Issue 61 (2018)

Olena Demianenko: My Grandma, Fanny Kaplan (Moia babusia, Fani Kaplan, Ukraine, 2016)

reviewed by Polina Barskova and Ostap Kin © 2018

Senses and Sensibility of the 1917 Revolution

Like love, revolution is blind. It is this figure of speech, of imagination or of historiography that the creators of the film My Grandma, Fanny Kaplan put at the foundation of their strikingly poetic rendition of this one historical life. The movie narrates a version of historical events; it hints—both melancholically and playfully—at the eternal myth of immortality and miraculous survival of a historical heroine or villainess, depending on who is writing history.

kaplanThe viewer meets the heroine: Fanny Kaplan, a woman born in a shtetl in what used to be Volhynia guberny on the outskirts of the Russian Empire on the eve of the twentieth century. The question is whether she was “Sharlotta Korde” of the 1917 Revolution, who attempted to assassinate Lenin himself in August 1918.  All that the movie offers us is that this heroine did not quite die, but rather disappeared in a mysterious way, evaporated onto the margins of history. We are presented with two versions of her death: a brutal one in the Kremlin courtyard and a version of mythological salvation and long life of anonymity. Multiple possibilities and different versions of this event coexist in this film’s world. The movie insists on the ultimate impossibility of knowledge due to the absence of a document, but it also suggests that even a document cannot and should not be trusted since it always can be nothing but a hoax.

And what is a document after all? A document, or even archival materials more broadly, are thought of by archivists as “objects in any form that record information which are preserved for future as a memory aid” (Van Garderen 2007). In the case of Fanny (or Fanya) Kaplan’s archive, the records from her interrogation file were removed from the files by a high-ranking security officer. At the same time, this is an action that leaves us with room for a new round of thoughts, for creation, interpretation, manipulation and speculation. Curiously enough, it is precisely the interrogation file that became the kernel of inspiration for the director who called it an “anti-detective” filled with lacunae and questions (Demianenko 2016). Rather than offering us definitive questions about Fanny’s case, the authors offer us questions, building their inquiry with bitter wit and gentle empathy.

kaplanOne of the strongest sides of this film is how it visualizes its subject and makes history a matter of vision and of visibility. Throughout her film life, Fanny loses and regains vision and the camera subtly follows these transformations. In the cunningly written script, her blindness is at the same time proof of her innocence and the film’s master device that follows Fanny's gaze: the camera senses the world with and through her eyes, that of an innocent victim and instrument of history. Also, it is her blindness that creates the question of Fanny’s innocence: could an invalid shoot a tyrant? The allegedly missing pages of her interrogation protocol are about her being blind. The interrogators obscure her vulnerability for their agenda, in order to make her less human: literally, they shoot and burn her, and figuratively, they make her into a merciless shooter.

The movie, however, is all about humanity. Fanny loses vision when she loses love. It is also very much a melodrama, one about revolution, a story of passions. Several genre impulses (in addition to a melodrama, a biopic, and a documentary investigation) are connected and create a curious hybrid. Characters of these story are driven by affect: they express over-the-top emotions. We see Fanny shout out of grief, her hapless lover Dmitrii Ulianov (the brother of the “shooting victim”) weep of sadness, and (Ulianov) Lenin himself laugh hysterically out of sheer joy of being alive. This melodrama-cum-historical investigation is a study of femininity and feminine agency, as shaped by the Soviet century. From the very beginning of her revolutionary path Fanny functions as a stand in: she goes to prison twice instead of somebody else.

kaplanFanny is shown as ultimately vulnerable, even precious (she is a daughter of jeweler, after all). On her way to be brutally executed she is bothered by the nail in her little shoe. Perhaps the scene could also be read as the last chance Fanny has to be out of the prison and she instantly tries to capture Dmitri’s attention so he could start working on the problem (and he does, in his characteristic somewhat unhurried way, until the very last frame in the film, when he talks with Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaia, when both are hit by a strange smell coming out of the yard and the wife shuts the windows completely unaware what the smell was caused by).

Since it is a film about senses, sense of smell is important (supposedly even compensating that of vision). In the turn of the plot when Fanny makes a fatal, willful decision to follow her “bad love,” she buys a piece of fragrant soap that supposedly washes away the prison smell (the movie treats the subject of katorga with much attention to detail and compassion to affect). Fanya is strong here in her choice to pursue her love, but this strength is of no use or interest to those in power in Bolshevik Russia who see Fanny only as a pawn in their game. An ultimately inanimate object that burns so efficiently even the most devoted Bard of the Red Terror, Demian Bedny (what a touching poetic cameo!), vomits in disbelief and loses his consciousness (a subversive sign of his not wanting to deal with such a reality, a sort of shutting down the system).

The film has gathered together a great group of actors. The filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi plays the role of Vladimir Lenin’s infatuated brother, Dmitri Ulianov, a doctor from Crimea who met Fanny at a sea-side sanatorium where she’s being stationed at a place for former labor camps workers. Later he hastened to Moscow to find Fanya who disappeared without leaving any trace. The other actor is Vladyslav Troitsky, a DAKH theatre director, who is often credited as the man who formed the Dakha Brakha, and who plays Fanny’s devoted father. Kateryna Molchanova, the actress who plays Fanny, is remarkable: she manages to embody fully that inner vision, rich inner life that fills her character, who constantly appears to be fragile and powerful, independent and subaltern all at once. In a tragic turn of events the role of Lenin himself was given to the brilliant Aleksei Devotchenko, and ended up to be much smaller than intended due to Devotchenko’s sudden death in 2014. Finally, the directors used real-life poets (Iryna Tsilyk, Yevhen Koshyn) to perform in episodic roles: some perform in the group of women serving their terms in far-flung labor camps, the others are part of a gang robbing a jeweler shop (and, by coincidence, they kidnap Fanny, too—although she did not necessarily revolt against it and was rather pleased to get away from her father and to meet her fate).

kaplanThe film has its wonderful “tick” that in a mode of repetition turns into a dream: that of Lenin as a murderer of hares, which also operates as a kind of a myth. Fanny, while having picnic with Dmitri, inquiries somewhat out of the blue about any childhood reminiscent the brother had of his younger sibling and the former retells a brutal story of Vladimir once killing, one by one, hopeless hares stuck on an island on a frozen river after a sudden thaw. This is also a delicate and ironic depiction of the actual feelings that the brothers have for each other and their thinking of each other, at least on one side.

What requires special attention in terms of deeper research of the film structure is how the filmmaker organized the story. In the beginning of the film, we observe a middle-aged woman living with her elderly mother in Ukraine, although one of them is originally from the United States and the second was born outside the U.S. but later immigrated there. The elderly woman, as we find out later in the film, is supposedly an unrecognized child of Fanny Kaplan born as the former was escorted to serve her term in the camps. The question, again, is whether this is a real “real” documentary feature in this feature film—a method that has been fairly often applied in other films—or is this is just another part of the fictive plot.

My Grandma, Fanny Kaplan turns manipulation, both of history and of the historical subject, into the material of cinematic exploration. According to this film, Bolsheviks abuse history by faking the story, and we find ourselves in the position of the confused and questioning heirs of history (like the producers of the documentary investigation, the movie’s side line) who are desperately trying to figure out and finalize what actually happened to Fanny, her “crime” and her fate. As things stand, her fate cannot be finalized: we just do not have enough evidence. The movie, however, can be described in quite definite terms: it’s a study, a stubbornly honest attempt to look at the agent of history whose historical mission had been manipulated. It is a contemplation about the problem of historical self that defies simplifying scripts.

Polina Barskova, Hampshire College
Ostap Kin, Shevchenko Scientific Society, New York

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Works Cited

Van Garderen, Peter. 2007 “Archival Materials: A Practical Definition,” (22 January).

Demianenko, Olena. 2016. Video interview. “Moia babusia Fani Kaplan. Kino pro “slipe” kokhannia ta revoliutsiiu,” Hromads’ke (7 September)

My Grandma, Fanny Kaplan, Ukraine, 2016
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Olena Demianenko
Screenplay: Olena Demianenko, Dmytro Tomashpolsky
Cinematography: Oleksiy Moskalenko
Editing: Ihor Rak
Music: Tymur Polyansky
Cast: Kateryna Molchanova, Myroslav Slaboshpytsky, Ivan Brovin
Producer: Olena Demianenko

Olena Demianenko: My Grandma, Fanny Kaplan (Moia babusia, Fani Kaplan, Ukraine, 2016)

reviewed by Polina Barskova and Ostap Kin © 2018

Updated: 2018