KinoShock: A Panorama of National Cinemas
By Gul'nara Abikeyeva
Eldar Ryazanov and Irakli Kvirikadze
KinoShock is 13 years old, which means that it was established just as we "parted into our separate apartments," declaring our personal independence. The festival's goal was the exact opposite: to unite us despite the political fragmentation. As the president of the festival, Viktor Merezhko, has remarked: "We have accomplished the main thing — we have not run away from each other. We have remained together." It is important to acknowledge the achievements of the festival's organizers—especially its General Director, Irina Shevchuk—who have remained faithful to their chosen course for all 13 years: to assemble people who work in cinema and culture from the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltic Republics, and to screen the very best films made in the preceding year.
KinoShock represents not only the formal cultural unity of former Soviet space, but also the spirit of friendship and mutual understanding. This is true not just in the world of cinema. At the opening ceremony, the entire hall was drowned in applause when the Belarusan singers Pesniary were followed by Orera, an ensemble of "the golden voices" of Georgia. It was an instantaneous return to twenty years ago, when millions of Soviet people sang with genuine pleasure "The Virgin Forests of Belovezh'e" ["Belovezhskaia pushcha"] and "Tbiliso." In the final analysis, not everything was so bad during those times; at least we knew about Belarusans and Georgians not just because of hot-breaking news stories. Also performing at the opening ceremony were Gasan Mamedov, who is known as "the Paganini of Central Asia," and the Armenian Dzhivan Gasparian, world famous as a virtuoso performer on the duduk, an ancient Armenian reed instrument made from the wood of an apricot tree. The festival's organizers tried to reproduce the same spirit in the concert program that inheres in the film festival—screening and celebrating national cinema.
Strange as it may seem, it is precisely at KinoShock that all of the tendencies characteristic of the processes occurring in the national film industries are most evident: where there is a decline, where there is a rise; where there is marching in place, where there is an artistic search and new discoveries. Most striking about KinoShock is that it presents a panorama of life in the former Soviet republics as refracted through cinema. In other words, it is impossible to fool anyone here: what is happening—is happening.
In what follows, I provide some general observations on the current state of the various national film indistries as they were represented in Anapa in 2004, brief reviews of the most memorable films, and impressions that arose in the course of the screenings and during conversations with colleagues at the festival.
The Slavic Countries: Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia
Of the film industries in the Slavic countries, only the program of films from Russia was notable at this year's KinoShock. If last year's festival was marked by stormy discussions about Ukrainian director Oles' Sanin's ethno-mythological film Mamai (2003) and Anastasiia Slutskaia (Iurii Elkhov, 2003), a historical film from Belarus, both of which received festival prizes (for Best Camerawork and Best Actor respectively), this year there were no Ukrainian films in the competition program and Belarus was represented by a rather weak full-feature film, Dunechka (Aleksandr Efremov, 2004) and a single short, War (Dmitrii Los', 2004).
Time seems to have stopped in the cinema of Belarus. The impression is that we are still living sometime between the 1970s and 1980s; these are still stories about partisans and Soviet daily life in the Stagnation period. Dunechka, a co-production of Belarus and Russia, is a film about an adolescent's first love, elevated and romantic. It is not marked by any cinematic innovations. The atmosphere of the film resembles "a layer-cake filled with cream"—a sickly sweet story about a talented boy who is in frail health but is surrounded by a large and caring family. War is the same old story about partisans that was depicted in Belorussian films 20, 30, and even 50 years ago: bad fascists and suffering people. It seems incredible, but there is no change in the view of historical events with the middle or even the youngest generations of filmmakers in Belarus.
Russian cinema presents an entirely different picture. The competition program included three Russian films, each belonging to a different type of filmmaking in today's Russian film industry: Anna Melikian's genre film Mars (2004) is an example of a "producer's film," that is, a film financed by a distribution company; Svetlana Proskurina's auteur film Remote Access (2004), which had just been screened at the Venice International Film Festival, is an attempt to resolve the age-old question about the interrelationship of "fathers" and "children"; and Andrei Nekrasov's publicistic film Suspicion (2004) is a kind of "anti-Putin" political pamphlet. Taken together, they provide an overview of the contemporary state of filmmaking in Russia.
At the start of Melikian's film, I recalled a tragic-comic incident from the Soviet-era, when a newspaper editor almost lost his life because of a typographical mistake: instead of printing the name of the great "Karl Marks" [transliteration from the Cyrillic—trans.], the newspaper accidentally published "Karl Mraks" [the Russian word "mrak" means darkness or gloom—trans.]. But that story belongs to a period of time that is now past. In the film, instead of indicating the full name of a small provincial town, the burnt-out letter "k" on the neon sign at the train station renders the town as "Mars." A famous boxer (Gosha Kutsenko) accidentally winds up in this town, which is strange not just because its name, but also because almost all of the residents carry one or several stuffed-toys in their arms. What can they do, since all of them work in the town's sole factory, which manufactures toys, and since instead of being paid in money, they are paid in what is called "soft currency." There is another strange circumstance: both heroes (the boxer and the guy he meets at the train station) suffer from color-blindness. And so the film describes life in Russia's provinces in this playfully grotesque style, bordering on the absurd. As usual, there is a lovers' triangle: a beautiful lady (the romantic librarian), the boxer passing through, and the local intellectual guy. Like all of the women in the town, the heroine dreams of moving to Moscow. This complicates matters for the boxer, who decides not to get married, and so the heroine marries her longtime admirer and remains in the provinces.
What is striking about the film is that it was financed by one of Russia's largest distribution companies, Central Partnership, which is involved not only in distributing films to movie theaters, but also in getting television stations to broadcast them. Television channels in Kazakhstan, for example, buy many foreign films and serials precisely from them. This fact is evidence that a major turning point has occurred in Russia: distribution companies have become film production companies—that is, the stage of capital accumulation is already behind and distributors are themselves placing orders for films. In this sense, Mars is an ideal product: it is a comedy based on Russian material; everything is beautiful, as in a glossy magazine; a bit of love and a dash of romanticism have been added; and the whole thing is topped off with the presence of a film star—Gosha Kutsenko. What a recipe for success! It is possible that audiences will embrace this film, but it was too weak to be included in a festival.
Proskurina's Remote Access was an enigmatic work: although it had been screened in Venice, no one in Russia had yet seen it. It turned out to be a rather mediocre film in the art-house tradition. The film is about the dull and neurasthenic daily life of middle-income "New Russians." There are two groups of onscreen characters: a business family (father, mother, and daughter) and a two army pals who go into business together. If the father, mother, and one of the young men represent the "New Russians," then the daughter and the other young man are closer to "old Russians"—with a reflective consciousness and a heightened spirituality. They find each other by accident, by telephone, and are even somewhat afraid of meeting each other. When they finally arrange to meet, the youth dies in an explosion that has been engineered by other "New Russians," hired by the girl's mother. Despite the evil twist at the end of the plot, the entire film in my view is an example of the infamous "old wine in new bottles" syndrome. It is a boring, pseudo-psychological drama in the worst traditions of Soviet "intellectual cinema," somewhat like Autumn, Chertanovo [Osen', Chertanovo] (Igor' Talankin, with the participation of Dmitrii Talankin, 1988), simply moving the locus of action from the communal apartments, bus stops, empty stores, etc. which were characteristic of Soviet daily life into the artificial environment of a middle-income Russian businessman—an environment of "conspicuous material consumption."
The festival's organizers believed that the screening of Nekrasov's film Suspicion at KinoShock would have the same explosive force that Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) had at the Cannes Film Festival. Made with American money, the film was supposed to be an anti-Putin bombshell. This documentary, about the explosion of an apartment house on Gur'ianov Street in Moscow in September 1999, was intended in the big scheme of things to depict today's new Russia. It focuses on the Morozova sisters who lived in the house. The younger sister survived the explosion by a miracle: she walked out of the entrance to the building just moments before it blew up. The older sister, living in America, found out about the explosion while watching television. The director uses still photographs and eyewitness testimony to alternate with the slow-paced story of the lives of the sisters before and after the explosion. The film reminds us of the first time we heard Putin's name: he circulated the scandalous videotape of Skuratov, the General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation, cavorting in the company of naked ladies. The film traces Putin's rise to the presidency and emphasizes that his high public rating began precisely at the start of the second war in Chechnia, for which the explosion on Gur'ianov Street served as one of the justifications. The documentary filmmakers are convinced, and present a substantial amount of evidence in support of their conviction, that the explosion of the apartment building was nothing less than a covert operation by the FSB [the Federal Security Service, the Russian Federation's transformed KGB—trans.], allowing the Russian army to launch the second war in Chechnia, and to undertake the massive artillery and rocket bombardment of Grozny as an act of revenge. It's possible; who knows… In any case, the film elicited a lot of discussion and returned us to the complex reality in which we live. But the film did not have the anticipated explosive impact at the festival. As a work of art, the film was simply another television broadcast.
The Baltic Republics: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia
There has been a completely unexpected realignment of creative forces in the national film industries of the Baltic republics. If in the past few years, the film industry in Lithuania was considered to be the strongest of the three (in part because of the films of Sharunas Bartas and Al'gimantas Puipa), then this year's KinoShock demonstrated the very high quality of contemporary Estonian cinema. Neither Latvia nor Lithuania was represented in the main competition program, while two Estonian films were included: Revolution of the Pigs (Jaak Kilmi and Rene Reinumagi, 2004) and Somnambula (Selev Keedus, 2003).
Revolution of the Pigs is a debut film by the two young filmmakers. The film transports the viewer back to 1986, to a spontaneous revolt by young people at a summer camp that begins as a protest against sending Estonians for military duty in Afghanistan and ends as a protest against the Soviet occupation of Estonia. The film is an example of contemporary mythopoesis; it is the fruit of artistic imagination. The revolt of young people shown in the film is presented as a genuine, historical fact, which together with other and similar events facilitated the collapse of the "Evil Empire." Such a willful approach to history distorts the events of the recent past, makes them even murkier and more confusing. As a whole, however, the film communicates the atmosphere of protest that reigned in the 1980s. It is important to remember that it was Estonia in particular that rocked the Soviet state and, in the end, led to its collapse.
Somnambula was probably the most crafted and artistically integrated film screened at KinoShock 2004. The film is set on the coastline of the Baltic Sea in the autumn of 1944. In fear of the Soviet army, which had just entered Estonian territory, the residents of the coastline villages set off in their boats for Sweden. Only the elderly lighthouse-keeper remains behind, neither able nor willing to abandon his post. Torn by doubts, his daughter jumps out of the boat at the last moment and remains with her father. Three seasons pass on screen ― autumn, winter, and spring. The characters have to endure the horrors of fear, violence, and deprivation during this time. As the film unfolds, they lose everything: their means of survival, their freedom to move from place to place, their past and present, their honor, self-worth, faith, and, finally, even hope. They endure these trials in different ways: the old man with a sense of dignity, the daughter hysterically, with a tragic breakdown verging on madness. The old man's simple, Christian faith in his need to light the lantern every evening on the lighthouse, in the fact that birds will arrive once more in the spring and leave for warmer climates in the fall, begins to crumble just as it appears that the worst is already behind. Both of the characters die because the filmmakers see no hope for survival in the post-war years of the Soviet occupation.
The cultural context is very important in this film: like all of Estonia, the family is culturally drawn to Sweden, to Scandinavian culture; hence the film's frequent references to Ibsen, to the Royal Swedish Theater. The Baltic republics have always identified with Europe. The advance of the Soviet army onto their land is represented in Somnambula as an apocalyptic invasion by barbarians. The film does not accentuate "nationality," and it is difficult to find a single "Russian" (even the soldier who rapes the daughter is mute); there is only one episode in which Soviet soldiers appear, and then they are seen as a large, faceless mass. But even this is sufficient to enable the viewer to identify who is "ours" and who is not. The cultural markers embedded in the film by its makers, pointing to the preference by Estonia's intellectuals for Scandinavian and Swedish cultural heritage, also point to a more general phenomenon. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, virtually all of the former republics manifested an attraction to one of their neighboring states as a moment of identity formation—Estonia to Sweden, Ukraine to Poland, Tajikistan to Iran, Azerbaijan to Turkey, etc. These tendencies, perhaps not felt as much in people's socio-political life, are indisputably present in the national film industries.
One of the film's major achievements is its communication of all-embracing fear, which arises at moments of large-scale catastrophes and is based on the helplessness of individuals to change a situation. The filmmakers view "the liberation of Estonia by the Soviet army from German-fascist occupiers" as a universal catastrophe, the collapse of civilization, which gives birth to this all-encompassing fear in the face of the unknown. Watching this film, it seems that there is no possibility for the rebirth of the country, that an entirely new Estonia must be constructed today―one that has no ties to either pre-war or Soviet Estonia. But this does not correspond to reality. It is clear that we are witnessing the resurrection of the pre-war, "bourgeois" Estonia through the wholesale rejection of Soviet Estonia, moreover with a radical corrective of the inherited model: "anti-Bolshevism" is replaced by "Russophobia." In essence, what is emerging is a "Soviet Estonia with a minus sign." In this light, it seems to me that the cultural model used in the film is flawed; after all, time cannot escape its bounds, despite the will of the filmmaker. At the same time, the carefully worked out characterizations, the stunning camerawork, and the attempt to work within regional ethnic-cultural codes make this film a major contribution to post-Soviet cinema.
The Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia
Of all the regions of post-Soviet space, the national film industries of the Caucasian states have probably fared the worst. In Armenia and Azerbaijan barely one full-feature film a year is produced. While last year a feature film from Armenia was screened at KinoShock, Arutiun Khachatrian's stylistically striking and expressive film, The Documenatalist (2003), this year Armenia was represented only in the ShortShock program by David Kareian's No Return (2003), a 10-minute work in the genre of video-art.
Azerbaijan had one full-feature film in the competition program, Melody of Space (Gusein Mekhtiev, 2004) and one in the short program, Bride of the Flames (Marbala Salimov, 2003). Melody of Space was simply shocking. It is impossible to understand why such a weak project was funded in Azerbaijan. The film is about an elderly cellist who is about to turn 80. But nothing brings him pleasure on his birthday―not his children nor his grandchildren, not even the gala concert organized in his honor. He is possessed by a single passion: to listen to the sounds of celestial music in the rustling of leaves. And so he dies on a park bench, noticed only by a young couple making love in the bushes. It almost seems as if the entire film were shot with this one episode in mind because the rest of the film remains undeveloped.
KinoShock has a tradition of convening filmmakers and critics every evening at 10pm, when the final competition screening is over, for a press conference and discussion. At first the critics and journalists pose questions to the filmmakers, then they express their opinions concerning the films screened that day. As one director has observed, emphasis should be placed on the word "press" when describing the press conferences because of the way critics put pressure on the filmmakers. Mekhtiev had a very rough time during his press conference; the critics ripped the film to pieces. They were certainly justified in doing so—the film is absolutely drab, unconvincing, and even unpoetical. Salimov's Bride of the Flames received almost no attention, even though its subject—self-immolation by women—is quite worthy. But worthy thematics and artistic quality do not always coincide.
By comparison, the two short films from Georgia—Giorgii Ovashvili's Above Sea Level (2003) and Soso Dzhachvliani's My First Love (2003)―were a source of pleasure. They marked a return to the time when Georgian cinema was notable precisely because of its short films; they demonstrated that same humor, refinement, and inspiration, but also contained some innovations: both the times and the manner of representation have changed. Above Sea Level is probably the first film that I have seen where the aesthetics of video (the film is shot in DV-Cam) not only is not irritating, but actually works effectively because everything that we see is recorded as a fleeting perception. The film has no dialog: a young man sees the face of a pretty girl in the window of a passing train and pursues her during the entire time that the train descends slowly along the winding tracks of a hill. Virtually nothing happens, and yet the film contains so much poetry and beauty! It is highly probable that after the whole series of short films produced in Georgia over the past two years, wonderful full-feature films will begin to appear shortly, especially since the political atmosphere in the country has significantly improved.
Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan
The richest and most interesting part of the festival's program consisted of films from the countries of Central Asia. So it is not surprising that most of the prizes went to films from this region.
The prize for Best Actor went to Abid Asomov and Nodir Saidaliev, the two actors who played the main roles in the Uzbek film The Giant and the Squab (Dzhakhangir Kasymov, 2004). It is a comedy about contemporary life, with "new" and "old" Uzbeks, peddlers and businessmen, love and disillusionment, music and dancing. It is possible to respond skeptically to the film's artistic quality, but it also clearly demonstrates the self-sufficiency of the Uzbek people, who, judging from the film, live with a supply of optimism. The filmmakers use a light hand to represent their social problems, shifting the accent to the sphere of dreams and hopes. The deciding factor here is not one of censorship, which indisputably exists in Uzbekistan, but of a nation's mentality—joyful and life-affirming. Unlike every other post-Soviet country, Uzbekistan is experiencing an explosion of audience interest in its national cinema. Uzbeks, like Indians, prefer domestically produced films to foreign imports. And the film industry there is going through a boom; according to Uzbek directors, virtually every film makes a profit. For this reason, Uzbek businessmen, and not just the government, have become interested in filmmaking.
In general, making films with an audience in mind is a new phenomenon in post-Soviet cinema, and, in my opinion, is a sign that social life is becoming healthier. Filmmakers now have more need of recognition by their own people than they need the prizes awarded by international film festivals. The Kyrgyz film by Ernest Abdyzhaparov, Village Authorities (2004), is a clear example of this trend. It, too, is a national comedy that is set in a contemporary Kyrgyz village, where a mystical healer lives next door to a man who distributes leaflets for the "Johovah's Witnesses"; where a "new Kyrgyz" lives next door to an oppositionist-communist, etc. The director takes an ironic distance from everyone: from the militiaman, simultaneously the upholder of the law and a womanizer, who likes to visit married women while their husbands are at work; to the righteous mullah who sleeps through the morning calls to prayer and is always late; to the young girl who keeps following her father, fearing that he will get drunk somewhere. In the film's finale, however, the filmmakers stop ironizing and adopt a more serious tone because no matter how underdeveloped this new society is, spring arrives and it is time to plant wheat. Village Authorities is made for movie-goers and is well-received by them. It received the prize for Best Screenplay at KinoShock.
The presence of a full-feature film produced in Tajikistan was a pleasant surprise. For the past decade, the only Tajik feature films have been made by directors who had emigrated—Bakhtiar Khudoinazarov, Dzhamshet Usmonov, Tolib Khamidov. This was a sad state of affairs because it suggested that there were no possibilities for the future of filmmaking in Tajikistan. Umed Mirzoshirinov's Statue of Love (2003) was shot in video, and so cannot be taken too seriously. But it reminded me of the early films by the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, so appealing in their simplicity and sincerity. There is nothing surprising in this similarity between Tajik and Iranian cinema: after all, the people are neighbors and speak the same language.
As a film critic from Kazakhstan, I was especially pleased that the two main prizes of KinoShock—the Grand Prix and the prize for Best Director— went to Kazakh films, Rustem Abdrashev's Renaissance Island (2004) and Serik Aprymov's The Hunter (2004) respectively. Even more unexpected was the fact that in ShortShock, the short film competition, which included 37 films, the main prize again went to a Kazakh film—Serik Utepbergenov's The Silent Chill (2004). The jury for ShortShock was composed of representatives from a number of short film festivals—Christiane Buchner (Germany), Luis Miranda (Spain), Sophie Mirouze (France), Katrien Nimmegeers (Belgium), Hans-Joachim Schlegel (Germany), and Margaret von Schiller (Germany). So it is impossible to claim that the jury had some hidden agenda.
This triple crown once again confirmed the high status of and active creative work undertaken by Kazakh filmmakers. It is quite telling that the major prizes in both the full-feature and short competitions went to directors of debut films. At the same time, Aprymov not only confirmed his professionalism, but also made an attempt to achieve a new artistic level, to move away from the stories of everyday life that were at the center of his earlier films―The Last Stop (1989) and Aksuat (1998)―to mythoposesis in The Hunter.
The Hunter can be seen as an attempt to create a new/old myth about the origin of the Tiurks [ethinic groups including Tartars, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Iakuts, Turks, and others that were united by a common language―trans.] from a she-wolf. An orphan boy lives in a village [aul]. He has a strange characteristic: his hands are always cold. He is adopted by a prostitute, who is regularly visited by a hunter. It is possible to say that he and she symbolically represent a primal couple―man and woman―engaged in the oldest known professions. The boy rebels against the hunter's incomprehensible aggressiveness: he chases away his horse, grabs his rifle, and shoots at bottles of alcohol in a store. The militia begins to search for the boy. The hunter finds him first and takes him to the mountains. The main part of the narrative depicts their life together in the mountains, hunting for the strange five-padded wolf. The hunter not only teaches the boy about his craft―to listen to the sounds of nature, to read signs, to shoot accurately―but he also teaches him what it means to be a man. As in all myths, the hunter has his antipode―the wolf with the five pads on its paws. Judging by the signs, the wolf behaves incomprehensibly: it appears that it is hunting people, rather than being hunted by them. At the end of the film, the boy goes to jail for his earlier crimes after all. When he returns to his village several years later, he learns that the hunter has died in a duel with the five-padded wolf. This impels him to become a hunter and to continue in his "father's"―his teacher's―footsteps.
The film is extraordinarily beautiful: cosmic landscapes of mountains, unusual ancient rituals, a special rhythm, spellbinding music. All of this is essential to a mythopoetic cinema. But the film has clearly not been brought to artistic completion; it lacks a clearly developed narrative line, direct allegorical links. The film leaves the viewer with a host of questions: what happened to the adoptive mother? why did she freeze in the mountains? at what point and for what reason did the boy stop having cold hands? what is the meaning of the episode in which the hunter meets an elderly man who has a strange, young wife? why does the film contain an exotic love scene on horseback?―to show an unusual, ancient ritual of the Tiurks or to emphasize the ancient, mythological nature of the narrative? Perhaps this narrative confusion is forgivable in a first-time director, but for Aprymov, an experienced director, it is most certainly not. On top of that, there is the impression that certain episodes are deliberately drawn out in order to make the film a full-length feature. This contradiction―between a grandiose intention and an unrealized exceution―is fatal because the film ends up, alas, unfulfilled.
Abdrashev's Renaissance Island is an entirely different matter. Although he tells a story that is already well-known, its stylistic beauty and measured film language draw attention to the film. The film is set in Kazakhstan in the late 1950s-early 1960s, at a time when there existed, in parallel to official and officious Soviet culture, sufficiently organic fragments of a traditional culture that was forbidden―"reactionary," "nationalist," etc. These fragments include the institution of polygamy, which was practiced by Kazakhs. Instead of an absent hero-father, who fought and died in the war, the film shows a strong male, who is neither afraid to speak bluntly to the bosses, nor willing to abandon his personal and accustomed way of life. These fragments also include the reading of poems by a poet, banned and branded an outright nationalist; the onset of adolescent eroticism in a land in which "sex does not exist"; and in the entire, strange spirit of freedom that exists within the daily life of Kazakhs―in their independence and autonomy in the face of political pressures, in their openness to the world. The film is an excursion into a long-lost world. This world no longer exists; it disappeared with the Aral Sea.
When Abdrashev's film was discussed during the evening press conference, the assembled journalists remarked on the high level of professionalism in this Kazakh film, on its poetic vision and sophisticated representational abilities. This was especially pleasant to hear since, despite the fact that it was a debut film, the director managed to set a very high standard.
Every national cinema is simultaneously a mirror of social life and an attempt to express a national identity. As the number of domestically produced films decreases on the screens, the less we are able to preserve and maintain our own national value systems. The imposition of an alien experience is precisely what cultural expansionism means. American cinema imposes its own stereotypes of a value system; French cinema imposes its own; Chinese its own, etc. Only creative beings―in this case, filmmakers―can resist such an imposition. And we learn about their creations at professional gatherings, at film festivals. In this sense, KinoShock fulfills a very special role because it collects the very best films that have been produced in the CIS and the Baltic Republics during the preceding calendar year.