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Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii: Koktebel  (2003)

reviewed by Vladimir Padunov ©2003

Koktebel is a debut feature film by two young directors, critic Boris Khlebnikov (born 1972; graduate of the Film Theory Sector of the State Institute for Filmmaking) and psychologist Aleksei Popogrebskii (born 1972; graduate of the Psychology Department of Moscow State University). The film was awarded the Silver St. George (second prize) for best film at the XXV Moscow International Film Festival in June 2003. The plot of the film is deceptively simple: a broke and recovering alcoholic travels from Moscow to Koktebel with his eleven-year old son. Their journey through the Russian heartland brings them into contact with a number of "local characters," each of whom assists or hinders the journey. The goal of their journey—to start a new life—is one that has a long tradition in Russian culture and cinema, though its trajectory is traditionally reversed: characters move from the periphery (the countryside, the past) to the center (the capital, the future).

Put differently: father and son are in flight. On the one hand, they are fleeing their past (the death of a beloved wife/mother, alcohol-induced abuse and victimized innocence, an oppressive urban environment); on the other, they are soaring over their own present (the boy’s magical ability to see any landscape from a bird’s point of view, the recurrence of the albatross as word and image, the boy’s fascination with winds and kites). Indeed, the very title of the film contains a veiled allusion to flight: Koktebel was renamed Planerskoye in the mid-1930s to honour Soviet planes and gliders. So it is significant that the father and son are travelling not to Planerskoye (the present) but to Koktebel (the past), which was the resort of choice for the Russian intelligentsia of the pre-revolutionary, pre-Soviet Silver Age. The journey to Koktebel, therefore, occurs simultaneously in place and in time; it is a journey to rediscover lost innocence―both one’s own and Russia’s.

In addition to being a classic road movie, Koktebel is also a buddy film, focusing on the bonds between the fellow travellers and erasing meaningless differences of age and experience, just as their lives together have blurred the distinctions between adult and child. Father and son are so closely attuned that much of their communication does not require speech; their interactions more often than not consist of glances and gestures. From this point of view, it is important that the only threat to their bond springs from another relationship that is almost wordlessly represented on screen: the father’s affair with the woman doctor who treats his gunshot wound.

Little in the film is what it seems to be at first glance: the child is "the father to the man"; threatening characters reveal themselves to be well-meaning innocents (the railroad inspector who gives them shelter and food instead of arresting them after he catches them riding illegally in a boxcar; the burly truck driver who brings the boy to Koktebel after he runs away from his father) while innocent characters turn out to be threatening (the Pushkin spouting home-owner who shoots the father; the woman doctor; the kind, elderly woman who gives the boy the note from his father’s sister). "Looks be deceivin’," to quote the late Bob Marley, and nothing in the film carries permanence or eternity, not even Koktebel, which is more a state of being than a goal.

The final paradox of the film lies in its narrative structure. Despite being a road movie, Koktebel is stunningly static, focusing on discrete moments in time and eschewing any sense of flow or momentum. The film is essentially a series of separate vignettes, with each tableau (or, each stage of the journey―physical or spiritual) clearly demarcated from those on either side by a black screen. It is up to the viewer to provide the continuity.

Коктебель [Koktebel]

Russia, 2003. 100 min. Color.

Directed and written: Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii.

Camera: Shandor Berkeshi, R.G.C.

Art Director: Gennadii Popov.

Starring: Gleb Puskepalis, Igor' Chernevich, Vladimir Kucherenko, Aleksandr Il'in, Agrippina Steklova, Evgenii Sytyi.

Production: Roman Borisevich, with support from the Film Department of the Russian Ministry of Culture.


Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii: Koktebel  (2003)

reviewed by Vladimir Padunov ©2003

25/09/03