KinoKultura: Issue 74 (2021)

A splash in the international festival circuit: Russian cinema 2021

By Birgit Beumers

After the “pandemic pause” in film festivals, Russia showed a strong presence in the international circuit this summer: in Cannes, Kirill Serebrennikov’s new film Petrov’s Flu (Petrovy v grippe) screened in competition and won cinematographer Vladislav Opeliants the Vulcan Award (Prix Vulcain de l’Artiste Technicien), alongside a Finnish-Russian co-production, Compartment No. 6 (Hytti nro 6)  which would go on to win the Grand Jury Prize (ex-aequo with Ashgar Farhadi’s A Hero); in the Un Certain Regard (UCR) competition, Kira Kovalenko presented her second feature, Unclenching the Fists (Razzhimaia kulaki) and took the main prize, while Aleksei A. German presented his “pandemic” film House Arrest (Delo), made while waiting for shooting to resume on his big project about fighter pilots in WWI. In Karlovy Vary, the East of the West competition included Vladimir Munkuev’s Nuuchcha, which went on to win the main award. In Locarno, Gleb Panfilov’s Solzhenitsyn adaptation Ivan Denisovich screened on the Piazza Grande, while the competition included two Russian titles: Aleksandr Zel’dovich’s Medea and Natalia Kudriashova’s Gerda, for which Anastasia Krasovskaia took away a Pardo for Best Actress. In Venice, Russian films garnered no major awards, but Ivan Chupov and Natal’ia Merkulova’s Captain Volkonogov Escaped (Kapitan Volkonogov bezhal) screened in competition, and Vladimor Bitokov’s Mama, I’m Home (Mama, ia doma) in Horizons Extra program. The festival season concluded with the debut award for Lena Lanskikh’s Unwanted (Nich’ia) in San Sebastian. This is clearly a strong show, so let us look a little closer at some of the players.

Petrovs FluCannes, July 2021
Kirill Serebrennikov’s Petrov’s Flu (based on the Aleksei Salnykov’s bestseller of the same title) moves fluidly between reality and delirium, between past and present of the comic-book artist Petrov, played by Semen Serzin, a stage director and also maker of the film Chelovek iz Podol'ska/The Man from Podolsk. Petrov has divorced his wife, a librarian (Chulpan Khamatova) but shares with her the care for their son; together they live in post-Soviet Ekaterinburg (in an unspecified time). As Christmas approached, Petrov catches the flu and suffers from a fever, leading him to hallucinate and to infect his family also. Moreover, there are also alcohol-induced visions, recollections of the past intertwined with the present that are sometimes marked out in black and white; or shifts into genre games towards the horror movie to show the hallucinating mind of the characters. As the film veers between different realms, it extends the perception of reality. Amazingly shot by Vladislav Opeliants, who gained the CST Award for Technical Artistry, the film contains several astounding shots that “frame” the past; especially memorable is one where Petrov looks (back) into his childhood home from the outside of a window; as the camera moves back, his figure is revealed as disproportionate in comparison to the house, turning the interior space into a doll’s house. 

compartment 6 Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6 is a Finnish-Russian coproduction. Kuosmanen had previously presented his striking black-and-white debut feature The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki in the UCR section in Cannes, and here returned with his second film (and we know of the difficulty of the “second” film) to the competition – only to receive a standing ovation and the Grand Jury Prize. The film unfolds like a simple story of a man and a woman sharing a train compartment on the journey from Moscow to Murmansk. From the start, it seems like a predictable trip, a predictable story with a very predictable gaze on and of the woman, a foreign student, ticking off her list cliché after cliché of what her “Russian” experience: vulgar language, booze, petty crime, and so on. Yet this journey is ultimately more than a romantic comedy or a melodrama, and even more than a road movie (with a train instead of a car): it is a journey of self-discovery and therefore has some unexpected twists.

The Finnish student Laura (played by an amazing Seidi Haarla) is first seen at a party thrown by her landlady and lover Irina (Dinara Drukarova, who once upon a time, in the very same 1990s in which the film is set, starred in Aleksei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men/ Pro urodov i liudei [1998]). At the event, the camera captures some key figures of the cultural elite, or what used to be called the intelligentsia, who appear as real-life characters (including, for example critic and director Mikhail Brashinskii, producer Natal'ia Drozd, filmmaker Konstantin Murzenko, designer Stasya Khomeriki, film critic Konstantin Shavlovskii: the scene was shot in St Petersburg in the apartment of director Nikolai Khomeriki). Laura is part of the event and yet she is an outsider; she observes and films the experience with her video camera, which she uses to make a diary of her stay in Russia. She is a student of archeology, and she wants to “dig deep” and see the petroglyphs in the far north “to understand the past, so we know who we are”. Yet of key important is less the past, but the understanding of the self. Irina sends Laura off alone on a trip that they had planned together, and later she ditches her and moves to another relationship, which highlighs the fragility of Laura’s character and her lack of confidence in the journey, in her profession, and in her sexual identity. Laura seems mature, but she is quite insecure. Sometimes she runs away, wanting to break off the journey, then she continues; sometimes she wants to do the sensible thing (stay on the train) but follows instincts rather than reason.

compartment 6On her train journey she meets Lekha (played by Iura Borisov), a miner, whose vulgar language and alcohol consumption cover a soft soul, which becomes visible when he fools around on a platform, or when he touchingly visits an old woman, a sort of adoptive mother, to bring her food supplies and chop up some firewood on one of the stops on the—and, of course, to get drunk. Laura and Lekha could not be more different: woman and man, aspiring intellectual and simple worker, refined language and vulgar mat, a foreigner and a Russian, a finely drawn portrait by Laura and a naïve, almost child-like drawing by Lekha. They have nothing in common. Or do they? Laura aspires to be part of a culturally sophisticated social circle, to discover her roots, to learn about the country where she studies; yet she remains outside. On her journey, she continues to document her experience on her camera, and when it is stolen by a Finnish traveler whom she allows to share the compartment for a stretch of the journey, she is devastated. Images (recorded on film), words (the poetry recited at the party) and signs (the petroglyphs) mean a whole world to her; they serve as a way of making a mark, her mark. Lekha, on the other hand, seems to know where he belongs, what needs to be done—not always in a legal way, but he gets things done. So, upon arrival at the destination, he is the only person who will help Laura find her petroglyphs.

The film is inspired by Rosa Liksom’s novel of 2011, which has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Finlandia Award. Set in the late Soviet era, it tells of a train journey to Mongolia rather than the Arctic, and the male character, Vadim, is an ex-convict. Judging by his behavior and language, Lekha might well be an ex-convict, too, but we don’t know; and this is because not he is the main character, but Laura. The film is set in (post-Soviet) 1990s, marked by the old telephone booths Laura uses, by her Walkman with a cassette deck, and her video camera. The musical theme is the song “Voyage Voyage,” making a nod to the reverence of Western pop culture in those years, and setting a counterpoint to the quite un-romantic voyage undertaken by the two characters, which leads to a rather unusual finale in the self-discovery through an “Other,” to understanding through misunderstanding(s). At the start of the journey, Lekha wants to know the Finnish words for “I love you” and Laura mocks his own use of language by teaching him the Finnish phrase for “fuck off”, haista vittu; at the journey’s end, this phrase will shape the ending, or beginning, of their mutual understanding, or misunderstanding. Ultimately, words no longer matter: communication works on a different level. This is best expressed in the harmonious merger of two cultures in this fine—and first—example of a co-production where Russia acts as minority producer rather than the lead partner. Such ventures have become possible under the new Minister of Culture, Olga Liubimova, who has supported the award of state subsidies for minority co-production projects, including, as in this case, with Eurimages.

deloThe section UCR also presented two films from Russia. Alexei Gherman’s House Arrest is a film about a university professor, David (superbly played by Merab Ninidze), who denounces the corruption in the town and is placed under house arrest for posting allegations and caricatures on social media. Whilst the film focuses on the events around David, his ex-wife, his relationship with their daughter, with his mother, with the students and colleagues, it relegates to a sideline a potentially conflicting issue about ethics. On the one hand, the professor’s challenge to corruption represents a strong ethical position; on the other hand, the means of exposure, of allegations and accusations in social media, would appear to suggest a conflict in his strong and uncompromising ethics. And even if there is no other way, as the film seems to suggest, of exposing corruption in the country, this question remains unaddressed and unresolved.

unclenchingKira Kovalenko’s film Unclenching the Fists won the UCR Main Prize from a jury presided by the British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Kovalenko’s piece is a quiet film with a powerful central theme. Set in Northern Ossetia in the Ossetian language and filmed with local actors and non-professionals, the film tells a story connected to the trauma of the Beslan tragedy, even if that event is never mentioned by name. During a school siege, young Ada suffered injuries to her abdomen and needs repeated surgery, which her father Zaur denies her: he clings on to the young woman, afraid to lose her and does not allow her to leave and live her own life or undergo further medical procedures. Her older brother Akim has long left the house and now lives in Rostov-on-Don; here lies Ada’s hope for a new life and for treatment “to make her whole again.” Another hope of escaping home is the young man Tamik, even if he proves too young and too childish to be a serious husband. The budding romance leads nowhere, really, other than making clear the need for Ada to leave with her brother. What makes this film extraordinary is the apparent silence: words are spoken, but the dialogue is either factual and basic, or else consists of shouts and screams. Words serve not for the expression of feelings, which are rendered through the silent gaze of the characters: Akim, Zaur and Ada all speak the same language of a sad gaze of understanding, fear, and hope. The landscape of the Caucasus underlines this: it is not pretty but dull and covered in clouds, the habitation consists of Soviet-era concrete block housing quarters, kiosks with shutters that serve as shops, the pastime of the young lads is firing at facades and kicking around with a football. The scars of the past are embedded in every frame: this is the forgotten land, where the pipes clog up and a defunct washing machine stands around in a corner, where there is only one set of clothes for Dako, where a video recorder is the hiding place for Ada’s passport as the father tries to stop her from leaving. The trauma may be resolved in Ada’s always smiling eyes, in the long final shot of her riding with her brother on his motorbike, yet the scars on Ada’s body and soul remain, no matter what surgery will reconstitute her body functions.

nuuchchaKarlovy Vary, August 2021
After the surge of interest in films from Sakha (Yakutia) in 2019/2020, with the major awards at Moscow, Vyborg and Sochi going to Sakha films (Lord Eagle, Black Snow and Scarecrow respectively), this year Vladimir Munkuev’s Nuuchcha ventured onto the international festival circuit (and went on to win the Best Director award at Kinotavr, held in September 2021). The film is based on the writings of the Polish ethnographer Wacław Sieroszewski (widespread reading matter in Yakutia) and set in the late 19th century (the main collection of his writings appeared in 1986). Much like the kul’turfilms in the late 1920s for the Soviet empire, it explores imperial Russia’s colonializing effort in the Far East. A Yakut couple, struggling to survive and living by the grace of the village elder, are forced to take in a Russian convict, a political prisoner and revolutionary. The Russian (the nuuchcha, which is the Yakut word for Russian) quickly figures out better ways of managing everyday life and survival, takes over the household, including the possession of the wife. And so, exploited by the local elder as well as the colonizer, the couple prepare to flee… The film is a powerful demonstration of the conflict of powers, and visually focuses on the local byt and Sakha customs as they are subjected to gradual extinction, from within the community, from the central power and from the (future Soviet) enemy.

volkonogovVenice, September 2021
Aleksei Chupov and Natal’ia Merkulova’s Captain Volkonogov Escaped came as a surprise: it is the first of their films set not in the present times, and this is a cleverly set trap for all those who read synopses in catalogs: “Captain Fedor Volkonogov is part of the law enforcement system. […] But the moment comes for the Captain’s life to take an abrupt turn: he is criminally charged [...] and he receives a warning […] that he is destined for Hell and eternal torments, but can still change his destiny and get into Heaven if he repents and at least one person grants him forgiveness.” An existential and ethical drama, no doubt, but what if this happens in the 1930s during Stalin’s Purges? Indeed, the question of what, if anything, changes in the question about responsibility for one’s actions depending on circumstances is what could, but does not quite, make this film cutting edge in the debate about absence and presence of ethics (see also the above-mentioned film by Aleksei German). However, this aspect is relegated to a distant level. Instead, Captain Volkonogov is beautifully choreographed and exquisitely set, with costumes designed by Nadezhda Vasil’eva, donning the NKVD officers in red (Adidas-type) track suits, black (DocMartens-style) boots and old-fashioned suspenders (braces). So, it is set in the 1930s but not historically accurate in style. It is maybe trying to make contemporary allusions, but can we compare? Somewhere the story remains empty behind beautiful, stylized façades and costumes. The issue of moral responsibility is clearly at the center of this story, but is it, or not, a question of political regimes that changes the attitude to moral issues, hence the historical abstraction through choreography and costume. At the same time, some markers are too precise to go the full way to detach the ethical issues from historical circumstance. And ultimately: the issue of forgiveness is profoundly religious, even for NKVD officer Volkonogov. He escapes, he finds forgiveness not among his victims but from a woman he cares for before her death. A believer. When Volkonogov is caught, he could surrender to the enemy and let himself be shot (and be a victim), yet he chooses to commit suicide – the ultimate sin for a believer if we have followed the argument of repentance and forgiveness set out in the plot.

mamaVladimir Bitokov’s film follows after a strong debut, Deep Rivers (Glubokie reki, 2018) and is also set in his native land, Kabardino-Balkaria. Mum, I’m Home unravels the drama of bus driver Tonia (Ksenia Rappoport) whose only son has perished in a mission in Syria for which he signed up with a private military contractor. Since he has not officially been enlisted, his death is not investigated and his remains are not returned home. Instead, a man (Iura Borisov) from the special forces comes to “play” the lost son and help the mother get over her grief. Yet Tonia does not believe in the son’s death and continues to make her protest public. This happens against the backdrop of a maybe presidential visit to announce the restoration of an old sanatorium (a little far-fetched and surreal as plot device), and therefore the town tries to suppress the protest and any agitation from the mother. All in all, the film is in places a little too reminiscent of Andrei Stempkovskii’s Reverse Motion (Obratnoe dvizhenie, 2010) where a mother receives news that her only son has been missing in action while doing his army service in a hot spot. After a while, she notices a crippled and homeless migrant boy and takes him into the house; later, (as reward?) her son returns, but one day he sacrifices his life to save the migrant boy. Distant echoes… 

Whatever the “secondariness,” whatever he ethical issues that seem to this viewer somewhat “half-cooked,” the fact that we have films that raise such question speaks of a resurrection—that of Russian cinema. What will Rotterdam and Berlin 2022 have in store?

Birgit Beumers © 2021

Comment on this article on Facebook
Updated: 2021