Issue 31 (2011)

Iurii Shiller: Sparrow (Vorobei, 2010)

reviewed by José Alaniz © 2011

shillerOne might be forgiven for thinking the Russian entry in the 32nd Moscow International Film Festival an odd choice for the honor. By most accounts, it was a “little film,” what in the US used to be called a “sleeper”: made on a small budget, set in a sleepy rural village, featuring no major stars, about a “local” subject unlikely to stir the interest of most mainstream, sensation-seeking, “event-picture” audiences. It also has a naïve, even retrograde quality akin to Village Prose literature, repellent to urban art house film crowds. Finally, its director—little-known despite a thirty-year career making documentaries [1] —has a greater interest in dignified portrayals of the “eternal Russian” hinterlands than in sharp dialogue, innovative dramatic structure, psychologically complex characterizations or “ripped from the headlines” topicality. Indeed, as he told an interviewer, he “could have shot this film five or ten years ago” (Sazonov). 

For the most part Sparrow does not rise above such perceived “sins” of modern-day filmmaking, and it certainly stood little chance of winning any major awards at MIFF. One journalist summed up the situation: “Unfortunately, films of this kind are not very attractive to movie distributors, so they rarely make it to the big screen and most often get shown on television” (Gasumova). Yet director Iurii Shiller’s image of the contemporary Russian countryside – out of step with most citygoers’ preconceptions—nonetheless serves a useful function: as a barometer of what has and has not changed there in the decades since communism.

Equipocalypse Now
Filmed in and around the villages of Sergino and Babushi in the Perm region, Sparrow tells the simple story of ordinary country people beset by economic forces they cannot control, which threaten to alter forever their way of life. In fact, one could read the film as a sort of reverse Earth (Zemlia, Alexander Dovzhenko, USSR, 1930): rather than welcome “progress,” the proletariat grumbles and resists (meekly) as it destroys age-old traditions. And while the elderly in Dovzhenko’s work are the most resistant to the machine and the young the most eager to embrace it, in Shiller’s melodrama it is the greenest among them, a nine-year old boy, who stands (literally) in the way of neoliberal change. The site of contention in both works: the natural world.

sparrowThe residents of Vasil’evka are confronted with a painful choice by their local state farm (sovkhoz) director (played by Aleksandr Naumov): their farm has run out of money to pay salaries; in order to raise funds he proposes they sell a herd of wild horses that has lived near (and to some degree in) the town longer than anyone can remember. Despite the vigorous protests of three generations of Vorob’evs (the family who has always cared for the animals), the townspeople soon choose their livelihoods over the horses. In the end, only one dissenter remains: the pre-teen Mitia Vorob’ev (Dmitrii Babushkin), nicknamed “Sparrow” (vorobei), who blocks the way of two heavy trucks loaded with horses bound for the knacker’s. Unlike the adults, Sparrow refuses any compromise—enforcing his position with a rifle aimed squarely at the director’s head.

Yet this synopsis, some version of which graces most reviews, only covers a small portion of Sparrow’srunning time; in fact, the described plot only starts to really unfurl about 50 minutes in. For almost the first hour, Shiller is concerned primarily with depicting his subject in long documentary-like sequences of village life, the forests and rivers with which it is closely tied, and the roving herd of horses itself. We learn of the town’s background and the herd’s mysterious origins through voice-overs intoned by Mitia’s grandfather (Sergei Reushenko), who writes local history in his modest room (decorated with a portrait of Marshall Zhukov) so that “some memory will remain.” (The film’s naturalism is further enhanced through long shots showing the villager’s interactions; a sparse soundtrack; and the use of real locations, non-professional actors and improvised dialogue.)

sparrowThese heartfelt sections, though “realistic,” at times grow tedious: for example, when Sparrow philosophizes on and on to his grandfather about the nature of the cosmos (in this movie, it is the adults who learn from children); at such moments the young, improvising Babushkin, a pupil at a Sergino elementary school, clearly struggles to come up with something to say, and appears desperate for the director to yell “Cut!”[2]. The movie also suffers from some overly-obvious mise-en-scène, as when Mitia’s father first discusses the sale of the horses and grandfather falls ill with a “heart ailment”; in a movie filled with brightly sun-lit daytime scenes,[3] this is the only sequence that happens at night. Throughout, Shiller makes plain his affection for the wisdom of country people, the fundamental goodness of those who dwell in what he calls, without irony, the glubinka (hinterlands, backwater, the sticks).

This approach, predictably, has its critics, who accuse Shiller in his documentaries and in Sparrow of presenting an idealized, ahistorical, semi-kliukva version of rural Russia. Indeed, Vasil’evka seems decidedly Soviet (culturemes such as stores called “Magazin” and Mitia jokingly called “Miklukho-Maklai”[4] after he’s briefly lost in the woods); temperate (no drunks); chaste (Mitia’s father tapping his mother on the buttocks is all we get of any make-up sex they might be having after a fight); well-mannered (everyone mostly gets along, even Mitia and the young daughter of the sovkhoz director); and in comfortable co-existence with nature—until outside forces encroach. This is, in short, no Starukhi (dir. Gennadii Sidorov, 2003) or 4 (dir. Il’ia Khrzhanovskii, 2005).

Shiller has long rebuffed such attacks. Comparing himself to a much better-known Russian documentarian, he angrily told the journalist Vladimir Igoshin: 

I myself have come to the conclusion that it’s purely from ideological motives when they say about me that I depict a pastoral Russia, while the director Sergei Loznitsa showed a completely different Russia and got a prize for it at Cannes. Some have even called me the “anti-Loznitsa.” But I know another Russian countryside, I’ve been filming it already for 30 years. I know that people drink in the countryside, but they drank before, too. It comes down to this: if all you want is to portray a mentally deficient, drunken, absolutely worthless Russia, you’ll never convince anyone of anything with your films. It just means you’re unhappy about something, you’re struggling with something. In that case, build up some barricades, go to Parliament, shout, elect a president – these are concrete actions. But nothing will change from you showing two or three alkies in the countryside. And it won’t provoke any change in the viewer either. The viewer will just think that the world is so ugly and brutal, that maybe it’s not worth living in …

All the same, the charge of Socialist Realism lite does, to some extent, stick; as one reviewer pointed out, the film’s deus ex machina ending spares the horses (hardly a “spoiler alert”) but leaves Vasil’evka’s still-impending economic doom unresolved and unaddressed. Sparrow’s best moments come when its rustic characters express their bewilderment at the senseless changes wrought upon a world they had taken to be timeless: “I never thought I would die in a different country,” says grandfather. “I can’t understand all this confusion.” In response to the cultural shell-shock of the last twenty years, the town’s young hero can only respond (in one of the film’s many awkward astronomical metaphors), “We don’t have a black hole.”

Horse Beatitudes
sparrowSparrow joins a long line of Russian “horse films”—the dead horse on the bridge in October (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1928); the long-banned The Commissar (Komissar dir. Aleksandr Askol’dov, 1967); much of Andrei Tarkovskii’s output—and furthers a broader trend of cinematic animal depictions which has accelerated in the post-Soviet era, e.g., Passions (Uvlechen’ia, dir. Kira Muratova, 1994); The Mother Wolf of Vesegonsk (Ves’egonskaia volchitsa, dir. Nikolai Solovtsov, 2004). Furthermore, as argued by Arja Rosenholm, horse imagery belongs to a very old, pre-cinematic Russian tradition often tied to gendered notions of masculine striving: “[T]he horse is a marker of the status gained by a male hero moving ‘outward’ to a public position and the successful domination of his (feminized) nature, toward a culture beyond domesticity, women, and the body” (Rosenholm 181). Indeed, she concludes, “Hero-horse imagery is an essential element of the cultural narrative that shows the mythical Cossack warrior’s transformation into a Soviet hero” (Rosenholm 183).[5]

This is clearly the tradition that Shiller taps for his maudlin depiction of a Russian nature beset by powers it cannot best on the battlefield (on horseback), and why he turns to a pre-pubescent boy as his fantasy deliverer: Mitia, pure at heart, has not been corrupted by post-Soviet excesses and “confusion” like his parent generation. He is too young to have been “feminized”; quite viscerally and naturally, without speaking a word to anyone about his plan, he aims the most effective method of persuasion at his enemies: the barrel of a gun. Not unlike Danila Bagrov from Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother series, Mitia is both innocently child-like and remorselessly efficient against Russia’s ruiners. (One of the truck drivers even guffaws, “What action movies have you been watching?”)

sparrowBut Sparrow’s climax is even more pointed than this. Its most chilling shot sequence, in fact, shows a close-up of Mitya aiming his rifle directly at the camera, a look of pitiless determination on his face. Is this Shiller’s response to his city-dwelling critics, who in his estimation know nothing of the glubinka they deride? Or is Mitia’s weapon trained on the audiences who will never see his paean to the “real” Russia, choosing instead the latest mainstream entertainment or Hollywood blockbuster? Should the film have been retitled The Vasil’evka Shooter? [6]

Such troubling notions aside, it is in Shiller’s treatment of the horse (and of the natural world in general) that my chief interest in Sparrow lies, as his filmic construction of human-animal hybrids through montage and other devices very much reflects the aforementioned Russian literary-cinematic tendency to turn to animals as a safe haven from sociocultural disaster.[7] Shiller’s nature, in contrast to society, is unchanging: the long sequences which comprise whole stretches of the film, depicting the horse herd as it slowly traverses open fields in the distance, kicking up clouds of dust, act not as breaks to dramatic action, nor to underscore the passage of time, but almost as (plotless) mini-films in their own right. In this they share much with the long shots of the mysterious planet Solaris which punctuate the humans’ actions in Solaris (dir. Andrei Tarkovskii, 1972). As Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie described them in their study of Tarkovsky, these shots “have nothing to do with establishing time; rather they create a sense of pervasive strangeness and unease” (Johnson and Petrie, 109-110).[8]

In other words, the horses are depicted ostensibly as a pure force of nature: they have no names (no Seabiscuit or Black Beauty for Mitia), often appear from afar and seem to regard even the humans who maintain them with utter dispassion. (One horse who wanders up to Mitia’s classroom window only stares dumbly, as if it can’t see through the glass.) To me these animals share the “alien” quality of the buffalo herds depicted in Bill Viola’s experimental documentary I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (USA, 1986); they are loved by the Vorob’evs the way mountains are loved—at a remove. You can’t hug mountains. 
sparrowAnd yet, for all their ineluctable otherness, at key moments animals come to mimic, echo and otherwise overlap with the humans—crucially, through editing. When the sovkhoz director’s daughter Liuska (Olesia Shablova) starts to sing, Shiller cuts immediately to birdsong in the next scene, a sort of aural overlay that blends the two.[9] When some young bullies torture a pregnant dog, birds of prey hover ominously overhead in cut-aways. (These inserts of foul fowl, in fact, appear several times during tense scenes, including the climax, constituting Shiller’s most hackneyed cliché.) Finally, Mitia is repeatedly likened to – even “incarnated” by—a lone colt. This four-legged youngster appears always in separate cut-aways sutured in, running aimlessly in a field in long shot when Mitia momentarily loses his way in the woods. It reappears, rushing to the site of the stand-off as Mitia holds up the trucks with his rifle, then stands and stares (just as fixedly as the boy) at the offscreen action.

What to make of these odd montage amalgamations of humans and beasts? How can the horses both ignore and mirror the townspeople’s behavior? At the very least, Shiller’s editing strategy in these sequences forces a consideration of the polysemantic essence of the animal figure: the horses are marked, among other things, as resource (passively subject to economic contingency), as avatars of the townspeople’s better selves, as harbingers of apocalypse, as undiluted nature and as symbols of “eternal Russia.” Herein—its plasticity—lies much of the appeal and power of the animal signifier. 
All the same, Sparrow (as Shiller insists in his press for the film) is also about a real environment under real attack, a point underscored by repeated long shots of trains and highways cutting through the countryside, splitting it in twain. Intriguing how—in this age of Russian megafires and smog blotting out the summer skies—even the most overused imagery of nature in crisis retains a sharp poignancy. 

José Alaniz
University of Washington, Seattle

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1] Iurii Shiller was born in Okha, Sakhalin and graduated from the Film Institute VGIK (workshop of Grigorii Chukhrai) in 1970. He released his first documentary film The Fishermen (Rybaki) in 1970, and made his feature film debut with An Unusual Day (Neobychnyi den’) in 1971. Since 1975 he has worked with the studio Novosibirsk Telefilm and the West-Siberian Documentary Studio, where he directed more than 50 documentaries, many set in the Russian countryside.

2] Babushkin’s acting became the subject of mockery in some of the negative reviews. To wit: “The boy tries so hard to be naturalistic that you just want to give him some candy and take him out of the picture” (Strelkov).

3] Possibly due to being originally shot on digital video and transferred to film, Sparrow’s cinematography contains overexposed “hot zones” in several sections, further adding to its documentary feel.

4] Nikolai Miklukho-Maklai (1846-1888), Ukrainian-German-Polish biologist, ethnologist and anthropologist respected by the Soviets.

5] David Bethea, moreover, traces the horse’s apocalyptic connotations in Russian culture as far back as a standard used by Ivan the Terrible that depicts Jesus astride a stallion as he judges the living and the dead (111), clearly a variation on the Four Horsemen of Revelations.

6] A (weak) attempt at a pun on The Voroshilov Shooter (Voroshilovskii strelok, dir. Stanislav Govorukhin, 1999), a reactionary work about a retired Red Army sniper who takes his revenge, “Dirty Harry”-like, on young post-Soviet louts whom he blames for ruining the country (as well as raping his granddaughter). 

7] For more on this post-Soviet trend, see especially Alaniz and Gesine Drew-Sylla in Costlow and Nelson.

8] Shiller owes more to Tarkovskii than just these interludes; some of his water photography, with plants undulating beneath the surface, starkly recall Solaris and other films by the older director.

9] We can compare the effect to Hitchcock putting a train whistle from the next scene into a woman’s mouth as she screams in The 39 Steps (UK, 1935), a famous example of the sound-ahead cut.

Works Cited

Bethea, David M. “Remarks on the Horse as a Space-Time Image from the Golden to Silver Ages of Russian Literature” in Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism: From the Golden Age to the Silver Age, ed. Boris Gasparov et al., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992: pp. 109-127. 

Gasumova, Irada. “‘Vorobei’ iz Sergino.” Novyi Kompan’on, 15 September 2009.

Igoshin, Vladimir. “Iurii Shiller: ‘Fil’m o p’ianoi, debil’noi derevne mozhet dovesti zritelia do suitsida!’”, Komsomol’skaia Pravda 13 June 2010.
Johnson, Vida and Graham Petrie, A Visual Fugue: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994.

Kartsev, Nikita, “‘Vorobei’ v kuriatnike,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 23 June 2010.

Rosenholm, Arja, “Of Men and Horses: Animal Imagery and the Construction of Russian Masculinities” in Other Animals: Beyond the Human in Russian Culture and History, ed. Jane Costlow and Amy Nelson, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010, pp. 178-197.

Sazonov, Anton, “V kino mnogo fal’sifikatsii,”  Sol, 24 June 2010. 

Strelkov, Aleksandr. “Ptichku ne zhalko.” Vedomosti 24 June 2010.

Sparrow, Russia, 2010
Color, 90 minutes
Director and scriptwriter: Iurii Shiller
DoP: Oleg Martynov
Production Design: Vladimir Filippov
Composer: Boris Bazurov
Sound: Evgenii Kadimskii
Cast: Denis Babushkin, Sergei Reusenko, Sergei Ugriumov, Kseniia Babushkina, Iurii Nazarov, Vikotr Borisov, Elena Shkurpelo, Aleksandr Naumov, Aleksandr Kazakov, Viktor Suprun, Egor Kleimenov.
Producer: Aleksandr Gundorov
Production: Center-Studio of National Cinema XXI Century with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Iurii Shiller: Sparrow (Vorobei, 2010)

reviewed by José Alaniz © 2011

Updated: 12 Jan 11