KinoKultura: Issue 70 (2020)

Venice 2020: The Russians are coming… and they’re not alone

By Birgit Beumers

The first major international film festival to hold a live edition (apart from the VR competition, which sensibly went entirely online) was the world’s oldest film festival, the “Mostra del Cinema” in Venice, running in this year “pandemic” year from 2-12 September.

Of all the major festivals, Venice has always been slightly chaotic and somewhat disorganized, with screenings cancelled, delayed or restarted, with crowds of students waiting for access to cinemas, and with additions to the competition or changes in the program in the last minute, often as the festival was already under way. Indeed, that is what also always gave Venice that particular flair, with a liberal and democratic structure for access to the screenings that created a quite relaxed (or laid-back) atmosphere. How would this festival (not the efficiently organized Berlin, not the high-brow and disciplined Cannes, not the small-scale Locarno or Karlovy Vary) be able to handle the measures for Covid-19 imposed by the state and the region of Veneto, one of the very seriously affected areas in Italy alongside Lombardy? Surprisingly and amazingly well. As many international publications, from Variety to Screen and Hollywood Reporter have already commented, the impeccable organization, from seat booking in chessboard-pattern, a neatly scheduled spread of press screenings across different halls to compensate for reduced seating, body temperature checks and a special control whether you were wearing your “mascherina,” including staff patrolling the halls during the screenings and spotting (how?) in the pitch-dark room whoever was not wearing the mask over mouth AND nose—this was a remarkable organization involving impeccable planning and using online tools to greatest effect. Chapeau. I think all the visitors, from press to participants and public, were extremely impressed with the safety measures, but then there was of course also a fabulous selection of films in the various sections, which we should not forget behind the humble gratitude to the organizers for having taken on this major live event, and for showing the festival world how to manage live film screenings as opposed to the (respectable and decent) digital and online format, which will, however, never replace Cinema with a capital C and on a big screen.

kitoboySo, as usual, the festival had two competitions: the Venezia 77 competition; and Orrizonti (Horizons), for more experimental films, which often do not get wide release. However, this year the Giornate degli Autori (Venice Days) and the Settimana della Critica (Critics’ Week) also had their extra “bites” to offer, having likely picked up a few titles from the cancelled festivals. The Giornate were programmed by Gaia Furrer, the first woman to head any section in Venice. And that was about time. Moreover, the Giornate presented several films from Eastern Europe, picking up various titles that missed out the festival circuit following the cancellation of Karlovy Vary with its East of the West sidebar, and thus created some attention for the region, including Russia, which contributed two of the ten chosen films in the section: Filipp Yuriev’s Whaler Boy (Kitoboi); and Ivan Tverdovskii’s Conference (Konferentsiia). It was the Russian debut Whaler Boy which won the main award of the section. In his first feature, which comes eight years after graduating from the Film Institute, Yuriev tells essentially a fairy tale, of a teenage boy growing up. Leshka, along with his friend Kolyan, does all the things that are normal for teenage boys in the modern world, such as riding on a motorbike and looking at pretty girls on the internet. Yet he pursues these adventures in a most isolated and remote village of whale fishers in the far north, in a coastal area near the Bering Strait, where Alaska is probably closer than the nearest large human settlement of Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka. The people here live in harmony with the tundra, the land that takes them back when they are ready to die; and with the sea and the whales that supply them with food and income. Yet in order to become a true adult, Leshka—like the hero of a fairy tale—needs to make a journey to another world and overcome fear and danger so as to return home as an “adult” and understand where he really belongs: to his people on the Chukotka.

conferneceTverdovskii’s Conference, by contrast, is certainly no fairy tale. It is an intriguing and complex film, disturbing and unsettling the viewer with a narrative that will not be easy to understand for the younger generation because of the specific event it uses as a basis. The story evolves around a nun, Natasha, who returns from her monastery whence she has withdrawn 17 years ago, to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attack at the Dubrovka Theatre Centre in Moscow, where her son perished. Then, from 23-26 October 2002 Chechen terrorists held hostage some 850 spectators who were watching the musical Nord-Ost; during the intervention from the Special Forces to end the siege and capture the terrorists (who were all killed), over 200 spectators died from a powerful gas that was used to lethargize everybody inside the hall and prevent any explosives from being triggered. Whilst raising issues of personal memory, of commemoration, and of remembrance at large, Tverdovskii undermines the premises of each of these concepts: Natasha’s personal memory is fraud; any form of commemoration is unwanted, with people who lost their loved ones attending reluctantly and the venue management trying to oppose the event from the start, the officials wishing to forget; and the act of remembering is questioned thoroughly and at all levels throughout the story. Indeed, the nun (exquisitely played by Natal’ia Pavlenkova, with a sense of guilt and innocence at once) first appeals to the viewer with her quiet demeanor, her determination, and her devotion, but gradually turns out to have let down her family on more than one occasion: during the siege she escaped from the building, jumping through a window and leaving her husband and children inside; having lost her son, she apparently never visited his grave; and she abandoned her daughter, her granddaughter and her husband, who is immobile after a stroke. On the one hand, the viewer may condemn Natasha for her actions, for not confessing to her escape and repenting before; on the other, the film portrays the effect of trauma in a manner that truly goes under the skin.

dear comradesThe Competition’s Special Jury Award went to Andrei Konchalovsky for his film Dear Comrades (Dorogie tovarishchi) and honors maybe less the cinematic achievement than a political statement made here, with support from the oligarch Alisher Usmonov that dominates the film’s credits. The film concerns an event that has for long been erased from Soviet history: the strike at the electro-locomotive plant and the subsequent intervention and mass shooting of demonstrators in Novocherkassk in June 1962. The story is told through the eyes of a woman, Liudmila Semina (played by Konchalovsky’s wife Yulia Vysotskaya), a Party worker and single mother of the teenage Svetka, who has raised alone a child conceived during the war and whose father perished. A convinced Party member, Liudmila sees and experiences things that she cannot connect with her belief in Soviet ideology: words become empty shells when her own daughter disappears amidst the escalation of the protests, in which mother and child stand on different sides. Shot in black-and-white, the film tries to set the events in a distant past, in another time, another country, yet while the historical facts are certainly accurate, some plot twists seem contrived and unnecessarily convolute the story to draw out political parallels, as for example the “romantic” line where Liudmila is helped by a “nice” KGB officer and taken out of town to a cemetery to search among hurriedly buried graves for the resting place of her daughter, believed dead; or when the latter helps her hide her daughter after she reappears. There are other narrative lines that burden the plot, for example where the child is conceived during the war and therefore deprived of a father (never mind that the soldier with whom Lyudmila had an affair was also married); and where the grandfather’s comments about his Cossack past and Liudmila’s praise for Stalin ring not false, but resonate only too loudly with issues in contemporary Russia. Nevertheless, this is an important film, if only about history and memory.

bad roadsThe Critics’ Week presented Natal’ia Vorozhbit’s Bad Roads (Pohani dorogi, Ukraine), which marks the well-known playwright’s debut as filmmaker. Her theatrical experience shines through in her work with the actors. Cinematically, different locations are chosen for each episode but they remain almost unchanged: a roadside, a bus stop, a farmstead, a basement. And, very much in the tradition of New Drama, language is foregrounded before action. Characters’ traumatic past or present leads to an annulment of action: any movement means danger and can mean death. The “bad roads” designate what these places all have in common: no path to a future—politically, socially and individually. The individual who is deprived of basic living standards, of food and stability, and who is permanently exposed to aggression, threats and violence is, in Vorozhbit’s reading, no longer capable of taking any “road”.

yellow catSimilarly bleak is the outlook for Kazakh society, ridden with corruption and crime in which the “innocent” and “pure” are caught up and which serve to expose these flaws in a comical, often absurd manner. The Orrizonti program presented Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s Yellow Cat (Zheltaia koshka, Kazakhstan), which in many ways pursues the themes touched already in his Gentle Indifference of the World (Laskovoe bezrazlichie mira, 2018), which screened in Un Certain Regard in Cannes. In Gentle Indifference, too, there was a somewhat retarded young man, Kuandyk, who admires and adores the beautiful Saltanat, who is forced into a marriage with a rich guy to save her family from bankruptcy after the father’s suicide. In Yellow Cat, the ex-con Kermek (Azamat Nigmanov), somewhat naively pursuing his dream of opening a cinema in the mountains, takes with him the “pretty girl” and prostitute Eva (Kamilla Nugmanova), wishing to withdraw from the world of corruption and exploitation into a world of (fairy) tales and drawings that make him believe (to be) in that “other” world, whatever shape it may take.

The impossibility to break away from corruption, exploitation and trauma sets a common ground for many of these films: the impossibility to forgive and to forget prevent people from moving on in life—to go forward, and ultimately to change things: these tools seem to have been taken away from the individuals in Russia and beyond, namely the characters of Conference, Bad Roads and Yellow Cat alike.

in betweenThe Venezia 77 competition included another film from the former Soviet space, which we tend to cover in KinoKultura: the Azeri co-production (with US and Mexico) by Hilal Baydarov, entitled In Between Dying. Baydarov is probably best known for his documentaries, especially When the Persimmons Grew (2019) catching attention at some festivals. However, his ambition to move further into fiction film reveals both his strengths as filmmaker and weaknesses as screenwriter. Visually, this is a powerful film that uses landscapes to capture human isolation, to create a metaphor of a world between life and death, and imbue images of nature with a sense of the non-natural, but endow them with magic and surreal qualities, with a sense of mortality within the living present: there are open graves in which living people are preparing to die; cemeteries which thrive with (criminal) business; mountains and rivers that suggest liminal spaces between worlds, and roads take the protagonist Davud from death to death. Narratively, however, the fragments or episodes are neither sufficiently woven together nor detached enough to give the sense of association or dissociation, leaving the viewer in doubt not only over the issue of where this road—or story—(into Baku, away from Baku, along mountains and rivers) is leading, and if road, or narrative, is supposed to head anywhere: Davud is in limbo, between death and life; he cannot die but brings death, unwillingly. Yet all the references to the crossing of the Styx into another world, of the fairy-tale element of a visit to the other world, the cemetery as a place for a new departure, all these elements have potential, but do not play with each other in any (formal, structural, associative) manner. Bayadov may not be Parajanov (even if he aims at the latter’s complex allegories and metaphors), but it is a name not to be lost from the radar.

All in all, it was a pleasure to see cinema again on the big screen, from unsettling stories to crowd-pleasers, from different countries, from male and female directors. It was a genuine feat of the Venice team to manage this event, and to show the solidarity with colleagues who did not manage to hold a live event and the global film industry, as Alberto Barbera did when he invited festival directors Carlo Chatrian (Berlin), Thierry Fremaux (Cannes), Lili Hinstin (Locarno), Vanja Kaludjercic (Rotterdam), Karel Och (Karlovy Vary), José Luis Rebordinos (San Sebastian), and Tricia Tuttle (BFI London) to join him on stage for the opening ceremony.

All images courtesy of Venice Film Festival Press Office; image for Bad Roads © Kristi Films

Birgit Beumers


Birgit Beumers © 2020

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Updated: 2020