Issue 73 (2021)

Ivan I. Tverdovskii: Conference (Konferentsiia, 2020)

reviewed by Irina Anisimova © 2021

konferentsiiaThe director of Conference, Ivan Tverdovskii, is well known for his edgy and socially oriented films. His first three feature films, The Correction Class (Klass korrektsii, 2014), Zoology (Zoologiia, 2016), and Jumpman (Podbrosy, 2018), received critical attention and multiple awards at international film festivals. His latest film, Conference, continues this trend by bringing back the hitherto unaddressed traumatic memory of the terrorist siege of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in October 2002. The appearance of this film draws attention to the silence surrounding the siege, which stands in sharp contrast to the memory politics surrounding earlier historical periods and events.

The traumas of Stalinist terror have long become the focus of cultural production and public and scholarly debates. For example, Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance (Pokaianie, 1984), an allegorical exploration of Stalinism, became one of the cultural landmarks of perestroika. In contemporary Russian culture, the absence of a social consensus about Stalinism makes this historical period a sensitive and important topic for artistic expression and political debates. Contemporary Russian writers, such as Guzel’ Iakhina, Sergei Lebedev, and Mariia Stepanova, dedicate their works to the traumatic past of Soviet repressions. The later traumatic experiences of the post-Soviet transition in the 1990s form the core of Putin’s political myth. In contrast to these traumas, well represented in the cultural memory, the traumatic events of the early 2000s are surrounded by a deafening silence, caused by the political taboo that these events represent.

Iurii Dud’s documentary film on the 2004 Beslan hostage siege (VDud’, Beslan. Pomni, 2019) was one of the first attempts to break this silence. Tverdovskii’s Conference marks another, if tentative, step in the same direction. The film focuses on a commemorative evening organized by the film’s protagonist Natalia (Natal’ia Pavlenkova) to mark 17 years since the Dubrovka Theater hostage siege. Natalia is herself a hostage survivor, and is now a nun in a remote monastery; she has received the priest’s blessing to organize this event. The commemoration envisioned by Natalia is of a particular intensity, related to her own sense of guilt, and of having a higher mission. The recreation involves an attempt to recover the memory of the events. Therefore, the missing terrorists, the people who died at the Dubrovka Theater, and the absent survivors are represented by the inflatable mannequins, with different colors standing in for different groups. Natalia believes that a full recovery of the memory will lead to healing her personal trauma, the feeling of guilt, as well as the overcoming of this national trauma. She repeats that the evening has to include all personal accounts, so that these kinds of atrocities could never happen again. Following a kind of Freudian psychology, she believes in speaking, reenacting, and working through this trauma. She links silence to fear and death, when she says: “why are we always silent, always afraid, as if dead.”

konferentsiiaThe Dubrovka Theater hostage siege (23-26 October 2002) is usually referred to as “Nord-Ost”—the name of the musical performed at the time of the terrorist attack. The Nord-Ost siege led to the death of at least 130 hostages and an unconfirmed number of Chechen terrorists. The siege was one of the most traumatic terrorist attacks that, along with Beslan hostage siege, occurred in the context of the second Chechen War (1999–2009); the terrorists demanded the end of Russian military actions in Chechnya. Similar to Beslan, the Nord-Ost events cast a shadow of suspicion on the actions of the Russian security forces, leading to various allegations of the authority’s mismanagement and FSB involvement. The terrorist siege ended dramatically when both hostages and terrorists were poisoned by unknown chemical agents deployed by the security forces. Their incompetent handling of the situation thus led to the mass deaths of hostages and terrorists alike. An unexpected consequence of Nord-Ost was the governmental take-over of NTV channel—an event that initiated the gradual erosion of independent media in Russia. Therefore, the Nord-Ost events are of great political significance, but their political implications remain largely unaddressed in Tverdovskii’s Conference.

The name Nord-Ost never appears in the film; paradoxically, this absence then extends the silence surrounding this event. In an interview to Kommersant”, Tverdovskii stated that the film is “not quite and not only about Nord-Ost.” Therefore, the film can be read as an attempt to create a collective image of the terror attacks of the early 2000s and the silence that surrounds these events. However, this generalization partially preserves the silence around the Nord-Ost tragedy. The film similarly avoids the most controversial aspects of the siege, and instead takes a Russo-centric view on the terrorists, never challenging the stereotypical notion of supposedly evil and religiously fanatic Chechens. While avoiding the most prominent political issues, Conference emphasizes socially unprocessed trauma. The former hostages appear forgotten and left alone with their traumatic memories and psychological difficulties. The film also briefly raises the destructive role of the Russian security forces that is ironically invoked and dramatized when the organizers of the commemoration go over time and barricade themselves in the theater to finish their session, landing them in police detention.

konferentsiiaConference is a feature film with documentary elements, including the original location, parts of hostage interviews, as well as the two “actors,” Filipp Avdeev and Roman Shmakov, who play themselves as the survivors of the siege. However, elements of a theater play make the experience less immediate. Tverdovskii’s film appears to be an intentionally uncomfortable watch. It starts with an approximately five-minute scene of a vacuum cleaner moving through the theater rows in the original venue, the Dubrovka Theater. The monotonous monologues, disturbing background sounds, disorienting close-ups, violent family scenes, and the prolonged retelling and partial reenactment of the hostage siege, all add to the viewers’ discomfort.

In Conference, Tverdovskii combines historical memory, personal trauma, and family discord. The film centers on the family of Natalia, who has become a nun in response to her personal guilt. She says that “Fear is the greatest sin:” she was one of the two women who escaped from the Dubrovka Theater through a toilet window. By running away from the siege, she left behind her family, and her young son later died during the security forces’ operation. Natalia’s estranged daughter, Galia (Kseniia Zueva), is unable to forgive her mother and views her monastic service as yet another betrayal. Therefore, the film metaphorically links personal and national trauma. Natalia’s feeling of guilt and her unconscious desire to run away from traumatic experiences corresponds to the national silence surrounding the Nord-Ost attack. Similarly, at the end of the film, Galia tells the ambulance staff that her father cannot breathe, a diagnosis that is reminiscent of the hostages’ inability to breathe after being exposed to the poisonous gas. When viewed through this family metaphor, the promise of the commemorative working-through remains unrealized. Natalia’s personal failure, her final escape from the family in crisis is suggestive of the country’s inability to work through a national trauma.

Despite the film’s religious symbolism, faith also seems powerless to fulfill the promise of hope and personal or national transformation. Even as a nun, Natalia’s redemption is still out of reach.

Irina Anisimova
University of Bergen, Norway

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Works Cited

Shavlovskii, Konstantin. 2020. “Skol’ko fil’mov na eti temy nuzhno sniat’: 20, 15, ili 10? esli chestno, ia by ne khotel otvechat’ na etot vopros,” Kommersant” Weekend, 28 August.

Conference, Russia, Estonia, Great Britain, Italy, 2020
Color, 130 minutes
Scriptwriter and Director Ivan I. Tverdovskii
DoP: Fedor Glazachev
Production Design Vanya Bowden
Music: Sten Sheripov
Editing Ivan I. Tverdovskii
Costumes: Elena Litveniuk
Cast: Natal’ia Pavlenkova, Ol’ga Lapshina, Kseniia Zueva, Oleg Feoktistov, Ian Tsapnik, Aleksandr Semchev, Viktoriia Verberg, Anna Galinova, Nataliia Potapova, Igor Vorob’ev, Elena Nesterova, Natal’ia Batrak, Natal’ia Grinshpun, Anna Sliu, Marina Zubanova, Sergei Petrov, Filipp Avdeev, Natal’ia Tsvetkova, Roman Shmakov, Aleksei Mishakov, Iuliia Khamitova, Aleksandr Golubkov, Aleksandr Zlatopolskii, Andrei Larin, Marina Antonova, Anton Dolbusin, Oleg Bilik, Arina Marakulina, Natal’ia Donskaia
Producers: Katerina Mikhailova, Konstantin Fam, Igor Odintsov, Aleksandra Sarana
Production VEGA FILM with assistance of Eurimages

Ivan I. Tverdovskii: Conference (Konferentsiia, 2020)

reviewed by Irina Anisimova © 2021

Updated: 2021