Issue 27 (2010)

Igor’ Voloshin: I Am (Ia, 2009)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova, © 2010

meWith three full feature films in two years under his belt, Igor’ Voloshin has both received critical acclaim and provoked public debates. Nirvana (2008), a “gothic cyber-punk” about drug addiction, got Voloshin the Best Debut prize at the Kinotavr film festival in Sochi. In March 2009, Russia’s First TV Channel screened Voloshin’s Olympius Inferno, a melodrama-cum-action about Georgia’s attack on Ossetia dubbed by many critics, such as Mkheidze and Kuvshinova, a state-commissioned “agit-prop” film. His next project, I Am,competed at Kinotavr 2009, where the film’s director of photography Dmitrii Iashonkov received an award for Best Cinematography. The film continues to generate controversy: “the best film of the year or the shame of Russian cinematography?” (Mkheidze and Kuvshinova)

mikhalkovaAs its title suggests, I Am is an autobiographical film, based on Voloshin’s own script and executed as a fictional recreation of the director’s adolescence and youth in the late-1980s-mid 1990s, in the city of Sebastopol on the Black Sea. The frame for the narrative is provided by the narrator-protagonist, played by Artur Smol’ianinov, who is riding a bus at night shooting a film about his friends. He calls his film “a demo for God.” I Am has two time-specific settings: 1987, when the protagonist is twelve and hangs out with his older friends in front of an mental asylum doing drugs; and 1993, when he is eighteen and voluntarily checks into the asylum to avoid being drafted. At the asylum, the hero experiences brutality, forcible drug treatment, and quasi-memories or quasi-hallucinations featuring his now dead friends.

meNotwithstanding the subjective narration and discontinuous style, the film offers a fool-proof menu of commercial pleasers for mainstream (aka young) audiences: drug culture, street slang, fiendish cops, brutal rape and murders, apocalyptic prophesies, a trip down the Soviet memory lane, never-ending period soundtrack and, of course LOVE. Add to this the production company with the suggestive name “VVP Alliance” and Anna Mikhalkova who produced the film and appears in the role of the nuthouse doctor who kills one of the ward’s inmates—a former KGB agent, turned paranoid prophet—and we get a text that can’t decide what it wants to be: art-house or commercial project? “chernukha” or social commentary? a personal confession or a politically motivated denunciation of perestroika? From I Am we learn two definite things: love exists and God is watching us. 

meSmol’ianinov’s protagonist “survived” the madness of the 1980s and 1990s to tell the story. The twelve-year-old protagonist, a boy from a “good family,” finds his community in the street. The drug abuse of the perestroika era makes this also the time of intense camaraderie, inclusivity and a dizzying, mad freedom—or rather its Russian counterpart, volia. The mythology of freedom à la russe finds its clear expression in the character of Rom (Aleksei Gorbunov), whose fiancée was raped and killed by the cop also vying for her attention. Rom is a colorful figure, half-rebel half madman, generously spreading drugs among his young followers.

In its theme of drug addiction and the style that blurs the boundary between reality and hallucination, I Am clearly follows in the footsteps of such films as Trainspotting (Danny Boyle 1996) and Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky 2000). Instead of Aronofsky’s hip-hop montage, Voloshin uses long takes, often shot in slow motion, where the “rhythm of euphoria” is conveyed by music. The soundtrack includes a variety of 1980s-90s popular tracks, as diverse as Swans’ “Love Will Save You,” Sandra’s “I’ll Never Be Maria Magdalena” and Mikhail Shufutinskii’s sentimental “Knit Jacket.” Despite being somewhat busy, the soundtrack captures well the feel of the 1980s.

meThe drug abuse, however, is left behind in the protagonist’s past, together with his friends—“the lost generation”—who get a visually remarkable epitaph at film’s end. The protagonist himself, who started using drugs at twelve and “opened his veins for the first time at thirteen,” seems to emerge from that quagmire unscathed, except for the intimate knowledge of the effects of aminazine on body and psyche. What is the relationship between the protagonist’s past, where all his friends remained, and his present in the asylum? What kind of person is he?  Why is the asylum even in the film, considering that the hero tells us he can leave any day, unlike both the inmates and the staff who are prisoners of the “system”? The only conclusion is that the “I” in the title uses every chance to tell of his maturation as an artist; in that case self-inflicted suffering is a good excuse to talk to God and to quote One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman 1975). The protagonist tells us he read Ken Kesey’s novel right before checking into the asylum but, as he is stripped and beaten by two male nurses, he admits that “here they would have wasted Nicholson the first time he acted big.” Maybe so, but what prevents this interesting film from becoming a really good one is the usual woe of Russian cinema: story. Unlike Nirvana, which in the perceptive words of one Russian critic (Kichin) is about a generation of Martians, in I Am Voloshin actually tells a story about people, time and society. He has something to say and knows how to do it. Nevertheless, the film feels like a body with muscular atrophy: the organs are robust, but the body is not healthy. Individual scenes are memorable, even striking; but even well-shot hallucinatory style can’t save other ones. “Don’t you want me?”—the hero’s beloved, a nurse, asks him after giving him an aminazine injection. “God is always filming us,” is his reply.

meCloser to home and perhaps more relevant than Western models is the film’s link to Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 (2007). Voloshin both thanks him in the credits and acknowledges the inspiration in an interview (Kvasha). Some motifs and devices are indeed strikingly similar: the sadistic and psychopathic cop-in-love; the decomposing provincial city; the “cool” 1980s outfits, hairdos and the pervasive disco-music. The drug of choice is not vodka but cannabis, and as in Cargo 200, adults are oblivious to the “brave new world” that is raging around them. In I Am, the protagonist’s mother finds his stash of marihuana plants and praises him for his interest in “medicinal herbs”; the parents come early from the dacha while their son, still in school uniform, is frantically cleaning up the kitchen after making cannabis milk with his friends.

Here, however, parallels end. Balabanov’s film is an intellectual provocation which is both repulsive and funny to an extreme; a well-told genre story which is simultaneously a biting social commentary. The “professor of atheism” finds a confirmation that there might not be a god but there is always a place for a devil in the world. Voloshin makes biblical motifs the cornerstone of his style. Sadistic cops are no exception: “Ear for an ear, bitch, tooth for a tooth.” But metaphysics and social drama do not sit well together, and the mixture leaves an unpleasant taste. I Am lacks the messianic ambitions of Island (Pavel Lungin 2006), but it too takes itself too seriously.

meAfter reading reviews (mostly negative) of Voloshin’s “agit-prop” Olympius Inferno, this reviewer decided to watch the film, which seemed out of character and style for Voloshin. It is hard not to agree that Olympius is tendentious, schematic and almost childishly straightforward in its Russian nationalism.  But however questionable the message is, the film has a solid narrative and well-defined characters, who belong to their time, who actually talk about themselves and the world which is not Mars. Responding to accusations of “selling out,” Voloshin called Olympius an auteurist, art-house work. Quite the opposite is true: unwittingly, Voloshin conducted a lab experiment in mainstream storytelling. Granted, telling such “simple” propaganda stories to a generation of young people with cultural amnesia and aggressive “love for Russia” is a dangerous proposition. But so are the puffed up quasi-auteurist allegories of sin and redemption. At least Olympius says exactly what it wants to say.  The protagonist of I Am asks his mom to bring Hoffmann, Beckett and Lord of the Rings to the asylum, but this touching plea might be lost on the audiences, amidst bits and pieces of meanings.

Elena Prokhorova
College of William and Mary

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Works Cited

Mkheidze, Georgii and Mariia Kuvshinova, “Ia Igoria Voloshina: za i protiv.” OpenSpace.Ru 13 Oct. 2009.

Kichin, Valerii, “Ia, snova ia i Olimpius: fil’m Igoria Voloshina kak symptom kessonnoi bolezni,” Rossiiskaia gazeta 20 October 2009.

Kvasha, Semen, “Ia svoboden,” Interview with Igor’ Voloshin, 13 Oct. 2009.

I am, Russia, 2009
Color, 98 min
Director: Igor’ Voloshin
Scriptwriter: Igor’ Voloshin
Cinematography: Dmitrii Iashonkov
Production Design: Pavel Parkhomenko
Costume Design: Nadezhda Vasil’eva
Starring: Artur Smol’ianinov, Aleksei Gorbunov, Oksana Akin’shina, Andrei Khabarov, Anna Mikhalkova, Petr Zaichenko, Mariia Shalaeva, Aleksei Filimonov, Vlad Isaev, Mikhail Evlanov
Producers: Anna Mikhalkova, Maksim Korolev
Production: VVP Alians

Igor’ Voloshin: I Am (Ia, 2009)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova, © 2010

Updated: 10 Jan 10