KinoKultura: Issue 72 (2021)

Far away on my sofa: The Russian Film Week USA, New York (23-29 January 2021)

By Birgit Beumers

rfwusaLaunched in 2018 as an independent showcase for new films, the Russian Film Week USA in New York has only recently established itself as a regular event for New Yorkers. This year’s edition was a first for me, possible only because the festival was delivered online, delivered to my sofa. Like many film festivals that had to move to hybrid formats or online platforms, so did the film week. Whilst we all miss the travel, the meetings, and the live screenings in that big cinema with a huge screen, festivals and film weeks are getting more and more inventive and come up with quite original ideas. And it is nice to see how the professional festival circuit goes about formats with a “heads up” attitude. So, let’s improvise, with these impressions from the sofa.

The festival, organized by the Cherry Orchard Festival Foundation and Rock Films, presented a range of new films, but quite unusual for a film week is the inclusion of a number of first films or films by young filmmakers and a program of short films from VGIK students, which shows the organizers’ concern to present a new generation of filmmakers.

The festival opened with the long-awaited film Tsoy by Aleksei Uchitel’, focusing on the aftermath of the rock star’s fatal accident in Latvia in August 1990; the film is reviewed in this issue of KinoKultura by Rita Safariants. Uchitel’’s film captures the growing fan-base of the rock star, the media-hype of the world around him—already in those last days of the Soviet Union, and the hunt for a lost album. It shows the world around the rock star after his life ended and offers a number of interesting contrasts to Kirill Serebrennikov’s Summer (Leto, 2018), which shows the early stage of Tsoy’s career, the time before he gained fame and before he gave his first concert in the famous Leningrad Rock Club.

gipnozWith films such as Mikhail Segal’s Deeper! (Glubzhe!), which won the Special Jury Award at Kinotavr and is reviewed here by Olga Mesropova, as well as Valerii Todorovskii’s Hypnosis (Gipnoz, 2020), which competed in the Moscow International Film Festival 2020, or Ivan Tverdovskii’s Conference (Konferentsiia, 2002), which screened at the Venice Days in 2020, the festival presented recent works of established directors that had already had resonance on a national and international level. The films share an interest in secrets and traumas as they shape the protagonists’ behavior, and in the blurred lines between reality and the imagination. Most markedly this concern is in the drama Conference that turns to the terrorist attack at the Dubrovka Theater in 2002, without wishing to unravel the events in detail, but with the aim of highlighting the trauma of the events on individuals and how memory reshapes what happened in order to help the individual cope, forging a reality to make it manageable. Similarly, in Todorovskii’s film hypnosis only seemingly offers a cure, but rather allows manipulation.

streltsovFrom a younger generation of directors, the festival included Il’ia Uchitel’’s sports drama Streltsov about the soccer star Eduard Streltsov (1937–90), who returned to the Soviet national team after a rape conviction and several years in a labor camp—to play in the World Cup. It is Uchitel’ Jr’s second film after Big Village Lights (Ogni bolshoi derevni 2016), and by contrast to his debut addresses current concerns of national pride despite the injustices of the Soviet system. A debut film is Semen Serzin’s Man from Podolsk (Chelovek iz Podol’ska), already reviewed in KinoKultura 71 following its screening at Kinotavr. The film builds on the tradition of teatr.doc, which has proven a springboard for many new voices in scriptwriting and filmmaking alike. Another debut is Maria Ignatenko’s In Deep Sleep (Gorod usnul), which first screened in Berlin in 2020. The film, portraying a man alleged of a crime, clearly shows the influence of Ignatenko’s teacher Dmitrii Mamuliia at the Moscow School of New Cinema (whose The Criminal Man is reviewed in this issue).

The screen adaptation, or more generally the impact of literature on film, remains a significant line for Russian cinema also. From this category, the program included Dmitrii Rudakov’s debut Sententsia, which also screened at the Tallinn competition in 2020. The film explores Varlam Shalamov’s memoirs of the labor camp and the price of publishing such reminiscences in the USSR of the 1980s. Another adaptation is Anna Chernakova’s All About my Sister (Pro Leliu i Minku), based on the children’s stories of Mikhail Zoshchenko and adapted by Aleksandr Adabashian, the former collaborator of Nikita Mikhalkov. Chernakova, shows her hand not only at literary sources (her earlier films include adaptations of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard from 1993 and Death in Pince-Nez from 2004) but also children’s cinema, and along with the latest of the Belka and Strelka series, the festival could also offer fare for children. All of this is not even the full program of a rich festival event, with films available for a day at a time that made viewing stressless—even from a sofa in a different time zone.  

Special thanks to silversalt pr for the invitation.

Birgit Beumers


Birgit Beumers © 2021

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Updated: 2021