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# 10, October 2005

Diliara Tasbulatova (Itogi)

Study, Study, Study: 

The Grand Prize of the 27th Moscow International Film Festival Went to Aleksei Uchitel'’s Dreaming of Space*

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

*Note from the translator: the root of Uchitel'’s name (uchit') forms an infinitive that means either “to study” or “to teach,” depending on the context; the name itself means “teacher.”

The Shepherd

The remainder of the awards was distributed as follows: the prize for best director went to the “Dogma”-tic Thomas Vinterberg (Dear Wendy; Denmark, Germany, France, and UK 2004), loyal friend and comrade of the famous Lars von Trier, and a special prize of the festival was awarded to Finnish director Aku Louhimies for Frozen Land (Finland, 2004), an existential drama about responsibility, the problem of choice, and the universal guilt of everyone in front of everyone else and personally of each in front of God. The independent jury of international film critics (FIPRESCI) gave its prize to The Guitar Mongoloid (dir. Ruben Ostlund; Sweden, 2004), a radical and somewhat schizophrenic film, while the Russian film clubs selected Chumscrabber (USA, 2004), directed by American filmmaker Arie Posin who emigrated from the USSR. A special mention was given to The Shepherd (Uzbekistan, 2005) by Iusup Razykov, one of the most talented Uzbek directors. Finally, the jury gave the prize for best actress to the Bulgarian Vesela Kazakova for her role in Stolen Eyes (dir. Radoslav Spassov; Bulgaria and Turkey, 2004) and for best actor to the Iranian Hamid Farahejad for Left Foot Forward on the Beat (dir. Kazem Ma'asoumi; Iran, 2004).

 

A Place of Heroic Deeds

Unfortunately, the films listed above say nothing to ordinary film-goers, those who go to movie theaters. Probably only Chumscrabber and Dear Wendy have any chance of receiving wide-scale distribution, and even they might do so exclusively because of the selflessness of independent distributors of art-house films, who do so at their own risk and peril. This is the basic problem that confronts the MIFF: as a member of the festival’s Selection Committee confided to me, it is a major headache to create a respectable program of “virginal” films—that is, of films that have not yet received a lot of attention. The fact that this year’s festival was stunning in its diversity, both geographically and stylistically, can only be attributed to the selection committee’s heroic labor. Moscow—why pretend?—is neither Cannes nor Venice; films don’t come here automatically and major film directors don’t yearn to come here no matter what.

The uninitiated can’t understand why this is so; how can the capital of a huge country with rich and broad cultural traditions be worse than some unimportant town named Cannes? Or even “provincial” Venice? The answer is simple: Russia still doesn’t have as many movie-halls as the rest of Europe. For this reason the market is not working full force: there is no one to sell films to. Yet film (fortunately or unfortunately—let the reader decide), by its very ontology is not just an art form, but also a commodity to be bought and sold. It is no accident that the great Jean Vigot died in poverty, never having made a profit from any of his films. Nobody cared about their aesthetic value. It is not for nothing that Vinterberg once lamented that the profession of film director is similar to that of the prostitute because the director constantly has to worry about satisfying his client.

The Unconquerable Uchitel'

So it bears repeating that the 27th MIFF managed to deal with this situation and brought an extremely interesting program of films to Moscow, collected from all over the world—from Finland and Sweden to Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and even the United States (where they continue to make independent films). Paradoxically, however, the festival also managed to throw its reputation into question: if the competition program contained so many exceptional films, how is it that the film from the host country received the main prize? The question is not at all frivolous—this is the second year in a row that a Russian film has received the Golden St. George. If things continue in this way, foreign filmmakers will simply stop submitting their films to Moscow, opting instead for inclusion at Cannes, Venice, or Berlin, even if not in the main competition program. That is the greatest danger. But a second possibility comes to mind, one that is no less pressing: what if, say, next year Russia’s entry in the competition is an unprecedented chef d'oeuvre—“of all times and nations,” as they used to say (anything is possible)—what will we do then? Give our own film the main prize for a third time in a row? Hm… And a third observation, the most subjective of all: serious film-goers—the critics who strongly influence the filmmaking process and carefully follow the developments of festival intrigues—were appalled by Uchitel'’s triumph because they considered Dreaming of Space to be incomprehensible and old-fashioned.

Dreaming of Space

Although, it all depends… In comparison with Mr. Uchitel'’s preceding films—His Wife’s Diary (2000), about the last days of writer Ivan Bunin, or The Stroll (2003), an impressionistic sketch aimed at youth culture, Dreaming of Space can almost be considered a masterpiece. Perhaps this is because Uchitel' finally based his film on a solid script, inviting not just anybody to work on the film with him, but Aleksandr Mindadze himself (with all my respect for the talented young lady Dunia Smirnova, who wrote the scripts for His Wife’s Diary and The Stroll, — she is no Mindadze). Or perhaps it is because Uchitel' was able to learn his lesson from his earlier failures (The Stroll, on which he placed such high hopes, received nothing but devastating reviews). It is not clear. But one thing is: Mr. Uchitel' tried as hard as he could to instill his retro-saga (set in the long-ago 1950s) with as much of his soul’s passion as he was capable. It would be strange to object, for example, that there is just too much passion. As they say: be happy with what you’ve got. Especially since in addition to those who disparaged it, Dreaming of Space had some admirers as well among viewers, film critics, and even some writers, let alone among the stars of our own show business. At any rate, at the film’s gala premiere in the Pushkin movie theater, the hall was swamped to overflowing with VIPs, who furiously applauded. And Alla Borisovna Pugacheva, who honored this pathos-ridden undertaking with her presence, presented a luxurious bouquet of roses to Evgenii Mironov, the lead actor of the film. And yet, and yet, and yet… Despite all of the retro-charm of Dreaming of Space, parts of which I rather liked, something was missing. Most of all: narrative clarity. What is the film about? who is the primary hero? who the secondary? To what end and why are we being told this story? At times none of these is clear.

A guy with an operatic name―German (played by Evgenii Tsyganov)― arrives in an out-of-the-way, northern city. He is a demonic type, as ambitious and secretive as Lawrence of Arabia no less. He is a dangerous man, a boxer and a “hunk,” whose past is as cloudy as his future. On his earthly path he encounters a sympathetic group of friends: a cook in the port’s restaurant nicknamed Konek (Mironov) and two chubby sister-waitresses. German begins to deal the cards of fate, unceremoniously interfering in other people’s lives. It is immediately clear that he will steal the better of the two chubby girls―Larka (Irina Pegova)―away from Konek, while at the same time diverting the ordinary Konek from his true path, whispering incredible things about the cosmos to him. German claims to be one of the elite ten chosen to be a future astronaut, simply killing time in the small city while he waits for the signal from “the Center.” In the end, German swims off in an unknown direction―either in the wake of a Norwegian ship or out into the open sea to his inevitable death—while Konek meets a white-toothed military trainee named Iurii on a train.

After the white-toothed trainee—vaguely resembling you-know-who—pronounces his name, Iurii (he conceals his surname, Gagarin), Mr. Uchitel' interrupts the narrative by inserting into this significant scene documentary footage of the ceremonial procession honoring the first astronaut, accompanied by the exultant cries of the excited masses. Another editorial cut: and in the mob we see our old friend Konek, whose insignificant destiny for a moment is colored by his proximity to eternal greatness. Recognizing his trainee, Konek hurls himself at the car carrying Gagarin and throws him a bouquet of roses. Fade out. Credits.

It should be said that the scene with the military trainee brought the viewers in the auditorium to total euphoria, no less than the one that gripped the many millions of Soviet citizens when they first learnt of Gagarin’s heroic feat. Back then we all still believed in the “peaceful” atom that would help us master space, still believed that millions would finally embrace each other ecstatically, and that the smiling ordinary guy named Iura would become the harbinger of a new era, of “the radiant future.”

It would be interesting to know why today, in this flabby and cynical epoch, the audience started applauding so in unison (it even became rhythmic applause) and many started crying? As one clever critic wrote, Uchitel', together with Mindadze, chose a sniper’s "sweet shot," reanimating the old Soviet brand known as "Russian space." That very same space that once allowed us to feel a part of an enormous world, when we still sat behind the Iron Curtain that we couldn’t crawl over. Towards which, adds this same critic, we now so futilely try to break through. What’s true—is true.

Unidentified Flying Object

It is amusing to know that despite the large number of people who are ill-disposed towards Mr. Uchitel', his film almost won the laurels from the FIPRESCI jury. At the Cannes Film Festival, this jury’s prize is considered extremely prestigious, for the members of this jury as a rule are the best of the best, the intellectual cream collected from all countries. Moreover, this jury never pays any attention to the competition jury, it is never pressured, and it almost always gives its awards to radical films, forward-looking and avant-garde.

Yet this year The Guitar Mongoloid beat out Dreaming of Space by only one vote, despite the fact that at the end of the Swedish film—a somewhat bizarre, amusing, ironic film—it is not the first astronaut who soars into space, but a garbage container that is launched by a hooligan teenager, to the general horror of the stunned residents, who mistake the “black square” in the sky for an unidentified flying object.  It is entertaining to imagine how the FIPRESCI jury voted—some for the garbage container, others for Gagarin, putting them on the same footing. Some, in other words, voted for the pathos and secrets of the Russian soul, others for Swedish shock—senseless and merciless. Senseless, actually, only at first glance. Behind all of the strange relocations of the heroes―idiotic and chaotic―behind all of their escapades (such as hanging stolen bicycles from a lamppost or simply dumping them into the ocean) there is a feeling of genuine absurdity and comic cinema, but also―as card-carrying Marxists used to say―a critique of contemporary bourgeois reality. Lives that are well-organized, full, safe, and absolutely pointless are viewed through the eyes of director Ruben Ostlund, a thirty-year-old wunderkind, who until his 19th birthday, by the way, had not a clue about television or radio. On the island on which he grew up, both were banned for some reason. Possibly for this reason, his gaze is so fresh and unclouded. It is quite different from the gaze of the overly serious Mr. Uchitel', in whose subconscious still dwells the former grandeur of the superpower that launched the first person into the boundless space of the cosmos.

The Foolhardiness of the Brave

Another latent theme of this year’s MIFF, though more noticeable than the concealed opposition between Swedish and Russian dreamers, was the theme of madness, which gnaws at virtually all of the characters without exception in the films of the competition program, whether the insane voyagers in the Macedonian film Bal-Can-Can (dir. Darko Mitrevski; Macedonia, Italy, and UK 2004), the hackers in the Finnish film Frozen Land, or the innocent teenagers of Dear Wendy. One of the competition films, which received the prize of the Russian film critics and which was very highly rated by film-goers, is even called Wrong Side Up (Czech Republic, Germany, and Slovakia 2005). It was directed by Petr Zelenka, a dear and modest guy in glasses, a slightly older Harry Potter, who has not yet forgotten how to make fun of everyone and everything. Including himself. For example: in one of his interviews, Zelenka confided to the journalist that, well, I still don’t know how to film, get confused with the editing and with my characters, and consequently I overpopulate my films. Almost as if he is afraid of being left one-on-one with his own major character. It is not true. One-on-one with his main character, also named Petr―an amusing but unlucky fellow, as well as an insane urbanite―Zelenka, that dear “idiot” from Prague, feels perfectly at home. Quite the opposite. He has trouble with the over abundance of characters and gags, which he piles on each other in frightening quantities. If not for this, Wrong Side Up would be a work of genius, especially with its opening forty-minute sequence, which is stunning in its impeccable mastery. The story of a “little man,” an air traffic controller, who has been dumped by his girlfriend because she is sick of his caprices and whose neighbors force him to pay attention to their sexual exploits, is as absurd as it is plausible. The great Miloš Forman once upon a time showed us just such a world, slightly distorted but at the same time recognizable; and after him so did the writer Milan Kundera. In a word, we are familiar with Czech insanity, it is not new to us. How interesting that the tradition of persistent, Slavically gentle, elegant humor still survives, while Russian spiritual asceticism is almost extinct. We are reminded of our past―naïve to simplicity, dreaming and inert―most of all by our former brothers in the socialist camp: Serbs and Croats, Macedonians and Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians.

And yet, not a single post-Soviet Russian director has managed to film a dark comedy on the tragic theme of inter-ethnic conflicts. Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s Checkpoint (1998) does not count, since it is a comedy of the “strict regime,” that is, it is more ideological. Perhaps only the residents of the former Yugoslavia have had success with these dark comedies—for example, thirty-year-old Darko Mitrevski, who was not afraid to demonstrate the cynicism, cruelty, and stupidity that characterize all of the sides in the wide-spread Yugoslavian conflict. Moreover, he did this in the form of the absurd, to shock, a cleverly packaged comedy in which, on the one side, life is teeming, and, on the other, death lies in wait everywhere. Bal-Can-Can would bring prestige to any major European film festival, including Cannes. At the Moscow International Film Festival, however, it received not a single prize, even though the film is shot flawlessly, paradoxically, cleverly, without any strain, and is based on a spectacular screenplay. It is possible that we are witnessing the appearance of yet another Yugoslavian wunderkind, whose roots are from the same place that Emir Kusturica made famous. And before him, Dušan Makavejev and Aleksandar Petrovič.

One thing is clear: the competition program of this year’s MIFF was almost every bit as good as the non-competition and informational programs, which, by the way, included films by the classics, Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. And that is significant. The situation was entirely different at earlier festivals, when cinemanes and ordinary viewers ignored the films in the competition program, flocking instead to the non-competition screenings. For the first time in many years, it was no easy task to gain admission to the Pushkin movie-theater, where the competition films were screened. Now everything depends on distribution. If distributors purchase rights to the films screened at the MIFF, the festival’s prestige will instantly grow. Let us hope.


09/10/05