and short film competitions, as well as the program “on the square,” but returned, after a long pause, the debut competition, which last ran in 2002. The revival of this debut competition is certainly a good thing in principle and an indication of the industry’s and state’s support of young filmmakers. Whether this year’s crop of 58 debuts merits such a separate program qualitatively, and not just quantitatively, is another question, and one for debate. The fact that the Ministry of Culture of the RF has supported 40 young filmmakers’ projects over the last two years, and seven of the eight debuts in competition, is laudable and noteworthy in itself, as Sitora Alieva astutely highlights in the catalog. Overall, none of the three competitions have left a profound impression on this (re)viewer, reflecting an overall drop in standards of auteur cinema that does not align with the international film scene and is maybe indicative of other issues. There is no doubt in my mind that the festival has brought together the best films, so this may well be symptomatic of another “crisis.”

Sketching in the short form

Let us begin with the shorts rather than end with them and pay them their due respect: after all, it is here that we look for new names and voices in the film scene. This year Kinotavr. Shorts included films from a vast range of old and new film schools, some positioning themselves as alternatives to the state film schools and thereby attracting attention potentially from a more liberal, anti-establishment audience and clientele. By that, I mean not so much a political opposition but one to the administrative demands that seem to cripple state-run higher education institutions (and not only in Russia). With this comes an emphasis in such areas as theater, film and media subjects less on history and theory, and more on the vocational aspect. This appears to suggest that background knowledge is less important for the creative professions, and consequently that future filmmakers do not need to know of Eisenstein, Kuleshov, Hitchcock and Godard to qualify as filmmakers and go ahead to discover America again, or more precisely Hollywood—the prime destination of a large number of film school students, at least in their VR worlds. This is an exaggeration, of course. Or maybe not? It would not be surprising, then, that a certain lack of depth is one of the symptoms that come with the above diagnosis which we can detect in many of the shorts presented this year; once again, I repeat: this is no criticism of the selection, but an attempt to analyze the state of the art.

First, let us make a short note on the representation of various film schools. The Film Institute VGIK, the Moscow Film School (School of Cinema), and the S. Bondarchuk Russian Film School “Industriya” presented four to five films each and were most present in the selection. Moreover, there were two films each from the State University of Cinema and TV (GUKiT) in St Petersburg, the Higher Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors, and from the Wordshop Academy for Communication. From the awards (see below), it would appear that the Moscow Film School has produced the most cutting-edge (and successful) graduates.

kinotavrSecond, the above-mentioned lack of depth was reflected in numerous “plots,” which resembled more extended jokes and anecdotes, or sketches, than short films. Funny they were, yes; they certainly made the audience laugh. But whether this is the stuff from which a future director of a feature film will emerge—I seriously doubt that. One such example would be Nina Pritula’s Headless (Bezgolovye), a film about a day in an office, shot without the heads of the characters. Maybe that is original, but not quite enough for a 15-minute film. There were more entertaining sketches under the guise of short film also: Aleksei Kharitonov’s The Bribe (Vziatka) is a chamber film, building on the slapstick effect of repetitive bribery in a police station, from the accused to the police officer, to the tax police and to Federal Security. The director manages to stop himself just before he gets to the very top, it seems… Good Bye, My Love, Good Bye!, created jointly by scriptwriter Aleksandr Tsypkin, actress Kseniia Rappoport, and cinematographer Pavel Kapinos, relies almost exclusively on the performance of the brilliant Rappoport as a wife being left by her husband, filmed in a room of an apartment. Facing the camera and apparently rehearsing her farewell monologue, she eventually pulls a stool away from under her husband’s feet. Evgheni Dudceac’s Milliard (Billion) is visually more enticing. The sketch focuses on an old man who lives on a remote area and has an outside toilet. After a lightning strike, the toilet cubicle becomes a tele-transporter to any destination that he identifies in the local newspaper. One day, he gets tele-transported to the US gold reserve; however, when loading his cargo onto the old wooden cabin, there is a some issue with excess weight. A funny, original and visually appealing little film, not least thanks to the beautiful performance of Mihai Curagău in his last role before he sadly passed away in December 2016.

kinotavrThe series of jokes did not quite end there: a little more extended in their storylines, but still based on pranks that catapult characters into situations where they behave inadequately are such films as Igor’ Marchenko’s The Hand (Ruka), where a man severs his hand in a work accident and has it stitched on the wrong way round by some country quack; yet from here on, the story turns into a love triangle, thus somewhat muddling genres. Likewise, Nikita Levin’s Promotion (Chelovek po aktsii) is also an anecdote of a man fixated on collecting bonus points at a supermarket, but also a love story. Vitalii Dudnik’s The Prank (Rozygrysh) is a little more ambitious in its engagement with mixing the real and virtual worlds, but also veers from a relationship drama to a horror story when a staged attack ends in real murder. Ivan Petukhov’s No (Net) is a relationship drama that stays within its genre: a young man makes a proposal to his beloved in a luxurious restaurant, but she declines and they begin to revisit their relationship again. When they leave the restaurant at the end, he accompanies her to a taxi—and cleverly the director refrains from a concluding scene here, leaving open their future. Dmitrii Korsakov’s Fish Day (Rybnyi den’) is also a sketch, but one that is elegantly told, combining old footage with surreal images of fish floating in the car as three men set off on a fishing trip, while one of them has turned into a fish. Tat’iana Polosina’s Truth (Pravda) also falls into the category of jokes: a couple is sexually aroused only once the light is switched off; when that “trick” does not work, disaster ensues…. All these films are sketches, dependent on the acting and only rarely on the setting—not the stuff that exactly reveals the talent of directing.

kinotavrThere were more developed visual narratives also. Vlada Makeichik’s Casting is less of a sketch, but also rather raw material. She shows a mother and her daughter in a casting session. Obviously the girl does not want to be an actress and freezes; then she runs away. While the girl’s mute performance is very impressive, the motivation of and relationship with her mother are not explored. Natalia Kalenova’s Window (Okno) has a more original and touching plot, but rather long-winded: we follow two lads, one of whom has rented his flat to an old man for a few hours—and they think it’s for a romantic purpose; however, the old man merely watches his grandchild through the window, as he has no access to the child.

The competition also included two essay films: actor Petr Fedorov’s Electric Current (Elektricheskii tok), based on the poetry of Zinaida Gippius; and Tamara Dondurei’s very fine New Moscow (Novaia Moskva), where she sets footage of the new Moscow cityscape to the conversations of older people recorded in kitchens and cafes, juxtaposing their interiors with the quite different architectural style, thus revealing the displacement in time (and space) of the old Moscow life.

kinotavrAnna Dezhurko’s Road Accident (DTP) shows the hand of her master, Vadim Abdrashitov. She develops a story, confronting the protagonist with a choice she has to make: it is a choice of defending and protecting from police prosecution a migrant worker she has knocked over, or losing her driving license for careless driving. Dezhurko moves the camera from inside the car, where the police officer has joined the driver to make his case, to shots that capture her being entrapped in the vehicle, and to the physical action (the other policeman offloads the gastarbeiter’s cargo of apples into the police vehicle’s boot) on the roadside. Dezhurko’s work clearly shows her potential to develop a story and tell it visually. Anna Kuznetsova’s 628 is also a more developed story, cinematically and structurally, as she portrays teenage rivalry and jealousy in a dorm, when suddenly the secret wish of one of the room-mates comes true—with fatal consequences in real life. Kuznetsova subtly and accurately captures the atmosphere in room 628 in an almost documentary approach.  

kinotavrWithout any doubt the two films that had previously screened at Cannes—Igor’ Poplaukhin’s Calendar (Kalendar’), which won joint second prize in the Cinefondation, and Mikhail Borodin’s Normal (Ia normalyi) which participated in the Critics’ Week short competition—were of a different caliber altogether. Normal is a fine and sensitive portrayal of a young man torn between his provincial background with a life programmed to follow in the parents’ footsteps and the perspective of moving on and up, as has the intellectual potential to go further, and away from his hometown doomed by petty crime. The social and geographical framework of the film reproduces clichés of backward provincial life and worldviews; and yet it raises an uncomfortable question about education, about initiative and the desire for knowledge, which would, and could, disrupt such a status quo. The film concludes on the unflattering note: no one needs knowledge, no one wants change, no one should try to advance, socially and intellectually. It is clear, then, why this film would be included in an international critics’ week, but go unrewarded and unnoticed in its home country.

kinotavrCalendar is a more complicated film, and one where the viewer is left somewhat puzzled at what actually happens. The film traces the journey—in secret from her family and her workplace—of a woman to a prison, where she visits a prisoner. At the entrance she claims her name has been mispronounced by the guard who calls up the visitors—is she pretending to visit, and who is she hoping to visit in the first place? When she is in the room with the prisoner, she calls out: “It’s not him,” but proceeds with the visit, including satisfying the inmate’s sexual expectations. She turns herself into a victim—but for whom? She never says who she visits; she makes these visits regularly, according to a calendar, and in the prison she claims she has not been there for three months. When she returns home, she finds her son playing a VR computer game, and with the goggles she flies across Rome; but we see the prison she has visited, in the middle of nowhere, from a bird’s eye view. The film raises, rather than answers questions about the separation of life and reality. It is this ability to destabilize the viewer and suggest over and over again new possibilities of reading that makes this film an outstanding achievement. In the end, what matters is that we ask ourselves questions.

Debuts: Heights and depths

In the debut competition there were three participants of previous Kinotavr. Shorts competitions: Timofei Zhalnin with Twain (Dvoe), who had won the shorts competition in 2013 with F5; Anton Kolomeets with The Tutor (Vash repetitor), who participated with Tonya is Crying on the Lovers’ Bridge (Tonia plachet na mostu vliublennykh) in 2014; and Igor’ Kagramanov, who showed the short Inside the Box (Vse v iashchik) in 2016 and debuted this year with Let’s Call her Liza (Pust’ budet Liza). All these three films made for interesting viewing, highlighting the directors’ talent and the potential for their future development.

kinotavrZhalnin’s is the most promising of this set of debuts and is produced by Artlight Film, a company that has, jointly with Invada Film, four films in the debut and main competition this year, demonstrating a clear commitment to young and established talent in art-house cinema. The story (Zhalnin’s original script) unfolds thanks to the extremes of the taiga, where the film was shot. He places a young couple, Andrei and Nadia, into extreme circumstances as they try to revive their love. He uses flashback to explain why the characters have come here, what relationship existed between them and what they have lost. The flashbacks compensate for in-depth psychology, creating a back-story and adding depth to the characters. However, the characters’ actions remain unrealistic and unbelievable in places. Visually, the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Anna Rozhetskaia (if we were looking for women in the film industry—here is a name to remember) and the power of nature is captured impressively. Your Tutor very much relies on the amazing and subtle performance of Natal’ia Vdovina as the teacher who falls for her pupil. Produced by Valerii Todorovskii, this is a well-made film, even if occasionally the teacher’s behavior remains questionable, because it stands in such a sharp contrast to her stern and unshakable façade that it may require a more convincing opposite number to explain the break. Kagramanov’s debut film veers between several complicated plot lines: the relationship between Katia (Elena Makhova) and her husband, and their wish for a child; the relationship between Katia and her mother (played by Natal’ia Pavlenkova); and the relationship between Katia and her brother, especially after the mother decides to leave her country house to the son. On top of this (already confused set of relationships) the director seems unable to decide whether he focuses on Katia’s inability to conceive or her wish to kill the mother, where in fact the two desires are (at least psychologically) interrelated. From there ensures also the question of the film’s genre, between drama and crime story, between tragedy and comedy, that remain also unresolved.

kinotavrThe potential for innovation is not easy to spot in the work of the female debutants with a background in the professional sphere of cinema: the actress Ol’ga Zueva with In the Hood (Na raione), starring her partner Danila Kozlovskii and aimed at a youth fan community; and the scriptwriter Natal’ia Pershina with Dead Swallows (Mertvye lastochki), presenting a good script in an impossible realization with quite awful casting choices, where the protagonists are literally and metaphorically lost in the woods. Moreover, the previous cinematic experience of Mikhail Kukushkin as producer does not appear to help him with his own directorial debut, The Gift (Dar), about a worker who discovers his skill at urinal painting. No misprint, no grammatical error (one of the most common mistakes of students of Russian, conjugating the verb pisat’/to write as on pisaet/he pisses instead of on pishet): he draws in the snow while urinating (and not that we ever get to see one of his works). There is enough here for a sketch, a short film, but the script leaves a lot to be desired for a full-length film. As a producer, Kukushkin should know better, but my (rather vague) recollections of both his films as producer, Into Smithereens (V drebezgi, 2011) and Dead Lucky (Mertvym povezlo, 2017), are limited to the “chewing gum effect:” drawn-out plots where the humor (or, in the latter case, horror) is lost in the length.

kinotavrThat leaves two films from the debut competition for the serious consideration of the viewer—and of the jury, presided over by Andrei Plakhov, and composed of actress Ravshana Kurkova, festival selector Nikolai Nikitin, filmmaker Andrei Proshkin, and cameraman Mikhail Khasaya: the debut of the actor and documentary filmmaker Aleksandr Gorchilin, who is well known for his stage work at the Gogol Center and film roles in Kirill Serebrennikov’s screen work, and whose Acid (Kislota) took the shared first prize in this competition; and the professional debut by the graduate of Aleksandr Sokurov’s course in Nal’chik, Vladimir Bitokov’s Deep Rivers (Glubokie reki). After graduation from Sokurov’s workshop Bitokov worked at Kabardian television, an experience that has certainly helped with his professionally developed script, but also in the precise but scarce use of ethnic traditions that are embedded more in the way of life and the characters than they are highlighted in the plot. His film, made in the Kabardinian language, presents an exotic and at the same time basic setting that determines the characters’ actions: the remote mountain areas of the North Caucasus. His film works on most simple juxtapositions to create the conflict in a subtle manner, without lapsing into the cliché of backward life vs. modern civilization: the “other” is at the same time “our own,” a family member who returns to the world beyond the mountain village; the age-old conflict over land ownership and the ensuing jealousy of the poor against the rich; and the juxtaposition of man and nature, which ultimately gives and takes. Gorchilin’s film, by contrast, is an urban story (scripted by Valerii Pecheikin) about the meaninglessness of life for the young generation, filmed in a documentary style and showing the destructiveness of words more than substances or actions. The film offers a fine portrayal of the young generation and Gorchilin’s is a name to remember as filmmaker as well as actor.

The Competition: On the Edge

I shall begin with the opening film as a bookmark: Kirill Serebrennikov’s Summer, which is double-viewed in this issue—so I will not go into depth, especially seeing that I have written about the film in depth elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, having seen the deserving, worthy, fascinating and rich competition program, Summer is without doubt a film of a different class—not in the sense of better or worse, just different. It is a film that is capable, without a narrative that revolves around a dramatic conflict, of capturing and designating precisely the spirit of today’s Russia by marking its differences in the seeming parallels to the generation of the (pre)-perestroika era—that generation which did not quite believe in the power of art to change things for real, but created, as opposed to today’s generation that appears to have surrendered—not in terms of verbal protests and actionism, but in terms of the creative impulse—subordinating to the mainstream.

kinotavrThe competition included twelve films, from filmmakers of the older generation to established and younger, and—following the now standard statistics—representing women with a quarter of its program (3 women, 9 men). Standing apart in the selection is Alexei Fedorchenko with Anna’s War (Voina Anny), which had previously screened in Rotterdam and was sadly undervalued at Kinotavr—but then it is a film that is hard to compare with anything. With a steadfast camera, Alisher Khamidkhodjaev follows over 75 minutes the six-year-old Anna (Marta Kozlova) as she digs herself out of a mass grave where the Germans have hastily buried the bodies of the inhabitants of the village following a mass execution that Anna has survived. She seeks shelter where people live, only to realize that these people may feed and clothe her, but in fear of the occupying German army and the Ukrainian collaborators, who have already usurped the school building for their headquarters, plan to turn her in. And she runs again, into that very same school building, where she hides in a dysfunctional chimney. There we watch her skilful and cruel attempts at developing a survival strategy; and her attempt—as far as possible—to understand who is friend and who is enemy. The amazing performance of the eight-year-old Marta Kozlova is mindboggling and truly deserving of the Best Actress award, but then the professional adult actresses would probably have been upset, so instead she received a special jury prize.

Another film that stands outside the common themes and sites of the competition films, only for different reasons and to the negative end, is Mikhail Raskhodnikov’s Temporary Difficulties (Vremennye trudnosti). This is his second film, following his debut in 2016 with Elastic (Elastiko), and it is professionally made and told. However, the story—apparently based on real events and the life of a certain Arkadii Tsuker (Raskhodnikov in Kinotavr Daily #2: 4)—sends all the “wrong” messages, at least for the European market, which would hardly work in terms of the representation of disabilities. Sasha is born with cerebral palsy following an undersupply with oxygen during the birth. First problem: the fact that it is a worker’s wife who suffers from lack of care at the hospital appears to lay the blame for the disability at the feet of society and not at a genetic disorder. The father then chooses to ignore the physical disabilities that come with cerebral palsy; instead of offering Sasha support where possible, he forces his son to behave as if he had no disabilities, arguing that only that way he will grow strong. Second problem: the strategy is successful, and the bright but physically handicapped boy grows into a top business consultant, following the fairy tale model. And here comes the third problem, this time doubled: first, the fairy-tale component is not developed; and second, the film appears to suggest that there are no disabilities that require special support, but that everybody should be treated as “normal,” without anyone (including this reviewer) wishing to attempt to explain what normality might consist of. Such an ignorant perspective, seriously (?) suggesting that cerebral palsy is curable by pure willpower, is an insult to all those parents who support and help their children, and to the children themselves. It suggests that there are no disabilities in the post-Soviet universe, in a society where everybody is born perfect, successful and handsome—and if not, they must work it out themselves. The ultimate slap in the face comes when you look at the name of the production company: Enjoy Films. Sorry.

The age-old conflict of generations

kinotavrIt seems that the topic is timeless. And it is somewhat ironic that the films dealing with the generational issue come from filmmakers of in their mid-life crisis (indeed, they are all 54 years old!), whose professional skills are certainly not waning, as we see in Sergei Livnev’s Van Goghs (Van Gogi). Livnev has returned to filmmaking after a break of over twenty years, following his “post-modern” Kiks (1991) and Hammer and Sickle (Serp i molot, 1994), and a short period (1995–98) as head of the Gorky Film Studio and initiator of the low-budget project that catapulted forward a number of young talents, including Nikolai Lebedev with Snake Spring (Zmeinyi istochnik, 1997) or Valerii Todorovskii’s Land of the Deaf (Strana glukhikh, 1998). In this film, he poses the question of a conflict of generations through the relationship between a father, a famous conductor played by Daniel Olbrychski, and his son, a visual artist who has emigrated, played by Aleksei Serebriakov. It is above all their exquisite acting that turns this film into a profound exploration of relationships, but also of the impact of fame, of expectations, and of family secrets. Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Two Tickets Home (Dva bileta domoi) somewhat lacks that strong actors’ duo, relying on Sergei Garmash’s fine acting skills that are paired with a rather superficial and flat performance of Maria Skuratova, hitherto known only for her work in television serials. She plays the orphaned high-school leaver Liuba, who learns during her graduation that she has a father (Garmash), who is in prison. This exposition promises a terrific plot development, which soon gets bogged down in repetitive and repeated attempts at cornering a man who later turns out not to be her father after all. The film may raise issues of the need for a family, but that theme drifts into the background as we are forced to follow Liuba’s obsessive search, which is drawn out unnecessarily and gets her into impossible situations, as she appears to be permanently threatened by sexual exploitation—from her boyfriend, her schoolmate, her father, and some criminals on the road. The story strays so much and to so many different sides, including the melodramatic, that the film is ultimately undecided on what story it wants to tell. The third film in this group of middle-aged filmmakers, which is also about a mid-fifties’ filmmaker, is Aleksandr Gordon’s Uncle Sasha (Diadia Sasha). Despite a cast that includes Anna Sliu, Sergei Puskepalis, Nikita Efremov and Gordon himself, the film does not really go beyond an etude about the creative process before veering off into a most common story of adultery.  

Aberrations: psychos and alkies

kinotavrSeveral filmmakers focused on protagonists who live on the edge, on the margin of society. Grigorii Konstantinopolskii’s Russian Psycho (Russkii bes) is an example in case, awarded with the prize for Best Directing—even if one might wish to dispute what constitutes best direction here (and especially in comparison, say, to Fedorchenko)… The film certainly has a quirky set of characters, a fragmented structure, and an absurd plot, but whether that makes for the art of directing remains to be discussed in a future review. The main character, Sviatoslav (Ivan Makarevich), is obsessed with marrying the “right” girl: this is Asya, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. In order to meet what he believes to be her (and her family’s) expectations, Sviatoslav (let us not miss the significance of the name: “holy Slav”) tries to set up his own business and open a restaurant. But here he meets bureaucracy… and from a romantic comedy we lapse into a horror movie about a series killer—but alas, Lars von Trier is just a tad better at that, as he has amply shown in The House That Jack Built, where Matt Dillon proves a much more skilled actor than the evil smile, or smirk, of Makarevich. Sorry.

Anna Matison’s film Pushkin, Whiskey, Rock’n’roll, also known as Sanctuary (Pushkin, Viski, Roknrol, aka Zapovednik) is a gala performance for the director’s husband Sergei Bezrukov, who—following his appearance as a ballet dancer in After You’re Gone (Posle tebia 2016)—stars here as an aging rock musician who has succumbed to alcohol. Of course, he will be saved in the end. Even the reference to Sergei Dovlatov’s story as a source text does not help raise this film to a level that would appeal beyond Russia’s borders and satisfy an audience beyond Bezrukov’s fan club, but that in itself may be quite sufficient.

Models of behavior

kinotavrAvdotia Smirnova’s Story of an Appointment (Istoria odnogo naznacheniia) is the only historical film in the competition, set in the 19th century. Smirnova has crafted a fine story, co-written with Anna Parmas and Pavel Basinskii (and awarded the Best Script award), which is well acted and splendidly filmed. Story… is about the ethical choice between career advancement and climbing the social ladder vs. supporting the poor and siding with the people, or the narod. It involves a court drama, comprises scenes with Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy as witness to the events and the ensuing trial, and has action set in the army barracks, on Tolstoy’s estate and in the home of the general, whose son is at the center of the investigation. It is a film that raises question which are relevant for today’s society and concern also current political debates about moral choices.

kinotavrSuch moral questions should also be pertinent for the protagonist Dmitrii (Vladimir Mishukov) of Mikhail Segal’s film with the ominous title Elephants can Play Football (Slony mogut igrat v futbol’). It refers to a phrase uttered by the young heroine of the first of the three episodes, as she invites Dmitrii into the bed in his hotel room, pointing out that there is plenty of space here for both of them. The heroine is a high-school student and Dmitrii is her father’s best friend from school. He—a successful businessman—is visiting Odessa, and supposed to give her some career advice. In this episode, and the following two set in Moscow, Dmitrii becomes strangely attached to, not to say obsessed with, teenage girls, without ever making any sexual advances. He seems to be looking for a protective paternal role, but his behavior never makes this absolutely clear and one wonders more than once about the motivation of the psychologically opaque character, whose mystery is well kept by Mishukov. It is a worrying portrayal of a solitary man who enjoys the company of young girls, apparently not beyond voyeurism and parental care. Curiously, his next protégé will be a young man, but we never know how that relationship will pan out.

Watching attempts at integration

kinotavrThe three most impressive films in competition come from filmmakers of the documentary school. First, there is Denis Shabaev’s Mira, which—although presented as a fiction film (mostly for reasons of funding allocated for a fictional almanac film that then fell apart)—is actually a documentary, if we leave aside the specially built sculptures that feature prominently in the film. Shabaev’s main character, Mira, is short for Miroslav Rogach from Slovakia, who is not a professional actor, but lives and works in London. He indeed travelled to eastern Ukraine to meet his internet sweetheart, and subsequently stays in the area for a while. In the film, he engages in a strange occupation before eventually returning to London: restoring Soviet-era monuments that had been shelled or damaged during the conflict. The topic of the foreign visitor to Ukraine is not new, of course, and features prominently in Šarūnas Bartas’ film Frost (Šerkšnas 2017); but a novel perspective is offered here, first by using a non-Russian protagonist, someone who himself is a migrant worker in another country; and second, by making him expose relations to the (Soviet) past and the (Russian) other through the restoration of monuments.

kinotavrIvan I. Tverdovskii’s Jump Man (Podbrosy) makes for unsettling viewing. Tvardovskii is a master of the art of pushing situations and character to the limit. The very fine camerawork of Denis Alarcón Ramirez captures the mostly nocturnal scenes involving the adolescent from the orphanage (called Denis, and played by Denis Vlasenko, a student of Sergei Solov’ev’s acting course at VGIK), and the night-life of his mother, brilliantly played by Anna Sliu (who also appeared in Uncle Sasha, where her talent is somewhat wasted; however, this role won her the Best Actress award). Tvardovskii begins his film with the heart-rending crying of a baby as he is deposited in a baby hatch (or baby-box) by the mother. That scene alone has irritated many critics and at first I could not understand why: it turns out that, while in many European counties—including Germany, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic—baby boxes are not only legal, but also commonly found in major towns, Russia has only ten baby boxes and those are, since 2016, illegal. In the film, the baby deposited in the hatch is a cry-baby, and he is instantly picked up by a group of teenage lads inside the orphanage. Years later we see other lads, including the now adolescent orphan Deniska, as they play a cruel game with him that involves a hose tied around his body—yet Deniska does not feel any pain. Deniska has a diagnosed condition for which he receives treatment, but one day he runs off despite doctor’s orders to stay for a bit with his birth-mother who has apparently made contact with for her son and now has a home with a spare room for him. Their relationship reveals a physical closeness that is unusual for a mother and her adolescent son, but speaks of his need for physical contact that he must have lacked in the orphanage. His mother is part of a corrupt structure in town that extends over the court—prosecutor and lawyers, to the hospital—doctors, nurses and emergency services. In a closely spun network, they extol bribes from well-off people who cause faked accidents under the influence of alcohol. The victim is always Deniska, the “jump man,” who throws himself before the car and bounces off, sustaining just minimal injuries because he has trained the jump, and who experiences no pain. It is only the pattern of exploitation that eventually causes him pain, but one of a non-physical nature. Jump Man is a challenging film about the loss of feeling in the modern world, metaphorically rendered in the extortion of bribes, and literally in the character of Deniska.

kinotavrWithout doubt the deserving winner of the festival is the second film by Natal’ia Meshchaninova after her debut Hope Factory (Kombinat Nadezhda, 2014) with the title Core of the World (Serdtse mira). The very fine performance of her husband, Stepan Devonin, as the vet Egor, who tries to be part of a family but at the same time not get too close to them (no sex, no alcohol, no food—just play at family), was rewarded with the prize for Best Actor. Meshchaninova clearly shows her observational skills and points at her documentary background, having trained at Marina Razbezhkina’s documentary school and making her first short films with the production team of kinoteatr.doc in 2007 (Herbarium/Gerbarii); she later worked widely on scripts and television serials with such documentary-oriented filmmakers as Valeriia Gai Germanika on the serial School (Shkola, 2010). She is, incidentally, also co-scriptwriter of Boris Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia (last year’s winner at Kinotavr) and Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Anna’s War. Meshchaninova foregoes psychological character portrayal in favor of observation, following Egor with the camera and thus revealing the reasons for his behavior: a broken family and an alcoholic mother explain his reluctance to get too close both to the drunken owner of the nature reserve where he works, and his attraction to and fear of the family’s daughter and single mother, played by Yana Sekste. He wants, it seems, at the same time be part of and yet separate from the family; he is attracted and repelled by them at the same time. This state in limbo and the non-committal attitude serve as a backdrop for his attachment and devotion to animals, who are much more loyal than humans. Indeed, in the opening scene he rescues a Central Asian Shepherd dog that the boss declares as wasted: it will no longer be able to walk, so Egor carries it around the forest, cures it, cares for it and even takes it for swims until the broken leg gradually recovers. This care for animals goes hand in hand with the practice of training for hunting dogs, released into a maze to catch foxes. The isolated reserve therefore comes under attack from animal rights activists protesting against the hunting dog training, and one night set free all the foxes held for this purpose at the reserve; in the aftermath, most of the animals perish in the wilderness. It appears, then, that the enemy is outside the station: the mother’s alcoholism lies far away and in the past, although it catches up with Egor; and the activists who are not allowed “inside.” It is thus a deliberate withdrawal from the world outside, and almost from the human world, that Egor seeks—in that isolation lies the “heart” (rather then the core, maybe) of the world. 

The jury, comprised of Aleksei Popogrebski as chairman and joined by actress Oksana Akinshina, composer Igor Vdovin, actor Igor Vernik, producer Evgeni Gindilis, cinematographer Levan Kapanadze, and critic Stas Tyrkin, named Core of the World “best;” and even if one might have wished for some recognition of Fedorchenko’s amazing directorial work in Anna’s War, this decision designates the way for the future and for new pastures in Russian cinema: in the documentary, observational mode that takes the upper hand over character psychology and plots around conflicts. And jokes. And sketches.

Birgit Beumers

Competition Awards:
Grand Prix: Core of the World [Serdtse mira] by Natalia Meshchaninova
Best Director: Grigorii Konstantinopolskii for Russian Psycho
Best Actress: Anna Sliu (in Jump Man, dir. Ivan I. Tverdovskii)
Best Actor: Stepan Devonin (in Core of the World, dir. Natalia Meshchaninova)
Best Cinematography: Denis Alarcón Ramirez (Jump Man, dir. Ivan I. Tverdovskii)
Gorin Prize for Best Script: Avdotia Smirnova, Anna Parmas, Pavel Basinskii (The Story of an Appointment, dir. Avdotia Smirnova)
Tariverdiev Prize for Best Music: Leonid Desiatnikov, Aleksei Sergunin (Van Goghs, dir. Sergei Livnev)
Special Jury Diploma: Marta Kozlova (in Anna’s War, dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko) (“For creating a piercing image of war seen through the eyes of a child”).

Prize of the Guild of Russian Film Scholars and Film Critics named after Daniil Dondurei
Core of the World, dir. Natalia Meshchaninova

Debut Competition Awards:
Grand Prix: Deep Riversby Vladimir Bitokov AND Acid by Aleksandr Gorchilin (ex aequo)

Short Competition Awards:
Grand Prix: Calendar, dir. Igor Poplaukhin
Diploma “For the search”: New Moscow, dir. Tamara Dondurei
Diploma “For the female character”: SixTwentyEight, dir. Anna Kuznetsova
Diploma “For the image”: Fish Day, dir. Dmitrii Korsakov

Guild of Russian Film Scholars and Film Critics:
Good Bye, My Love, Good Bye!, dir. Aleksandr Tsypkin, Kseniia Rappoport, Pavel Kapinos
Diploma: The Bribe, dir. Aleksei Kharitonov
Diploma: Road Accident, dir. Anna Dezhurko

RuArts Foundation Prize
New Moscow, dir. Tamara Dondurei


Birgit Beumers © 2018

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Updated: 2018