Issue 64 (2019)

Vladimir Bitokov: Deep Rivers (Glubokie reki, 2018)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2019

bitokovVladimir Bitokov’s debut film Deep Rivers stages a primeval conflict between brothers and a father—squint long enough and you might see the interpersonal strife if not the plot of The Brothers Karamazov—set against the stunning forests, mountains and waterways of southwest Russia. Mostly in the Kabardian language spoken within the Kabardino-Balkar Republic in Southern Russia (about 100 km northwest of Vladikavkaz), the film uses lovely nature photography to supplement a rather flimsy plot about xenophobia.

Bitokov (b. 1985), a native of the republic’s capital Nalchik, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains at an altitude of 550 meters, won the prize for Best Debut at the 2018 Kinotavr Film Festival (shared with Alexander Gorchilin for Acid [Kislota]). He graduated from the Kabardino-Balkarian University’s Studio for Film and Television Directors started by Aleksandr Sokurov, though Bitokov’s work carries over little of the great master’s subtlety. Instead, he opts for family melodrama and social commentary.

glubokie rekiBrothers Bes (Rustam Muratov) and Mukha (Mukhamed Sabiev), along with their father (Oleg Guseinov), put in long days of toil in the woods, toppling tree after towering tree with nothing but their axes. Recurring scenes of such destruction, the brothers chopping manically at what look like ancient trunks (which come down in long sad arcs), recalls the socialist fervor of the laborers felling forests and ripping open the earth in Mikhail Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia (Sol’ Svanetii/Dzim shvante, 1930). Only a curious she-wolf stands as witness to the extirpation of her habitat.

One day, when the family patriarch is injured and almost killed by one of those falling giants, the brothers find themselves a man short and in need of help to meet the quota demanded by the sawmill. Enter Maloi (Takhir Teppeyev), their youngest brother from the far-away city. Hardly an Alesha Karamazov, Maloi is an urban creature who stands out in every way in this rural backwater: with his large headphones, city dress, effete manner and slight build, he would seem more at home in an underground Moscow gay club. The locals (including Bes and Mukha) hold him in utter contempt for his mannerisms, uselessness in the woods, and shaky grasp of Kabardian (he much prefers Russian). He even cowers under a horse cart when the she-wolf shows up. Apart from Maloi’s stongly implied homosexuality, his brothers resent him for his bad work ethic—even though he doubles the day’s take when he refuses the sawmill’s low offer. “I’m not my father—I know the price of things,” he says.

glubokie rekiThe plot soon takes a decidedly dark turn, first in the brutal beating inflicted on Maloi by village locals led by Isma (Oleg Khamokov), then another vicious and graphic assault on Bes. The mostly unemployed town-dwellers resent the brothers’ initiative and the fact that they live apart in a well-built house by the river. “You are outsiders here,” Isma tells Mukha. Only Bes’ wife Zaira’s (Mariana Kazancheva) presence lightens the mood, though she seems mostly a cipher. Of her inner life we learn only that she wants a child to replace one they lost.

At only 73 minutes, many of those filled with languorous interludes to explore the forest which the brothers are steadily whittling away (Maloi does not even show up until halfway through), the film has little time to develop its characters beyond the broadest types: gruff older brother, family-minded wife and sister-/daughter-in-law, citywise kid brother adrift in the boonies, traditional father confronted with his mortality, dastardly neighbor intent on bringing down disaster.

glubokie rekiBitokov himself seems to confirm such stereotyping; he told an interviewer: “The European and Russian societies are more tolerant toward different personalities, while Caucasian society is first and foremost very conservative and less tolerant—this is why the weak brother is automatically perceived as a total pansy. No one tries to understand him or his situation, they just apply a label and judge him” (Ukolova 2018).

Yet such typage makes the film an almost ethnographic experience for those who know next to nothing about this part of the world (which will be most viewers). And yet this is precisely what the director fears; Bitokov said in the same interview that he doesn’t want Deep Rivers taken as an ethnographic film. Like that she-wolf losing its home, he may not have much choice.

José Alaniz
University of Washington, Seattle

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Works Cited

Ukolova, Tat’iana. 2018. “Fil’m rezhissera iz Nal’chika vyzval spory kritikov na ‘Kinotavre’”. Kavkazskii uzel’ 11 June.

Deep Rivers, Russia, 2018
Color, 75 minutes
Director: Vladimir Bitokov
Screenplay: Vladimir Bitokov
DoP: Aleksandr Demianenko
Music: Murat Kabardokov
Editor: Anna Mass
Production Design: Maksim Malleev
Producer: Nikolai Yankin
Production: Non-commercial Fund for Cinematography support “Example of Intonation”
Cast: Oleg Guseinov, Rustam Muratov, Muhamed Sabiev, Tahir Teppeyev

Vladimir Bitokov: Deep Rivers (Glubokie reki, 2018)

reviewed by José Alaniz© 2017

Updated: 2019