Issue 62 (2018)

Vera Glagoleva: Clay Pit (Ne chuzhie, 2018)

reviewed by Daria V. Ezerova © 2018

ne chuzhieOl’ga Pogodina-Kuzmina’s play Clay Pit (Glinianaia iama, 2007) took a long time to arrive on the big screen, and the late Vera Glagoleva was not the first director to consider filming this explosive text. Clay Pit nearly came to life in 2008, in the hands of none other than Aleksei Balabanov (see Balabanov 2017; Ezerova 2017). To quote his cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov, the play “was more hardcore than Cargo 200.” And indeed, it is. The screenplay follows two sisters, Liudmila (Mila) and Galina. Back from St Petersburg, Liudmila returns to her small hometown to move in with her mother, where she learns that her older sister Galina—a recently widowed mother of two—has taken up with a gastarbeiter named Rustam. Her mother disapproves of Galina’s relationship with Rustam because of his ethnic background. When the family gets together, Galina announces that she is pregnant with Rustam’s child, and that they are getting married. Shortly after the wedding, Rustam begins an affair with Mila, but they are soon discovered by Galina and their mother. All the while, Galina’s two young sons Sasha and Misha are neglected. Since Rustam does not want them in the newlyweds’ apartment, Galina sends the boys off to live with their grandmother and Mila. Sensing they are unwanted, the boys record a video in which they say that they do not want to get in everyone’s way anymore and ask to be put in a “clay pit” next to their father. Then the boys disappear. Soon afterwards, Rustam, accompanied by a new paramour, finds the boys at the station bathhouse. The boys have hung themselves.

For better or worse, Balabanov’s production was halted at an early stage; he discovered Sergei Bodrov Jr’s screenplay for Morphine and shelved Clay Pit, likely to Simonov’s relief. Nearly a decade later, Vera Glagoleva agreed to make the film under one condition—change the ending. Pogodina-Kuzmina acquiesced and wrote the screenplay for the film (2018). In Glagoleva’s new version, the children do not die—just as they, holding hands, are about to jump into a quarry, they are saved. By Rustam. In addition, while in Pogodina-Kuzmina’s play, practically nothing is known about Rustam, Glagoleva invites her viewers to explore his interiority by interspersing the main narrative with flashbacks to Rustam’s past. From these, we learn that he witnessed his family buried under a landslide.

ne chuzhieGlagoleva’s revision of the ending and her gradual revelation of Rustam’s character defines her vision of Clay Pit. Her lyrical, at times melodramatic approach to the play is already evident from the film’s Russian title: Not Strangers (Ne chuzhie). In contrast to the haunting “Clay Pit,” a title that evokes the lowest depths, “Not strangers” is uplifting, almost hopeful. In the original Russian, it takes on an additional meaning: chuzhoi can also mean “belonging to someone else.”[1] The title thus anticipates the new ending: a reconciliation, and Rustam’s realization that Galina’s children are not “someone else’s,” not “strangers.” Glagoleva’s hopeful finale and chosen title underlie the director’s formal choices, particularly color scheme, camera movement, and set design, as well as her treatment of the play’s central subject—nationalism.

Pogodina-Kuzmina’s play is suffused with a sense of discomfort rendered primarily through her use of space. The mother’s and Galina’s apartments are small and shabby, the rickety 1970’s furniture and wall rugs suggesting lifelong poverty. Notably, in Balabanov’s screenplay the mother’s apartment is reduced to a squalid room-and-a-half above the local station building. In these stifling interior spaces, the separation between the public and the private is annihilated: Rustam and Mila have their trysts either in a decrepit garage (or at a “station bathhouse” in Balabanov, a space difficult to imagine); Galina and Rustam share a bedroom with her small children; and Galina’s wedding takes place in her mother’s apartment, far too small to comfortably fit the many rowdy guests. The physical constriction is echoed in the absence of personal boundaries: when the mother exclaims, “What, you got an abortion?,” it hits the viewer over the head, as does the explicit description of the mother’s own abortions (“They scrape you out in the morning and you need to show up for work in the afternoon. You put a bag of frozen sausages up your skirt, and it’s off to selling tickets!”). In Pogodina-Kuzmina’s play, the suffocating, invasive environment is particularly visceral in Scene Two, when the stage is meant to consist of two bedrooms: Mila’s room in her mother’s apartment, and Galina’s and Rustam’s room in Galina’s home. Pogodina-Kuzmina emphasizes the confinement through the following concurrent exchanges:

Mother. Ok, let’s go to bed. Good thing I don’t have to work tomorrow.

Galina and Rustam make love.

Galina. Oh dear… oh dear!
Mila. I really came to stay, Mom.
Galina. Oh Rustam, oh, Rustam…
Mother. Good, to stay. Turn off the lights, we’ll talk tomorrow.

In reality, there are not two, but three “bedrooms” on stage: Galina’s boys sleep in the same room as their mother and Rustam, separated only by a curtain as Galina and Rustam have sex.

ne chuzhieGlagoleva does not abandon the sense of discomfort, but surely makes it less pervasive: Galina and Rustam still sleep in the same room as the boys, but nothing happens between them. While Pogodina-Kuzmina crams the wedding feast into the mother’s apartment, Glagoleva sets it at a local cafeteria. The apartments, however derelict, are not as depressing as in Pogodina-Kuzmina, and nowhere near as squalid as in Balabanov. Instead, Glagoleva opts for minor discomforts, like Mila’s ridiculously high heels, which obviously cause her a lot of pain, and the incessant vibration of her cellphone.

While Glagoleva’s decision to mitigate Clay Pit’s stifling atmosphere surely detracts from the play’s impact, it endows Glagoleva’s film with unexpected lyricism. The Russian provinces—intensely unappealing in Pogodina-Kuzmina and Balabanov—acquire a quiet, subdued beauty through the color scheme and camera movements in Glagoleva’s work. The half-tones, the prevalence of grays and browns in the scenic design, and the overcast weather in outdoor scenes are reminiscent of Andrei Zviagintsev’s work. The scene of Mila’s and Rustam’s first sexual encounter in a butcher shop is especially arresting. It begins with a long take of Mila walking along an empty aisle, an impeccably symmetrical frame with a matching sonic effect: the sound of Mila’s heels against the tiled floor clashes with the clunks of Rustam’s ax against the butcher’s block. When Mila and Rustam have sex, the symbolism of clay as something evil, a harbinger of tragedy, is fully revealed: their encounter is intercut with images of Rustam’s hands digging through wet clay. Later in the film, the motif is developed: we learn that the children’s father died in a quarry (in a “clay pit,” as the boys say); the clay on Mila’s and Rustam’s shoes gives away their affair; and finally, in one of the flashbacks, we see Rustam digging through clay and dirt in a vain attempt to rescue his family from beneath a landslide. Moreover, instead of Balabanov-style fadeouts, Glagoleva’s entire film is intercut with stunning panoramas of the quarry—the literal clay pit—perhaps evoking the tragedy narrowly escaped. In sum, Glagoleva’s film is undoubtedly the work of an aesthete. 

ne chuzhieAt the same time, by opting for a hopeful ending and tempering the more contentious aspects of Pogodina-Kuzmina’s play, Glagoleva alters the representation of nationalism in Clay Pit. Other than the children, who tragically perish, Pogodina-Kuzmina’s text lacks wholly positive characters: everyone is in some way an antihero. The women are portrayed with intense misogyny, both in Pogodina-Kuzmina’s play and Balabanov’s screenplay. While Balabanov is known for his controversial portrayals of women, Pogodina-Kuzmina’s choice to cast women in such a negative light raises questions. Such a treatment may be suggested by the central theme of the play, of ethno-nationalism. As Nira Yuval-Davis points out, “women often come to symbolize the national collectivity, its roots, its national project [by virtue of being given] the social role of intergenerational transmitters of cultural traditions, customs, songs, cuisine, and, of course, the mother tongue (sic!).” (Yuval-Davis 1997, 405). Set in a nameless province, the proverbial Russian heartlands, and populated with repulsive women, some of whom are mothers, Pogodina-Kuzmina’s play is an indictment of Russian ethno-nationalism. The setting is not a wholesome Russian periphery, but a repulsive clay pit, where women spout nationalistic slurs, brother trespasses against brother, and children hang themselves.[2] This prompted Balabanov to expand the title into Clay Pit: A Film about Bad People—a conspicuous deviation from his oft-cited quip that all his films are about love. In other words, Pogodina-Kuzmina and Balabanov are critical of the nationalistic sentiments expressed by the characters and insist that none deserves redemption, because they are all responsible for the children’s deaths.

By contrast, Glagoleva’s characters are more complex, especially Rustam. Presented in the play as a semi-literate oversexed pest, Rustam in the film has considerably more depth and nuance. His reticence, lack of affect, and inability to relate to other people can be ascribed to the PTSD he suffered witnessing the death of his family, a fact absent from Pogodina-Kuzmina’s text. It is presumably this experience of loss that drives him to save Galina’s children: an ending that is uplifting, yet somewhat incongruous with the rest of the film. As mentioned during the Kinotavr press conference about the film, the ending symbolizes reconciliation and harmony between nations. Could this be true? Does Glagoleva’s “alternative” ending really resolve the ethnic conflict, and offer a solution to nationalism? The assumption is perhaps too naïve. Likely unwittingly, Glagoleva slips back into an imperialist vision: it is still Rustam, the newcomer, who must be accepted by the natives. There is a paternalistic tinge as well: Rustam is “orphaned,” and now, having saved Galina’s children, he has earned entry into his new “family.” As Anne McClintock points out, “[t]he family trope [offers] a ‘natural’ figure for sanctioning national hierarchy [and] an indispensable metaphoric figure by which national difference could be shaped into a single historical genesis narrative” (McClintock 1997, 411). In Glagoleva’s film yet again the painfully familiar trope of the “Great Family” proves die-hard. 


1] In the play, Rustam says, “I don’t need someone else’s children” (“Mne chuzhie deti ne nuzhny”).

2] In Balabanov’s screenplay, Galina becomes a local Medea: upon discovering Rustam’s infidelity, she smothers their daughter.

Daria V. Ezerova
Davidson College, NC

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Works Cited

Balabanov, Aleksei. 2017. “Clay Pit. A Film About Bad People.” Translated by Daria Ezerova. Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 11.1: 65-93.

Ezerova, Daria. 2017. “Filming Death at Work: Aleksei Balabanov’s Unreleased Script for Clay Pit.” Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 11.1: 56-64.

McClintock, Anne. 1997. “No Longer in a Future Heaven: Gender, Race and Nationalism (1994).” In Space, Gender, Knowledge: Feminist Readings, eds. Joanne P. Sharp and Linda McDowell, 409-424. London: Routledge.

Yuval-Davis, Nira. 1997. “Gender and Nation (1993).” In Space, Gender, Knowledge: Feminist Readings, eds. Joanne P. Sharp and Linda McDowell, 403-408. London: Routledge.

Clay Pit, Russia, 2018.
Color, 77 minutes.
Director: Vera Glagoleva
Script: Ol’ga Pogodina-Kuzmina
Producer: Natal’ia Ivanova, Maria Ksinopulo, Vera Glagoleva
DoP: Aleksandr Nosovskii
Production Design Aleksei Gavriutin
Film Editor: Aleksandr Amirov
Music: Sergei Banevich
Costume Design: Elena Lukianova
Cast: Sanjar Madi, Lilia Volkova, Tatiana Vladimirova, Anna Kapaleva, Dmitri Krivochurov
Producer Natalia Ivanova
Production Producer Center Horosho Production, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Vera Glagoleva: Clay Pit (Ne chuzhie, 2018)

reviewed by Daria V. Ezerova © 2018

Updated: 2018