Issue 64 (2019)

Iana Poliarush, Tamara Tsotsoriia and Konstantin Kutuev: From the Bottom of the Top (So dna vershiny, 2017)

reviewed by Åsne Ø. Høgetveit© 2019

so dna vershinyFrom the Bottom of the Top is directed by Iana Poliarush together with Tamara Tsotsoriia and Konstantin Kutuev. This is Poliarush’s second full length feature film, and Tsotsoriia and Kutuev’s debut as directors. The film tells the story of an ambitious, talented teenager, Aleksei Tsarev, who gets his life turned around abruptly after having both his legs legs amputated following an accident. In particular to a Russian audience, this is reminiscent of the plot of the famous Story of a Real Man.

The Story of a Real Man (Povest’ o nastoiashchem cheloveke), written by Boris Polevoi and published in 1946, is in turn based on the life and achievements of fighter pilot Aleksei Mares’ev (1916–2001). Mares’ev fought in The Second World War, and was shot down over enemy territory in 1942. In spite of his injuries, he crawled back to Soviet territory. Both his legs had to be amputated, and he was equipped with prostheses. He made a miraculous recovery and returned to the front as a fighter pilot a little over a year after his initial accident. The story written by Polevoi was turned into both an eponymous film (Stolper 1948) and an opera composed by Prokofiev. It was also used as school curriculum, teaching the new generations of Soviet citizens about bravery, integrity, patriotism and self-sacrifice. The blind type of patriotism, wrapped in a narrative of a deconstructed body, became the source of biting satire in Viktor Pelevin’s novel Omon Ra (1992). In the novel the aspiring pilots at the fictional Mares'ev Institute have to have their legs amputated as part of their service. It all seems utterly absurd, and in the end, it turns out that their super important mission to the Moon is a governmental fraud. Thus, any story about young men who have to amputate their legs and insist on honoring their motherland, should in a Russian context be seen as part of the legacy of Story of a Real Man.

so dna vershinyIn the opening credits of From the Bottom of the Top, the audience learn that the film is based on real life events—those of the Paralympian Aleksei Moshkin. Moshkin grew up in Mezhdurechensk, in southwestern Siberia. In 1986, at the age of 12, he was involved in a train accident and had to have his legs amputated. Despite the doctor’s predictions, he made an astonishingly swift recovery, and was back, not only walking, but roller-skating, biking and skiing within a year after the accident. Moshkin participated in four winter Paralympic games, winning two gold medals (in 1994 in Lillehammer and 1998 in Nagano respectively), and two bronze medals (in 1994 and in 2002 in Salt Lake City). Moshkin is credited as a consultant of the film, and even plays a small part as a coach.

so dna vershinyThe story of Tsarev in From the Bottom of the Top differs significantly from the story of Moshkin, however, and is not a biopic. Most importantly the film is set in post-Sochi Olympic Games Russia, and the location is changed from Siberia to the Kola Peninsula. Furthermore, Tsarev is not involved in a train accident, but is injured as the result of recklessness in a ski lift; he is older when the accident happens; and his recovery seems even quicker than that of Moshkin. The main producer and co-screenwriter, Tamara Tsotsoriia, admits in an interview that it is not entirely correct to say that this is a film based on Moshkin’s life. Instead, according to Tsotsoriia, the film is based on and honors the efforts of several Paralympians. The filmmakers wanted to make a “deep and serious” film, “a present day Story of a Real Man” (Belaia 2018).

so dna vershinyOf course, it is not accidental that this updated Story of a Real Man is set within the realm of sport and international sports competitions—partly because of the importance sports play for the building and sustainment of national pride. Over recent years, however, there has been a continuous debate about systematic doping within Russian sports, and what sanctions the international sports community should enforce. In August 2016 the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) banned the Russian Paralympic Committee (RPC) from participating in any games. The IPC announced in February 2019 that the RPC will be conditionally reinstated by March 2019. From the Bottom of the Top was released during this tense conflict, in spring 2018. Thus, it is difficult not to see it partly as a political statement in support of the RPC, in part because of the opening and closing credits that remind the audience of the non-fictional Russian Paralympians. Unfortunately, this has turned into yet another case of victimizing Russia, with political implications following in its wake.

so dna vershinyIt could have been a film that broadens the acceptance, understanding and respect of people living with impairments. However, the predictability of the story and the stereotypical characters prevent From the Bottom of the Top from conveying any real drama or struggle. There is never any doubt that Tsarev will win. The predictability is a genre trait of sports films, particularly those based on real life. Still, the good examples of the genre would present an interesting and engaging context for understanding that particular athlete or event, making the achievements seem even more impressive. From the Bottom of the Top does not quite make it.

so dna vershinyFrom the Bottom of the Top focuses on Tsarev’s mental and physical recovery. Nils, a sympathetic German in a wheelchair, tells Tsarev shortly after his amputation: “I am not an invalid. You are, because of the way you think”. And so, in a way not uncommon for this type of story, by fighting  frustration and suicidal thoughts, and pushing away his loved  ones, Tsarev learns to accept his physical changes and gradually changes his attitudes. In the end he is able to accept being disqualified from an international competition, although he was the fastest. This incident is perhaps the one scene that most directly is based on Moshkin’s experiences. In 1992 in the Paralympic Games in Albertville, Moshkin missed his start, but was then allowed to start last in the run. He beat the competition, but the French filed a formal complaint, and Moshkin was disqualified. In From the Bottom of the Top Tsarev accepts how the rules are applied—because he knows for himself that he is the number one. This testifies to his emotional maturing, not only since his amputation, but also since he was a cocky and arrogant teenager who thought the world was at his feet. The other athletes at the competition recognize Tsarev’s moral victory too, and the French winner hands over the gold medal to Tsarev. The message conveyed is that rigid application of rules will not change our understanding of who the moral winner is. In the end Tsarev wins the heart of Lina, the girl of his dreams, and forgives Konstantin for stopping the lift, which led  to his accident (after his initial reaction of hitting Konstantin in the face).

There is certainly room for more films, in different genres, portraying people with impairments—and not always as victims. From the Bottom of the Top is too conventional in its treatment of this topic, and comes across as more of a political statement in relation to the RPC.

Åsne Ø. Høgetveit
UiT The Arctic University of Norway

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Works Cited

Belaia, Liudmila. 2018. “Khibiny vnov’ na kinoekranakh: fil’m So dna vershiny vykhodit v prokat.” Infoportal Kirovsk / Apatity “Lavina”

From the Bottom of the Top, Russia 2017
Color, 106 min
Directors: Iana Poliarush, Tamara Tsotsoriia, Konstantin Kutuev
Screenwriters: Rauf Kubaev, Tamara Tsotsoriia, Konstantin Kutuev, Iana Poliarush, Ivan Tikhonov
DoP: Il’ia Ovsenev, Nikolai Piotrovskii
Composer: Danil Borisov, Artem Vasil’ev, Artem Gribov
Production Design: Vladimir Trapeznikov, Viktor Zudin
Cast: Pavel Shevando, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Kseniia Kuznetsova, Sergei Nikonenko, Konstantin Beloshapka, Natal’ia Berger, Irina Rozanova, Sergei Puskepalis
Producer: Tamara Tsotsoriia, Konstantin Kutuev, Ruslan Vintrianiuk, Anatolii Tsarik
Production: Al’tair-Ts
Release (RF): 1 March 2018

Iana Poliarush, Tamara Tsotsoriia and Konstantin Kutuev: From the Bottom of the Top (So dna vershiny, 2017)

reviewed by Åsne Ø. Høgetveit© 2019

Updated: 2019