Iurii Moroz: The Spot (Tochka, 2006)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2007

My discussion of The Spot is prompted by the predicament of a huge number of women from post-communist Eastern Europe who have been trafficked, sold into bondage, and generally exploited as prostitutes. Although this problem is indeed serious for the poorer countries of the region like Bulgaria and Romania—let alone Ukraine, which according to various recent statistics seems to be the biggest “supplier” of women on this lucrative market of present-day slavery?it is still carefully circumvented by the media and art. While there have been a few award-winning documentary films about the trafficking of women, there is no fiction film made in recent years in these countries that comes to mind that has tackled this sensitive issue head-on, in spite of the world cinema tradition of representing prostitution and the victimization of women. It is enough to recall Federico Fellini's The Nights of Cabiria (1957) , starring his wife, the irreplaceable Julietta Massina, or more recent interpretations of this tragedy in the Law and Order TV series, which refers from time to time to Eastern European women—usually murdered in a most brutal way after been brought into the US specifically for prostitution. A curious tongue-in-cheek take on the issue is the British film Birthday Girl (dir. Jez Butterworth; US and UK, 2001) with Nicole Kidman, no less, who plays a perennial Russian mail order bride, working for a gang of petty extortionists. But Birthday Girl was more about the British protagonist and his coming to terms with his own unrealistic expectations about love and life than about the fickle Sophia/ Nadia. Another, powerfully tragic take on the issue is Lilja 4-ever by Lukas Moodysson (Sweden and Denmark, 2002), with the brilliant Oksana Akinshina as an ordinary Russian girl persuaded first to flee the country and then forced into prostitution by her boyfriend. But after the huge success of the 1989 film by Petr Todorovskii, Intergirl (Interdevochka)? a story of a prostitute who finally makes it and marries a Swedish businessman— Russian cinema persistently has shied away from this immense social problem. And a problem it is! According to the director of The Spot, Iurii Moroz, about 30,000 women roam the streets of Moscow every given night (Gavrikov). And according to estimates from the International Organization for Migration, between 1991 and 1998, 500,000 Ukrainian and Russian women had been trafficked to the West (Hughes).

One of the reasons for this strange prudishness of post-communist cinema—and media in general, which otherwise tackles head-on scandalous social issues like the ubiquitous criminal structures; the political incompetence and arrogance of the nouveaux riches ; poverty and the general dehumanization and commercialization of post-communist societies?might lie in the fact that, historically, prostitution and sexual exploitation of women were considered as something alien to these countries, something typically "western." Official communist ideology relegated prostitution to the margins of social discourse, declaring it foreign and way beyond the code of decency promoted by the traditionally repressive, agricultural society inherited by communism. By contrast, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the political elites of the rapidly and belatedly modernizing East European societies regarded prostitution as a painful but necessary price to pay for the crash urbanization and industrialization of the region brought about by capitalism. The literature of the period reflects this controversial attitude to the growing number of prostitutes and so-called “kept women,” and their tragic stories.

An unofficial and rather contentious treatment of the “oldest profession” emerged during communism, when managing and even encouraging prostitution became the prerogative of the communist secret services. It was also one of their most carefully guarded secrets, revealed by recent de-classified material—for example, the horrors of the pedophile practices of Stalin's inner circle. Women were used by the secret services across the region for blackmail, for spying on foreigners and ideological suspects, and were ultimately deployed as foreign residents in case they succeed in marrying a Westerner (as in the above-mentioned film Intergirl). Of course, these practices ran scandalously counter to the ideological chastity of communism and the official discourse of ideologues of women liberation, and, therefore, had to be carefully kept hidden from public exposure, especially in film and the media.

Most of the filmmakers currently working in Eastern European were trained during communism and instinctively avoid topics that might get them into trouble with either the authorities or the critics. For, in spite of much tooted changes, the current post-communist political and economic elites are comprised of the former elites or their progeny. Plus ça change … In addition, the post-communist elites more often than not have vested interests and work in conjunction with traffickers of women, defined as one of the most lucrative and risk-free “businesses” when compared to drug trafficking and arms-dealing. In other words, prostitution and sexual exploitation of women have been traditionally shrouded in secrecy in Eastern Europe, and considered too volatile and dangerous an issue to be freely discussed on film. The growing problem of child prostitution is yet another grey area, totally ignored by fiction cinema. According to Ol'ga Shervud's perceptive analysis, in the “touted film The Italian [Ital'ianets, 2005; dir. Andrei Kravchuk], … the character of an under-aged girl offering herself on the road and giving the money to her peer-pimp … was totally overshadowed by the beguiling Vania Solntsev. Not to mention the scary non-fiction films, which so-called ‘clean' audiences have not seen—and will never see.”

Against this backdrop, Iurii Moroz's film, The Spot, seems to have stunned the Russian-speaking media with its frank approach to a rather touchy subject. Their reaction is somewhat consistent with the resistance and denial displayed when society is confronted with a very serious and debilitating social issue that is hidden in the collective unconscious. But their most common—and not unfounded—criticism concerns a certain artistic deficiency in transforming the film's keen and honest observations into a work of art. But I will return to this later on. While the media have certainly dealt a couple of blows beneath the belt, insinuating that Moroz took up the project only to be able to star his daughter (Dar'ia Moroz) and his second wife (Viktoriia Isakova) in two of the three main roles, the critique in general has been benign.

The film's title, The Spot, in Russian signifies the meeting point where prostitutes gather to wait for clients. The spot in questions is an actual location in one of the most densely populated regions of Moscow, where the film was shot. The Spot features three original and very versatile actresses in the roles of three women between 18 and 30 years of age, forced into prostitution by various circumstances. In three longish flashbacks, the film tells the story of each of them and displays the mixture of social and personal circumstances, and psychological dispositions that have led them to the horrors and the abuse of the spot. The youngest, Nina (Dar'ia Moroz), comes from a family of alcoholics and is compelled to run away from home to escape her abusive parents. Her decision is also prompted by the naïve hope to make some money and save her sick little brother from the family's bondage. Nina keeps her sanity by playing the role of the perennial unprotected innocent: clinging to the dreams of her childhood, she shaves her hair, stays aloof, and collects stuffed animals.

The second, Kira (Viktoriia Isakova), is what they call a “good girl” from a good family of a high ranking Army officer. She, however, happens to fall in love with a soldier from her father's regiment. But the father objects to the premature love affair (she has to study) and sends the boy to a hot spot (obviously Chechnia). Kira leaves home to look for him and the ensuing string of events, inevitable and unavoidable as in Greek tragedy, lead her to the spot. Kira is the most sensitive and the weakest of the three women, and the only one to end her life in an apparent suicide.

The third woman, Ania (Anna Ukolova), is of strong peasant stock; she is also the only one who seems to enjoy her profession without any illusions. Very early in life she was sexually abused by her step-father and later, on a regular basis, by her step-brother. However, she states these facts not as an excuse, but in a matter-of-fact way as simply part of her difficult life story. She also has a child somewhere and a mother, and takes care of both by regularly sending them money.

The film is actually a compendium of the horrors and dangers that haunt these women on a daily basis. There is a very powerful scene where Ania is beaten almost to death by a sadist, who can only “do it” in the context of extreme violence, and although he is aware of his condition and rather coherently elaborates and even apologizes about it, he continues indulging his “weakness” unpunished, instead of seeking psychological help. The pimps also treat the girls as inanimate objects, and physical abuse and even death for failure to obey is always lurking close by. Kira is forced into prostitution by the couple who find her grief-stricken over her boyfriend's fresh grave. They force-feed her with alcohol and drugs, and, after selling her to a staggering succession of men in an abandoned railway carriage, she is left for dead under an overpass, but found by chance and taken to a hospital. After this experience it seems that the only road open for Kira is prostitution.

The police are no different from the pimps. They use and abuse the girls as they please. One of the strongest moments in the film features the beating that the newly arrived Nina gets for failing to entertain the policemen properly, which is considered a form of duty for the women at the spot. For making an unacceptable remark about the size of one of the policemen's penis, she is almost killed by being thrown out of a speeding police car.

Contrary to stereotypes, which suggest that films about prostitution should feature graphic acts of sex, there is virtually no sex explicitly shown in the film, which is one of its most compelling achievements. Psychological and physical violence have effectively replaced sex. The Spot challenges yet another stereotype—that of the American film Pretty Woman (dir.Garry Marshall; USA, 1990), which has allegedly lured many a naïve girl into the trap of forced prostitution. In other words, there are no Prince Charmings, no pretty clothes, no high life parties, and no easy living. The girls live crammed in a shack somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow, apparently to save on the exorbitant Moscow rents; their clothing is not accentuated; and their life-style is obviously very modest as all three of them count every dollar (they are paid in hard currency). There is very little joy in the lives of the three women: when invited to the home of a nouveau riche, they are humiliated by being forced to spend some time in the cold water of an outdoor pool; at another party they have to run for their lives to escape from an ensuing random shoot-out. The happiest moment registered in the film seems to be the birthday party of a Vietnamese guy, their neighbor, a marginalized figure like them, where they have been invited not to entertain others and eventually “work,” but to enjoy themselves. They care for each other and bond, but not to the end—as they seem to have internalized the contempt of the outside world. “Never trust a prostitute,” says Ania when she convinces Nina to steal Kira's savings and use the money to buy their freedom from their pimp so that they can work for themselves. This ultimate betrayal literally pushes the unstable Kira over the edge, and the film ends with a freeze-frame of her at the very brink of an unfenced overpass, presumably about to jump to her death on the highway below…

From the discussion so far it has hopefully become obvious that the film is designed more as a social commentary, a viewer's wake up call of sorts, than as a restrained, in-depth existential contemplation on life in general and the life of prostitutes in particular, typically associated with high art. Its mobilizing pathos fluctuates between melodrama and agit-prop, enhanced by the placard aesthetics of the images. The film was shot on digital and then transferred to film, which explains the lack of depth and the washed out but intense colors, which also marks the presence of the film's cameraman, Nikolai Ivasiv, who left his masterful imprint on the stunningly cold black-and-white images of Petr Lutsik's Outskirts (Okraina, 1998).

The film's emotional palette is thrown in high relief by the melodramatic extremes and excesses of the narrative—no transitions, no grey areas, only emotional peaks, consistently featuring reversals from bad to worse. In a truly melodramatic fashion, the characters are drawn in black and white, both villains and victims. The victims are not only carefully selected with social representation in mind, but also evoke recognizable archetypes that harken back to the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries, when melodrama was one of the most popular—and socially most conscious—genres in literature and theater. Nina, the perennial child-woman, is betrayed by her own family and has to slave in bondage, imposed by villains eager to explore her naïveté, pretty much like that of Cosette from Victor Hugo's classic novel Les Miserables. Kira's melancholic, dream-like apathy is strongly reminiscent of Marguerite Gautier's ennui, prompted both by her fatal disease and doomed romance (Alexander Dumas Jr.'s La Dame aux Camélias). Ania, the most energetic and down to earth of them all is a newer addition to the catalogue of exploited women in literature and on screen. She is tailored after the perennial survivors and upwardly mobile girls, usually from the countryside or of humble background. Like them, however, sooner or later she will inevitably be punished for her audacity and the unconventional entrepreneurial spirit with which she wrestles against poverty, not unlike the heroines from American depression movies who dared challenge the social and moral status quo by their self-sacrificial acts of prostitution (Marlene Dietrich's Blond Venus [dir. Josef von Sternberg; US, 1935] comes immediately to mind).

The victimizers are equally archetypal: powerful and merciless nouveaux riches , the police, abusive parents, sadist-clients, etc. An apparent deviation from the expected are Kira's first pimps, whose gothic cruelty is uncannily realistic, the epitome of pure evil. Another “innovation” of the genre is the female pimp at the Spot, whose role is somewhere between a PR sales-person and an emcee. Indeed, as Peter Brooks has aptly put it, “nothing is spared because nothing is left unsaid...”(4). Maybe this explains why some film critics describe the film as coming straight from the time of post-perestroika chernukha —a period between 1988 and 1993, when a number of characteristically bleak films emerged, cataloguing all the social evils of the Soviet and early post-Soviet era that had previously been hushed over by the state-owned cinema, and, therefore, hardly worthy of an in-depth analysis. True, the heroines of the film barely stand a chance of ever joining the gallery of such universally recognized holy whores from Russian literary classics—like Dostoevskii's Sonia Marmeladova or Tolstoi's Ekaterina Maslova—and to provoke a remotely similar soul-searching, cathartic experience in its audiences, which in its time ensured the box-office success of Todorovskii's Intergirl.

When theorizing on 19 th century melodrama, Brooks introduced the term the “moral occult,” defined as “the domain of operative spiritual values which is both indicated within and masked by the surface of reality” (5). He also compares the moral occult to the unconscious mind where our most basic and repressed desires are contained. After the breakdown of traditional religious and moral values, brought about by the industrial revolution, the Manichean opposites of good and evil—or rather their new representations—were hidden or masked beneath the surface of reality and the “melodramatic mode in large measure exist[ed] to locate and to articulate the moral occult” (5).

The question is whether the melodramatic mode in The Spot helps locate and articulate the moral occult—that is, the spiritual values operative under its elaborately reconstructed surface of reality. The answer sadly is “no” due to the above-mentioned artistic deficiency. The main reason certainly lies with the insufficiency of the proverbial universality, which Aristotle believed should be present in each poetic (read “artistic”) work, where “through the word, character and situation, we glimpse something common to men in all times and places” (Ferguson 33). In the lower depths of the post-Soviet, post-communist world, driven by greed, money, and egoism, it is indeed very difficult to find operative spiritual values, embodied by characters and actions, whose artistic imitation could qualify as “movements of the spirit,” bringing the desired cathartic experience. Unlike Sonia Marmeladova and Katia Maslova, torn between material temptations and spiritual anguish, Nina, Kira, and Ania seem to suffer no crises of consciousness as far as their spiritual life or the nature of their profession is concerned. All they seem to be longing for is a safer working environment or a miraculous marriage to a Prince Charming, which would ensure them a stable level of affluence. Following this simple but cruel logic, Nina and Ania settle at the finale for what seems an attainable compromise?securing the right to work for themselves in exchange for a lot of money. The director, however, is hard put to justify their outright murderous betrayal of their vulnerable friend and offers no psychological motivation for their unwillingness to behave like responsible human beings. The difficult childhood and the current horrors they have experienced ring hollow as possible explanations, let alone excuse.

Thus, Moroz's ethical aloofness objectifies the characters of the three women, reducing the universality of their fates to a meticulous sociological observation of the particular. Certainly this shortage of passionate moral commitment alienates the viewer even further, putting the burden of both pathetic and ethical involvement squarely on her or his shoulders. But maybe this peculiar “‘folkloric expedition' … into the life of Russian prostitutes from the early 21st century, … precious and interesting in itself” (Denisov) will challenge the complacency of viewers and of Putin's neo-conservative policy of ostensible cultural and social consensus, and perhaps it will inspire some tangible solutions of this grave problem that has long spilled over Russia's national borders.

Christina Stojanova
University of Regina

Works Cited

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Denisov, Ivan. “‘Tochka' Iuriia Moroza: Makhrovyi realizm ili pravda zhizni.” Drugaya.ru

Ferguson, Francis. Introduction to Aristotle's Poetics . Trans. S. H. Butcher. NY: Hill and Wang, 1961.

Gavrikov, Igor'. “Seks na grani nervnogo sryva.” Novye Izvestiia (3 May 2006).

Hughes , Donna M. “ The ‘Natasha' Trade: The Transnational Shadow Market of Trafficking in Women.” Published under the rubric “In the Shadows: Promoting Prosperity or Undermining Stability?” Journal of International Affairs. 53.2 (Spring 2000): 625-651.

Shervud, Ol'ga. “‘Tochka': nikto ne brosit kamen'.” Yuga.RU (19 June 2006).

The Spot, Russia, 2006
Color, 92 minutes
Director: Iurii Moroz
Screenplay: Iurii Moroz, Alena Zvontsova, based on a story by Grigorii Riazhskii
Cinematography: Nikolai Ivasiv
Music: Darin Sysoev
Art Director: Ekaterina Kozhevnikova
Cast: Dar'ia Moroz, Viktoriia Isakova, Anna Ukolova, Elena Iakovlevna, Mikhail Efremov, Mikhail Gorevoi, Leonid Okunev
Producer: Ruden Dishdishian, Iurii Moroz
Production: Colibri Studio, commissioned by Central Partnership, and with support from the
Federal Agency for Cinema and Culture of the Russian Federation
Official Russian web site: http://www.tochkafilm.ru

Iurii Moroz: The Spot (Tochka, 2006)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2007

Updated: 14 Apr 07