At the Intersection of Art, Commerce, and National Pride:
The Moscow International Film Festival XXVI (June 18-27, 2004)
By Susan Larsen (Pomona College)
The 26th Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF26) opened on June 18 with the Russian premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s action epic Kill Bill, Volume Two (2004) and closed on June 27 with the world premiere of Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004), the first installment of a multi-part saga based on best-selling fantasy novels by Sergei Luk'ianenko (see KinoKultura review). Neither film was in competition, but their pairing neatly framed the festival’s distinctive blend of eclectic international and Russian programming. Tarantino’s film―and his presence in Moscow, together with Kill Bill star David Carradine and producer Harvey Weinstein―opened MIFF26 with an exuberant bang of old-fashioned international star power. Bekmambetov’s film closed the festival with a triumphant assertion of the resurgence of the Russian film industry, an assertion amply supported by the film’s recent earnings: within the first two months of its July 8 release, Night Watch took in over $15 million, almost four times its reported $4 million production costs, breaking all previous box-office records for both foreign and domestic films in the Russian market (source).
The continuing health of the MIFF is further evidence of the revival of the Russian film industry and, most importantly, of the return of Russian audiences to Russian movie theaters. With 85 million rubles in government funding and $1.5 million from private sponsors, MIFF26 screened over 250 films for over 30,000 spectators and 3,000 accredited guests in 10 days at 10 different venues. Many films sold out, and evening screenings of the Russian program were packed, with viewers squeezing in to sit in the aisles of the 1,100-seat theater in the Filmmakers’ Union (Dom kino). MIFF26 confronted an additional obstacle this year when the Manege Exhibition Hall, longtime festival headquarters, burned to the ground on 14 March 2004. Festival staff rose to this challenge like the proverbial phoenix, however, turning every square inch―and one not-so-spare, 600-seat theater in the Filmmakers’ Union—into working space for press and festival staff. The principal victim of this move was the audience for the Russian documentary film program, which consistently attracted audiences much too large for the 60-seat screening room where it was relocated as a result of the last-minute shift.
Competition Programs, Juries, and Prizes
The MIFF Main Competition is intended, in the words of program director Kirill Razlogov, "to convey the most important trends in world cinema." Of seventeen films in the main competition, three were produced in the Russian Federation, a fourth was a joint Russian/Azerbaijani production, and a fifth was made in Estonia. These figures suggest that nearly one-third of the "most important trends in world cinema" are developing on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Most other major cinematic trends are, apparently, products of Western Europe (represented at MIFF26 by entries from Germany, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Italy) and Asia (with entries from Thailand, Korea, and China). Films from Israel and Argentina expanded the main competition’s geographic purview, as did the only English-language film in festival competition, Marek Kanievska’s A Different Loyalty (2004), a US/UK/Canadian production with, nevertheless, a strong Russian connection in a plot that casts Rupert Everett as a British spy for the KGB.
The jury for the Main Competition at MIFF26 was thoroughly European, with a slightly Eastern tilt. Chaired by British director Alan Parker, the jury also included popular Russian novelist Boris Akunin, French producer Humbert Balsan, German actress Barbara Sukowa, Russian film critic and producer Armen Medvedev, and Polish actor and director Jerzy Stuhr.
The big news at the closing ceremony of MIFF26 was Russian films’ dominance of the principal prizes. For the first time since 1991, a Russian film, Dmitrii Meskhiev’s World War II drama Us (Svoi, 2004)―also rendered in festival catalogs as Friendly Troops and perhaps most accurately translated as Our Side―won the festival prize for Best Picture, the Golden St. George. Meskhiev also took home the Silver St. George for Best Director, and his leading actor, Bogdan Stupka, won the Silver St. George for Best Actor. Although a single film has occasionally won prizes in two categories at previous MIFFs, Us is only the second film in the 45-year history of the MIFF to receive three awards in the Main Competition (Régis Wargnier’s A French Woman  also won three awards―Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress―at the notorious 19th MIFF in 1995, the year when the jury declined to award a prize for Best Film). Us was also named Best Film in the Main Competition by both the Jury of Russian Film Critics, which lauded the film for its "adequate portrait of a private individual in the middle of great historical events," and the Federation of Russian Film Clubs, which sent 80 members from 28 different clubs to attend the festival and to vote on the award.
The Special Jury Prize also went to a film with a Russian/Soviet connection, the Estonian Revolution of Pigs (Sigader Revolutsioon, 2004), a debut feature by the two youngest filmmakers in the competition, Jaak Kilmi and Rene Reinumagi, born in 1973 and 1974 respectively. Revolution of Pigs is set in an Estonian youth camp in the summer of 1986 at the dawn of perestroika, and it casts its adolescent heroes as impassioned, occasionally comic combatants in the struggle against authoritarian and explicitly Soviet adult oppressors (see review).
Only one of the five prizes awarded by the jury in the Main Competition went to a film with no apparent Russian connection. The Silver St. George for Best Actress was awarded 82-year-old China Zorilla for her role in Argentine director Santiago Carlos Oves’ film, Conversations with Mama (Conversaciones con Mama, 2003).
|The other two Russian entrants in the Main Competition, Marina Razbezhkina’s Harvest Time (Vremia zhatvy, 2003) and Vladimir Mashkov’s Papa (2004) also won major awards. Harvest Time, shot in a quasi-documentary style with non-professional actors and set on a collective farm in the post-Stalin years, was named Best Film in the Main Competition by the FIPRESCI jury of international film critics, which declared that its vote was open, instant, and unanimous. The film also received a special diploma from the jury of Russian film critics for its "artistic revelation of the pagan nature of the totalitarian myth at the junction of documentary and fiction film." Papa, a well-intentioned but schmaltzy adaptation of Aleksandr Galich’s play Sailors’ Rest (Matrosskaia tishina, 1958), won the small St. George for Audience Favorite, an award made on the basis of votes collected from viewers at the end of each competition film’s festival premiere.||
In addition to the Main Competition, MIFF26 introduced a new competition program this year, "Perspectives," for first or second feature films. In contrast to the Main Competition, which, like all category A film festivals, insists on the right of first public screening, the "Perspectives" competition will accept films that have been shown elsewhere, provided they have never previously been shown in international festival competition. In further contrast to the Main Competition, the "Perspectives" contest offers its victor not only the glory of a Silver St. George, but a material reward as well: $20,000 and 10,000 meters of Kodak film stock. The winner, Japanese director Hideta Takahata’s film Hotel Venus (2004), was selected by a three-person jury consisting of Russian director and jury chair Aleksei Uchitel', Romanian actress Diana Dumbrava, and Polish film festival director Stefan Laudyn. The jury praised the film for bringing "fresh vitality to the movie world through its unique characters and distinctive ways of videotaping landscape." The landscape in question, however, was a Russian one. Hotel Venus was filmed in Vladivostok, a setting the director chose because he wanted to "create something like a stateless country" for his film about a group of Korean-speaking misfits (played by a cast of Japanese and Korean actors) inhabiting a boarding house run by an enigmatic transvestite (source). The Jury of Russian Film Critics awarded a diploma in this competition to yet another film with a link to Russia: Brazilian director Heitor Dhalia’s film Nina (2004) was honored for its "visual expressionism and original paraphrase of Dostoevskii’s novel Crime and Punishment." Eleven films were entered in this competition: three from Asia (Japan, Hong Kong, and China); four from Eastern Europe (Albania, Belarus, Russia, and a Slovak/Czech/German co-production); and one apiece from France, Brazil, Italy, and Austria.
The distinction between a filmmaker’s eligibility for the Main and Perspectives Competitions was not always obvious in this first year of the two-tier competition. Often referred to as a program for "young" filmmakers or film "debuts" by festival organizers, the "Perspectives" program at MIFF26 included a number of films from directors with extensive previous experience in television or documentary filmmaking, some of them well beyond middle age. The winning Hotel Venus, for example, is a spin-off of long-time television and commercial director Takahata’s highly-rated late-night program on FujiTV, Chonan Kan, a vehicle for Japanese pop star Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, who also stars in the film. Conversely, five of the seventeen films in the Main Competition were debut features, among them the prize-winning Revolution of Pigs and Harvest Time. In his introduction to the festival catalog, Razlogov suggested that films competing in the "Perspectives" program would be "more searching" and "more controversial." Given the heated debates provoked by Revolution of Pigs, which many critics lambasted as tasteless, overly polemical, or simply inaccurate, and the uncompromising visual and narrative minimalism of Harvest Time, which received lower viewer ratings than any other film shown in the Main Competition, either film might have qualified for the "Perspectives" program. Razbezhkina, who shot the 67-minute Harvest Time in 20 days on a $90,000 budget with only 20 people in her cast and crew, might also have welcomed the chance to compete for hard cash and film stock.
Two other prizes were awarded at MIFF26 and their recipients considerably upped the festival’s glamour quotient. Director Emir Kusturica received a special Silver St. George for his "contribution to world cinema," while actress Meryl Streep was presented with the "‘I Believe,’ K. Stanislavskii" award for "having conquered the highest peaks of the art of acting and her devotion to the principles of the Stanislavskii school."
Non-Competition Programs: General Trends
In addition to the two competition programs, MIFF26 offered eleven series of international films, eight Russian film series, and the fifth annual Media Forum, which presented 47 experimental video, television, and internet works. The most notable trend in this year’s programming policy was an increased emphasis on films with commercial, rather than purely art-house appeal. This shift away from art-house values was proclaimed in press conferences, press releases, and catalog material, all of which announced that the festival had abolished its auteur-based film series and would offer, in the words of program director Razlogov, more "comic and life-affirming" films than in previous years. These changes were presented by festival organizers as a response to criticisms that last year’s festival was overloaded with "pessimistic" films, and that an overabundance of art-house hits showing in non-competition programs had drawn attention away from the festival’s Main Competition.
Commercial concerns were also at the forefront of the four roundtable discussions sponsored by the Russian Filmmakers’ Union and the journal Film Art [Iskusstvo kino], which has promised to publish transcripts of each session. Discussion topics ranged from "Modern Film Technologies as a Means of Developing Film Business in Russia" to "Russian Film Festivals: Aims, Problems, Mutual Relations," "The End of Art-House? The Seduction of Auteur Cinema by Commercialization," and "Russian Cinema: How Can it Cover its Costs?" All four symposia were standing-room only events. Discussions were both witty and impassioned, particularly in the session devoted to Russian cinema’s financial crisis. MIFF president Nikita Mikhalkov spoke at length, focusing first on the need for Russian filmmakers to think more about "what" they’re shooting, rather than "how" they’re doing it; and, secondly, in support of subsidizing the Russian film industry with a tax on foreign films. But when he asked, rhetorically, how many filmmakers would turn down a state subsidy if it were offered them, the entire row of producers sitting next to him raised their hands to reject the proffered handout. I should note here, however, that all but one of the 30-plus Russian films that I viewed at MIFF26 included an acknowledgement of financial support from previous incarnations of the recently restructured and renamed Federal Agency of Cinema and Culture of the Russian Federation. The sole exception was Bekmambetov’s Night Watch, which was commissioned by the state-controlled television company, Channel One.
Chief among the concerns raised at the roundtable by producers Aleksandr Atanesian, Sergei Chliiants, Sergei Sel'ianov, and Sergei Sendyk were the "creative crisis" resulting from a shortage of talented scriptwriters and directors, the need for further improvements in distribution and theater networks, and the impossibility of combating video piracy in the Russian market. In comparison to discussions of this issue at festivals in previous years, the refusal of most speakers to blame Hollywood films for the financial difficulties confronting Russian filmmakers was striking, as was the widespread assumption, with the vocal exception of Mikhalkov, that government subsidies were no panacea for the problems of the Russian film industry. As Sendyk noted, American films pulled Russian viewers back into movie theaters, and the tickets they sold helped finance the construction of modern movie theaters.
Neither Russian producers’ newly benevolent attitude to American films, nor the MIFF26 policy of selecting more audience-pleasing fare resulted in an increased number of Hollywood productions in festival programs. On the contrary, only eight films produced entirely in the U.S. were screened at the festival, all of which, with the exception of Kill Bill, Volume Two, were independent productions and none of which were entered in festival competition. These included established art-house favorites such as Gus van Sant’s Elephant (2003), Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler (2003), and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle (1996-2002), as well as films by first-time directors J. Mitchell Johnson and Curtiss Clayton. Five other films were co-productions between partners in the U.S. and Fiji, Columbia, France, Canada/UK, or Ukraine/Slovakia.
An entire film series, "National Hits," seems, in fact, to have been programmed as a polemic against U.S. domination of international film markets. In the press release for the series, curator Vladimir Dmitriev described its goal as the presentation of films with a uniquely "national" appeal, as indicated by their "enormous box-office success" in their home country, yet each of which also defied the "international" dominance of American film production. The inclusion of films from Albania, Fiji, Bhutan, and post-Taliban Afghanistan in other MIFF26 programs is further evidence of the festival’s search for distinctive “national” films ― and, of course, for the sort of exotica that attracts an adventurous audience and enlivens press releases.
The series "Russian Trail" revealed the flip side of this concern for exclusively "local" filmmaking. The five films in this series were selected "to draw viewers’ attention to the work of our fellow citizens in foreign cinema." The films in question, however, are those of four Russian actors working in European films and one Russian émigré director, working with English-speaking actors in the U.S. Russian-ness, thus, becomes a national marker than can―at least in theory―be exported and recognized, even in the wildly varied performances of actors speaking different languages in films made in Germany, Slovakia, Austria, France, and the U.S.
Despite the festival’s professed disavowal of auteurist programs, an entire MIFF26 program, "Atelier," was devoted to documentary films about artists, primarily filmmakers. By selling tickets to films about Federico Fellini, Lars von Trier, Pavel Jurácek, Andrei Tarkovskii, and Sergei Parajanov, the festival turned the lives of these quintessential auteurs into commodities for (potential) mass consumption in the same year that it canceled the series named after Fellini’s 1963 MIFF prizewinner, "Eight and a Half Films."
I should not overstate the festival’s rejection of auteurist programs. MIFF26 still offered the international art-house fan a lot to see. In addition to screening all five parts of the über avant-garde Cremaster cycle, MIFF26 presented new films by Kusturica, Pedro Almodovar, Margarethe von Trotta, Eric Rohmer, and Alain Resnais, among others. The geographic and cultural diversity of the festival’s non-competition programs was breathtaking, including films from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and all over Europe, both East and West. Only the African sub-continent was underrepresented at MIFF26, with just a single US/German/South African co-production in the program. The festival also presented a Brazilian film series and retrospectives devoted to German director Alexander Kluge, Canadian director Robert Lepage, and Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam. The extensive Kluge and Lepage retrospectives were organized with substantial outside funding and support from German and Canadian cultural organizations.
Russian Film Programs: The Retrospectives
As in previous festivals, MIFF26 offered a comprehensive program of contemporary Russian cinema: 29 features, 22 documentaries, 25 animated films, and a poignant program of footage from two unfinished films by directors Aleksei Balabanov and Semen Aranovich. The festival also presented three richly rewarding retrospective film series. Two programs celebrated the 85th anniversary of the All-Union State School of Cinematography (VGIK): a series of prize-winning short films made by VGIK students between 1996 and 2004, and a series devoted to films of the 1920s made by VGIK graduates, among them many, such as Aleskandra Khokhlova, Anatolii Golovnia, and Vsevolod Pudovkin, who played major roles in later Soviet film history. Organized by VGIK and the Moscow Film Museum, with assistance from the State Cinema Collection of the Russian Federation, this second series featured a number of works that have only recently been unearthed in the archives, among them a fragment of Interplanetary Revolution (Mezhplanetarnaia revoliutsiia, 1924), the first work produced by the animation studios of the State Cinema College, a film that mimics, but does not parody the plot of Iakov Protazanov’s Aelita (1924).
Other highlights in this series included the hilarious, entirely student-produced Galosh No. 18 (Galosha No. 18, 1924, dir. Nikolai Anoshchenko), which follows the Chaplin-esque misadventures of a humble urban dweller in pursuit of an overshoe that will fit, and excerpts from screenwriter Mariia Smirnova’s and director Dmitrii Poznanskii’s debut film, Her Path (Ee put', 1929), a proto-feminist work about the transformation of a poor peasant girl (played with soulful flair by Emma Tsesarskaia) into an ardent solder and activist. Screened at the Moscow Film Museum, this series was enhanced by lively introductions from its curator, VGIK professor Nina Dymshits, often enriched by additional comments from Film Museum director Naum Kleiman.
A ten-film retrospective celebrated the work of early 20th century Russian director, Iakov Protazanov, billed in the festival catalog as "the King of Commercial Cinema," perhaps as an assertion of his continued relevance to 21st century cinema, or as a challenge to many contemporary Russian filmmakers whose work has yet to achieve the visual complexity, narrative craft, or impeccable comic timing of too seldom seen masterpieces like Don Diego and Pelageia (1926), Lawsuit for Three Million (Protsess o trekh millionakh, 1926), or, my favorite, St. Jorgen’s Day (Prazdnik sv. Iorgena, 1930). St. Jorgen’s Day is an unfortunately titled, but hilarious film that, in a tightly nested structure of meta-cinematic narratives, mocks the film industry, organized religion, and, by implication, all attempts to enlist art in the service of ideology.
Russian Film Programs: The Documentaries
The Russian documentary program, carefully selected and introduced by Rita Chernenko, offered a fascinating and wildly diverse line-up of films. Many of these were character-driven, most notably Marat Magambetov’s laconic Sasha (2004); Sergei Iuzikovich’s slice-of-life Dialogues in an Electric Train (Dialogi v elektrichke, 2004); and Vladimir Popov’s simultaneously poignant and hilarious Station "L’Amour" (Stantsiia "Liamur," 2003) (source). Station presents a straightforward account of a young medic who attempts to combat the spread of venereal disease in the remote village where he is assigned. Rising early to track "suspicious" visits through a pair of opera-glasses, the earnest young medic then broadcasts his observations over the local radio station, accompanied by recommendations for the individuals in questions to "stop by the med-center as soon as possible." All three films named above reveal the drama in lives that might otherwise seem unexceptional, yet without exaggerating either the humor or the pathos of their subjects’ experience, with respect, in other words, for both the dignity of their subjects and the intelligence of their audience.
Many films in the documentary series made extensive use of archival footage. The most effective of these were Murad Ibragimbekov’s tribute to the cultural impact of the petroleum industry in his five-minute Oil (Neft', 2003), which looks as if it could have been made by Dziga Vertov, and Andrei Osipov’s meditation on the fate of poet Marina Tsvetaeva, Passion for Marina (Strasti po Marine, 2004). The most confusing was Ivan Tverdovskii’s fascinating, but ultimately incoherent Great Holidays of the 1930s (Bol'shie kanikuly 30-x, 2003) which amassed an incredible array of archival footage of everyday life in the 1930s, but assembled it without apparent regard for or indication of the many different countries that provided his source material. The weirdest films in this category, however, were the three final episodes from Artem Mikhalkov’s six-part Passion for Russia (Strasti po Rossii, 2003), billed as a history of "the emotions of Russian people against the background of historical cataclysms." Making extensive and historically irresponsible use of the Kuleshov effect, these films construct a visual narrative of Russian and, ultimately, world history that contrasts images of Russian Orthodox priests, devout parishioners, pastoral landscapes, and Vladimir Putin in martial arts gear with images of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, enormous laboratories, robot prototypes, and George W. Bush who is presented (incredibly!) as a supporter of stem-cell research and the inevitable cloning of human beings. The intent of this juxtaposition is to make the claim, fervently articulated by narrator Nikita Mikhalkov (the director’s father, as well as MIFF president and celebrated filmmaker in his own right), that the "power of a nation’s spirit" lies not in its weapons or technologies but in its values and religious beliefs. In the contest of national spirits, Russian wins hands down, of course, since she is, in the Mikhalkovs’ words "truly great." The footage presents Russia as the only bulwark against the forces it coyly identifies as the "new barbarians, whose leader was taught by American instructors and battled the USSR in Afghanistan." As the film concludes with yet another sequence of scenes set in churches, Mikhalkov reminds the audience that the "great expanse of space called Russia ... is, has been, and always will be the bridge between East and West." Only the continued existence of this unique bridge can guarantee that "humankind will be able to live in peace."
A third group of documentaries explored long-forgotten, obscured, or falsified incidents from the Soviet past. These films combined archival footage with interviews of surviving family members, friends, colleagues, and, in one memorable instance, a KGB interrogator. Notable films in this group included Iosif Pasternak’s inquiry into charges that Soviet composer Aleksandr Lokshin was a KGB informant (Evil Genius [Geniii zla], 2003); Damian Votsekhovskii’s record of one naive American Christian’s quest to discover the truth about Soviet defector and born-again evangelist Sergei Kurdakov (Forgive me, Sergei [Prosti menia, Sergei], 2004); Galina Evtushenko’s report on the Moscow orphanage for Jewish children that existed from 1925 to 1930 (And Nobody Will Know [I nikto ne uznaet], 2004); and Sergei Zaitsev’s prize-winning investigation of the fate of Russian soldiers who continued to fight for France after the Soviet Union dropped out of WWI in 1917 (Died for France [Pogibli za Frantsiiu], 2003). Some of these films were weakened by occasional narrative or technical flaws, but all told compelling and, often, surprising stories.
Finally, Vartan Akopian’s ten-minute, dialogue-free, black-and-white Siskin (Chizhik, 2003) is remarkable for its idiosyncratic elegance, visual simplicity, and lyrical rhythm as it follows a young man slowly pushing a mysterious, covered table through the packed streets of St. Petersburg and into the Summer Garden, where he unveils the table and reveals a xylophone. As the unidentified musician begins to play a piece by Chopin, the camera tracks slowly across the faces of his accidental urban audience scattered among the neo-classical statues that populate the Summer Garden, capturing them in a moment of unconscious grace, as they pause and focus, as if in time to the melody, on some enigmatic, inner knowledge.
Many other films were shown in the documentary program, and my failure to mention them here has less to do with their quality than with the fact that they were scheduled simultaneously with festival roundtables and the main Russian cinema program. My overwhelming impression from the films I did see in this series is that the stories documentary filmmakers have to tell are often more original and more complex than those of most recent Russian fiction films.
One might imagine that the recent entry of several experienced Russian documentarians into the realm of fiction film might invigorate and expand the creative range of Russian cinema, but this, alas, is not always the case. On the one hand, Razbezhkina’s first feature, Harvest Time, was rightly acclaimed by some critics as a brilliant debut, but she made a point, as she noted in her press conference, of avoiding what she called "actorly fakery." To this end, Razbezhkina employed only non-professional actors, with the exception of Liudmila Motornaia, an actress renowned for her performances in Lev Dodin’s St. Petersburg Maly Theater. For the same reason, she asked noted folklorist Sergei Starostin to do the voice-over narration and to dub the voice of the film’s charismatic male lead, first-time actor and full-time tailor Viacheslav Batrakov (see KinoKultura review). On the other hand, prolific documentarian Galina Evtushenko’s first feature, Attic Story (Cherdachnaia istoriia, 2004), is abysmal, a film about an instant romance between a hired killer and the wife of his target’s bodyguard that looks like a cross between a few scenes lifted from Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (1997)―minus that film’s visual flair―and a Victoria’s Secret ad.
Russian Film Programs: New Feature Films
At the center of all three Russian films entered in the Main Competition is a father whose bond with his children, usually his sons, is endangered by the competing demands of national, military, or party loyalties. In Meskhiev’s Us, Bogdan Stupka plays an old man who has accepted the role of village liaison with the Nazi occupation in order to protect both his own family and the welfare of the other villagers who are accustomed to thinking of him as their elder (starosta). Deported to Siberia in the 1930s as a kulak, the old man feels no loyalty to the Soviet government, but when his son Mit'ka (Mikhail Evlanov), a sharpshooter in the Soviet army, escapes from a Nazi prisoner convoy with two officers from his unit and flees with them to the shelter of his father’s home nearby, the old man must decide whom to save and at what cost. Will he murder the two officers, neither of whom, as portrayed by Sergeii Garmash and Konstantin Khabenskiii, is particularly heroic or admirable, and save his son? Will he turn in all three, including his son, in order to save his two daughters, whom the Nazis have imprisoned and threatened to kill if the runaway prisoners are not found? Will he force Mit'ka’s betrothed Katia (Anna Mikhalkova) to marry the Nazi-appointed chief of police (Fedor Bondarchuk) in exchange for Mit'ka’s safety? Is Mit'ka conspiring with his father to kill the two officers? Will Mit'ka’s revelation of his father’s plot provoke the two officers to kill the man who has fed and sheltered them? These are the questions that dominate the film and keep the viewer in suspense, rather than the question of whether the Nazis will discover the runaways’ hiding place. The film keeps its German villains at a visual and narrative remove, invoking them only as a distant presence that creates the circumstances in which the Russian characters must make difficult decisions, rather than as a vivid embodiment of evil that makes all decisions simple in wartime. With the exception of the explosive opening sequence, in which German tanks attack the local Russian military post, all of the violence portrayed in the film is committed by Russians against other Russians. In contrast to war films that map "us" vs. "them" along national lines and construct their action around that familiar conflict, Meskhiev’s Us asks: who are "we"?
As written, the film initially seems to answer this question with a leap into the realm of fairy tale, a genre frequently encountered in the work of scriptwriter Valentin Chernykh, whose earlier scripts include the Oscar-winning Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1979, dir. Vladimir Men'shov): as a result of the old man’s courage and ingenuity, all the bad guys are killed, all the children are saved, the obstacle to the young lovers’ happiness (the principal bad guy) is removed, and the young hero goes on to fight another day with his father’s blessing. Only Stupka’s smoldering, understated performance as the old man prevents this scenario from looking as preposterous on screen as it sounds on the page. Yes, the old man orchestrates the murder of the one collaborator able to harm his family, bargains with the prison guard for his daughters’ release, and sends his son back to war with the words: "what are you waiting for, go and defend the motherland, go with him, go on." But the old man tosses out these, his final words in the film, in an off-hand, half-impatient tone that almost mocks the patriotic sentiment they convey in print, as if quoting a slogan that he cannot entirely accept as his own. As delivered by Stupka, the line also leaves open the possibility that the old man acknowledges, however reluctantly, that there might be a motherland worth defending, despite the flaws in its institutions and representatives.
The old man sends his son away with the sole surviving officer, a man whose cruelty, cowardice, and careless disregard for others throughout the film renders all his patriotic and emotional outbursts suspect and, by the end of the film, contemptible. This nominally superior officer (Sergei Garmash) is no substitute for Mit'ka’s real father, neither as caretaker nor as role model. When the hysterical officer implores the old man not to shoot him in the film’s final scene, crying "I’m one of yours, one of yours" (Ia zhe svoi, svoi), the old man only mutters to him in disgust: "No one’s going to hurt you." The old man will not harm the officer once his presence no longer threatens the old man’s family, but he refuses to call him one of "us." This reply rejects any reconciliation with the institutions or values that the officer represents and further complicates the question of who "we" are.
A more conventional war film might have ended with the father’s last-minute change of heart and embrace of the officer and, by implication, the national community he represents. In Meskhiev’s Us, however, the only allegiances with any force or communities that have power to defend one's own are local, not national or political. The old man heads a community united by shared history and family loyalty against the threat posed by any outsider, whether Nazi soldiers or Soviet commissars. This point is underscored by the film’s visual aesthetic, which presents the landscape traversed by the escaped prisoners in long shots with almost all the color bleached out, green fields turned gray and dull brown until they arrive in the old man’s barn. The only splash of color in these cold scenes is the garish red of the blood that wells up from the slit throat of the POW whom the officers kill to prevent him from revealing their military rank to their Nazi guards. Later, as the escaped prisoners spy on the women moving slowly through the garden outside the old man’s barn, rich greens and deep browns return to the film’s palette, warm with the heat implicit in the women’s heavy flesh (actress Natal'ia Surkova gained over 40 pounds for her role as the old man’s common-law wife). Even under Nazi occupation, this village is vibrant with life, a pastoral vision in marked contrast to the fields that lose their color as soon as the men enter them with the intent to do violence. The frequent shifts in the film’s color register and tempo demonstrate its makers’ technical skill and, more importantly, function as a sort of visual alienation effect that disrupts easy identification with any group of characters on-screen, further disrupting facile assumption about which characters and values are "ours." The highly stylized visual effects insist that the violence on-screen is a problem to be contemplated, rather than an event that merely shocks or moves the story along (although it also does this).
|The last word in the film is Mit'ka’s cry, "Dad!" as his father turns and walks away, a solitary figure filmed in long shot against the sweeping, vividly green fields. That last cry is the key to the film’s appeal. Although the film reveals the fragility of every other human bond—national, comradely, neighborly, romantic and sexual—the strength and permanence of the father’s bond with his children is never questioned. In Us, the embodiment of personal integrity, stoic courage, and masculine strength is the purely local (anti-) hero, a Nazi collaborator whom the film presents as more deserving of admiration than the uniformed representatives of Soviet power. Russians may kill one another with reckless impunity on screen, but the father will not turn on his son, even to protect himself or the other members of his family. Nor in a performance that rejects histrionics, does Stupka’s old man ever allow his own sense of personal dignity to falter. He is "his own" (svoi) person throughout the film and, as a result, embodies the values that the film’s viewers most long to perceive as theirs. The film’s father figure thus retains the familiar and comforting moral force more frequently associated with military heroes than Nazi collaborators in Russian WWII films, while resolutely asserting his rejection of the Soviet political system those earlier heroes fought and died to uphold.|
The title of Mashkov’s Papa immediately indicates that it, too, is concerned with filial bonds. In contrast to Us, however, Papa is jam-packed with plot. Its storyline traverses two decades, rather than the few days’ span of Us, and it overflows with bathos and stereotypes of every sort―ethnic, historical, and cinematic―in its portrait of the troubled relationship between provincial Jewish shopkeeper Abram Schwartz (Mashkov) and his son David (Egor Beroev). Although David’s admission to the Moscow Conservatory was made possible by his father’s discipline and financial sacrifice, when the doting father makes his first trip to Moscow to see his son, David publicly disavows him in hopes of winning a scholarship to study abroad. David’s rejection of his father is in marked contrast to the behavior of his friend and roommate Slava (Andrei Kuzichev), who is expelled from the Conservatory when he refuses to denounce his own father as an enemy of the people. War breaks out before the promised scholarship can materialize, and David joins the war effort, where he is wounded so badly that one of his arms is amputated (source).
In the film’s final scene, Abram, who was killed by the Nazis with the rest of the Jews in his town, returns as a ghost to comfort David as he lies in his hospital bed and grieves over the wreck of his musical career. The lighting in this scene is a ghastly green, presumably to create the requisite otherworldly aura, and the camera closes in on the two actors’ faces in a series of static shots that are intended to reveal the depths of their emotion but, instead, transforms what should be the film’s emotional climax into an excruciating and painfully protracted reminder of how difficult it is to transfer a stage work to the screen. The story is heartbreaking, but predictably so, and the reconciliation between loving father and repentant son comes off as artificial and strained, rather than poignant. Mashkov’s performance is most effective when captured in medium shots that reveal his gift for physical gesture and contrast his shabby figure with the extravagant interiors of the Moscow metro or the neo-classical grandeur of the city’s landmark buildings. Unlike Stupka’s old man in Meskhiev’s Us, Mashkov’s Abram is a one-dimensional performance, stitched almost entirely from ethnic and cinematic clichés.
Despite their many differences, however, the two films conclude on an identical note. The final words in Papa, just as in Us, belong to a son crying out for his father: as Abram bids his son good-bye, David―like Mit'ka―cries out, “Papa! Papa!” Other similarities between the two films suggest that both emerged from a shared set of cultural anxieties and assumptions. Each film invokes the national trauma of the Stalin era and the national heroism of World War II. Characters in each film are shaped by the repressive policies of the 1930s and redeem themselves by their bravery, however idiosyncratic, in wartime. The fathers in each film never waver in their devotion to their children, regardless of their sons’ own mixed loyalties and betrayals. Each film, finally, transposes its historical drama into a fable about the bond that unites fathers and sons even―as Papa insists―after death.
Razbezhkina’s Harvest Time is another fable that derives much of its visual and narrative appeal from a charismatic father figure, who, like the fathers in both Us and Papa, is also scarred by his wartime experiences, but only physically. Although the film begins after the father’s loss of both legs in World War II, this father (Viacheslav Batrakov, himself a double amputee since age seven) radiates a confident and playful masculinity in the first half of the film. In contrast to earlier WWII films, such as Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, 1959) or Clear Skies (Chistoe nebo, 1961) both of which feature men whose war wounds are presented as emotional obstacles and markers of courageous sacrifice, Harvest Time does not present its disabled veteran as either tragic or heroic. Rather than transforming the father’s physical difference into a metaphor for psychic wounds or historical injuries, the film presents the father’s body as is―that is, as an incidental fact of his biography that has no impact on his relationship with his wife or the easy affection he demonstrates for his family.
In contrast to Us and Papa, Harvest Time includes both a father and a mother. There’s not a mother anywhere in sight in Us or Papa, an absence that places even more emphasis on the primacy of the father-son bond in those films and maps the historical genealogy they aim to restore or resurrect as exclusively masculine. The narrator of Harvest Time, however, remembers both his father and his mother, and the film focuses more on their relationship to each other as husband and wife than it does on their role as parents.
The grace and strength with which the father moves through his home form a visual counterpoint to his able-bodied wife Tosia’s increasing obsession with her work as a prize-winning combine-driver on the collective farm. Tosia’s fanaticism derives not from her devotion to the cause of Soviet agriculture, but from her desperate drive to retain possession of the Red Banner transferred each year to the farm’s most productive worker. Powerless to protect the banner from the ravages of mice and moths, Tosia stays up late at night mending the banner like some daft Soviet Penelope, trimming away frayed patches of crimson velvet and reattaching the heavy gold fringe that frames the ever diminishing emblem of state power. Tosia’s obsession with the banner eventually isolates her from both children and husband, who eventually drinks himself to death, because, as their grown son reports in voice-over narration, "he could live without legs, but he couldn’t live without love."
The story of the banner is only an anecdote, however, around which Razbezhkina and director of photography Irina Ural'skaia construct a moving visual elegy for the lives of people forgotten by history. In one remarkable episode after another Ural'skaia frames the film’s protagonists in scenes that evoke both modernist painter Kuz'ma Petrov-Vodkin’s enigmatic Petrograd Madonna (1918) and the skewed angles of Dziga Vertov’s Lullaby (Kolybel'naia, 1937). The film simultaneously invokes and dismantles Soviet cinematic clichés about earnest female tractor drivers and joyous collective harvests as Tosia propels her combine ever further into the night, grimly singing the Soviet anthem, "Broad is my motherland." Tosia’s inner life, like that of her husband, remains a mystery, in large part because neither speaks more than a few lines in the film. Most of the film’s dialogue comes in the form of a voice-over that the conclusion reveals to be the memories of a son who perished in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In privileging the visual over the verbal, the film makes its characters lives not more transparent and accessible to its viewers, but less so. In contrast to Meskhiev’s Us and Mashkov’s Papa, Razbezhkina’s Harvest Time chronicles a time that is past, with no relevance for the present. As the son’s voice-over concludes, "you have abandoned our memory of ourselves so completely that you do not return even in our dreams." Harvest Time aims not to resurrect the past or even to mourn its loss, but to remind its audience of the gaps in their knowledge of themselves. In its disruption of familiar cinematic storytelling codes, both visual and verbal, Harvest Time rejects the historical drama and easy pathos of many other recent films set in the Soviet past.
The historical obsessions and generational tensions apparent in all three Russian films entered in the Main Competition are also found in many of the other Russian films shown at MIFF26. In contrast to the films discussed above, however, the most memorable Russian films screened outside the Main Competition are set in the present, rather than the past. A number of films feature orphaned or neglected adolescents, a phenomenon that may derive in part as much from an attempt to cultivate the Russian youth market as from a concern with how difficult it is to be young in 21st century Russia. But the number of films that focus on the troubled lives of aspiring young artists suggests the pervasiveness of a certain adolescent narcissism in contemporary Russian cinema. Both Aleksandr Veledinskii’s Russian (Russkoe, 2004) and Sergei Ursuliak’s Long Farewell (Dolgoe proshchanie, 2004) are adaptations of prose works that portray struggling young writers as they grapple with romantic disillusionment and political oppression; the heroes of both Svetlana Stasenko’s Shantytown Blues (Angel na obochine, 2004) and Andrei Proshkin’s The Play of Butterflies (Igry motyl'kov, 2004) are fatherless young musicians, each of whom spends time in jail for killing a man; and the protagonist of Leonid Mariagin’s Hello, My Capital! (Zdravstvyui, stolitsa!, 2003) aims to become a filmmaker. Of these five, by far the most visually distinguished and historically nuanced is The Play of Butterflies (see KinoKultura review). at .
Orphans were everywhere in this year’s Russian program. The action of Roman Balaian’s Bright is the Night (Noch' svetla, 2004) unfolds in an orphanage for children who are deaf, mute, blind, or all three. The title character of Sergei Tkachev’s Masha (2004) runs away to Paris in search of the man she believes to be her father. And Iaropolk Lapshin’s Mudslide (Sel', 2003) sends a naive Muslim shepherd, Akhmet, on a journey to Moscow in search of his older brother after the rest of his family perishes in a mudslide. All three films use the orphan plot to generate facile pathos and conclude with unexpected reconciliations after interventions of varying preposterousness by the sort of quasi-magical helpers more commonly found in fairytales.
Two films about fatherless children stand out from those discussed above in their rejection of easy answers and their more complex characterizations of delinquent fathers and troubled children: Valeriii Todorovskii’s My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyi brat Frankenshtein, 2004) and Gul'shad Omarova’s The Shiz (Shiza, 2004). Throughout Todorovskii’s film, scientist Iulik Krymov (Leonid Iarmol'nik) wavers between acceptance and rejection of Pavel (Daniil Spivakovskii), the illegitimate son he meets for the first time when Pavel comes to Moscow for medical treatment after being wounded in Chechnia. Iulik tries first to ignore Pavel’s existence, then, when he realizes the extent of Pavel’s combat-related mental illness, he attempts to commit him to a mental institution. On yet another occasion, Iulik abandons Pavel at the side of a desolate road, and, in the end, he slips away from Pavel, abandoning his son to be shot by the SWAT team that has surrounded the house where Pavel has been holding the entire family hostage, albeit for their own, as he thinks, safety.
||Conversely, in Omarova’s The Shiz, the title character, a fatherless adolescent with mental problems, wavers between devotion to and fear of his mother’s live-in boyfriend, who temporarily adopts the boy as his helper in a violent con game. Ultimately, the "Shiz" sees through his surrogate father’s betrayals and shoots him in cold blood. He, too, like the orphaned protagonists of The Play of Butterflies and Shantytown Blues, serves time for murder, and, like them, he, too, emerges from prison to find a woman eager to welcome him home. Unlike The Play of Butterflies and Shantytown Blues, however, the "Shiz" is neither a musician nor particularly charismatic, and the woman waiting for him, Zina, is significantly older than he. She also has a young son, a child whom the "Shiz" helped orphan, when he recruited the boy’s father for a no-holds-barred boxing match in which the man was killed. All three―the “Shiz,” Zina, and her son―are orphans, a point the film drives home in establishing shots of Zina’s ramshackle house perched in a dusty wasteland on the farthest edge of town. Their relationship, in fact, resembles clumsy mutual parenting far more than romance.|
The driving emotion in both The Shiz and My Stepbrother Frankenstein is a craving for the safety and comfort of a father-son bond that their respective protagonists finally have to reject, if they are to survive. In each case, the rejection of this bond, the theme of so many platitudes in news coverage of Papa and Us, is violent. Todorovskii’s film takes a more complex approach to the father-son conflict (see KinoKultura review), but his film is also shot primarily from the father’s point of view. In The Shiz, Omarova adopts the naive gaze of her orphaned protagonist, a boy-child who can be guilty of nothing because he has not yet, as the film’s poster image indicates, eaten the apple from the tree of knowledge.
Prologue/Epilogue: Uma Thurman, Umaturman
Uma Thurman’s image―in the familiar yellow Kill Bill tracksuit―was plastered on billboards, fences, and magazine covers throughout Moscow in the weeks preceding the opening of MIFF26. As a “gift” to Tarantino, Nikita Mikhalkov orchestrated a surprise performance at the opening ceremony by the Nizhnii Novgorod pop group Umaturman of the dead-pan serenade "Uma Thurman, or, ‘Vova, I’ve Been Waiting for You So Long’" ("Uma Turman, ili ia tak zhdala tebia, Vova"), released in September 2004 on their album In the City of N (V gorode N). The live performance was accompanied by a five-minute video created by Studio Cherdak that intercut scenes from Thurman’s film roles with scenes from Soviet box-office hits, most from the Brezhnev era. In the spirit of Sergei Komarov’s 1927 Kiss of Mary Pickford, the video creates the impression that Tarantino’s female star is flirting, dancing, and drinking champagne with a series of beloved, if not always particularly glamorous Soviet male stars from Girl Prisoner of the Caucasus (Leonid Gaidai, 1966), Afonia (Georgii Daneliia, 1975), An Office Romance (El'dar Riazanov, 1977), Mimino (Daneliia, 1977), Love and Pigeons (Men'shov, 1984), and the television serial Seventeen Moments of Spring (Tat'iana Lioznova, 1973). In juxtaposing shots of Thurman as super femme fatale with shots that, for the most part, portray middle-aged Russian men in moments of apprehension, anxiety, or ridiculous sexual bravado, the video―like the song that inspired it―both mocks and reproduces Russian infatuation with Hollywood star power. The song imagines how happy Uma will be to meet Vova once he finally gets together enough money to swim, fly, or drive to see her. The video, however, reminds the viewer of an alternative tradition of less glamorous, less technically virtuoistic filmmaking that is both national and still hugely popular.
This "video gift" to Tarantino, the much-heralded opening-night guest of the festival, is more than a little ambiguous, particularly since―in addition to footage from Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction (1994)―it cites footage of Thurman from Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997) and Batman & Robin (Joel Schumacher, 1997), films that Tarantino did not direct. With self-mocking insouciance, the video reminded both festival guests and the national television audience of Channel One’s broadcast of the opening ceremony that―despite Uma’s charms, Tarantino’s fame, and their films’ commercial success―Russian cinema still imagines itself as an equal partner to its better-known and more conventionally seductive guest stars from overseas.
With a neat, if unintentional symmetry, Russia’s Umaturman also closed the 26th MIFF, since theirs is the song heard over the final credits of the film screened at the festival’s closing ceremony, Bekmambetov’s Night Watch. The song, written in a style described as "Russian rap," summarizes the film’s narrative with the same sort of irreverent faux-naiveté that characterizes the group’s ballad about Vova and Uma. On the one hand, as they sing in Night Watch: "blood is flowing, good is warring with evil"; but, on the other: "And how will he cope, what’s our hero to do? / Everyone come out for movie number two!" (source).
Framing the festival with Kill Bill, Volume 2 and Night Watch was, of course, a deliberate choice. Described by director Bekmambetov and producer Konstantin Ernst at the press screening as "our attempt to make a real blockbuster, but a Russian one," Night Watch is a Russian attempt to compete with films like Kill Bill, not only on the screens of Russia’s new multiplexes, but also in the holy grail of film markets, the United States. Foreign distribution rights to Night Watch and its sequel Day Watch (to be released in early 2005), as well as rights to remake both films and shoot a prequel, Dusk Watch, with Bekmambetov directing an English-speaking international cast, were sold to Fox Movies in mid-August 2004 (source). For the first time in the post-Soviet era, a Russian film has managed, in the old Soviet formula, to "catch up to and overtake" its foreign competition. Vova’s dream just might come true.