Issue 74 (2021)

Ivan Sosnin: Ivans, Remembering Kinship (Ivany, pomniashchie rodstvo, Russia, 2019)

reviewed by Raymond De Luca © 2021

ivany The sound of a train clanking down the tracks fills the frame. We look out onto a vast land dotted by telephone wires and dirt roads backdropped by a morning sky, as if we are passengers waking up to find ourselves aboard an overnight train. We learn that, in fact, we are riding the Transsiberian railroad, the longest railway in the world, stretching nearly six thousand miles from Moscow to Vladivostok that takes a full seven days to complete. A man is then heard saying: “Couchette car (platskartnyi vagon), this is Russia (eto Rossiia).” He lists all the kinds of people—soldiers, mothers, students, the elderly—who are made alike by their experience on the train. “A train car is the most just place in society,” a “tiny country on wheels” that unites those of the “bigger country” through which it diligently plods: the (Russian) train as the great social equalizer.

ivanyThese are the opening shots and main ideas of Ivan Sosnin’s “debut” film Ivans, Remembering Kinship (Ivany, pomniashchie rodstvo, aka Ivanovo schast'e, 2019), which he describes as trying to capture the “philosophy of the railroad” (filosofiia zheleznoi dorogoi). The word “debut” demands quotes here because Sosnin’s film is comprised of a series of shorts that he, a young filmmaker from Ekaterinburg, had directed previously: Voice of the Sea (Golos moria, 2018), Lights (Ogon’ki, 2018), Goodbye, Amerika! (Gudbai, Amerika!, 2017), Moscow-Vladivostok (Moskva-Vladivostok, 2019), and Interview (Interv’iu, 2018). It was Interview,a film about a journalist who, working undercover, reconnects with her estranged father, that won Sosnin the coveted Golden Eagle Award from Russia’s National Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in 2018 and created the conditions that propelled his first feature-length film a year later. It is unclear, though, what we gain as viewers from Sosnin’s compilation work, which seems mostly like an exercise in self-promotion.

ivanyThe protagonist of this series of vignettes is a man named Ivan (a role played by Anton Adasinskii), a perennial train passenger, who records the stories of those he encounters aboard. Continual shots of Ivan’s hand scribbling on sheets of paper invests in a cultural mythology about the train that has long informed its depiction onscreen, from Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) to Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Trains are places where people tell stories, and others collect them; where you contemplate life as you clatter through the night; where adventure and languor intertwine. Call it railroad romanticism.

ivanyAs narrator , Ivan first introduces us to far-flung fishermen in the north Pacific in Voice of the Sea. One of these men, also named Ivan, falls in love with a local singer. Our narrator then invites us to follow a Russian-Cuban immigrant, Ivan (Zakaria Al’-Iazidi), who tries to start a new tech business in Russia in order to get rich and relocate to the United States in Goodbye, Amerika! “America loves Russian programmers,” says Ivan in a not-so-subtle allusion to the Russian hackers who abetted the rise of Donald Trump. This short also takes its title from the pop hit by the (ex-)Soviet rock band Nautilus Pompilius, a song that the cultural theorist Svetlana Boym described as a “farewell” to a country where one has never been, a sendoff to Russia’s utopian fantasies about what the world beyond Soviet borders—the imaginary West—was really like (Boym 1994, 119–20). It is no wonder, then, that Ivan in Goodbye, Amerika! wears a “Make America Great Again” hat. His red-hat vision of America, a welcoming land of immigrants and opportunity, is an increasingly fanciful one running up against the realities of Trumpian xenophobia.

ivanyIvan-the-narrator then presents Sosnin’s most famous work, Interview, which itself is made possible by a train journey to Moscow where a young woman covertly reconnects with her father. The next vignette, Lights, takes place on the New Year’s Eve in Saint Petersburg. A young boy (presumably fatherless) stumbles upon a homeless man, again named Ivan, whom he begins to take care of with food and gifts, while Ivan, in turn, offers the boy paternal wisdom. The two “parent” each other. The final story deals with the main Ivan’s passage to Vladivostok. Onboard, Ivan once met a musician struggling to make it in Moscow who takes a time out on the train to find himself. This Ivan, a gifted writer whose stories we have been following all along, pens a song for the musician, and the two, after recording it together on a smartphone, become overnight internet sensations. Sosnin’s film ends with them touring Russia together to fame and fortune. The American dream that alludes Ivan in Goodbye, Amerika! finds its realization here, in modern Russia.

Though Sosnin lyrically waxes about trying to capture the “philosophy of the railroad” in Ivans, Remembering Kinship,he seems more interested in showing off some of his older shorts for viewers who may only be familiar with Interview. The train as a framing device is an all too convenient way for Sosnin to link together his body of work. What story out there, after all, could not be re-imagined as the recollection of a man with too much time on his hands aboard the Trans-Siberian railway? One has a sinking suspicion, moreover, that the scenes on the train starring Adasinskii, whose gravelly and mediative voice shines through Sosnin’s film (with a bald head to boot Adasinskii channels Aleksandr Kaidanovskii in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker [1979]), were leftover footage from Moscow-Vladivostok. The collage film has ripe aesthetic and philosophical potential—just think of Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) or Sergei Paradjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969)—but it requires more self-aware engagement than linking things serendipitously vis-à-vis train travel.

Rather than trains, Sosnin’s shorts are all united by absent fathers and substitute father figures. This theme bears with it a hue of social commentary—some 15 per cent of all Russian children are raised in single women households—but, more importantly, an autobiographical dimension. Much like the heroine of Interview, Sosnin never knew his own father. He himself is one of the “Ivans” of his title remembering his father by (re-)collecting his previous films about fathers. Cinema thus acts as a medium through which to work through questions of memory, loss, and self-definition. It seems, then, that Sosnin is steeping himself in one of the great tropes of Russian avant-garde cinema. So many of the films of Aleksandr Sokurov, Andrei Zviagintsev, and, of course, Tarkovsky explore questions of orphanhood and absented fathers (see Sandler 2008). The title of Sosnin’s work even evokes Tarkovsky’s debut, Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962), a film about a boy forced to become a “man” as a result of war. But Sosnin replaces Tarkovsky’s focus on detstvo (childhood) for the similar-sounding rodstvo (kinship), and therein lies a difference between their artistic approaches.

The interest in one’s kin—one’s characteristics and origins shared with others—makes Ivans, Remembering Kinship an extrovert film, whereas Tarkovsky’s poetic reflection on a lost adolescence makes Ivan’s Childhood, and all his filmography, an intensely inward-looking one. Tarkovsky’s beguiling film enkindles introspection about the workings of memory and subjectivity; it raises more questions than it answers and demands repeat viewings. For his part, Sosnin adheres to a hokey vision of community based on the passengers’ shared Russian-ness. It elevates the collective over the individual, flattening the complexities of any one character’s interiority into a feel-good story about togetherness in Putin’s Russia. The experience of the train gives way to gauzy national solidarity. The needs of the homeless are no different than those of writers than those of the working class than those of immigrants.

In this light, rodstvo in Ivan, Remembering Kinship is a synonym for narod, “the folk.” The film is about simple people—a collection of Russian everymen, literally a series of Ivans—who find common ground in a world increasingly ravaged by disease, social inequalities, and a precipitously changing climate. The film would have us believe that all Russia’s troubles might be resolved through mere good-heartedness. If only Russians, the narod, could recognize that they have far more in common than  what divides them (not unlike the wayward musician and skeptical writer in Moscow-Vladivostok), then there would be no limit to Russia’s potential.

In Americanized political terms, the film takes an interest in Russia’s equivalent of Trump country—fishermen, the provinces, ex-military men, construction workers, small business owners, and the disaffected—but grafts onto them the logic of Joe Biden’s political project: a hope against hope to find common ground in a society’s better angels before it’s too late. The film invests in a quaint conservatism, which it telegraphs via glossy visuals and sappy pop music. Its relation to the deeper questions of selfhood and loss endemic to the Russian film avant-garde is only incidental.

Raymond De Luca
Harvard University

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Boym, Svetlana. 1994. Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Sandler, Stephanie. 2008. “The Absent Father, the Stillness of Film: Tarkovsky, Sokurov, and Loss,” in Tarkovsky, edited by Nathan Dunne. London: Black Dog Publishers, 127–47.

Ivans, Remembering Childhood, Russia, 2019
Color, 81 min.
Languages: Russian
Director: Ivan Sosnin
Screenplay: Ivan Sosnin
DoP: Egor Protsko, Ivan Solomatin
Music: Lev Sokolovskii
Cast: Anton Adasinskii, Iuliia Aug, Fedor Dobronravov, Igor Kozhevin, Savelii Kudriashov, Kirill Káro, Vadim Norshtein, Aleksei Serebriakov, Ol’ga Sutulova, Natalia Tsygankova
Producer: Danil Golovanov, Igor Kuznetsov, Ekaterina Nefel’d, Iana Shmailova, Tigran Telunts
Production: Diadia Vania Films

Ivan Sosnin: Ivans, Remembering Kinship (Ivany, pomniashchie rodstvo, Russia, 2019)

reviewed by Raymond De Luca © 2021

Updated: 2021