Issue 23 (2009)

Roman Balaian: Birds of Paradise (Raiskie ptitsy, 2008)

reviewed by Andrey Shcherbenok © 2009

An opening panoramic shot with titles might not normally constitute the most rewarding use of page space in a review, but in the case of Roman Balaian's latest film it is worthwhile. The word "glasnost" making a u-turn to re-enter the Russian title in Latin transliteration may seem weird, but it is not a random oddity—rather, it conveys the ideological agenda of the film with such straightforwardness that it may even appear self-defeating. In Balaian's totalitarian dystopia set in Kiev in 1981, liberation can only come from the West—there is simply no inner possibility for change in Soviet society, as there is, in fact, no society at all. Instead, there are two kinds of characters in Kiev's near-empty streets and suburbs—the eponymous birds of paradise, dissident writers striving for freedom, and demonic KGB agents eager to destroy them. Incidentally, dissidents can fly (literally), taking both small scale flights, such as the one to fetch a US flag decorating an exhibition of American photography (the film's heroine then uses the flag to make herself a dress, and thus becomes an embodiment of freedom), and long-distance ones, to Paris, France. Despite their supernatural abilities, the freedom-loving dissidents are almost totally destroyed, so at the end of the film the KGB is left triumphant for "four painfully long years to go."

Despite such over-the-top symbolism, the film presents itself as dead serious—after all, it represented Ukrainian cinema at the 2008 Kinoshok and Moscow Film Festivals, and the contemporary Ukrainian authorities' take on the Soviet past and Ukraine's Atlantic choice has little place for irony. In the opening scene set in a park an elderly man with crutches (we later learn that his legs were broken by the KGB) accuses the country of waging war against its own people and persecuting every individual who raises even a little above the crowd (the simultaneous low-angle shot of the monument of prince Vladimir with a cross provides a spectacular symbolic image of such an individual). The elderly man is immediately apprehended and beaten by a policeman, but Sergei (Andrei Kuzichev), the film's protagonist, an aspiring young dissident writer, attacks the policeman and overpowers him, thereby entering the diegesis in a most chivalrous manner.

We next see Sergei finishing his novel in a pergola in a leafy nocturnal garden and drinking champagne with his similarly dissident-minded friend, who at the end of the film will defect to the KGB. Soon after, Sergei's life undergoes a dramatic change as he meets Nikolai (Oleg Iankovskii), a seasoned dissident who highly esteems Sergei's writing and introduces him to his girlfriend, Katen'ka (Oksana Akin'shina).

At this point it should be noted that although the combination of Balaian, Iankovskii, the early 1980s, and the theme of flying inevitably brings to mind their former collaborations in Dream Flights (Polety vo sne i naiavu, 1982), Birds of Paradise has little in common with austere visual style and shabby realistic sets of this early film; instead, with its carefully framed, spacious shots and elegant erotic imagery, Birds of Paradise is closer to the idyllic landscapes and exquisite beauties of Balaian's The Night is Bright (Noch' svetla, 2003). This visual style requires adequate settings, so whereas Iankovskii the engineer in the Dream Flights lived in a crumbled little place with his wife and daughter, Iankovskii the dissident, who has served two sentences in Soviet prison (for illegal border crossing) and is constantly harassed by the evil regime, lives in a big luxurious apartment with antique furniture, library, artworks, and a beautiful girlfriend at least three times younger than he is. Not only Nikolai's apartment, but Kiev in general, often shot from the bird's eye view, is beautiful, clean and bright, which does not quite fit the gloomy discourse about the impossibility for a decent person to live in "this country" but helps distill the theme of the lack of (artistic) freedom from the chernukha-type criticism of the Soviet system characteristic of the late 1980s.

The artists' inner freedom is symbolized by the characters' ability to fly; in fact, it is the trio's flights rather than their politics that infuriates the KGB. Directing the regime's anger at the symbol of freedom rather than at its propositional content allows Balaian to support the initial claim that the regime just hates everyone who raises above the crowd; it also allows him to avoid discussing any concrete political disagreements between the Soviet authorities and dissidents, thereby depoliticizing the conflict to the point of the abstract struggle between heavenly good and hellish evil. The flights also symbolize sexual ecstasy—Katen'ka and Nikolai always fly when they are having an orgasm. So, when Nikolai resolves not to leave for Paris with Katen'ka before he has taught Sergei how to fly, Katen'ka decides to contribute to the flying lessons by starting an affair with Sergei, which in a way makes the film's plot resemble the love triangle of Iankovskii, Tat'iana Drubich, and Aleksandr Abdulov in Balaian's Guard Me, My Talisman (Khrani menia moi talisman, 1986).

Another pretext, however, is more relevant here: before Nikolai first demonstrates his levitation to Sergei, he asks him if he has read The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen . Iankovskii even intones the question in the manner of the baron from Mark Zakharov's That Very Munchhausen (Tot samyi Munkhgauzen, 1979), where Iankovskii played the title role. Zakharov's The Ordinary Miracle (Obyknovennoe chudo, 1978), where Iankovskii played the magician, is also very pertinent here—both Zakharov's films exemplify the mixture of fantasy and reality that was not found in Balaian before Birds of Paradise . Although the motive of people's flying has been persistent throughout Balaian's filmmaking career, he would clearly distinguish between flying in sleep and failed attempts to fly in reality—from Iankovskii's fall into the lake at the end of the Dream Flights to the deaf and dumb boy's repetitive falls in The Night is Bright. Literalizing the metaphor, Birds of Paradise produces a rather strange hybrid of Zakharov's fairy tale and the historically concrete drama of late socialism.

The effect of this hybridization is that neither of its components really works. Zakharov's symbolic conflicts, also centered around the problem of artistic freedom, loose their philosophical generality when Munchausen's flight to the Moon is replaced with Sergei's flight to Paris where he argues with his publisher about his honorarium and struggles with high hotel prices. On the other hand, the rich texture of social and cultural relations that surrounded restless Iankovskii's characters in Balaian's early films disappears in the social vacuum of empty, evenly lit classicist cityscapes of Balaian's Kiev. This vacuum is also cultural—despite both Nikolai and Sergei being writers of genius, as attested by their ability to fly, we do not hear a single quote from their works and never even learn what Sergei's superb novel is about; and, although Sergei, Katen'ka and their friends listen to Bulat Okudzhava on a picnic (a somewhat unlikely choice of music for people in their twenties in 1981), this never creates a palimpsest of cultural references and meanings comparable to that established by Pushkin's quotes and Okudzhava's singing in Guard Me, My Talisman.

This is not to say that the film's plot is completely schematic—most importantly, the straightforward conflict between good and evil is complicated by the love triangle. However, since sexuality has been totally symbolized, Katen'ka has to articulate her choice between the two men solely in celestial terms of extraterrestrial unity of souls, which makes her amorous dilemma somewhat sterile. Correspondingly, both of her lovers, united by their common political cause, cannot fight with each other for Katen'ka, even in a manner of a failed duel from Guard Me, My Talisman—instead, Iankovskii's character merely cancels one flying lesson after he learns that Sergei has had sex with Katen'ka. Thus, while there is quite a bit of nudity in the film, some of it levitational, there is hardly any passion—an unexpected outcome for the director of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk County (Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda, 1989).

Balaian also complicates the notion that the West is paradise where the birds of paradise naturally belong—having flown to Paris with Katen'ka, Sergei experiences creative crisis: Soviet dissident writers can only create (and fly) under political pressure. Balaian expressed this well-known idea in an interview with Moskovskii Komsomolets, where he mentions that he is proud of all the films he made before 1986 but has qualms about films he made later. He says that he is not aware of a single cinematic masterpiece made in post-Soviet space after perestroika.

"We were used to overcoming resistance, making associative cinema, so that the authorities could not surmise what we really wanted to say. As a result, we created very powerful films. After the freedom was given, we do not know what to do with it, what to make films about" (Gorelova). When asked why, then, Birds of Paradise is so sad, if it portrays the time when he was creating so happily, Balaian first says that he wanted to remind people, who are legitimately nostalgic for the Soviet past, that it also had its bad aspects. He hastens to add that he also wanted to make a film about the universal myth of humans loosing their ability to fly and acutely missing this ability in their earth-bound lives.

It is not easy to agree that Dream Flights is a powerful film because it managed to deceive gullible Soviet authorities about what Balaian really wanted to say, but it is certainly true that the film's political agenda, if there is one, is far from being straightforward. This may be the reason why it is not only a much better film about the early 1980s, but a much more poignant evocation of the universal myth of human relations to the earth and skies.

Andrey Shcherbenok
Columbia University

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Works Cited

Gorelova, Valeriia. "Balaian vypustil 'Raiskikh ptits'." Moskovskii Komsomolets, 24 June 2008.

Birds of Paradise, Ukraine, 2008.
Color, 94 min.
Director: Roman Balaian
Script: Rustam Ibragimbekov
Cinematography: Bogdan Verzhbitskii
Music: Vadim Khrapachev
Cast: Andrei Kuzichev, Oksana Akin'shina, Oleg Iankovskii, Egor Pazenko, Sergei Romaniuk
Producer: Oleg Kohan
Production: Sota Cinema Group

Roman Balaian: Birds of Paradise (Raiskie ptitsy, 2008)

reviewed by Andrey Shcherbenok © 2009

Updated: 09 Jan 09