Issue 74 (2021)

Pavel Mirzoev: Call Me Blackbird (Zovi menia drozd, 2020)

reviewed by Theodora Kelly (Trimble) McGee © 2021

drozdPavel Mirzoev’s Call Me Blackbird was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2020 Window to Europe Film Festival in Vyborg. Mirzoev, who has a long-standing relationship with the festival, worked as a documentary filmmaker for several years following his training at the Film Institute VGIK before debuting his first full-length feature film, How I Came to Be (Kak ia stal), in 2018. The director’s second feature leads us through two overlapping love triangles as we follow Kostia’s (Ivan Loginov) struggle through the growing pains provoked by familial and teen love. Blackbird impressively strikes a satisfying balance between the raw challenges presented in youth film and the idealistic hope of family melodrama.

Kostia is a quiet but smart teenager whose relationships are conflicted and confusing: his parents are recently divorced and, to further complicate matters, his father Sergei (Kirill Kiaro) has left his mother for a younger woman, Iuliia (Asia Domskaia) who is already expecting a son. Kostia’s mother, Masha (Iuliia Marchenko), juggles the challenges of working, raising a teenager as a newly single parent, and maintaining their cluttered apartment. Iuliia, meanwhile, spends her days in her spacious, tidy home waiting for the baby to arrive. While it is clear that Sergei still feels something for Masha, we learn more about this parental triangle from Kostia’s experiences in each household. Mirzoev cleverly uses Kostia’s grappling with the adult love triangle to demonstrate the volatility of teenage maturation. While Kostia sometimes seems wise beyond his years, he also reverts to irresponsible teenage behavior. At times, for example, we see Kostia bringing equilibrium into his mother’s apartment—preventing a meal from burning on the stove, finding her lost glasses in the refrigerator. At other moments, though, he regresses to the immaturity typical of fourteen-year-old boys (e.g., distracting his father and Iuliia so that he can steal their scooter, only to later crash it into a parked car and flee the scene).

drozdThe film’s second love triangle involves Kostia’s school crush, Dina (Valentina Liapina), who is seemingly taken by his rival, Valera (Maksim Saprykin). The boys are coded as opposites: Valera is strong, confident, and athletic, while Kostia is lean, timid, and does not have many friends. Valera, however, sees Kostia as a threat to his relationship with Dina. This tension is repeatedly fleshed out in a basement venue where classmates gather for rap poetry slams, which Valera dominates. This love triangle again presents two versions of Kostia throughout the film. At first unable to perform candidly on stage, by the end of the film we see a Kostia who has “grown up” by working through his emotional frustrations. His confidence on stage demonstrates his new level of maturity.

The film’s name is taken from an indirect encounter at the poetry slam venue, an online exchange that Kostia has with an unknown User who says to call him “Blackbird.” Although Kostia wants to know Blackbird’s real identity, the User carefully deploys his anonymity to encourage Kostia to find his voice and be confident in his creativity. Blackbird’s encouragement leads Kostia to eventually win one of the slam competitions, which gives Valera another reason to be jealous of Kostia’s affection for Dina.

drozdWhile Blackbird is a coming-of-age film, it also speaks to the broader coming-of-age of Russian cinema. When we learn that Blackbird is Kostia’s father, one cannot help but ponder the film’s place in the context of contemporary Russian cinema’s preoccupation with the nuclear family structure. Whereas many earlier family films fixate on repairing the broken nuclear family as a metaphor for a state in crisis, the family relationship by the film’s end is only “properly” repaired in the sense that Kostia comes to terms with the relationship he has with each of his parents and the overwhelming emotion he feels at the birth of his new brother. Kostia must learn to find solace in the two separate households and appreciate his connection to each of his parents.

drozdMoreover, the near total lack of state interference in the personal relationships of Kostia’s family and his social circle is one of the film’s most curious features. Landmark shots are practically nonexistent, as the film erases any trace of a recognizable Moscow: we never see the metro, the Kremlin, or anything that would easily make the city identifiable. Not insignificantly, Mirzoev uses highway tracking shots more than once, where there is next to no traffic, an almost idealized version of a space in which movement is seamless and free flowing. In other words, the State is almost entirely absent from the lives of the characters. Most other scenes take place in small, indoor spaces—comfortable but average apartments, the poetry slam basement, or in outdoor settings that are enclosed or function as transient spaces: staircases, a basketball court, rooftops. Such shots eliminate most chances for the towering metaphor of the state to intrude into the lives of Kostia’s family and friends. Likewise, the adults in the film are not functionaries of the state, but are, in some ways, supportive of the teenagers. The teens’ humanities teacher, who attends the poetry rap slams, roots for Kostia to exude confidence and courage, but she plays perhaps the most marginal role of any character. Importantly, the film’s one acknowledgement of the state, an incident during which Kostia and Dina end up in the local police precinct, is solved through the families rather than the police officer, who serves in a passive, uninteresting role.

drozdSuch a framework, perhaps, speaks to the generational story being told in contemporary Russian cinema. Kostia’s parents, and especially Masha, are of an age at which they likely have little memory of the Soviet state, which means that we are now seeing what kinds of people the first post-Soviet generation is raising. For all intents and purposes, any reference to mentorship by the government is completely absent in the film. The characters must figure out how to reconcile their relationships themselves. Kostia must come to terms with his parents’ divorce and his new brother, his mother must let him grow up, and Kostia and Valera must reconcile when Dina and her family move to Australia.

The film’s success cannot be discussed without acknowledging the impressive cast. Those familiar with contemporary Russian cinema will recognize several of the actors, particularly Saprykin, whom audiences have watched grow up on the big screen. Everyone in the film is, in a sense, their own mentor, something that Mirzoev underscored in an interview where he noted that, rather than teach, cinema provides a way to see yourself, to think (Zakharova 2020). The film, he says, was made for teenagers, but also for adults, that is, for families. Blackbird certainly accomplishes this goal, as it reminds us that relationships are volatile and that they come and go. But the choices we make to love are up to us.

Theodora Kelly (Trimble) McGee
Association for Slavic, East European, & Eurasian Studies

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Works Cited

Zakharova, Margarita. 2020. “Kinofestival' “Zovi menia drozd.” Vyborg 12 September.

Call Me Blackbird, Russia, 2020
Color, 93 min.
Director: Pavel Mirzoev
Script: Valeriia Zadereeva, Pavel Mirzoev
DoP: Evgenii Koroptsov
Composer: Petr Nalich
Cast: Kirill Karo, Iuliia Marchenko, Maksim Loginov, Valentina Liapina, Maksim Saprykin, Asia Domskaia, Serafima Krasnikova, Svetlana Ruban, Eseniia Grigor'eva, Arsenii Perel'
Producers: Iurii Obukhov, Aleksei Riazantsev

Pavel Mirzoev: Call Me Blackbird (Zovi menia drozd, 2020)

reviewed by Theodora Kelly (Trimble) McGee © 2021

Updated: 2021