New Films 






# 1, July 2003

Subtropical Cinema: Kinotavr, Collective Heroes, and Small Screens

The Fourteenth Annual Open Russian Film Festival (3-17 June 2003)

By Nancy Condee and Vladimir Padunov 

For a two-week period in early June, Russiaís southern resort town of Sochi becomes the site of a key cinema event: parallel festivals, one international, the other (largely) Russian. This event is referred to in shorthand as "Kinotavr," named after Mark Rudinshteinís conglomerate of companies. Since 1991 Kinotavr has been held on the Black Sea at Sochiís Pearl Hotel and nearby Winter Theatre, and from the mid-1990s onward, rapidly became a venue for a broad spectrum of films, retrospectives, and special performances.

From 1994 on, the festivalóinitially conceived as a venue for Russian filmsóexpanded to include an International Film Festival, ably led by film scholar Sergei Lavrent'ev, whose writings on a wide range of media topicsófrom directors Vĕra ChytilovŠ and Claude Lelouch to theories of televisualityóare familiar to those who regularly read Cinema Art, Screen and Stage, Culture, and Independent Paper. Beginning in 2001, Lavrent'ev narrowed the focus of the International Festival from global cinema in general to a concentration on European cinema in particular. The competition program for this yearís event―the Tenth International Festival―featured eleven films from Croatia (Dalibor Matanićís Fine Dead Girls), the Czech Republic and Slovakia (Alice Nellisís Some Secrets), Denmark (Nils Malmrosís Facing the Truth), Hungary (GyŲrgy PŠlfiís Hukkle and Emil NovŠkís Sobri), Italy (Aurelio Grimaldiís A World of Love), Norway (Trygve Allister Diesenís Hold My Heart), Poland (Piotr Trzaskalskiís Eddie), and Sweden (Richard Hobertís Everyone Loves Alice). In addition, two of the films in competition were multi-national productions: Elisabeth Martonís My Name Was Sabina Spielrein (Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, and Finland) and Nicolas Winding Refnís Fear X (Norway, Great Britain, and Canada).

The International Festival traditionally awards four prizes: the Grand Prix/Golden Rose (this year awarded to PŠlfiís Hukkle), the Special Jury Prize (split between Malmrosís Facing the Truth and Matanićís Fine Dead Girls), Best Male Lead (Henryk Golebiewski in Trzaskalskiís Eddie), and Best Female Lead (Lena Endre in Hobertís Everyone Loves Alice). The FIPRESCI prize for Best Film was awarded this year to MŠrtonís My Name Was Sabrina Spielrein.

The International Festival has managed to attract a range of Western film figures, including actors (Gťrard Depardieu, Dolph Lundgren, Terence Stamp, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Michael York), directors (Agnieszka Holland and Krzystof Zanussi), and scriptwriters (Tonino Guerra), a choice appealing to a mass audience as well as to those who come for the obscure auteur films whose festival audience is virtually its only viewers. Regularly attended as well by an impressive range of Russian and FSU actors, directors, producers, and scriptwriters, Kinotavr is an ideal location not only to watch the yearís production, but also to engage in dialogue with fellow critics, journalists, and the participants themselves who make up the contemporary film process.

            G. Palfi: Hukkle                

Kinotavrís Russian prizes include the Golden Roseóits lead awardóas well as the Grand Prix, Special Jury Prize, the Presidential Council Award, Best Male and Female Leads, the Mikael Tariverdiev Prize for music, and the Grigorii Gorin Prize for best script. The festival traditionally runs three sections: its Competition, Out of Competition, and Retrospective Programs. The festival benefited this year from an unusually strong jury, composed of well-known arts figures, including film directors Valerii Todorovskii (Jury Chair), Fedor Bondarchuk, and Dmitrii Meskhiev, writer Tat'iana Tolstaia, actress Ekaterina Guseva, film critic and FIPRESCI coordinator Andrei Plakhov, composer Evgenii Doga, cinema historian and administrator Sergei Lazarchuk, and cameraman Sergei Machil'skii.

The offerings this year in the Open Russian Film Festival provide a fascinating window into the national film industry, which continues to struggle with extraordinary challenges of funding, distribution, and attendance, yet still produces a broad choice of films and artistic talent.

This yearís competition films included new works by such well-established names as Vadim Abdrashitov and Aleksandr Mindadze, Lidiia Bobrova, Svetlana Druzhinina, playwright Aleksandr Galin, and El'dar Riazanov, as well as Russiaís "middle generation" of directors such as Aleksandr Khvan, Bakhtier Khudoinazarov, Natal'ia P'iankova, and Gennadii Sidorov. St. Petersburg critic Tat'iana Moskvina contributed the script to Grigorii Nikulinís Do Not Make Biscuits in a Bad Mood.

In the Debut Competition, ten newcomers presented their short films, demonstrating a range of work from the workshops of Aleksei German and Svetlana Karmalita, Vladimir Khotinenko and Vladimir Fenchenko, Marlen Khutsiev, Aleksandr Mitta, Gennadii Poloka, and Petr Todorovskii and Natal'ia Riazantseva. Outstanding among the debut films were works by Iuliia Kolesnik (The Walk), Iurii Olennikov (Peterbold), Viacheslav Ross (Meat), and Ramil' Salakhutdinov (On the Eve).

The Out of Competition films included a special screening of Aleksandr Sokurovís Father and Son (winner of the FIPRESCI award at this yearís Cannes Film Festival), as well as Live Letter, a new film by Nana Dzhordzhadze, whose script was written by husband and filmmaker Irakli Kvirikadze. The Festivalís Panorama screenings featured work by Mikhail Brashinskii (Black Ice), whom readers may remember as the co-author of The Zero Hour: Glasnost and Soviet Cinema in Transition (1992), Vera Storozheva (Sky. Plane. Girl), with the enigmatic Renata Litvinova as the female lead, and Larisa Sadilovaís With Love, Lilia, her second film, following Happy Birthday (1998). Nine documentary films from state and private film studios in Moscow, Perm, St. Petersburg, and Rostov-on-Don provided yet another dimension to the contemporary film industry.

Scene from With Love, Lilly by Larisa Sadilova

Apart from the above-mentioned programs, several other series, organized by Sergei Lavrent'ev, provided festival guests with a rich selection of films from noon until well after midnight. These included a careful selection of films presented as "Westerns Under the Red Banner"óan extraordinarily interesting range of "Eastern Westerns" including well-known selections, such as Nikita Mikhalkovís At Home Among Strangers, A Stranger at Home (1974), and lesser known delights such as the GDR classic Chingachuk, The Great Snake (1967, directed by Richard Groschopp). The fortieth anniversary of Georgii Daneliiaís 1963 film I Am Walking Across Moscow was celebrated with a full-house screening on Theatre Square and a visit from director Daneliia and lead actor Nikita Mikhalkov.

One of the strongest offerings of the Competition was Gennadii Sidorovís Little Old Ladies, the story of a tiny, debilitated village in a distant corner of the Kostroma Region, where a half-dozen ancient women live peacefully together with a Downís Syndrome boy, until a family of Tadzhik refugees is assigned one of the dilapidated houses. The film was a hit with general audiences, critics, and the juries: it received both the Golden Rose and the FIPRESCI jury prizes for best film, as well the prize of the Guild of Film Critics and Historians and the prize for Best Debut Film. Sidorovís ability to elicit from his largely non-professional actresses extraordinary dialogue and vignettes on village life lends his work a documentary feel in its soundtrack, while the narrative retains a whimsical and almost fairytale conventionality.

Other prizes in this yearís festival included: Khudoinazarovís Chic (Grand Prix), Abdrashitovís Magnetic Storms (Special Jury Prize), Bobrovaís Grannie (Best Female Lead), Aleksei Muradovís The Truth About Shelps (Best Male Leads). In addition, Aleksandr Mindadze received the Gorin Prize for best script (Magnetic Storms) and Andrei Petrov received the Tariverdiev Prize for best music (Vitalii Mel'nikovís Poor, Poor Pavel). Finally, Riazanovís Key to the Bedroom received the festivalís Presidential Prize.

While a number of the Competition films were weak in their story lines, choice of actors, and scripts, they nevertheless presented an unintended consistency worth a separate discussion. A pervasive theme running throughout many films was a preoccupation with prehistory: a once promising photographer becomes a local bum (Galinís Photo); an ambitious poetess gradually resigns herself to being an ordinary Russian-language teacher (Nikulinís Do Not Make Biscuits in a Bad Mood); a Soviet physicist encounters political trouble and, after a stint in a psychiatric hospital, ends up a provincial electrician (Konstantin Khudiakovís Michel); a policeman turns to crime and ends up a serial killer (Khvanís Carmen). In each case, a complex backstory provides the rationale for this shift of identities, most often a kind of downward de-professionalization, of which the mass media has informed us for over a decade. One cannot help but speculate, however, whether at stake in this "duet" of identities, played out through flashbacks and reminiscences, is an underlying anxiety less about the disappearance of a "normal past" than about the contemporary normalization process, both on screen and off. Collectively, these filmsí structures of parallel timeóthe intended trajectory and that trajectory into which the characters are eventually pulledóconfronts the audience with an implicit query about the reliability of intention itself, as well as the core identity through which intention is established.

The decade-long search for a New Russian Hero found an unexpected "annual solution" this year, one that simply side-stepped the problem in favor of situating other figures at the center of the narrative line: middle-aged or elderly women (Do Not Make Biscuits in a Bad Mood, Grannie, Michel, Little Old Ladies, and, one might argue, Fedor Popovís Caucasian Roulette) and collective generational portraits (The Truth About Shelps, Chic, and Photo). Both decisions allow for the development of the backstory and a shift of focus away from the 1990s "male action figure" to other, less exhausted choices. With this shift, too, comes an exploration of a broader range of genres.

If the first decade of post-Soviet cinema was marked by the emergence of the urban crime drama as the dominant genre on Russian screens, then perhaps the most striking feature of this yearís competition program was the explosion of film genres: the horror-detective film (Vasilii Serikovís Attraction), the historical-costume drama (Druzhininaís The Second Bride of the Emperor; Mel'nikovís Poor, Poor Pavel), the buddy film (Khudoinazarovís Chic; Muradovís The Truth About Shelps), the romantic melodrama and comedy (Khudiakovís Michel; Maksim Korostyshevskiiís Art Nouveau Make-Believe; Vitalii Moskalenkoís One Life; P'iankovaís Slavís March; Nikulinís Do Not Make Biscuits in a Bad Mood), the bedroom farce (Riazanovís Key to the Bedroom), the literary adaptation (Ivan Popovís Little Lord Fauntleroy; Khvanís Carmen). For decades, Russian critics and filmmakers treated "genre cinema" as disreputable, a sign of an alien and decadent cinema. This explosion of film genres might thus be viewed as part of the attempt (deliberate or not) to integrate Russian cinema into the world film market.

Two other features can be traced in the films of the Competition Program that mark a significant shift in Russian cinema, even if only temporary. The first of these is the sudden shift away from contemporaneity, a move that here concerns history, not (as above) generations. In many ways, the dominance of "the present day" in Russian films of the past decade is inseparable from the dominance of chernukha in late Soviet cinema and of the urban crime drama in early post-Soviet cinema. Fully one third of the 18 films in competition are set in the 18th (Second Bride), 19th (Attraction; Little Lord Fauntleroy; Poor, Poor Pavel), or early―that is, pre-Soviet―20th centuries (Art Nouveau; Key to the Bedroom). At the same time (and running counter to the entire history of Russo-Soviet cinema from 1924 through 2002), more than three quarters of the competition films (14 of 18) either totally avoid Moscow or St. Petersburg settings, or move their action quickly from these centers to the Russian heartland or periphery (the exceptions here are Second Bride; Poor, Poor Pavel; Key to the Bedroom; and Do Not Make Biscuits).

This double shift, from present to past and from center to peripheryóor even abroad, whether "near abroad" (Poland, Chechnya) or "far abroad" (England, the US)ómarks a major break both with the Soviet tradition of filmmaking (the journey to the center) and the Russian tradition of the past decade, with its focus on the present). While it is still too early to draw any conclusions from these shifts, they seem to signal the emergence of a cultural, lingual, and visual diversity in Russian cinema that is unprecedented.

Yet, despite these positive developments, it is also important to confront the fact that this yearís offerings were in some respects weak when compared to prior years. Russian cinema as an industry continues to be in crisis, both in terms of production (film financing has not improved) and consumption (spectatorship for Russian cinema has not increased despite the opening of more than 400 multiplexes nationwide). At least part of the explanation for the overall weakness of this yearís competition films is to be found in the dramatic success of Russiaís video and television industries (measured respectively by sales and spectatorship) in securing a market for domestically produced films (old and new) and serials since the economic crash of 1998. Prior to 1998, the Russian video and television markets were dominated by Western imports (films and serials), which were cheaper to purchase and import (or simply to pirate) than domestically produced ones. The summer of 1998 and the ensuing economic crisis changed that forever: the deflated value of the ruble made the acquisition of Western "ready mades" prohibitively expensive when compared to the cost of producing domestic programs for the local market. Indeed, by 2000 Russian-made television serials (in particular, police procedurals and criminal thrillers) began to dominate both the airwaves and the video market, eclipsing the audience for Russian films, whether on the big or the little screens. No Russian film has yet come close to the viewership achieved by the two tele-blockbusters of recent years, The Brigade (2002) or The Idiot (2003).

These serials (4-18 episodes; 45-52 minutes each) redefined Russian visual culture: televisuality displaced the cine-visual. What disappeared in this process was the "made-for-TV" movie, a two-hour format (with commercials) that had a healthy tradition in Soviet times (without commercials). With only four exceptions (Abdrashitovís Magnetic Storms, Khudoinazarovís Chic, Muradovís The Truth About Shelps, and Sidorovís Little Old Ladies), all of the films screened in competition perfectly fit the "made-for-TV" format despite being shot on Kodak film stock with Dolby sound: these films run 79 to 103 minutes and rely on a punctuated, episodic narrative structure that easily allows for the insertion of commercials to fill the two-hour time slot; they avoid narrative complexity in favor of narrative transparency; they are primarily dialogue-driven rather than visually propelled; and they invariably offer a number of discrete resolutions that replace the need for narrative closure.

The three actors from Truth about Shelps

Soviet history provides a perfect example of the implications in mistaking the aesthetics of the "little screen" for the "big one": after several years of unprecedented popularity with television audiences, El'dar Riazanovís three-plus-hours, "made-for-TV" film Irony of Fate (1975) was re-released in a shortened version for the big screen by the end of the decade. Life follows art: in an "irony of fate," the audiences were unimpressed and the film was withdrawn. One can reasonably anticipate that the same fate awaits more than three quarters of this yearís competition films. Perhaps, however, they will have some limited success on the video market.

Whatever the current "growing pains" of the contemporary Russian film industry, Kinotavrís charge is to present the best available films to the festival public; this it does with its customary flair and creative enthusiasm. Presidents Mark Rudinshtein and Oleg Iankovskii, as well as festival organizers Sergei Lavrent'ev and Irina Rubanova, are to be congratulated on bringing together a collection of film offerings under conditions that continue to challenge the most energetic and entrepreneurial festival organizers. While there will always be many reasons to prefer the Moscow Film Festivalónot least the fact that it is held in Moscow and, as an A festival, is able to offer fierce competition with Sochiís Kinotavróno venue can compete with the extraordinary atmosphere of camaraderie and leisure, the collegiality, reliability, and easy proximity to all the screenings that is offered by the Open Russian Festival at Sochi. Moscow distracts as much as it proffers; Sochi, by contrast provides an ideal backdrop for the contemplation of the rich offerings of this vibrant and successful festival.