Issue 74 (2021)

Vitalii Suslin: Papier-mâché (2020)

reviewed by Anastasia Kriachko Røren © 2021

papier“If you come with kindness and love, we will greet you with bread and salt.” This welcoming billboard expresses all the good-natured simplicity, naivety, and sincerity of Ivan Sergeevich, the main character in Vitalii Suslin’s feature film, Papier-maché. However, it also expresses the everyday reality of life in a Russian province with its numerous billboards and banners that guard cities and villages. They wish you a good journey, “instruct” you on how to be a good person, and show gratitude to the beloved local politician or the President.

Papier-mâché is the sequel to Head. Two Ears (Golova. Dva ukha, 2017), which, like the first film, was screened at film festivals only and released via digital distribution. Just a few theaters showed the film, which never had a wide release. Since his graduation in 2012, Suslin has made four feature films. His work also included two short films—Shnyr (2011) and Vanka Tepliashin (2012)—and a documentary, The Day of the Common Man (Den’ prostogo cheloveka, 2010). All movies encapsulate Suslin’s cinematic vision of ordinary people, namely to show life in the Russian province as it is: without excessive romanticization and vilification. For Papier-mâché Suslin received the award from the Guild of Film Scholars and Film Critics of Russia “for the expansion and complication of the author’s universe” at the Window to Europe Film Festival in Vyborg. Despite Suslin’s success at film festivals, finding a wider audience has been a challenge for him (Volchek 2021).

Following the example of classical Russian literature, Papier-mâché positions the little man as the main character in a film where amateur actors, true stories, and the original habitat of the characters blur the line between fact and fiction. Ivan Sergeevich’s story is a fairy tale, half true, half not. Ivan Sergeevich Lashin plays the character of the same name. Suslin met Lashin while he was working on a film for his final project at the Film Institute (VGIK) in 2012 and looking for actors in his native Voronezh region. When they met, Lashin was 19 years old. Since then, he has starred in several of Suslin’s films and co-scripted some of them, drawing on events of his own life. In Papier-mâché, Lashin appears alongside his mother, Tat’iana Ivanovna Lashina, who has also participated in several of Suslin’s films. Lashina creates a striking impression: she is a natural talent, who lives on the screen, unembarrassed by the cinematic eye. There are several other characters in the film played by amateurs, for example, the local police officer played by Iurii Sidorov, who indeed once worked as a policeman but dreamed of being an actor. He is laconic but harmonious on screen, and his silence is eloquent, perhaps because he is burdened by his past experiences.

papierPapier-mâché is a film with only seven characters, and Ivan Sergeevich is the central figure. Once upon a time, he worked as a shepherd in a collective farm, but there are no cows left any more: they have all been sold. Now Ivan makes money by helping a local store owner, an Uzbek, played by Sherzod Abdullaev, with the cattle and collecting scrap metal. He also sells three-liter cans of soaked watermelons on the highway, with little success. His mother, Tat’iana Ivanovna, works as a cleaner. Needless to say, they are poor and somewhat desperate. The precarity of Ivan’s position is even more accentuated when we learn that a debt collector (played by Anatolii Burmistrov) constantly calls him and his mother about repaying a loan.

The local police officer watches the first film in the series, Head. Two Ears on his phone; here we learn how Ivan was deceived by fraudsters who took out several micro-credit loans in his name. Yet a film was made about this unfortunate period of Ivan Sergeevich’s life and turned him into a local celebrity. He ends up at the Kinotavr film festival, where the film wins a prize. He is invited by a local TV station to talk about his film. Nevertheless, the success in cinema has not solved all his problems: Ivan has not repaid his loans. The local police officer offers help to Ivan in exchange for a favor: to commit a crime. The crime, he promises, will be just “a formality.” Ivan will not be punished, and the police officer will have something to write a report about.

What happens to the characters in the film actually happened to Ivan, or to friends of the director Suslin. This story is an accurate depiction of Russian provincial life told by a person who is familiar with the places and people he films firsthand. The story unfolds in both the Lashins’ native village and in Suslin’s hometown in the Voronezh region. It is a story about beautiful people, ugly deeds, and symbolic papier-mâché figures that only imitate activity rather than taking real action. The comedic narrative is made in the spirit of Daniil Kharms: fake crimes are committed to write a report, and bank collectors collect debts by repossessing canned tomatoes—the only property the debtors own.

papierThis absurdist film about the little man is much in line with Russian reality and continues the literary tradition of Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, and Fedor Dostoevsky. Ivan lives in his own little world: he is a naive individual who gets caught in the net of circumstances. Characters bursting in from outside tear him away from his insular existence. In the prequel Head. Two Ears, random crooks spot the gullible Ivan and take him to the city. In Papier-mâché, Ivan is taken away again. First, the owner of the local store takes him away in his car to engage him in some work in exchange for a box of eggs. Later, the local policeman takes Ivan to the city to commit a robbery.

But Ivan leaves voluntarily. Why, you might ask. To stop being a little man? To see the city? To escape poverty? Most likely, Ivan himself cannot answer these questions. In Papier-mâché, as well as in the previous film, Ivan gets an opportunity to clean up “decently,” for example when he gets his hair cut before appearing on a local TV show. These changes in Ivan’s appearance are essentially a visualization of the process of a little man crossing the boundaries of his world. But in both films, Ivan is led astray. Other characters bring about these changes, not Ivan. While a little man easily believes that external transformation will lead to more significant changes, those changes never materialize in Ivan’s life.

The romantic narrative in the film offers another way to go beyond the boundaries of the little world. Ivan is fond of a librarian (played by Tat’iana Skaredneva), who works at the local House of Culture. He visits the library several times, leaving a pineapple for her as a present, “reading” an art album and watching a rehearsal of the local dance group. The librarian appears in his dream, where she walks, carrying him in her arms. In his dreams these feelings seem to help Ivan find happiness and again cross the borders of his little world: to become another person.

The realism of the film is encapsulated in the aesthetics of the everyday life of a “little man” in the provinces: colorful playgrounds unexpectedly located in the middle of a grey nowhere; illegal sellers of local produce along the highways, scavenging metal in order to earn some money; folk dancing at the concert on 8 March (Women’s Day) in the local House of Culture. The music in the film, according to Suslin himself, plays a crucial role. The film is made in the tonality of Mozart’s “Fantasies in D minor.” Music sets the tone for the film: dull landscapes, sad fates of little men. It also harmonizes with the medieval sculptures carved from wood, which Ivan examines in the album at the library. Long close–ups of Ivan’s face alternate with close-ups of the album. Ivan turns the pages; a woman makes swans from the paper. These long close–ups, combined with Mozart’s music, erase temporal boundaries. Faces from our reality are suddenly filled with the light of Renaissance art.

The color work is crucial for the aesthetics of the film. First, grey: the main filming took place during the winter with its dirty, slushy weather, typical for south and central Russia; it seeps into the walls of the houses, the clothes of the characters. This is the color of the little man’s world. Second, red: the billboard at the entrance to the village, which Ivan paints to complete his community service after committing the robbery that the police officer asked him to do. The color of tomatoes and watermelons in three-liter jars, which become the trading currency among poor locals. Ivan’s tie. And, in the final scene, the dancers at the House of Culture wear red. Red might be the very color that helps the little men cross their own personal borders.

Suslin’s Papier-mâché is a good example of an auteur film that remains grounded. Its aesthetics is good enough for an auteur film, while the plot and dramaturgy are accessible to the common audience. Creating films that exist somewhere between fiction and documentary is a risky undertaking, but Suslin successfully combines both. Apart from the director’s vision, the important factor here is that Suslin lives in these same places with these same people: they are not just fictional characters, but real people telling stories about their lives.

Papier-mâché, then, is a tale about a little man, about life in the provinces, filmed without a darkening in the depiction of Russian, especially provincial, reality. The film is not about empathy but about acceptance. Suslin does not ask the viewer to empathize with his characters. We are followers rather than participants. Ivan, his mother, the policeman, the Uzbek, the librarian: they go with the flow of life, and so does the viewer go with the flow of the film.

Suslin’s attitude to the Russian provinces and their people finds its way in visualizing the intersection of fiction and documentary. The director becomes Ivan’s friend in real life and helps him to get out of his caged reality by moving him to Novovoronezh, the director’s hometown. The director’s close reading of provincial life might put the viewer in a difficult situation where they have to face a reality that is too close to home.

Anastasia Kriachko Røren
University of Oslo, Norway

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Volchek, Dmitrii. 2021. “Malen’kii chelovek v kandelakh. Kinematograf Vitaliia Suslina.” Radio Liberty 14 May.

 


Papier-mâché, Russia, 2020
Color, 77 minutes
Director: Vitalii Suslin
Scriptwriters: Vitalii Suslin, Ivan Lashin
DoP: Aleksei Mishchikha
Sound: Natalia Ivanova
Editing: Olga Kolesnikova
Cast: Ivan Lashin, Tat’iana Lashina, Iurii Sidorov, Tat’iana Skaredneva, Viacheslav Garder, Sherzod Abdullaev, Anatolii Burmistrov
Producers: Larisa Oleinik
Production: DOKA

Vitalii Suslin: Papier-mâché (2020)

reviewed by Anastasia Kriachko Røren © 2021

Updated: 2021