KinoKultura: Issue 30 (2010)

Kinotavr 2010: Migration and Isolation

By Birgit Beumers (U of Bristol)

The 21st Kinotavr Russian Film Festival took place in Sochi, for the first time greeting its guests at the new airport terminal which has been a building-in-progress for at least the last fifteen years. After the surprise upon arrival—was this really Sochi or had we maybe landed somewhere else?—the festival followed its usual format: a competition program, a shorts competition, Andrei Plakhov’s Summer Euphoria selection, the films “On the Square”—a free treat for Sochi’s citizens and visitors, showcasing the top blockbusters of the year –, as well as a program of French shorts curated by Natalia Nusinova, and finally Sergei Lavrentiev’s sidebar of Soviet co-productions of the 1950s to 1980s.

The festival’s opening film was an excellent choice: the film almanac Moscow, I Love You (Moskva, ia liubliu tebia), a compilation of film of 15 shorts, following the model of Paris, I Love You and New York, I Love You may not reach the degree of thematic coherence and emotional touch of its predecessors, but offers an eclectic vision of life in contemporary Moscow. What is lacking, however, is a sense of love for the city in the majority of the films, which include the works of newcomers, such as Elena Suni, Artem Mikhalkov, Aleksei Golubev, as well as established directors, such as Alla Surikova, Vera Storozheva, Murad Ibragimbekov, as well as veterans, such as Georgii Natanson, Nana Djordjadze and Irakli Kvirikadze. The episodes are all made in a more or less conventional style, except the hugely impressive “Object No. 1” by Ibragimbekov, which had previously screened in the shorts competition in Venice. It is made in black-and-white, drawing on the style of 1930s documentary realism, parodying Soviet references to ideological markers or landmarks, here the red stars on the Kremlin towers. The short form is, of course, an art form in its own right, as is well visible in this almanac where it is not mastered by all the filmmakers evenly. And, as always, Kinotavr started with its shorts competition.

The Shorts: A Future!?
cancrizanThe shorts program has always been one of the most fascinating of Kinotavr: it is here that the filmmakers of tomorrow are often discovered, as has been true for Dmitrii Mamuliia (who showed here his short “Moskva”, made with Bakur Bakuradze); for Iurii Bykov (see below); and indeed—going back a long time – for Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii, who presented here their short “The Clever Frog” (Khitraia liagushka). This year the shorts included some impressive and promising films. Maybe most professional was the film “Bingo” by Timur Ismailov, made as part of his degree at the Dutch film school where Ismailov has studied. Dealing with the theme of migrant workers in a foreign country, it fitted well into the one of the main thematic lines of the competition, and impressed through the good choice of actors and the fine composition, ending on a nostalgic visual note.

The program included a great number of excellent films from VGIK graduates or students, highlighting that there are some extremely talented young people qualifying for their profession there (a similar picture can be seen on the animation side). Nikolai Sokolov’s The Cancrizans (Rakokhod) is a black-and-white film about two pupils who take revenge on some hooligans. The film is non-linear, connecting fragments only loosely and relying on visual and musical associations instead.

natasha v goloveAnother fine exercise in style and genre is Aleksei Andrianov’s The Last Day of Bulkin I.S. (Poslednii den’ Bul’kina I.S.), a tragicomedy with elements of a thriller, where death comes to visit a man to predict how his life will come to an end – yet is it  possible to cross fate? Equally stylish, with an irony for the Soviet past, is Roman Zimin’s Gastello’s Face (Litso Gastello) about the theft of a metal plate from a monument to Gastello in a small provincial town—and the ensuing consequences. A masterpiece in the genre of steb is Maksim Zykov’s It seems to be over but it may not be (Eto kazhetsia, chto proshlo a na samom dele mozhet i ne proshlo), a film that should be awarded a prize just for its ever-so-short title: a shorter reference would be: a film about a young man with “Natasha in his head”. Serezha visits a doctor to get a medical certificate to use the pool; during the check-up he faints. When the doctor orders an x-ray, he discovers something in Sergei’s head: the girl Natasha (he dreams about)—who will have to be removed through invasive surgery (as an allegory for the suppression of the imagination?). Sergei does not want to get rid of Natasha, while the doctors insist on making his brain conform (in another possible political and social allegory). Instead of following through with the allegorical reading, Zykov cleverly deludes the viewer and takes him to a swimming pool, where the girl Natasha has emerged from Sergei’s head and joins him in the pool. And did any of the medical investigation ever happen? The witty story is competently filmed, capturing the absurd and comic sides of the search for Natasha.

busThe professional photographer and VGIK student Il’ia Tverdovskii showed his promising short As if Waiting for a Bus (Slovno zhdu avtobusa). A girl waits at a provincial bus stop; she is picked up by some young lads who take her to their place, where they get her drunk and then have sex with her, one after the other. What might in social drama be shown as a gang rape here happens with the girl’s consent, indeed even expectation: it is the only thing that will ever “happen” in her dull life in the provinces. The film refrains from a social diagnosis of provincial life, adopting a documentary style instead which presents the events as entirely natural and logical.

mamaIuliia Bogorad’s Boiling Point (Tochka kipeniia) deals with a couple who play a game in everyday life in order to alleviate the boredom of existence; this game takes a dramatic turn when their unborn child is involved. Anatolii Belyi here created a stunning hero, impenetrable, manipulative and caring at once, which contributed to his performance being noted by the jury with a special mention. Il’ia Kazankov’s Mom (Mama) has an original and witty story as two cadets run off from the military school to make a phone call to congratulate one of their mum’s on her birthday – and the adventure that ensues. The diagnosis of our time: boredom or discipline stifle life and force people into playing games or seeking adventures,

Migrants, Migration and Tolerance
The competition program was as eclectic as the opening film, both in styles and themes. One frequent theme encountered concerned migrant workers—a phenomenon driven by the Ministry’s funding initiative for works about tolerance. Most frequently transformed into films about the fate of migrant workers, this theme dominated at least three competition films: Yusup Razykov’s Gastarbeiter, Dmitrii Mamuliia’s Another Sky (Drugoe nebo), and Andrei Stempkovskii’s Reverse Motion (Obratnoe dvizhenie).

Gastarbeiter is a film that, in one sense, traces Razykov’s own journey from Uzbekistan (he headed Uzbekfilm) to Moscow, where he now lives and works. The film’s hero, Sadyk, makes a journey from his Uzbek village to Moscow in order to find his grandson Aman, who has gone there to earn a living. Sadyk’s journey is paid for by the local drug-boss in exchange for Sadyk acting as courier for a drug shipment. As a war veteran, he passes the border without problems, but is nevertheless unable to find his way around the capital. With the help of the prostitute Vika (Dar’ia Gorshkaleva) he manages to trace his son, and eventually finds him thanks to the sound of a little clay whistle that he himself had made and taught Aman to play. Aman has broken away from the Uzbek drug mafia, and found a Russian woman who now expects his child: he is a gastarbeiter, an illegal worker, but with a new home in Russia. Uzbekistan offers no future for him beyond the criminal activities of the drug barons, while Russia at least gives shelter, even if on the verge of legality. Realizing the impossibility to live, neither in his Uzbek village nor in Russia—Aman’s Russian wife rejects Sadyk as she fears he might pull Aman away from her—the old man has no future.

drugoe neboAnother Sky does offer a future for its hero, but at a price, and without certainties. Ali (in silence performed by Habib Boufares of Abdellatif Kechiche’s award-winning Couscous / La graine et le mulet, 2007) and his son also travel to Moscow with the purpose of finding the wife and mother, who is working in the capital to make a living. Once again, we see the dilemma of migrant workers, leaving behind their families because they are unable to support themselves in their own country; usually they send the money back home. These migrant workers live on the outskirts of a city that looks so unfamiliar that it is hard to recognize Moscow in the shots of Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev’s camera: it is a city with squalid apartments, morgues, building sites. The Moscow of the migrant worker bears no resemblance to the Moscow of the middle-class citizen, the foreign visitor, or the New Russians. While Ali searches for his wife, he loses his son in an accident: the child is literally chopped up by the industrial machines of urban, modern life, operating in lush, green fields that stand in stark contrast to the dried-up steppe where father and son had collected the carcases of starved sheep. Finding his wife, Ali appears to find himself again: in silence, they sit in the car and drive into the dark, into the distance. There is a possibility of return, suggested by the reunion of husband and wife and in the wife wiping off the signs of western lifestyle (her lipstick) before joining her husband. There is a suggestion of void, of nowhere, as their lives have irreversibly changed through the loss of their son. And there is a pointer at another life, in this world or the other, flagged up by the title.

reversemotionAndrei Stempkovskii’s Reverse Motion is a film that also leaves questions unanswered, but more to do with the difference between imagination and reality than with the path into the future. A woman receives news that her son is missing in action in Chechnya; he is presumed death, as is evidenced by one of his fellow-soldiers who visits the mother. When the mother takes in a homeless migrant boy who is injured, her son returns: but he perishes in the attempt to save the boy from the criminal world. The theme of sacrifice—for the country, for a child—defines the role of the returned son: it is through the mother’s tolerance and acceptance of the (presumably Chechen) boy that the mother seems to bring about the return of her own son; and it is through the criminal gangs at home that her son perishes. The enemy is not somewhere out there, but within. A similar theme—that of an identity crisis and failure to define or find the Self—is also manifest in several other competition films, starting with Sergei Debizhev’s The Golden Mean (Zolotoe sechenie) which follows the journey of the clip-maker Alexander to Cambodia in order to trace his roots and explore his destiny. This theme also determines the plot of Klim Shipenko’s second film, Who Am I? (Kto ia?), a much more impressive work than his debut feature The Unforgiven (Neproshchhennye), which screened at Kinotavr 2009. The film, scripted by Shipenko himself, explores through flashbacks the events leading up to the arrest of a young man who suffers from amnesia when he is picked up by police at a train station in Sevastopol. The young man (Aleksandr Iatsenko) is either playing a clever game with the police, or is the victim of some tragic events: as the viewer more and more believes the young man’s story and deplores his treatment by the police officer (Anatolii Belyi), the flashbacks reveal the events leading up to his memory loss, suggesting he was indeed the victim of a crime. Only at the film’s end is the murder of an unknown man linked to the amnesia case, but at this point it is too late: the criminal, having pretended a complete identity loss, has misled the police and got away – with murder.

liveIurii Bykov’s short The Boss (Nachal’nik)was awarded the main prize of last year’s shorts competition; this year, he presented his debut film To Live (Zhit’), in which a man is forced to assert his will to live through the destruction of the Other. Similar in its thematic concern to Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy, screened in competition despite its previous show in the Cannes competition as an entry from Ukraine (and Kinotavr is a Russian film festival!), the film makes a promising debut with its slow-moving plot and the images of a man lost in the wide and open space: the lack of borders or confinement suggest the impossibility to define oneself, and at the same time the impossibility to escape or find a way out). My Joy also tells a story about violence and destruction, yet Loznitsa traces this violence back to Soviet history in two episodes set during and immediately after the war: first, Soviet soldiers pointlessly kill the father of a dumb little boy; and second, Soviet officers rob simple Soviet soldiers, who take revenge through murder: violence generates only more violence. This is also true for the Loznitsa’s hero, Georgii, a kind, patient and honest truck-driver. He loses his way, he strays—in an analogy with the Kazakh blockbuster by Akhan Sataev, Strayed /Zabliudivshiisia, 2010, starring Andrei Merzlikin), and is beaten up by some local misfits in an open field. Apparently amnesiac and dumb, Georgii turns into an object of other people’s will. Only when he returns to the post of the traffic police where his journey went wrong in the fist place, does he awaken to reality: he shoots both perpetrators and victims of abuse. He turns into an indiscriminate murderer, one might argue. Yet Georgii annihilates both the current and potential source of violence: his killing of innocent bystanders is in fact the elimination of today’s victims and therefore tomorrow’s perpetrators of violence. Georgii himself has already had his identity effaced: he no longer has a will, personality, self. He wanders off into the dark at the film’s end. His final act leaves a black (not blank) screen: the only prospect for the films’ characters is that of the absence of a future. The road leads nowhere—even in daylight it only leads back to its beginning, just like the eternal cycle of violence—from the wartime to the present—which cannot be broken in any way that would offer a less gloomy ending than that created in the final, dark frame with Georgii dissolving in the night. 

truceTwo films continue the theme of identity crisis: Svetlana Proskurina’s Truce (Peremirie) and Anna Fenchenko’s debut film Missing Man (Propavshii bez vesti). Fenchenko’s film first screened at the Berlin forum and follows the downward spiral of a computer programmer—a man with an independent lifestyle, who is self-employed, and therefore does not fit comfortably into social structures. He is suspected of involvement in the disappearance of a neighbour’s son after delivering a letter from the young man to his mother, not realising that the boy has been missing and his family is searching for him. When the man’s house is destroyed to make way for new accommodation, he is relocated to another provincial town and thus finds himself in breach of the restriction imposed by the police, namely that he must not leave his town of residence. Without papers and without belongings, he goes “missing” in a much more profound sense than the run-away son of his neighbour. The film captured (the) man’s isolation—even within crowd—and later in the open fields and crowded shelters, through excellent camera work. Proskurina’s film, on the other hand, follows a young man in search of a future, a meaning, and a destination where he should deliver his truckload (if there is a load at all). Egor Matveev’s journey through the Russian lands is one of self-discovery, of disappointed love, of witnessing social injustices and crimes, whilst all the way he tries to be kind and helpful to others—an attitude that gets Egor nowhere, but brings him closer to his self. With a stunningly accurate and precise performance from Ivan Dobronravov and extraordinary photography from Oleg Lukichev, this film truly deserved the Main Award, which the jury—chaired by Karen Shakhnazarov—gave to the film.

act of natureThe competition included no disasters, but an unimpressive film by Anna Matizon, entitled Satisfaction (Satisfaktsiia) and starring Evgenii Grishkovets—more of a theatrical venture than a cinematic one, revealing the fact that Grishkovets is a performer rather than a screen actor and scriptwriter. A fine children’s film, The Elephant (Slon) by Vladimir Karabanov, tells a touching story in conventional settings about the fate of an aging circus elephant. Mention should also be made of the debut of Aleksandr Lungin and Sergei Osipian, Act of Nature, also exploring the soul-searching of a character, who has retreated from the city to an isolated spot in the middle of nowhere, which is shot ingeniously on a digital photo-camera—for which the film received a special award.

Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Man at the Window (Chelovek u okna) impressed primarily for the great acting of Sergei Garmash and Maria Zvonareva in a story about an elderly actor who goes through a re-awakening after meeting a young woman, Sonia, whose fiancé engages him to play-act in real life rather than on stage—and gets him into mild trouble with the authorities. The Best Actress award for Zvonareva may look surprising, but when perusing the competition program, the absence of major female parts is somewhat striking in contemporary Russian cinema, which seems to be preoccupied with the fate of men—from Egor Matveev to the Missing Man, from Sadyk to Ali, maybe with the sole exception of Ol’ga Demidova in Reverse Motion and Dar’ia Gorshkaleva in Gastarbeiter.

who am iIn an unprecedented move, a film was withdrawn from competition when the management of the Venice IFF required the withdrawal from this national festival of Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Buntings (Ovsianki)—unprecedented because in the past, films have screened in Sochi and subsequently in Venice without a problem. Fedorchenko and his producers complied with the request, and the film, now titled Silent Souls, competed in Venice where it won the FIPRESCI award. Based on Denis Osokin’s story, it tells of the funeral rites of the Merya, an extinct tribe in northern Russia, whose history and rituals are pure invention of the filmmaker, once again demonstrating his documentary beginnings, combined with a fine and subtle mockery or parody of this genre. But whether or not Fedorchenko’s film would have changed the jury verdict—that shall a mystery.

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol

MAIN PRIZE: Truce by Svetlana Proskurina
PRIZE FOR BEST DEBUT: Anna Fenchenko, Missing Man
PRIZE FOR BEST ACTRESS: Maria Zvonareva, The Man at the Window by Dmitrii Meskhiev
PRIZE FOR BEST ACTOR: Ivan Dobronravov, Truce by Svetlana Proskurina
PRIZE FOR BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roman Vasyanov, Act of Nature by Aleksandr Lungin, Sergei Osipian
GORIN PRIZE FOR THE BEST SCRIPT: Anush Vardanyan, Andrei Stempkovskii, Givi Shavgulidze, Reverse Motion by Andrei Stempkovskii
TARIVERDIEV PRIZE FOR THE BEST FILM MUSIC: Anna Muzychenko, Another Sky by Dmitrii Mamuliia
PRIZE FOR BEST SHORT: “The Cancrizans” by Nikolai Sokolov; (Diplomas): Anatolii Belyi; “It seems to be over, but it may not be” by Maksim Zykov; “Mom” by Il’ia Kazankov; “As if waiting for a bus” by Ivan Tverdovskii

My Joy by Sergey Loznitsa; Special Mention: Reverse Motion by Andrei Stempkovskii; Diploma: Another Sky by Dmitrii Mamuliia

“Bingo” by Timur Ismailov; Special Mention: “It seems to be over, but it may not be” by Maksim Zykov; Diploma: “The Last Day of Bulkin I.S.” by Aleksei Andrianov

Birgit Beumers © 2010

Comment on this article via the LJ Forum
Updated: 07 Oct 10