Moscow’s Silver Anniversary: XXV Moscow International Film Festival (20-29 June 2003)
By Vladimir Padunov
Whatever one thinks of Nikita Mikhalkov―and virtually no one is dispassionate in discussing him―it is impossible not "to tip one’s hat" to him when speaking of the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF). Since becoming President of the Festival in 1998, Mikhalkov and his team (executive director Renat Davletyarov, program director Kirill Razlogov, and director of public relations Peter Shepotinnik) have brought it the international prestige it has sought unsuccessfully since being established in 1935 (after which there was a 24-year break before the second festival in 1959). While it is still not in the same league as the "Big Four" (Berlin, Cannes, Venice, and Toronto in order of the screening calendar), Mikhalkov has almost single-handedly enabled the MIFF to emerge as a major annual event (bi-annual until 1999) in the international cinema circuit.
Mikhalkov himself, of course, wears many hats: he is Russia’s most renowned film director and a top screen actor, founder of one of the first and most successful privately owned film studios in the country (TriTe), President since 1993 of the Russian Cultural Foundation and President of the Union of Filmmakers since 1998. His face seems ubiquitous in Russia, in no small part because of the popularity of Komdiv, a brand of vodka that sports his image on the label as Komdiv Kotov, his role in his film Burnt By the Sun, the 1994 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film. During the XXV MIFF, Mikhalkov was as ubiquitous as his image: he appeared daily on every television station covering the festival (and, at least in Moscow, that was every station), in the daily newspapers and weekly magazines, and his voice was all over the airwaves. He was at the center of all of the festival’s major events and happenings, all of which were by invitation only, and he was constantly in the company of the festival’s featured international guests―actresses Fanny Ardant, Sophie Marceau, and Gina Lollobrigida (whose exhibit of sculptures opened at the Russian Museum as part of the festival), actors Steven Seagall and Max von Sydow, director Peter Greenaway, and others. But, perhaps most importantly from the point of view of the average Russian citizen and Moscow movie-goer, he was a constant and indefatigable presence in the company of his family and staff at all of the competition and many of the "special program" screenings open to the general public.
In all, almost 250 films were screened during the nine days of the festival in ten different locations throughout the city’s center. In addition to the 19 films of the main competition program, the festival staff organized 15 special programs, of which three in particular deserve mention. For the second year in a row, film critic Andrei Plakhov curated "AiForiia," a series of nine international films for the Argumenty i fakty publishing syndicate. Peter Shepotinnik organized "8˝ " (an annual program he has run since 1999) featuring eight films from around the world. And Irina Pavlova coordinated the program “The Russia, Which We Regained”―a program of nine separate series highlighting more than 100 Russian feature films, documentaries, and animations. Other programs included “Films Around the World," "Gala Premieres," "National Hits," "Great Expectations," "Atelier," "Family Business: The Todorovskys," "Focus Germany," "A Tribute to Andre Delvaux," "Film Museum Presents," "Gina Lollobrigida on Screen," "Czech Movies on the Road," and "Media Forum."
Many of the films screened in these special programs enjoy substantially more "name recognition" than the competition films, for example, Denis Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasion (Canada and France); Wolfgang Becker’s debut film that had created such a stir at the Berlin Film Festival―Goodbye, Lenin! (Germany); Peter Greenaway’s The Tulse Luper Suitcases (UK and Netherlands, with the participation of the Russian Federation); Michael Moore’s Academy Award winning documentary, Bowling for Columbine (US); François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (France and UK); Lars von Trier’s Dogville (Denmark, Sweden, France, Norway, Netherlands, and Germany); and the collective film by eleven directors―September 11. Precisely because these films (and many others) had received critical acclaim and garnered international festival prizes, they were automatically excluded from the MIFF’s competition program, which accepts only films that will be receiving their world premieres―that is, their first screening outside of their own countries. This requirement makes the festival’s competition program unpredictable and occasionally uneven, and it also leaves the jury prizes hotly debated.
This year’s competition jury was especially strong and well-respected, lending its decisions an authority that few dared to challenge. In keeping with tradition, the President of the Jury was a major Russian director―Sergei Bodrov Sr., two of whose films have received international awards (Freedom is Paradise, 1989; Prisoner of the Mountains, 1996). Jury members included actor Moritz Bleibtreu (Austria) and actress Olga Budina (Russia); director, writer, and producer Mika Kaurismani, the elder brother of Finland’s most famous director, Aki Kaurismani; directors Babak Pagani (Iran) and Ken Russell (UK); and director and scriptwriter Agnieszka Holland (Poland).
The competition jury awards four major prizes: the Golden St. George (Moscow’s patron saint) for best film (Miguel Hermoza’s The End of a Mystery, Spain and Italy) and three Silver St. Georges―one each for best director (Jang Jun-Hwan for Save the Green Planet!, South Korea); for best male lead (Faramaz Gharibian in Asghar Farhadi’s Dancing in the Dust, Iran); and for best female lead (Shinobu Ootake in Kaneto Shindo’s The Owl, Japan). The jury also awarded a special Silver St. George to Aleksei Popogrebskii’s and Boris Khlebnikov’s debut feature film Koktebel (in 1997 they co-directed a documentary film, In Passing). The film also received a Special Award from this year’s FIPRESCI jury, which gave its own award for best film to Sřren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Skagerrak (Denmark, Sweden, and UK).
Koktebel is a peculiar hybrid of the buddy film and the road movie. It is a slow-paced film that is structured around beautifully framed vignettes, recording a son’s journey with his father, a penniless and recovering alcoholic, from Moscow to the resort city of Koktebel in the Crimea. It was one of three Russian films included in this year’s competition program, together with Irina Evteeva’s Petersburg (a collage of feature footage with animation and documentary sequences celebrating the 300th anniversary of the city) and Aleksei Uchitel'’s The Stroll. Uchitel'’s latest film (he was the recipient of the Russian Film Academy’s "Nika" for best film, His Wife’s Diary, in 2000) is another oblique homage to the city of Petersburg, through which the three protagonists walk and flirt for all ninety minutes of the film. Though "youthful" in its orientation and focus (all of the actors are young members of Peter Fomenko’s Theatre Studio), the film is almost classical in its adherence to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action.
For historians of Russo-Soviet cinema, however, the real pearls of the XXV MIFF were two films from the 1930s, both banned and presumed destroyed, but recently discovered in the State Film Archives (Gosfilmofond) by film scholar Evgenii Margolit and screened at the Museum of Cinema by its curator, Naum Kleiman. Leonid Lukov’s I Love (1936) is a magnificent example of socialist-realist cinema during its early and formative years, and it is easy in retrospect to see how and why the film went afoul of cultural administrators (post-production work on the film was terminated, titles and credits were not printed, the film was never released). As with many of Lukov’s films, central to the plot is the life of miners in the Donbass region; but unlike his later films for which he either received State Prizes (A Great Life, part one, 1941; The Donetsk Miners, 1952) or was excoriated by the state (A Great Life, part two, 1946), I Love is set in pre-revolutionary times and focuses on the ideological confusion of the older generation of miners. Only the film’s closing lines ("I’ll kill you, Fatty, I swear I’ll kill you!"—addressed by the young grandson of the deceased hero to the corpulent mine owner) signal the impending "radiant future." The film features two of the Soviet Union’s early stars of the silent-era avant-garde: Aleksandr Chistiakov (the peasant hero of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s End of Saint Petersburg, 1927) and Aleksandr Antonov (the sailor Vakulinchuk, who leads and dies for the mutiny on board Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, 1925).
The second film, Aleksei Kapler’s License to Have a Woman (also known as The Female Student), a silent from 1930 that is missing the fifth of its six reels, is another of the films that deals with the issue of "the new Soviet woman." Like virtually all of them (most notably Abram Room’s Petty-Bourgeois Lane No. 3—known in the West as Bed and Sofa, 1927), License almost immediately ran into trouble with the cultural administration (indeed, Kapler and his wife, Tat'iana Zlatogorova, the lead actress in the film, also ran into trouble with the political administration: both spent time in the GULag). In her pursuit of an education, a woman abandons her unsupportive husband, taking their child with her while she studies at a medical institute; even the death of her child does not interfere with her resolve to become a surgeon. Produced by Ukrainfilm Studios in Kiev, the only surviving print of the film has Ukrainian intertitles.
Despite the resounding success of MIFF in terms of guests, journalists, films, and venues, the festival’s "Achilles heel" continues to be its informational and logistical infrastructure: the festival catalogue became available only the day after the festival began; press releases simply disappeared; announcements did not circulate; promotional materials for many films were non-existent; the staff (though courteous) was unhelpful in getting accredited members registered with the police. And yet, this year was nonetheless a marked improvement over preceding ones. This is especially notable since the XXV MIFF was forced to operate with a smaller budget when compared to last year. While state and institutional funding of the festival did not decrease this year (it remained at 72 million rubles―that is, approximately 2.2 million dollars), the financial sponsorship provided by the private and corporate sectors was cut by almost half (from one million dollars in 2002 to just over half a million this year). As Renat Davletyarov astutely pointed out (Itogi, 17 June 2003: 53), however, this decrease was not a comment on the pretige of the MIFF. Instead, it was directly attributable to the enormous flow of money from the private and corporate sectors to finance the cultural extravaganza marking the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg, Moscow’s traditional rival. Anniversaries come and go. The Moscow International Film Festival is here to stay.