Issue 26 (2009)

Aleksei Mizgirev: Buben, Baraban (2009)

reviewed by Ol'ga Surkova © 2009

bubenThe film’s title, Buben, Baraban, appears in the top corner of the frame in a blood-red rectangle while the credits pulsate in an even deeper red box at the bottom of the frame— like venous blood in its different colors. The red color is reminiscent of the color of the Soviet flag—symbolizing, incidentally, the blood spilled for the country. The sound of a mint can be heard; to the sound of the drum the pioneers’ once formed a line; a tambourine accompanied on the stage the various national dances from the former Caucasus and of the Asian peoples of the Soviet Union... The rest of the credits roll on dark frames, anticipating the gloomy landscapes or the few dimly lit interiors of the library, the hostel, the stairwells or the clinic that are to follow. Everything in the film is sad and gloomy: from the cracking and collapsing houses with their once solid balconies to downtrodden footpaths covered with bits of asphalt; from the collieries to a bus painted in bright green like a grasshopper... The bright, distinct dots of color are used with precision, especially in the final frame; they all serve to emphasize the strict asceticism of the image that corresponds to the entire concept of Mizgirev’s film.

bubenThe walls of the library where the heroine, Ekaterina Artemovna, works—along with a young colleague—are covered with intense scarlet paint that seem to turn the premises into a greedy belly. Indeed, the theme of blood runs through the entire film: there is the graze on the heroine’s knee following an unfortunate jump off a train where she was selling stolen library books in order to be able to do stock up on kefir, food cans and spaghetti in a pitiful local shop; and there is the splinted of a mirror, which the heroine uses to cut her palms as she discovers that she has been betrayed by her passionate lover; and a stream of blood leads to the film’s end... In all this, however, the sight of blood does not scare the strict head librarian, while it makes the local young policeman faint. Everything hopelessly withers in this godforsaken place that lacks blood supply— something that might be derived from a social life which is here missing. How many such places are scattered across the boundless open space of Russia, where people do not live any more, but merely survive— and that with huge difficulties?

Mizgirev himself says that he made not a social film, but a love story. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the film links social and sensual aspects like a lisle thread that can not be unpicked—a quality which defines this woman desired by the long-awaited Russian Romeo, who unexpectedly arrives in their provincial timelessness.

The plot is not difficult. Once upon a time there was a librarian, Ekaterina Artemovna, who lived in a small town in the midst of Russia, where there were no grants for culture and where salaries were below the living wage. She tried with all her heart “to take culture to the masses”, as Soviet ideology had it, but her soul dried up from the starving and hopeless life while she continues still to wait for some enlightenment, or the life-giving beacon of love. Such a love has been impossible for a long time, while a miserly salary has forced the intelligent woman—raised on good literature—to sell books on trains that stop for a few minutes at the substation: books that are demanded by the passengers and stolen from the library shelves —such as Angelique or even Tales of Belkin, which sell already for significantly less.

bubenThen, however, real love appears on the agenda, at last. It brings change to her dull everyday life in the form of a brisk, fairly clever naval officer Nikolai, who chances upon this place and stays when he falls in love with Katia, who seems to be that “lisle thread,” which could tie him both to her and to a different life. But these hopes will not come true; moreover, these are not the hopes of the naval officer, but of the professional thief who has obviously run away from prison and who causes pain and sincere disappointment in Ekaterina Artemovna—after all, a pilferer herself. The reason for their break-up is not the transformation of the officer into a thief, but his lost hope to have at last found a new life with a decent woman; in all this, he fails to see in Katia her special qualities. The proud Ekaterina cannot bear them splitting, because she could not possibly go through the numerous humiliations that accompany such a break-up. Such humiliations are part of her life and her environment, and they remind her of the shaky duplicity of her own life, which has been highlighted too starkly. The intolerable realization of her actual powerlessness leads to the ultimate manifestation of her own will: suicide.

The film, and each situation within it, has multiple meanings; similarly, the brilliant dialogue has several layers of meaning. The film bewitches as is constantly slips and tells about something else... This parallel narrative strand starts with the image of the heroine, played by the once well-known Natal’ia Negoda, who seems to have sunk into oblivion a long time ago together with her famous character of Little Vera (Malen’kaia Vera, 1988). Mizgirev is absolutely concise in the choice of his actress: perhaps the actress is so special in her dramatic authenticity and her unique personality precisely because her own acting career unfolded so awkwardly between “Vera” and Ekaterina Artemovna, like the destiny of the independent, strong and educated woman and provincial librarian, who, together with her library, does not fit into her time.

bubenThe heroine’s appearance and her image are unique in Russian cinema: they are deliberately not modern. From what era does this woman come, who is muffled up in a coat or sports a business suit as if it were an overcoat, with her classical bun and a middle parting—a woman whose stride drums distinctly as if it were a soldier’s gait? She belongs to a completely different world; she is removed from simple life; she seems conceived by the Creator like one of the Decembrists, or the Commissar from Vsevolod Vishnevskii’s The Optimistic Tragedy (Optimisticheskaia tragdiia, 1933). Yet on the one hand, life has lowered her to the level of petty money-making and the struggle for a living space; on the other hand, she is ready to revenge her beloved who has betrayed her, finding in her self the full range of the passions of antiquity. She is prepared to take on “the whole sea of troubles” and that vulgar external world which has intruded and has broken the silent sacrament of the image she created for herself, containing her Self in a compressed, laconic lump. She does not fit into this world, which pursues her with two contrary definitions: “fair eyes which cannot lie” while she lives in lie; and “malicious, bad person”, incapable—out of helplessness—to show sympathy even to her relatives and repeating the words of her beloved (who did not want to or could not pity her like a simple woman) that have sunk into her heart: “If you can not live, don’t live!”

The heroine of antiquity steals books to resell them... What sense does that make for critics, who believe the main task of this film is to discredit the Russian intelligentsia, its failure to adapt to modern life and its readiness to sell out Russian culture? But have our aristocrats and intellectuals not sold books and priceless jewelry for a piece of bread during certain periods of Russia’s history? Were books not burnt in some households to warm the bourgeoisie?

bubenOf course, these things were sold to pay for daily bread, while Ekaterina Artemovna takes books that are not hers to sell. But where should the poor, formerly “Soviet” intellectual go after starting his new life as poor as a church mouse, even unable to trade in the new economic conditions—so that it is the simple cop who has to teach our heroine to make ends meet? How can we object to Ekaterina “exposing” her beloved, as he tries to get away from his criminal past: “now everyone steals and nobody is ashamed”? What ideals can we propose—other than a declaration of love to “our fathers’ coffins,” laid out alphabetically on the book shelves and appealing to the high spiritual challenge comprehended by those few “normal” people who are punished through unemployment and lack of money?

Buben, Baraban belongs to those rare films that have no music. Except for conversations, the only sound is the clicking of heels, water running from a tap into the sink or a bowl, or a rare rumble that might catch our attention. Reserving her soul for high ideas, the heroine is deaf to the reality that surrounds her; she mechanically performs the actions necessary for basic, physical survival. We remember Shultes (Shultes, dir. Bakuradze, 2008), who also existed in a vacuum and plundered people in what appeared to be a state of drowsiness. Nowadays young directors trace entire layers of our societies that are simply excluded from a normal life or compelled to adapt in exactly those barbarous ways that the hero of Mizgirev’s debut film, The Hard-Hearted (Kremen’, 2007), successfully managed to exploit.

bubenIf we try to find an ancestor for Negoda’s heroine in Soviet cinema, it is probably the character of Nadezhda Petrukhina in Larisa Shepitko’s Wings (Kryl’ia, 1966), who was so brilliantly portrayed by Maia Bulgakova. Her presence in the “dissolute” modernized period of the late 1960s is unnaturally dramatic for the former participant of the Great Patriotic War (WWII), just as everything is inappropriate that occurs in the modern society of Ekaterina Artemovna. In fact, Katia teaches her Romeo humanistic principles derived from the literature she has read: “to be poor it is no disgrace” and “not poverty humiliates, but dissoluteness.” Both qualities are obvious attributes of her time.

Ekaterina Artemevna finds support in the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, whose works praise inner resistance achieved by a strong personality. She reads his verses to her small audiences:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too: […]
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son! (Kipling: If )

The heroine manages to become a such great Man, in Kipling’s sense: a person of another sphere, not wanting to humiliate herself for a piece of bread and living in a protected world of her own, until that world is discredited ruthlessly by the “fussy crowd”, exposing her quiet conspiracy with herself. The exposure of her thefts through her former lover— thefts that she justifies as necessity, without any condescendence—come to her as a mortal blow. It is her prickly, but strong personality that the simple young woman who works in the library tries to imitate: the same hair tied back in a bun, and most likely the same fruitless expectation of love. We do not know what happened before on the love front to Ekaterina Artemovna, who so purposefully aspires to education and to a higher level of knowledge, having torn herself away from her roots that lie in a simple miner’s family. Yet she is absolutely defenseless when seized by passion, and the two women engage in a short struggle over the same man; in the process their attitudes change, as does the degree of sincerity when they try to win him over.

The title Buben, Baraban has no straightforward meaning, but it is tinted by several poetic overtones: it contains an irresponsible dissoluteness and a tautological disciplining monotony— like a life burnt by excessive passion...

When Nikolai, the apparently “respectable” lover of the heroine, frightens her and drives her away with an unexpected outburst of prisoners’ jargon, he immediately tries to make up with her by sharing his story of how his father flogged him as a child for larceny—of sweets, and he could not care less (bylo po barabanu) about being it. But Ekaterina is indelibly impressed by his grandfather’s reaction, who apparently spent ten years in prison for larceny. In front of his grandson, he cut off his little finger on one hand with a pair of scissors, put it on his palm and said: “you steal, and that hurts me.” However, maybe this was only a poetic, rumbling truth for the sake of effect, a story that deeply touched and directly affected the heroine, who would soon be deceived by her not-so-pure lover.

“Buben, Baraban,” says Ekaterina herself when visiting her sick father, a miner, advising him to breath regularly by repeating the words “Buben, Baraban...Buben, Baraban.” Coming back to the film’s title: there is the tautology in the sound of the word for these two instruments, which create a series of associations mentioned above: the pioneers’ marching to the drumbeat, and the tambourines accompanying national dances. Today, such associations are blurred and put aside as obsolete, referring to a past which now merely fills history books. All these obscure recollections of tambourines and drums are as inappropriate today in the artistic associative chain as is the heroine herself, her library in the age of computers, her performances before a little crowd of people with the sense of a higher mission that nobody is interested any more, and the entire inexpressive, crumbling region around the collieries which are, in their turn, doomed for closure and destruction.

bubenA landscape with a mountain of coals appears in the center of the frame, illuminated by bluish light, or usual daylight. This mountain, which stands like a tomb with a telegraph mast, is captured from a point of view that makes it look like a cross; the ensemble is reminiscent of Golgotha, where a whole generation is condemned to live. There is no accidental frame in this film. The images are not importunate, but almost simple and extremely ascetical. There is nothing superfluous, but each detail is expressive in Mizgirev’s work in a manner that is reminiscent of Bresson.

Reciting the courageous verses of Kipling, Ekaterina Artemovna helplessly admits to her beloved, as she turns off the light, that the smile that reflects a short spell of happiness looks “silly” and inappropriate on her face. The same inappropriate label will soon be given to the childish, but sincere tears and the frank plaintive groan over her prolonged solitude. Against the background of global change and her entire life, the sale of stolen library books seems like a dream, a way to extract more money for a gift for her lover. In fact, for Ekaterina Artemovna life is real only in the achievement of high ideals, while the filthy practice of stealing books remains unreal for her. It is not money that attracts her, not the well-off dental doctor who is in love with her: her soul responds to the high call of genuine love. When that vanishes, she unexpectedly turns the mirror on to her soul, and sees the darkness inside, as Hamlet’s mother would have it.

Alone, with her sins, with endless shame, with dark ideas of vindication, with the desire for revenge on everyone suspected of her “exposure” vis-à-vis Nikolai, with the determination to kill him, with the impossibility to follow Kipling—whom she again tries to read to a strange children’s audience, stumbling over the words: “Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools: […] Hold on!... Hold on!...” (Kipling, If, 1895). But she is no longer able to hold on: she faces two teams of little hockey players in their team uniform, lined up against a wall decorated with frescos of some duels. Katia has lost her duel, and she must come clean on herself, Nikolai, and all those who forgot the ideals concealed in “our fathers’ coffins.”

This image unexpectedly appears in the final frame of Mizgirev’s film, which has been awarded two Silver Lions at the Locarno IFF in August 2009, for best direction and the Special Jury Prize. This image of “love for our fathers’ coffins” features twice, against the blazing, grayish-green landscape in a sunset with a mysterious reddish sheen, remembering the proud and unapproachable woman brought down from her pedestal... In this space, in the melancholic despair, her brother (who also committed suicide) utters the simple call of a child: “Katia... Katia”. In fact, she was missed after her death and responds to his voice that highlights once more the monotonous, boring space of eternal love for treasures decaying in “our fathers’ coffins.”

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Ol'ga Surkova

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Works Cited

Kipling, Rudyard, "If" (1895).

Buben, Baraban (literally: Tambourine, Drum), Russia 2009
Color, 100 min.
Scriptwriter and Director Aleksei Mizgirev
Director of Photography Vadim Deev
Production Design Denis Shibanov
Cast: Natal’ia Negoda, Dmitri Kulichkov, Elena Liadova, Sergei Neudachin, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Aleksandr Oblasov
Producers Ruben Dishdishian, Aram Movsesian, Iurii Moroz, Sergei Danielian
Production “Ithaca-Film”, commissioned by Central Partnership
Distribution Central Partnership

Aleksei Mizgirev: Buben, Baraban (2009)

reviewed by Ol'ga Surkova © 2009

Updated: 02 Oct 09