Issue 25 (2009)

Leonid Rybakov: Say Leo (Skazhi Leo, 2008)

reviewed by Olga Klimova © 2009

leoSay Leo is the second full-length feature film by director and scriptwriter Leonid Rybakov.[1] Rybakov identifies his film as “a social drama” which is directed toward young people who are the same age as the characters of the film ("Skazhi Leo"). Indeed, Say Leo is one of many contemporary Russian films that place teenage characters at their narrative center. The director is interested in urban young people, their interaction with each other, and their values and beliefs. However, Rybakov also inserts elements of other genres, such as criminal drama and melodrama. The instrumental music by Iurii Tsaler is reminiscent of music from Quentin Tarantino’s criminal dramas, such as Reservoir Dogs (1992), and Pulp Fiction (1994). Throughout the film a voice-over, spoken by the main male character, similar to the device often found in American film noir, narrates the story of love, transgression, and crime. As in melodrama, there is a hero (who is neither positive nor negative), a beautiful blond girl, and a villain in the character of a politician who, at the end, eliminates the girl. However, the sentimentality peculiar to the melodramatic mode is absent, and even the film’s poster proclaims, “There is no pity for these characters.”

leoThe main character of Say Leo, an eighteen-year-old hacker nicknamed Leo, represents a new hero in contemporary Russian youth culture. He has no occupation and is not enrolled in any educational program. Hacking bank accounts and stealing money seems to be his main source of income. Leo is a loner and his computer substitutes for a job, friends and love. In Say Leo Rybakov touches on the role of the Internet in the life of Russian youth and continues the new tradition of Russian films, such as Georgii Shengeliia’s Flesh.ka (2006), Petr Tochilin’s Khotabbych (2006), and Nurbek Egen’s Net (Set', 2008), that include computer technology and a virtual world in their narrative structure. One of the film’s producers, Anna Mikhalkova, the daughter of the famous director, producer, and actor, Nikita Mikhalkov, identifies their main audience as “the young people who substitute an interactive world for the real world” (Krotkova). Among the most recognizable settings in Say Leo is a location popular among young Muscovites—the Internet-café, Cafemax. In order to make his film more authentic, Rybakov also shows other emblematic Moscow sites, such as Moscow State University in the Sparrow Hills, the banks of the Moskva River, and traffic-congested Moscow streets.

leoIn Rybakov’s film the specifics of relationship on the Web transfer to the relationship between people in contemporary Moscow. The parallel between virtual space and the real world (or cinematic space) is suggested at the very beginning. The film begins with a computer screen with the names of the cast in Cyrillic and encoded in mathematic formulas, as if they were used for posting on the Internet. The story is narrated by Leo through voice-over; however, when the young hacker appears on the screen, his image is accompanied by the clicking sound of keys on the computer keyboard. When he interacts with real people, Leo is silent and inert most of the time, and becomes an active “speaking” subject only when he enters the space of the Internet. Leo is incapable of expressing his feelings, so external sounds articulate his thoughts and emotions. The rapid clicking sounds of a computer keyboard, the rhythmic sounds of a metronome and a chaotic heartbeat convey Leo’s emotional state at different moments of the film.

leoRybakov’s film reflects on a unique characteristic of the virtual world—the possibility to create and appropriate different identities and, thus, to obscure the real identity of the user. Almost all characters in Say Leo hide their identities from the people around them and pretend to be what they are not. The blond sex star with the screen name “Russian Girl,” whom Leo meets on the porn site, turns out to be a teen with a shaved head who dreams of a degree from Moscow University and a bright future. With her, Leo invents a new online identity as a young Russian émigré with wealthy parents and promises to take her to the United States. Russian Girl has a photographer-friend, “Fatty” (“Tolstiak”), whose appearance—that of an obese, funny young man—conceals pathologically aggressive behavior and an interest in Nazi ideology. The only hint that alarms viewers about Fatty’s “true” nature is his penknife with a swastika. A rich and powerful politician, “Daddy” (“Papik”), who regularly invites Russian Girl to his cottage, happens to be the leader of a Russian neo-Nazi organization.[2] When Russian Girl’s Aunt Zoia from Voronezh arrives in Moscow, Leo, Fatty and Russian Girl pretend to be college students and even show her their campus where “the students with straight A’s get free soup at the cafeteria.”

Friendship among the three characters (Leo, Russian Girl and Fatty) also turns out to be artificial and insincere. The boys do not mind that Russian Girl continues visiting the politician’s cottage, even after she was assaulted there. Fatty does not want to change anything because, for him, being her security guard means not only having a safe, well-paid job, but also someone to talk to. Leo expresses his feelings about Russian Girl and buys her expensive perfume to show his love, but he is rejected by her as another “white ceramic toilet,” as she calls her clients. At the end of the film the artificiality of friendship and love is revealed, and the ties between Leo, Russian Girl and Fatty collapse, leading to tragic consequences.

leoIn Say Leo Rybakov also focuses on another characteristic of the Internet—its voyeurism. Every day millions and millions of users search online for information, goods, movies and relationships. Like many other users, Leo looks through dozens of websites and visually consumes not only information, but also girls on the live sex chat sites. Throughout the film the close-ups of computer screens with rapidly changing websites invite viewers to participate in the search, together with the main character. Dragged from cinematic space into virtual space, they become “double voyeurs,” watching on their TV screens the computer screens displaying articles and half-naked female bodies.

Leo is an example of a Peeping Tom whose existence is defined by looking at objects. He is looking at Russian Girl on his computer screen and stalking her in real life. The gaze of the camera is constantly identified with Leo’s gaze, not only in the virtual world but also at the café when the camera slowly zooms in on a blue scrunchy that is moving down Russian Girl’s ponytail. Leo’s constant urge to peep brings him to a closed meeting of Russian neo-Nazis. Later he joins Fatty at the cottage of “Papik,” whose main hobby is looking at girls through multiple video cameras located in a room with a big bed. For Leo, to watch, to look at things and people gives him power. That is why he refuses to be an object of viewing, to be looked at: in one scene Leo erases the pictures Fatty took of him with his new digital camera. For the same reason, neither boy looks very comfortable when Russian Girl demands that they undress in front of her.

leoLeo is a voyeur and when, at the end of the film, he cannot find any traces of his object of viewing and desire—Russian Girl—online, he ceases to exist as a viewing subject. There is no need for computers or the Internet anymore, and Leo destroys everything in his room. After this loss of power he becomes subjugated by the camera, which zooms in a spinning movement into his body, passively lying on the floor. The camera ends its movement on a blue scrunchy in Leo’s hand, and visually endows both Leo and the scrunchy with the same status of viewed object. Thus, by the end of the film, the young hero of Say Leo fails in being a friend and a lover, and loses his power as a hacker and voyeur. Like many other contemporary young Muscovites who prefer the Internet and computer games to real relations and communication, he is alienated from his family and his surroundings.

Olga Klimova
University of Pittsburgh

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1] Rybakov’s other feature film is The Book Stealers (Pokhititeli knig, 2004). He has also made two shorts: Marakuta (1991) and Stone People (Liudi iz kamnia, 2007).

2] Representations of neo-Nazis in Russian popular culture are very rare. Another recent film, Russia 88 (Rossiia 88, 2009), by Pavel Bardin also focuses on neo-Nazi organizations in contemporary Russia. Mikhail Pavlik, who plays Fatty in Say Leo, has the part of a young neo-Nazi in Bardin’s film.

Works Cited

Krotkova, Aleksandra. “Zavershilis' s”emki fil'ma ‘Skazhi Leo.’” ProfiCinema (23 December 2007).

"Skazhi Leo": Debiut sester Mikhalkovykh v kachestve prodiuserov. ” (1 November 2007). 


Say Leo Russia, 2008
Color, 82 minutes
Director: Leonid Rybakov
Script: Leonid Rybakov
Cinematography: Artem Polosatyi
Costume Design: Denis Simachev
Art Director: Iuliia Charandaeva
Music: Iurii Tsaler
Cast: Andrei Shchipanov, Anna Starshenbaum, Mikhail Pavlik, Anna Mikhalkova
Producer: Maksim Korolev, Anna Mikhalkova, Nadezhda Mikhalkova
Production company: VVP-Al'ians

Leonid Rybakov: Say Leo (Skazhi Leo, 2008)

reviewed by Olga Klimova © 2009

Updated: 11 Jul 09