Issue 27 (2010)

NISI-MASA project: Cinetrain (2008)

reviewed by Tim Harte © 2010

Cinetrain: 6 documentaries on the Trans-Siberian Railway

cinetrainThe nineteenth-century phenomenon of the railroad, cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch has argued, repeatedly served as the “technical guarantor of democracy,” bringing “harmony between nations, peace, and progress,” and joining “people together both spatially and socially” (Schivelbusch 1979: 73). An enthusiastic return to this bygone vision of the locomotive as vehicle for peace, progress, and social harmony lies at the heart of Cinetrain, a compelling cinematic project shot along that most famous of train routes, the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. Comprising six short documentary films directed by a diverse collective of young European filmmakers hailing from not only Russia but also Hungary, Portugal, The Netherlands, Romania, and Finland, Cinetrain incorporates the spirit of the railroad and train travel into the very filmmaking itself. In traveling across Russia by train and producing their short films, each approximately ten minutes long, these European filmmakers embody, as well as evoke, the unifying, transformative spirit of the railroad. Throughout Cinetrain railways and cinema merge effortlessly. Celebrating the train’s revolutionary effect on Russia’s physical and social landscape, the Cinetrain collective expands upon key conceptual similarities between the cinema and railroad travel, both of which in their respective technological ways have effectively minimized spatial and temporal borders between people and nations. Be it a humorous exposé on the spread of McDonalds and fast food throughout Russia or an understated, serene look at folk songs sung by train travelers along the Trans-Siberian route, the films of Cinetrain all underscore the ability of the railroad and the medium of film to undermine constricting cultural borders.

cinetrainProduced over the course of three weeks in the late summer of 2008, Cinetrain accentuates its collective hybridization of the railroad and the cinema by paying explicit homage to Aleksandr Medvedkin’s own cinematic enterprise from the 1930s, Kinopoezd (Cinetrain), which famously established a film-studio on wheels that was equipped with all the necessary tools for the filming, editing, and projection of short propagandistic films to be shown to the Soviet public scattered across the vast socialist country. As the latter-day Cinetrain filmmakers state at the beginning of their work, “75 years after Medvedkin invented Cinetrain,” they “took back the concept, making it their own.” Although propaganda is virtually absent from this present-day Cinetrain, the spontaneous creativity that Medvedkin sought in the 1930s through his Kinopoezd mission reverberates throughout these six documentaries, as does Medvedkin’s signature irreverence. In each of the films, movement east along the Transsiberian route provides a rich opportunity to delve into serious and not-so-serious elements of life in contemporary Russia and, as the filmmakers themselves suggest, to explore the nature of borders, particularly the question of where Europe ends and Asia begins. Cinetrain in effect leaps across two continents as it visually and thematically unites West and East.

cinetrainThe train, somewhat surprisingly, figures only sporadically in the Hungarian Denes Nagy’s Russian Playground (Igrovaia ploshchadka), the opening film of Cinetrain. Indeed, this short work highlighting the imaginative play of youngsters on the decrepit outskirts of three cities—Moscow, Ekaterinburg, and Sludianka (a small Siberian city on the southern edge of Lake Baikal)—along the Transsiberian Railway seems to have little in common with the other five films of Cinetrain, particularly since its action occurs with the passing trains and train sounds figuring merely as a romantic backdrop to the gritty reality of bullets, sex, and alcohol in everyday Russian life. Yet Russian Playground does form an important conceptual bookend with the sixth and final Cinetrain offering, Between Dreams (Mezhdu snov), directed by Iris Olsson (Finland). A film that through its sounds and imagery vividly evokes the oneiric essence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), Between Dreams combines eerie shots of the nighttime train with a series of faceless interviews to explore the dreams of train travelers along the Transsiberian Railway and the way these dreams reflect or merge with reality. What unites Between Dreams with Russian Playground is its increasing emphasis on children and their prominence in their parents’ dreams and lives. Both films, in their own unique ways, reveal the dangers facing Russian youth today while simultaneously offering lasting, tender images of hope for the young, post-Soviet generation.

cinetrainThroughout Cinetrain, the transition from West to East affords crucial imagery as well as conspicuous thematic unity for the young filmmakers. In the two most humorous contributions to the project, Lenin’s Code (Kod Lenina), directed by Nikita Sutyrin (Russia), and Mc-Russia (Mak-Rossiia), directed by Andrei Tanase (Romania), sardonic quests for, respectively, the hidden secret to Russia’s multitude of Lenin monuments and the key to success (or lack thereof) for McDonalds restaurants across Russia, have the films’ narrators traveling east to the city of Ulan-Ude, where the large Buryat segment of the populace is conspicuously Asiatic (i.e., Mongolian) in appearance. In the mockumentary Lenin’s Code, Sutyrin finds himself attending a performance of Buryat singers and a local fashion show, all conducted under the watchful eye of Lenin, who looms over Ulan-Ude’s main square in the form of a giant sculpted head, while in Mc-Russia, a film shot in the spirit of the American documentary Super Size Me (2004), Tanase shows his German collaborator and narrator Florian Krebs venturing into what seems to be the same festivities witnessed by Sutyrin in Lenin’s Code, a celebration of the 85th anniversary of the Republic of Buryatia. As Krebs discovers, Ulan-Ude boasts no McDonalds, but it does offer greasy chebureki and several Happy Land chains. In both Lenin’s Code and Mc-Russia, however, the quests end in a highly ironic stalemate of sorts, for the films’ respective narrators find themselves at the end of their quixotic journeys with virtually nowhere to go beyond Asia.  Sutyrin, with his volumes of Lenin’s work under his arm, wades out into the Pacific Ocean while Krebs gazes into the sky, dreaming of home and a healthier diet.

cinetrainIn Transsiberian Voices (Golosa Transsiba), the fourth contribution to Cinetrain, the Dutch filmmaker Jochem de Vries conveys a profound, yet subtle transition from West to East. Listening to a series of impromptu musical performances in train compartments on the eastward bound Transsiberian train, de Vries documents how traditional Russian folk songs give way to musical offerings of a distinctly Asiatic flavor. Except for the singing, almost no words are spoken in Transsiberian Voices, as the clicking of the train over the tracks and other locomotive sounds provide a hypnotic metronome of sorts for these colorful folk songs. Through the singing and a number of long still frontal shots of the passengers post-performance, Transsiberian Voices poignantly reveals a Russian populace as talented as it is diverse. 

While the six films constituting Cinetrain prove quite disparate in theme and style, the train and its movement toward the East unite the filmmakers’ diverging visions. If any one image recurs throughout most of the six films, it is the image of the small compartment between sleeping cars where passengers can not only board the train but also pass their time on the long journey east by smoking, chatting, or just gazing off into the distance. Within this liminal space between the train cars and their sleeping bunks strangers often interact, as they get ready to depart, smoke, converse, contemplate the long journey ahead, or even feed the dogs who venture up to stalled trains, looking for handouts. And here the camera so often captures telling moments as the travelers speak openly to the filmmakers or stare off into the rapidly disappearing Russian landscape.

cinetrainIn Cinetrain the central theme of borders and their eradication through train travel (and cinema) is nowhere more prominent than in Territories (Territorii), directed by Monika Baptista (Portugal), the second of the six Cinetrain films. Featuring ghostly shots of half-empty train cars and deserted nighttime streets as seen from the train, Territories focuses on two men traveling east to the Siberian region of Irkutsk. While one is a Chechen who has lived near Irkustsk for over 25 years, the other is a young Russian who has recently served in the army along the border of Chechnya and is now returning home to the Irkutsk region. But whereas the Chechen yearns for a peaceful world without borders, the young, yet hardened Russian refuses to even contemplate such a political and social world, and as the two men, strangers to one another, stand smoking in the compartment between the train cars, an invisible border seems to hinder their interaction.  Nevertheless, the train and the filmmaking itself in Cinetrain suggest that such borderless interaction is possible, perhaps even inevitable, for the journey continues even as the two men both disembark at a train station outside of Irkutsk and disappear into the night. When riding on the train, “we are one big family” (“odna sem’ia”), the Chechen remarks to Baptista, and, as Cinetrain in its very conception suggests, train travel across Russia presents an ideal opportunity for cross-cultural interaction as well as intelligent, poignant documentary work. Globalization in the twenty-first century has surely shrunk the world as we know it, yet filmmaking in the old Medvedkin vein along a hallowed train route like the Transsiberian Railway still has its own enhanced, enduring role to play in bringing people and continents together.

Tim Harte
Bryn Mawr College

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Works Cited

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: Trains and Travel in the 19th Century, (New York: Urizon Books, 1979).

Cinetrain, 2008
Color, 66 minutes
Russian Playground (Igrovaia ploshchadka), by Denes Nagy, Leo Bruges, and Anna Dmitrieva
Territories (Territorii), by Monika Baptista, Filip Syczysnki, and Eugeniy Goryainov
Lenin’s Code (Kod Lenina), by Nikita Sutyrin, Monika Kotechka, and Julien Perrefeu
Transsiberian Voices (Golosa Transsiba), by Jochem de Vries, Marton Vizkelety, and Guillaume Protsenko
Mc-Russia (Mak-Rossiia), by Andrei Tanase, Georgy Groshkov, and Florian Krebs
Between Dreams (Mezhdu snov), by Iris Olsson, Natasha Pavlovskaya, and Dimitris Tolios
Production: NISI-MASA, MiruMir and Moviement

NISI-MASA project: Cinetrain (2008)

reviewed by Tim Harte © 2010

Updated: 15 Mar 10