Aleksandr Mindadze: Soar (Otryv, 2007)

reviewed by Barbara Wurm© 2008

Aleksandr Mindadze, the “eternal” scriptwriter, finally changed sides, taking on the role of film director for the first time in his life. Initially the project was called The Dispatcher and was to be shot in the obnoxious city of Minsk (the press kit for the release of the film, in a somewhat relieved tone, mentioned the “successful return of the crew to Moscow,” suggesting that at least a doubt or two existed that they would). In the end, in August 2007, Mindadze, 58 years of age and for more than thirty years the congenial partner of director Vadim Abdrashitov, re-entered film history in a rather odd way—as one of the oldest competitors for the “debut” Lion at the renowned Mostra internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica with his film, now renamed Soar. The film was selected for the International Week of Film Critics of the Venice Film Festival, side by side with the two big shots of contemporary Russian (or should we say post-Soviet) cinema: Nikita Mikhalkov, whose 12 (2007), a remake of Twelve Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet, US, 1957), was screened in competition (and which started stirring the rumor pot, repeatedly—but unofficially and, therefore, wrongly—being announced the winner of the Golden Lion 07); and Aleksei Balabanov, whose Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007), was chosen for the Venice Days section, after it had already managed to stir up things in Russia, provoking heated debates about the “good old Soviet times” and about ethics in filmmaking as such, long before the film actually reached the screen.

Viewers who saw Soar at the festival quickly arrived at a third observation—that is, in addition to Mindadze's turn to directing and his participation in the debut program in Venice—the film has a super-complex structure, an intermingling of real “outer” action with “inner” virtual steps. Those viewers who liked the film instantly compared it to the filmmaking of David Lynch, especially to his latest film Inland Empire (2007). Others just called Soar “far too complicated,” and because many of them were fans of the successful Mindadze-Abdrashitov tandem of “late-Soviet intelligentsia-consciousness films,” they invoked the latter, who also seemed at a loss with the film. It was labeled “incomprehensible” (neponiatno), requiring too much decoding (rasshifrovka) for viewers (Leonova) .

Even if these three observations might seem superficial at first glance, I would like to draw upon them in order to develop a close reading of one of the most intelligent film narratives in today's Russian cinema. What makes Soar so special—and gives it the potential to establish an utterly necessary and new style (or branch) in post-perestroika film history—is the way it treats individual trauma (an extraordinary psychological situation, the loss of a close person, the post-catastrophic moment of absolute freedom of action and thought, the “soaring” of a man after a plane crash) as a highly political (or, rather, politicized) matter, touching upon all symptoms of the catastrophic nature of Russia's governmental collapse. The film, therefore, reflects the national trauma as such: the dramatic and traumatic condition of a country where only one thing seems to be steadily and intentionally organized—chaos.

“Organized chaos” is the exact expression a journalist uses to accuse the airline-representative who ignores the voices of concerned relatives and the press, and asks for their patience because the black box has not yet been found and analyzed. The fact: a plane crash. The official cause: unclear. Any explanation seems possible—from a terrorist attack to a stalled engine to a lightning strike. The airline covers hotel expenses, but wouldn't mind, if the press simply left the site: “You came too early”; an “international aviation commission is at work”; “Everything is under control”; and “Since there is nothing left to be identified, you'd better go home.” We soon lose track of the press because there is another bunch of people, anarchists so to speak, who want to find out the truth for themselves: a “driver,” a “passenger,” and an “old guy” (who later in the story is substituted by a “fat guy”). The quality of the script can be seen here already: no other specifications are needed to describe the fragile psycho-social relationships among these people, who are linked together by fate. Can one do otherwise but “trust” a driver? What kind of trust is that? Who is this weirdo, squeezing into my—a stranger's—car and then following every step I take? How are we going to get rid of the “guys” in the back of the car? And who is “we,” after all?

What unites them is the fact that they—as they know—"are all on the same runway." They are suffering from tragic losses, looking for “the tape” and (their own inner) truth, or at least seeking some kind of revenge. A vague revenge, however—the revenge of someone, who, on the one hand, experiences an indescribable drive to act transgressively, yet, on the other, is always aware of his social position (which, deprived of the relevance of actual account balances, body mass index, or the usual factors of age-job-marital status, in their case just decreases to one basic index: they are victims). As a result, the more one of them gets engaged in the case and the more he wants to intervene, the more likely he is to be despised by the others (and probably by himself). So when the quartet is soon reduced to an unstable couple (driver and passenger), continuing their search within the inner circle of lies and concealment (the so-called fact-finding commission), it is a mere matter of time until their pointless goose hunt, as well as their “friendship,” find a temporary end.

Herein, to my mind, lies the very essence of Soar —beyond any super special effects (other directors would have elaborately staged the crash), beyond the appearance of super stars or massive over-acting (Vitalii Kishchenko, the tragic hero, is a completely unknown face, the perfect “average guy”), beyond glamour or simple mafia scenarios (so common in contemporary Russian (film-culture), [1] but at the same time far from telling an ostensibly political parable (as Mikhalkov does in 12)—the film reveals the utterly blurry face of social corrosion by reducing the lurid colors of the filmmaking-in-vogue to a subtle calibration of grey and white. The hero's face thus twice appears in the glare of a spotlight, sweeping away the very “qualities” of man. No place for individuals, but no place for meaningful collectives or models of political guidance either. In the world created by Mindadze, a realistically staged psycho-social surrealism, there is no necessity and—more than that—no possibility for pseudo-sovereign figures or spiritual answers, again as in Mikhalkov's version of Lumet's juryman-drama. At the very end of 12, after having done duty as the neutral, wise recording clerk for more than two hours of running time, whose uninspired face constantly registers suppressed contempt for the other jurors' suggestions, Saint Nikita himself, in fluent Chechen—of course—offers sanctuary and political asylum to the innocent accused.

The only truth Mindadze's heroes will ever find is their own radical exposure in a total political and metaphysical vacuum. No insurance company will be able to make up for that. All they can do, they do—drifting inside a misty “inland empire” from one corrupt micro-society to the next, fighting unshaped, imaginary enemies, and embodying the governmental failure (integrating it, so to speak, into their private, intimate story). Like our hero, the driver, they drive as fast as possible but in complete ignorance of “the way,” hunting the alleged culprit—in the driver's case, the flight dispatcher. Moreover, our little homo post-Sovieticus is trying to apply a certain magical mimicry, allowing (and later forcing) him to become a kind of “two-in-one” figure. The metaphor used in Soar is taken from a game of pocket billiards, when the player puts two balls in one hole.

He is part of the victim-group, but at the same time plays games with the conspirers. He changes sides unnoticeably—to himself as well as to others. Deprived of an identity, having no past and (for a long time) no name, this “Viktor” finds himself doomed to a hybrid existence, leading an unintentional spy-like life. Sometimes it seems as if he has drawn a lucky number, but all of the sudden he loses faith in himself, returning to the same unknown way again and again—back to the car, behind the steering wheel, frantic.

A “winner” only in name, Viktor reluctantly turns into a kind of private detective. But, from the very beginning, he seems aware of the fact that even if he did get as close as possible to the truth of what had actually happened, he would have taken no step closer to a solution. He has lost his wife, but that doesn't seem to be the point. His colleagues from the victim-club all have reasonable and concrete motives: the “passenger” mourns his allegedly dead wife, the “old guy” is reminded of his brother's death in Afghanistan (his other brother happened to have killed him), and the “fat guy” is so driven by vengefulness that he even kills one of the two flight dispatchers. The driver, however, takes off into a quite different dimension. His “free floating” is caused by a tremendously political issue, in contrast to 20-year old Lenia's in Boris Khlebnikov's film of that title (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006), giving this kind of psychological living condition its name. Soar , by contrast, not only bears the connotation of taking off and flying, but also of falling—falling into deep isolation, an estrangement of higher order.

The film combines this very moment of “free floating” with the turning point of its narrative modes. Viktor decides to leave the passenger (Maksim Bitiukov), who after a veritable hysterical breakdown in front of the TV-screen (where he watches the news report about the plane crash, immediately followed by a video showing his wife undressing herself), has finally fallen asleep. Stealing his money, Viktor's next step is to take a deep dive into a swimming pool—the ultimate image for the temporary and existential time-out he is going to take. Because, from then on, he tends to fly high, fall hard, and get on his feet again quite easily, stirring up the (to this point) more or less linear plot line. What comes now runs in spirals, the virtual realities produced by every new “getting up” having an impact on the diegetic (actual, “real”) level. His essay in mimicry reaches the stage where he not only becomes a member of the crew of another airplane (the one that escaped the crash by the skin of its teeth), but also imitates the victims' lethal fall.

Soar turns into an “incomprehensible” movie here, but it does so on purpose. The structure becomes a mere reflection of the absurd situation, in which this map-less driver and an audience looking for a logical plot are located. Homo post-Sovieticus is without orientation; every serious attempt to regain consciousness and identity is doomed to end in some kind of role play—in changing one's clothes, putting on a co-pilot's uniform, performing what the outward skin implies. Here the film alludes diametrically to Kirill Serebrennikov's Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006). The most important characteristic of this chameleonesque existence, however, has been pointed out by Mindadze himself (whose new job assignment also reflects the hybrid balancing acts of the post-traumatic period). The author-director of Soar repeatedly spoke of an act of emancipation, a “new kind of liberty” aroused by the catastrophe and bestowed on the thoughtful and hesitant hero. The aberrant plot structure, its occasional suspension, the vagueness it generates—every aspect of film (as the art of time manipulation)—contributes to this particular psycho-political attitude: the deliberate, active “dithering” of the hero functions as “rupture” and leads into a twilight zone of yes and no, establishing the time of the interval, a time regime revealing the contingency of the event and the potentiality of action. What is at stake here, is the “state of aggregation of this world,” its (in)cohesiveness and (in)stability (Vogl 57).

Barbara Wurm
Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften, Vienna

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1] Aleksandr Mindadze's views on contemporary Russian cinema can be read in the extensive interview with Vandenko (first published on 24 August 2007).

Works Cited

Leonova, Galina . “ Otryv: Abrashitov bez Mindadze. Znamenityi kinorezhisser—o kollegakh, fil'makh i mukakh tvorchestva. ” Press-UZ.Info (11 November 2007) 13:38.

Vandenko, Andrei. “Nesluchainyi passazhir.” Itogi (19 December 2007).

Vogl, Joseph. Über das Zaudern . Zürich-Berlin: Diaphanes, 2007.

Soar, Russia, 2007
Color, 85 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Mindadze
Scriptwriter: Aleksandr Mindadze
Cinematography: Shandor Berkeshi
Art Director: Aleksandr Chertovich
Cast: Vitalii Kishchenko, Maksim Bitiukov, Aleksandr Robak, Sergei Epishev, Stanislav Duzhnikov, Nariia Matveeva, Klavdiia Korshunova, Irina Nakhaeva, Ekaterina Iudina
Producer: Sergei Danielian, Aram Movsesian, Iurii Moroz
Production: Passazhir, commissioned by Central Partnership

Aleksandr Mindadze: Soar (Otryv, 2007)

reviewed by Barbara Wurm© 2008

Updated: 09 Jan 08