Issue 33 (2011)

Aleksandr Mindadze: Innocent Saturday (V subbotu, 2010)

reviewed by Barbara Wurm © 2011

subbotaThe zone might be considered a genuinely Soviet topos. It is frequently characterized by the fact that the people who live there cannot leave, but they are constantly thinking about leaving. The necessity of getting out, then, depends on rather fragile human dispositions and actual circumstances. While late and post-Soviet filmmaking seems full of zone-films, Aleksandr Mindadze, with only two films as director (but numerous others as screenwriter), has established himself as creator of yet another zone experience. His heroes might wish to get out, but do not really want to and rather demonstrate a strong (but eventually pondering) will to find the decisive demarcation lines in the zone. Struck by a catastrophic event, they set out to rescue the zone, but gradually end up desperately trying to understand who is “us” and who is “them.” In general, they fail. Themselves struck by a traumatic experience, their disability to identify others now corresponds to a total collapse of self-identification. They are sucked up by the maelstrom of an environment that has become the system (and vice versa). They live in a world of simulation and metamorphosis: what differs from life among X-men is not only the lack of fancy designer costumes and fantastic qualities, but the fact that you won’t end up knowing who and where you are—on this side or the other.

subbotaThis kind of plot structure was the model underlying Mindadze’s debut film Soar (Otryv, 2007) and it also defines Innocent Saturday, premiered in the 2011 Berlinale competition. Only a handful of people seemed to really take notice of it (apart from the strange coincidence of the film’s opening and the Fukushima events) and the general question seemed to be, why on earth it had taken Russian cinema so long to finally produce a film “about Chernobyl.” And, on the other hand, why (if the reason for this film was the 25th anniversary of the nuclear disaster) did it have to be a film that adds nothing new in terms of facts and figures, but a film that, on the level of fiction, seems to give away a multitude of options, restricting itself in every way—be it in time (the day after the explosion), in space (Pripiat’, the workers’ dormitory town), or in perspectives, with Oleg Mutu’s hand camera functioning as a perfect companion to the main character, Valerii Kabysh (Anton Shagin), whose perception of the events (including non-events) is all there is.

This young, determined man, a former music band player now carrying the Party membership book as instructor from the City Committee, is raveling his way through the aftermath of the explosion. In a very literal sense his fierce, wild, and hysterical search for the truth among officials and representatives, and later his desperate attempt to warn the people around him and to get away with his beloved Vera, is interrupted and retained at every turn, once again literally with every step he takes and every move he makes. Very soon, he “gives in,” participating in the flourishing life on this innocent Saturday in April 1986. His up-boosting energy level becomes the main resource for a monstrous wedding party, as he hits the drums and delivers booze, tumbles and falls, eyes wide shut.

subbotaIt is the conflict of these two speeds—the full-frontal mode on the one hand and the constant deadlock on the other (producing seemingly endless minutes and finally hours of hesitation, indecision and thus “wasted” time) that structures Valerii’s, the others’ and our experience. In Deleuzian terms one might speak of Mindadze’s master stroke to bring together the crisis of movement image and time image within one filmic framing. Trauma, he seems to tell us, allows for nothing more and for nothing less: from shaken and stirred-up mindless and purely perceptional conditions to the sheer incomprehensibility of non-agency (a kind of perception-action and action-reaction block). If critics have referred to the fact that some characters in Innocent Saturday “make little sense” or that after a furious start, the script takes a “suicidal dive into ennui” (Young), a profound misunderstanding is taking place here. To a certain extent this misunderstanding is due to cultural differences – and I am not hinting here at the inexplicability of some kind of “Russianness” or at mentalities beyond “Western” comprehension: what might be the “Russian issues” here is the fact that Mindadze uses the discourse level for distraction and irritation only and delegates the “message” completely to the language(s) of cinema. He trusts in camera perspectives and shot scale (there is hardly anything else in Innocent Saturday than extreme close-ups and a few, occasional, long shots of the fuming plant) and he has an extraordinary leading actor whose pulse can be felt not only in his own but also in our eardrums. A permanent daze.

subbotaDuring the press-conference in Berlin the director stated that Innocent Saturday was not about the Chernobyl accident or its history, but about life during moments of mortal danger. A life in agony, one could add, with the stress on the word “life.” Thus, the only thing that makes ‘little sense’ in this invisibly intoxicated environment (and system) is that life goes on. This is the incomprehensibility this film is about. Vitality and lethality are the two inseparable forces within the zone. There is no way out of this existential double bind. A child will be born out of mother’s womb which is already radiated. The woman and her husband know about this, but they don’t want, or rather, don’t need to know. It doesn’t make a difference for their life. Their life takes place in a mortal zone. And this zone, as we all know, has rather permeable borders. The actual meltdown equals the frantic and, at the same time, paradoxically calm countdown within this horrifying circle of life and death.

subbotaJudging from the few “serious” verbal reactions of the characters, including Vera (“faith” and somehow part of V(al)era), whose main interest during the first attempt to run away and catch the train is the choice of a new pair of shoes, it becomes quite clear that the problem is not the invisibility of radiation or the fact that people (even in late Soviet times) were totally unaware of the threat of nuclear power. No. They act as they act despite their knowledge. Nobody , including Mindadze, would deny that these people are the victims of a system trying to survive by letting its people die. Like in Soar, this film talks about the relationship between the state and the individual, but Innocent Saturday clearly shows that even the most knowledgeable, responsible and maybe even empowered individuals have no chance of real agency. Their decision-making is postponed, or rather restricted, to questions of everyday and personal life. For Valera, who is honestly shocked by Vera’s shoe-shopping interest in a moment when the life of thousands is at stake, all of the sudden his relationship with this woman he has returned to, but who ends up in the arms of another man, becomes important. This woman and the people connected to her, the members of his former band become the touch-stones of his life now. Whereas the others had chosen to continue an alternative way of life, Valera had become a Party member. Does this make him more responsible for what happened? Has he become part of the problem? Is he running the game in which an ordinary day off in the life of the Pripiat’ workers has become the nominal reason for not stopping the weekly routine and immediately evacuating the entire zone?

subbotaHe will never know. All he knows and all he experiences is an extreme estrangement not only towards the representatives of his government and Party but especially towards the people he once loved. All he wants to do is try to understand what it means when they care about brands and colors, beer and vodka, dancing and rubles only; when they hug him and suddenly beat him; or when he suddenly beats the guts out of them; and, finally, when they let him know that they have “their own reactor” going off constantly. His moaning and singing, his exhausted breathing into the microphone, his helpless attempt in drowning the strontium by drinking an overdose of alcohol, his somehow deliberate physical breakdown and psychodelic vital-death-trip, his letting another train go and returning to the party, his defeatist roaring of stupid rhymes (“not even one thousand roentgen can stop a Russian prick”), his desperate cramping and clinging to others’ bodies—all this stands for his last strive to become one of them (“us”) or, at least, to understand who he belongs to.

The real drama is that he fails even in the end, when the band finally wakes up after the party night and lies on top of a coach taking the whole group to the scene of horror. They drive past the destroyed reactor, an emblematic allegory for the permanent purgatory they are doomed to live in.

Barbara Wurm

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Works Cited

Deborah Young, “The Chernobyl nuclear disaster plays front and center in Alexander Mindadze’s film, in competition at Berlin, but some of the characters’ reactions make little sense,” The Hollywood Reporter, 14 February 2011

Innocent Saturday, Russia, 2011
99 minutes, color
Director: Aleksandr Mindadze
Screenwriter: Aleksandr Mindadze
Director of Photography: Oleg Mutu
Production Designer: Denis Bauer
Costumes: Irina Grazhdankina, Ekaterina Khimicheva
Music: Mikhail Kovalev
Editors: Dasha Danilova, Ivan Lebedev
Cast: Anton Shagin, Svetlana Smirnova-Martsinkevich, Stanislav Riadinskii, Vasilii Guzov, Aleksei Demidov, Viacheslav Petkun, Sergei Gromov, Ul’iana Fomicheva, Aleksei Shliamin, Aleksei Galushko, Georgii Volynskii
Producers: Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Sergei Melkumov, Matthias Esche, Philipp Kreuzer, Aleksandr Mindadze, Dmitrii Efremov, Oleg Kohan
Production: Non-Stop Production, Bavaria Pictures, Passenger Film, Sota Cinema Group in association with Arte, MDR

Aleksandr Mindadze: Innocent Saturday (V subbotu, 2010)

reviewed by Barbara Wurm © 2011

Updated: 08 Jul 11