KinoKultura: Issue 31 (2011)

The Coma Continues: New Belarusian Cinema

By Anton Sidorenko (Minsk)

“Belarusian cinema has emerged from its coma.” Such headings have appeared in Minsk’s publications during the last year and a half. The reason for journalists’ optimism was the revival of the national film studio, Belarusfilm. From the end of 2006 to the end of 2010 it was headed by Vladimir Zametalin, a symbolic figure of Belarusian politics of the late 1990s and early 2000s; in this new post, he managed to increase the state financing for film production. Besides, in the last few years Belarusfilm has seen some long-awaited generational change: directors who were trained not at Moscow’s revered Film Institute (VGIK) during the Soviet era, but at the Belarus State Academy of Arts during the last decade and a half have been given opportunities to make their films. The most outstanding personalities here are Aleksandr Kolbyshev and Andrei Kudinenko, who came to the trade in the late 1990s, but—for various reasons—worked in Russia’s film industry. Their return to Belarusfilm has been recognized as evidence for the revival of the studio—the only one of the former Soviet studios that has not seen any serious changes since 1991.

Actually, Belarusfilm also is a synonym of Belarusian cinema: for twenty years, no private companies that could be called “independent” have emerged in Belarus; hence the absence of the profession of the producer. The producer’s functions at Belarusfilm are distributed between the director-general, the department of cinematography of the Ministry of Culture of Belarus, and the director of the relevant film. Until now there is still an artistic council at the studio, whose members—the managers of Belarusfilm, the department of cinematography, and some selected film scholars—can influence the production process of a film from the script stage to its release.

Nevertheless, the figure of the former colonel of the Soviet Army and deputy prime-minister of Belarus’ government, Vladimir Zametalin, is listed as “producer” in the credits of the new films by Aleksandr Kolbyshev and Andrei Kudinenko. The films were made during 2009–10 and represent attempts to make auteur films on the basis of historical material: one film is based on a plot common for post-Soviet space, while the other tries to come to grips with the peripetia of Belarus’s immediate history on more specific material.

People and Wolves

wolvesWritten in 1964 by the director and scriptwriter of Belarusfilm, Aleksandr Chekmenev, the story Wolves was published only in 1989 under the veil of perestroika. The author did not produce the screen version himself, having offered the script to colleagues. The brutal plot attracted Aleksandr Kolbyshev, a veteran of the Afghan war, whose 1999 diploma film was a screen version of Vasilii Shukshin’s story “I Want to Live” (Okhota zhit’) with Minsk’s son Vladimir Gostiukhin in the lead role. While awaiting a new production at Belarusfilm the director, whose full-length debut coincided with his 50th anniversary, adapted several short stories with criminal plots for Russian serials. In Wolves we therefore have the same theme of “cops and thieves,” even if the source for the plot is not entirely criminal.

The film tells about Egor Poletaev, a Russian peasant who ended up in the GULag and managed to escape from an echelon of prisoners on the way. The snow has covered the tracks near Egor’s native village, and his fellow villagers hide him, but the sly commander has guessed where the fugitive has gone. The State Security troops surround the village, and the village elder has to make a decision: to surrender his fellow countryman or lead all the women and children to the camp.

wolvesFor Belarusian cinema such a plot is not a novelty, but there is one caveat: the role of the State Security staff was usually allocated to SS officers. The theme of Stalin’s repressions was certainly a silent taboo in the recent history of Belarusfilm. Nevertheless, a number of experts had expected from new Belarusian cinema something essentially new and accused Wolves of being old-fashioned. “The film comes about twenty years late,” proclaimed skeptics, meaning that the plot and pathos of Kolbyshev’s film is typical of perestroika cinema. The director had also been expected to perform some stylistic experiment, although—trained in the spirit of realism— he has presented something like a classical drama.

The conflict in Wolves is reduced to the juxtaposition of characters: the prisoner-on-the-run (played by the Russian actor Dmitrii Ul’ianov); his fellow villagers—among them some peasant women played by Minsk’s actresses Oksana Lesnaia and Tamara Mironova should be singled out; the Elder, played by Vladimir Gostiukhin; and the captain of the State Security, played by the popular Moscow actor Andrei Panin. The severe winter conditions add the necessary psychological nuances to the film. Moreover, the director has removed most of the color scale during post-production. In fact, the film is monochrome, with a cold, blue image that highlights sharply the bright red shirt of the protagonist in the prologue and the red blood on the snow in the finale.

wolvesCritics who called Wolves out-of-date are right, at least in so far as Kolbyshev’s film did not meet the expectations of the contemporary spectator in Minsk. And this is not because of the theme of Stalinist repressions, which is really not interesting for the majority of the young audiences. Wolves is defiantly un-entertaining: it is “serious” cinema about an existential topic, characteristic for the early works of the classic of Belarusian literature, Vasil Bykau.

The thematic choice and the professional level of the film are untypical of modern Belarusian cinema that is oriented basically on the genre of adventure and comedy-melodrama. Wolves is a film with content, unlike the other recent films of Belarusfilm that feign cinematic art. The merits of Kolbyshev’s film have been noted by his colleagues. At the festival of national cinema in Brest in June 2010, Wolves was named the best Belarusian film shot in 2008–09. As a matter of fact, Wolves had simply no worthy contenders. That, unfortunately, did not help the film’s promotion or distribution, or its fate on the festival circuit: screenings at Minsk’s cinemas took place in empty halls, and the studio has not promoted the film at international forums.

Between Poland and Russia

masakraIn 2004 Andrei Kudinenko released his film Occupation. Mysteries (Okkupatsiia. Misterii), which was shown in the official program of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, but was considered too daring in his native Belarus. Two years ago the director was invited to Belarusfilm to shoot a film with any plot he fancied. His choice fell on a script by his co-scriptwriter for Occupations. Mysteries, Aleksandr Kachan: Masakra is a freakish version of a horror film about werewolves based on Prosper Mérimée’s short story “Lokis.” The action of this story takes place in the middle of 19th century on Belarus’ ethnic grounds of the Russian Empire. It deals with a young aristocrat, who at night turns into a bear. The imagination of scriptwriter Aleksandr Kachan has gone much further than the story of the count-turned-werewolf. Count Pazurkevich, on whose estate various visitors gather, is an exemplary aristocrat and patriot, who refuses to admit to being Polish or Russian.

“Between Poland and Russia” is a phrase often used to define the geographical and cultural position of Belarus as a nation, which emphasizes the absence of a precise identity. In many respects, this is linked to the fact that for a long time Belarusians did not claim the historical heritage of the Great Duchy of Lithuania and Rzecz Pospolita. The emergence of the sovereign state and recent research has stimulated the interest of Belarusians in their native history and their national roots. The gradual understanding of the nation as a full-fledged European nation is reflected in Kudinenko’s film. The action occurs in the years following the bloody suppression of the 1830–31 revolt against the Russian tsar on Belarusian, Polish and Lithuanian soil.

masakraIn this sense, Masakra is an original, auteur manifesto, claiming a new cultural-historical myth through a genre film. The film’s title is borrowed from European languages, where “massacre” means bloodshed, destruction, slaughter. Actually, the entire plot leads to the final annihilation of the visitors gathered at Count Pazurkevich’s manor. Among them are both the local nobility and Russian noblemen, who have come to the lands of the former Rzecz Pospolita after its annexation by the Russian Empire. One of the protagonists—the adventurer Nikolai Kazantsev, who has stopped at Pazurkevich’s manor on the way to Italy where he heads to earn money—has been employed by the Count to catalogue his library. In passing, Kazantsev tries to court the Count’s fiancée, Anna. Of interest is also another parallel line of action linked to the rural priest who turns out to be one of the insurgents who escaped punishment. The priest calls on his Belarusian parishioners to rise against the aggressors, and in the film’s epilogue he joins Garibaldi’s troops in Italy.

The film abounds with disjointed episodes and muffled directing, which hinder the development of the ideas incorporated in the script. Curiously, at Kinoshok Festival in Anapa in September 2010, where Masakra was presented in the competition program and opened the program “Focus on Belarus,” Russian critics apprehended the film as a paraphrase of Valerii Rubinchik’s Wild Hunt of King Stakh (Dikaia okhota korolia Stakha, 1979), based on the detective novel of the same title by the popular Belarusian 20th-century writer Vladimir Korotkevich. Besides similarities in plot details (the ancient manor and its strange owners; the detective plot), the two films share an adventure plot that covers the attempt to create a national myth.

masakraIndeed, the genre of Masakra has been defined as “bulba-horror”, i.e. a specifically Belarusian genre (hence the word bulba, which means potato in Belarusian), which for the Russian-speaking audience in the countries of the former USSR is associated with Belarus. Nevertheless, Masakra is a “domestic” product, which may be appreciated only by the local viewer, or tuteishy, to use a term coined by the classic of Belarus literature, Yanka Kupala, at the beginning of the 20th century to designate the denationalized inhabitants from the Belarus province of the former Russian Empire. The plot is woven from a multitude of citations and reminiscences, not only from Belarusian, but also Russian classical literature. The Belarusian conceptualist artist Artur Klinov debuted in Masakra as production designer, transposing his art objects onto the screen, where they form walls and arches tightly wrapped in straw. The walls of Count Pazurkevich’s estate are decorated with copies of the portraits of the Princes of Radzivillov, which are well-known in Belarus.

Andrei Kudinenko has tried to emulate the style of Occupations. Mysteries, mixing serious dramatic moments with unprecedented (certainly in state-funded cinema), comic steb. However, in many places such a mix looks strained and does not produce the desired effect. In actual fact, Masakra is a semantic “bubble”, which neither equips the spectator with new historical knowledge nor entertains him. The muffled performance of the Russian and Belarusian actors (the project was originally a joint venture) only adds to the general bewilderment.

The film was the first project of Belarusfilm created according to the law of modern advertising. The personality of the authors, who were until recently considered “unreliable” in Belarus, helped without a doubt: many publications appeared during the shooting and the premiere, and there was even a small success in the film’s distribution in Minsk’s cinemas: per copy that has been released, the box office during the first month was greater for Masakra than for Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus (Utomlennye solntsem 2: Predstoianie). Nevertheless, both Wolves and Masakra have become only local successes of a cinema which cannot overcome its decline.

Anton Sidorenko

Wolves, 2009
105 minutes, 35 mm, Russian
Production: National Film Studio Belarusfilm
Script: Aleksandr Chekmenev, Aleksandr Kolbyshev
Director:  Aleksandr Kolbyshev
DoP: Pavel Zubritskii
Production Design: Anton Gvozdikov, Igor Khrutskii
Composer:  Oleg Fedoseev
Cast: Dmitrii Ul’ianov, Andrei Panin, Kolia Spiridonov, Vladimir Gostiukhin, Tamara Mironova, Sergei Vlasov, Oksana Lesnaia, Galina Kukhalskaia, Daria Baranova, Svetlana Nikiforova, Zinaida Zubkova, Diana Zaprudskaia, Nikolai Riabychin, Sergei Beliakovich, Viacheslav Pavliut, Anatolii Terpitskii

Masakra, 2010
100 minutes,
Script: Aleksandr Kachan
Director: Andrei Kudinenko
DoP: Pavel Zubritskii
Production Design: Artur Klinov
Cast: Dmitrii Miller, Andrei Nazimov, Mariia Kurdenevich, Aleksandr Kolbyshev, Oksana Lesnaia, Elena Odintsova, Polina Syrkina, Viacheslav Pavliut

Anton Sidorenko © 2011

Comment on this article on Facebook
Updated: 12 Jan 11