Issue 66 (2019)

Anna Ianovskaia: Exciting Life (Interesnaia zhizn’, 2018)

reviewed by Frederick H. White © 2019

interesnaia zhiznStruggling actor Aleksei Iudnikov finally catches a break when a friend offers him a role in a film. However, Iudnikov must fly from Moscow to Yakutia in the Russian Far East. Once there, he learns that there have been some complications with the film’s funding. Left to his own devices and without any money, Iudnikov looks for work so that he can buy a return ticket home. Unwittingly, Iudnikov is on a quest. Through his search, Iudnikov gains a unique perspective on Yakutia and on his own expectations for life. Although Exciting Life follows the likeable Iudnikov’s quest, this is also a film about filmmaking.

Anna Ianovskaia’s first feature-length film as a director places Iudnikov in Yakutia to interrogate the Yakut national culture and its cinema “boom” in a documentary-style film. Following a basic guiding plotline, a foreigner in a foreign place, the entirety of the film is largely unscripted in order to take advantage of the rich cultural details, stunning visual opportunities and compelling individuals within the local film and theater community. Self-described as a “post-doc comedy,” Ianovskaia’s film captures renown Yakut theater director and filmmaker Andrei Borisov and younger filmmakers Kostas Moran and Stepan Burnashev while constantly in search of “the Yakut Tarantino,” Sergei Potapov. Yet, it is only once Iudnikov meets shaman-filmmaker Prokopyi Nogovitsyn that the film finds a different register and the meaning of the quest becomes absolutely clear. During conversations with Nogovitsyn, the Yakut rhythm of life overtakes Iudnikov’s need to get home and he eventually recognizes his own willingness to be present in the moment.

interesnaia zhiznSitting and looking at the Lena River with its ice floe that keeps him from reaching the other side, Iudnikov is frustrated by his inability to get home to do all of the things that are seemingly important to him. Nogovitsyn explains to Iudnikov that this is Yakutia where nature, the seasons and the weather dictate the tempo of life. Iudnikov rebels again and asks why everyone in Yakutia is so noncommittal. Nogovitsyn says it is life in the north, again with an unstated understanding that people are dependent on natural (and spiritual) forces beyond their control.

interesnaia zhiznWithin this film about filmmaking there is another line of discourse that is just as compelling as that of the Sakha film industry “boom.” This is the presence of Aleksei Balabanov throughout Exciting Life. Iudnikov’s wardrobe, most obviously his camouflage coat, is reminiscent of the late  filmmaker’s eclectic style. More directly, as he leaves home his wife asks Iudnikov what is in Yakutia. He responds “happiness.” His wife says, “Me too!” This is an homage to (and actual title of) Balabanov’s final film Me Too (Ia tozhe khochu, 2012), in which the main characters are in search of spiritual happiness. Less obvious is the reference to Balabanov’s The River (Reka, 2002), a film about jealousy and betrayal among a small group of lepers, banished from their Yakut community. Notably, Yakut actor Mikhail Skriabin appeared in several of Balabanov’s films, most memorably in The Stoker (Kochegar, 2010). Balabanov made films about film. Later in his career, he employed untrained actors, often with general directorial guidelines and little to no scripted dialogue. Ianovskaia’s “post-doc comedy” in many ways emerges from Balabanov’s meta-documentary style and is paying respect to this cinematic influence.

interesnaia zhiznIn Balabanov’s Me Too a bandit, a musician, an alcoholic, the alcoholic’s father and a prostitute travel together to reach a mystical bell tower that has taken certain people to a place of happiness. Because the tower is located in an area that has experienced high levels of radiation, those who are not accepted by the tower soon die of radiation poisoning. Balabanov, playing himself, dies on-screen in an exploration of the sacred and the profane. Similarly, Ianovskaia’s Exciting Life depicts a spiritual quest. In search of Potapov, Iudnikov encounters challenges along the way that prepare him for his final self-realization. Sitting with Nogovitsyn, Iudnikov learns of “Saylyk”—a spiritual place of eternal summer where your ancestors await you. However, some souls become lost along the journey and huddle near a fire until they can find their way to this spiritual place. Iudnikov has been trying to get home to Moscow but has found himself trapped in a world that is foreign to him. Does Iudnikov ultimately find happiness? Does he complete his quest? Does he get home?

What first appears as a forthright film about a failing actor’s exotic adventure to the Far East, slowly reveals more complex themes for a viewer to ponder during and even after the film’s end. Whether it is the quest, the dialogue with the Sakha film industry, the homage to Balabanov, or simply the beautiful scenery of Yakutia, Exciting Life offers a cinematic journey for viewers to a place from which they may wish never to return.

Frederick H. White
Utah Valley University

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Exciting Life, Russia, 2018
Color, 87 minutes
Director: Anna Ianovskaia
Screenplay: Andrei Shemiakin, Anna Ianovskaia
DoP: Semen Amanatov
Cast: Andrei Borisov, Stepan Burnashev, Kostas Moran, Anissa Naouai, Prokopyi Nogovitsyn, Sergei Potapov, Aleksei Iudnikov
Producers: Vladimir Golikov, Natal’ia Lisovskaia

Anna Ianovskaia: Exciting Life (Interesnaia zhizn’, 2018)

reviewed by Frederick H. White © 2019

Updated: 2019