Issue 62 (2018)

Il’ia Aksenov: KVNshchiki (2018)

reviewed by Tom Mclenachan © 2018

KVNshchikiIl’ia Aksenov’s debut feature film delves into the inner world of the Soviet-Russian cultural phenomenon KVN (Klub veselykh i nakhodchivykh—Club of the Funny and Inventive People). First broadcast on TV in 1961, this one-of-a-kind show sees amateur comedy troupes, usually university students, pit their wits against each other in a series of sketches, dramatic vignettes, musical numbers and improvised segments. It was banned in the early 1970s due to its “offensive” humor and amidst accusations that it operated as a platform for anti-Soviet dissonance. It witnessed a resurgence during perestroika and continues to be watched by over five million spectators annually. Given its enduring popularity in Russia and the post-Soviet cultural space, it is remarkable that KVNshchiki marks the first time this inter-generational pastime has been subjected to treatment on the silver screen.

Aksenov is himself a former KVNshchik, having risen to fame in 2010 as the frontman and principal writer of the award-winning outfit Sega Mega Draiv 16 bit, who enjoy lasting cult status among KVN enthusiasts. It is immediately apparent that the central protagonist, David (Denis Davydov), and his comedy troupe have the same composition (three men and one woman) and farcical style of humor as Aksenov’s original ensemble. However, the director has underplayed the biographical elements of the film, stating in an interview that it is an amalgamation of his experiences as a touring KVNshchik (Gerasimova 2017).

KVNshchikiIn the film a Moscow-based team, Chaiki (Seagulls), battle against adversity in order to compete in the annual KVN national finals, broadcast live on Channel One. The narrative explores the inner world of the competition as the team overcome stage fright, creative crises and motivational lulls on the road to the finals in Sochi. The viewer is provided with an interesting insight into the comedic process as the young humorists sound out jokes, jostle for rehearsal space in the corridors of their faculty, and endure mind-numbing repetition to get the choreography on point. The film also shows the cutthroat, shadowy underbelly of this pressurized game show. The overbearing captain David unsubtly reminds his teammates of their inferior wit and questions their commitment to the competition, which coincides with university exams.

The main conflict of the film arises when it comes to light that a competing team has stolen sketches from the protagonists’ repertoire. Here Aksenov is likely referencing a scandal in 2016 when a team from Blagoveshchensk, competing in the finals of the KVN Premier League, blatantly plagiarized award-winning performances from previous years (Sannikova 2017). The heroes also face internal struggles, including their self-censorship of controversial jokes on contemporary political issues. This is a potent topic because the show has grown into a source of Russian nationalism and TV broadcasts are often attended by high-profile political figures, including Putin and Medvedev, during campaign season. It is well documented that political satire in the show has been censored in recent years, a process which was detailed in an interview in 2017 with the former organizer of the Premier League Dmitrii Kolchin (Sokolovskaia 2017). A report from NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga in the same year went as far to suggest that KVN was a key platform for political propaganda on a national and international scale (The Moscow Times 2017). This duly incited bouts of laughter in the Russian press.

KVNshchikiThe films skirts generic boundaries: it could reasonably be classified as a teen comedy, a road movie or, due to its depiction of recreational drug use, a youth counterculture movie. The most interesting element of the film, however, is that Aksenov had the team enter the real KVN festival in Sochi in 2017 for the purposes of filming. Unbeknownst to the event organizers, judges and their rival competitors, the performance of team Chaiki, including their back-stage arguments, was carefully scripted by Aksenov. The film, therefore, possesses elements of a satirical mockumentary. On their road to stardom, the team also have formative meetings with actual veterans of KVN, such as Andrei Burkovskii, Iuliia Akhmedova and Kirill Lopatkin, who are well known throughout Russia. Wholly unexpected by the filmmakers, the fabricated team actually ended up winning the competition, which required the ending of the film to be rewritten. The truth was only revealed when the film’s producers launched a crowd-funding appeal later in 2017 in order to pay for the post-production costs.

KVNshchikiThe film was well received at its premier on 7 January 2018 at a special screening at the twenty-ninth KVN Festival in Sochi. It was released two days later on VKontakte, which is credited as a production partner in the opening credits. However, large sections of the Russian cinema-going audience, many of whom maintain a saccharine image of KVN as source of family entertainment, were alienated by the characters’ “excessive” profanity and drug use. Indeed, the group’s writing process is usually facilitated by hookah and alcohol, and the carousing between the competing troupes in the hotel on the eve of the finals somehow descends into a psychedelic rave. Similarly, in the coda of the film, in which there is a cameo appearance from Burkovskii, we are presented a somewhat sobering view of KVN and its participants’ career prospects.

Ultimately this low-budget film, like the nature of KVN, is often amateurish in its execution. The narrative is clunky and suffers from continuity errors, undoubtedly exacerbated by the team’s unexpected victory. The film provides a reasonably interesting insight into the comedic process, but fails to be funny itself.

Tom Mclenachan

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Works Cited

Gerasimova, Kseniia. 2018. “Za “KVNshchikov” v otvete. Interv’iu s rezhisserom fil’ma Il’ei Aksenovym”. KVN dlia vsekh 19 January.

Sannikova, Darina. 2017. “Komanda KVN People iz Blagoveshchenska: “Shutki my pokupaem, kak i vse”. 16 January.

Sokolovskaia, Evgeniia. 2017. “Byvshii uchastnik KVN pozhalovalsia na tsenzuru”. Snob 18 September.

Anon. 2017. “Russians are Laughing Indeed after NATO Report Accuses TV Comedy of “Strategic Communication” by Kremlin”. The Moscow Times 16 March.

KVNshchiki, Russia 2018
Color, 125 minutes
Director: Il’ia Aksenov
Script: Il’ia Aksenov
Cast: Dar’ia Rudenok, Roman Maiakin, Andrei Burkovskii, Iuliia Akhmedova, Denis Vlasenko, Mikhail Melin, Kirill Lopatkin, Denis Davydov, Nikita Lobanov and Ekaterina Pilipenko
Sound: Anatolii Tiurikov
Editing: Vladislav Gaitov
Producers: Vladislav Malyshev, Il’ia Aksenov, Mariia Kaplun and Ekaterina Savina
Production Company: Good Luck Production

Il’ia Aksenov: KVNshchiki (2018)

reviewed by Tom Mclenachan © 2018

Updated: 2018