Issue 26 (2009)

Igor’ Voloshin: Olympius Inferno (Olimpius Inferno, 2009)

reviewed by Stephen Hutchings © 2009

olympiusIf nothing else, Igor’ Voloshin’s film, Olympius Inferno, is an awe-inspiring illustration of the speed and efficacy with which the Russian state propaganda machine is capable of springing into action to respond to world events and translate its message into stylish, technically accomplished, emotionally engaging imagery. Based on the events in South Ossetia in August 2008, and portraying a brutal Georgian army engaging in ethnic cleansing at the behest of its omnipresent American masters, it was piped into the living rooms of ordinary Russians via Channel 1 television in March 2009, but also released on YouTube so as to appeal to the young generation, and to accord it an air of subcultural authenticity. Comparisons with the crudity of Soviet propaganda are misplaced for this reason, and for others which I will come to.

The film tells the story of a young Russian-born American entomologist, Michael (played by the Israeli actor, David Henry) on an expedition to South Ossetia to film the rare Olympius Inferno butterfly. He is accompanied by a childhood friend from his distant Russian past, with whom he has been reunited after many years, and the photo-journalist Zhenia (Polina Filonenko). As they are filming the butterfly, the Georgians launch their sudden night-time assault on South Ossetia, and the two manage to capture the attack on film (and on Zhenia’s camera). Horrified by what they see (the film spares no details in its vivid depiction of the atrocities carried out by the Georgians), they carry on filming in order to record the events for posterity. When, however, they try to show their evidence to a western reporter, he is dismissive and remains wedded to his “distorted” pro-Georgian version of events.

olympiusAs the Georgian army become aware of the existence of the evidence, the protagonists become the object of a terrifying manhunt designed to prevent them from revealing “the truth” about how the war started. They are captured, manage to escape and end up performing heroic deeds to save a gravely wounded young South Ossetian boy from certain death by drawing on Zhenia’s bravery and Michael’s medical knowledge (he had intended to follow his father into the medical profession before discovering entomology). Eventually they make it back to the safety of the Russian forces sent to “rescue” South Ossetia, but at the cost of a life-threatening injury to Zhenia. Michael returns to America to tell his story to the media, but, predictably, they reject his account and he walks out of a television studio in disgust. He goes back to Russia to visit a grateful Zhenia in her hospital bed and the couple appear to rekindle the mutual love which had been interrupted by Michael’s emigration to the USA, a subtext which has been running throughout the narrative (as in all good Soviet war films, the consummation of the love interest is put on hold until the patriotic duty has been done). But the film ends by returning to its opening scene and cutting to a shot of Igor’ Voloshin, the director of the film we are watching, appearing to indicate that he has deliberately given the film an optimistic ending by ensuring that Zhenia remains alive. The implication is that, in the real life events on which the film is purportedly based, Zhenia dies: in answer to the question “Is what you depicted really true?” the director responds “The truth is more terrible still” (Pravda eshche strashnee).

From the plot summary alone, the anti-American element in the film is all too clear. Rather like Aleksandr Nevzorov’s controversial anti-Chechen film, Purgatory (Chistilishche, 1998) on whose relentless sense of military apocalypse—itself recalling Francis Ford Coppola’s great 1979 Vietnam movie, Apocalypse Now!—it partly draws, the sequences shot from behind “enemy” (Georgian) lines invariably include American officers lurking prominently in the background, reinforcing their cynical role as sponsors and inciters of the illicit Georgian campaign. The anti-Americanism is only exceeded by the director’s antipathy towards Georgia; the cruel savagery the Georgian troops display towards ordinary South Ossetian civilians (the film shocks with its images of young women and children shot at random as they flee the tanks, and burned alive in their homes); the cynical disregard for “the truth;” the fawning attitude towards the West. The ideological trilogy is completed by a crudely simplistic heroicisation of the Russians in both unofficial and official guise (unlike the heartless Georgian captors, the Russian soldiers allow a Georgian prisoner-of-war to make a mobile phone call to his girlfriend; the film is interspersed with images of Putin and Medvedev uttering their righteous words of condemnation).

olympiusMore subtle, and more effective (though hardly an innovative device), is the role of Michael as the hybrid Russian-American, the insider-as-outsider. Significantly (if rather predictably), Michael is transformed during the course of the plot from a rather insipid, effete young butterfly-collecting American, wary of Zhenia’s bold assertiveness and righteous anger, into a “true” Russian hero, passionate to make the world aware of the facts, determined to protect Zhenia from danger, and willing to take mortal risks to save the innocent South Ossetian population. It is, of course, Zhenia, who has facilitated the transformation and she functions something like the archetypal strong-willed woman from the Russian literary tradition. Olympius Inferno is, then, on another level, the story of a homecoming, a return to the righteous fold for the errant Michael.

Olympius Inferno also invokes elements of the Russian cinematic canon; apart from the links with Purgatory, it attempts, with its frequent shots of the grandeur of the Caucasian landscape, to position itself in the latest line of Caucasian captive movies, including Aleksei Balabanov’s War (Voina 1999), with its own effete western “hero,” and Sergei Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains (Kavkazskii plennik, 1996). But, with its sustained use of shaky, hand-held camera, it is also immersed in the latest “reality television” techniques associated with western documentary film. Moreover, it pays conscious tribute to many a Hollywood fugitive thriller and its director has referred openly to the influence of the Bourne trilogy (The Bourne Identity, dir. Doug Liman, 2002; The Bourne Supremacy, 2004 and The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007, both directed by Paul Greengrass).

olympiusThe acute intertextual awareness and almost “pick and mix” hybridity of Voloshin’s film is one of several things which, blatant propaganda message notwithstanding, distinguishes it from its Soviet precursors and marks it as an unmistakably post-Soviet cultural text. For in the new era of information saturation and maximized access to news sources, propaganda of the old, monolithic Soviet variety is no longer an option. The assumption has to be that viewers of Olympius Inferno are fully aware of the Georgian-American version of events and, rather than attempt to obscure, conceal or ignore that version and its sources, Voloshin litters his film with western cinematic and cultural references, casts a Russian-speaking (and eventually Russian-leaning) westerner in one of the main roles, and engages with the familiar western narrative of Russian aggression in vitriolic polemic. In doing so, he accords the film a peculiarly post-Soviet self-reflexivity which goes well beyond the tongue-in-cheek reference to Nabokov (the first Americanized Russian butterfly collector). It is no coincidence, for example, that Zhenia is a journalist (a news gatherer), or that Michael attempts to present the Russian case in an American television studio. Voloshin makes no bones about the fact that, through his film, he is participating in a “media war” fought with as much intensity as the military war that sparked it.

Above all, Olympius Inferno is structured around two meta-level convergences and, despite its distasteful ideological reductiveness and fawning servility to the official Russian government line, these ultimately lift it, perhaps despite itself, above the threshold of Putinesque banality. First there is the convergence of the camera lenses of Zhenia and Michael, and that of Voloshin; that the film cartridges of his heroes become the object of pursuit for the Georgian-American military propaganda operation renders Olympius Inferno a vulnerable, butterfly-like figure for the relentless “targeting” of Russian “truth” by the western “lie machine.” Accordingly, the automatic snapping sound of Zhenia’s Canon which punctuates the film becomes a virtuous counter-leitmotif to the monotonous thunder of Georgian machine gun fire and explosives.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is the multi-layered game of “truth” and “lies” into which the film inserts itself: the “truth” of the Georgian atrocity against the “lie” of the American narrative of Russian aggression; the truth about the peril that Zhenia and Michael find themselves in and the false reassurances that “everything is OK” given to their respective partners in Moscow and America by mobile phone (the tools of modern communication are, indeed, a double-edged sword); the truth about what really happened to Zhenia (her death) and the comforting fiction that the film within the film opts to purvey (her survival), framed by the ultimate “truth” of Voloshin’s film which finally acknowledges her true fate.

Ironically, however, the “fictional” director’s recognition that the truth is sometimes too difficult and too demoralizing to convey, that a gentle, optimistic fiction can be more comforting, and that “lying” is also good, ends up drawing the “real” director into his own trap; for what stronger indictment is there for the game of propaganda into which Voloshin has so willingly entered on behalf of the grateful government that (presumably) sustains his work than collusion in the purveying of falsehood?

Stephen Hutchings
University of Manchester

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Olympius Inferno, Russia 2009,
Color, 88 minutes
Directed by Igor' Voloshin
Written by Denis Rodimin, Nikolai Polov, Aleksei Klubitskii, Stas Dovzhik
Music by Floni Bjarnason
Cast: Polina Filonenko (Zhenia), and David Henry (Michael)

Igor’ Voloshin: Olympius Inferno (Olimpius Inferno, 2009)

reviewed by Stephen Hutchings © 2009

Updated: 30 Sep 09