KinoKultura: Issue 65 (2019)

Kinotavr Turns Thirty: Surprises, Growing Pains, and Adulteries

By Daria V. Ezerova, Columbia University

This summer of 2019, Kinotavr celebrated its 30th birthday—“a solid term, the age of genuine maturation,” as the festival’s President Aleksandr Rodnianskii put it in his introduction to the festival catalog. The anniversary inevitably meant that the festival, already Russia’s most prominent film event, garnered even more attention, larger audiences, and more heated debates. The festival received a total of 75 submissions, with an astounding two-thirds representing independent projects made without state funding. Fifteen films made it to the main competition, six of them directorial debuts, and seven made by women directors. With such an unusually diverse selection, thematic variety was to be expected. And yet, within the first few days of the festival, the dominant topic emerged—Kinotavr was going to focus on adultery and, in part, gender relationships. “A trivial topic” (melkotem’e), whispered someone sitting behind me, after the screen at the Winter Theater showed yet another scene of infidelity. “Adul’tavr,” responded their companion snarkily. And yet, many critics and cinematographers pondered whether focusing on adultery had something more to it than an opportunity to insert a gratuitous sex scene. What are the repercussions: social, political, personal? And, of course, how does gender figure into it?

OdessaThe film of the opening gala, Valerii Todorovskii’s Odessa, introduced a discussion of the topic. Featuring a star-studded cast, the film focuses on a Jewish family living in Odessa in the summer of 1970, when the city was put under quarantine due to a cholera outbreak. It is under these conditions that the film’s many storylines interlace. Mira (Evgeniia Brik) and her husband announce that they want to immigrate to Israel, which infuriates her father (Leonid Iarmolnik), who dramatically decides to report his daughter to the KGB. The elder daughter (Kseniia Rappaport), resentful of her younger enterprising sister, struggles with her drinking husband and teenage daughter. Finally, the son-in-law Boris (Evgenii Tsyganov) gets enamored with the neighbor’s daughter Ira (Veronika Ustinova), who’s barely seventeen. It is the latter, of course, that becomes the dominant narrative line in the film, leading Todorovskii to refer to the forbidden affair as а “feast in the time of plague” (Press Conference). The film’s biggest achievement, however, lies in Todorovskii’s exquisite portrayal of the Odessa of his childhood. Ironically, not a single scene was shot in Odessa, which did not hinder the film’s verisimilitude. Considering the image of Odessa in Russian culture, it is notable that Todorovskii opts out of the cheery and somewhat campy aesthetics of his earlier works such as Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2009) and The Thaw (Ottepel’, TV serial, 2013). Similarly, he avoids the many cultural associations and clichés linked with the city: there is almost none of the celebrated Odessa humor that was amply used in Sergei Ursuliak’s hit series Liquidation (Likvidatsiia, 2007), no Leonid Utesov songs, no quotes from Isaac Babel. What emerges instead is a deeply personal portrayal of Odessa in the 70s, in which discrete plotlines are secondary to the impressionistic memory of the city in the summer when “everyone went a little crazy” (Press Conference). What happens to Irina, Boris, and Boris’s wife is for the viewers to guess.

“Little princess, it’s time to go home”: Family Values

trinity sunday The festival’s main competition started with Yang Ge’s Trinity Sunday (Troitsa). Born and raised in Beijing, Yang Ge studied at the Film Institute VGIK under the mentorship of Sergei Solov’ev and has been working at the Gogol Center since 2010. Shot in fifteen days, with no second takes, Trinity is her second film and focuses on a love triangle: Margo (played by Yang Ge herself) confesses to her deeply religious husband George (Andrei Kurganov) that she has been having an affair with her student, Anton (Georgii Blikstein). The film intends to explore Margo’s interiority and her path toward religion: in the director’s words, it is above all “about a way to God” (Press Conference). With such a straightforward agenda, the film became the first in a group to promote the idea of preserving the family—no matter what, and resolve the tensions of the adultery plot in terms of old-fashioned family values.

The sound and dubbing are arguably the film’s most noticeable features: Trinity Sunday was shot in English and dubbed into Russian for the festival screening. This decision was met with critical backlash claiming that the dubbing made the speech artificial and choppy. Yang Ge defended her position by arguing that the dubbing contributed to a kind of diversity she wanted to showcase in her film: “Yes, the film takes place in Moscow, but these people aren’t Russian. They are all of different nationalities, and there was no point in shooting the film in Russian” (Press Conference). Although this take on diversity is somewhat facile, it engages the subject of race as well: Margo is Asian, her husband is white, and her lover is black. Among the film’s stronger scenes is the opening: Trinity Sunday begins with an extreme close-up of two naked bodies in soft, warm light. As the bodies begin to move, the camera cuts to a panorama of rubble. The cuts between the subdued sex scene and an image of scattered stones create an arresting textural contrast and anticipate the film’s theme: the heroine’s infidelity destroys her family and nearly kills her husband with grief. The narrative of Margo’s infidelity ruining her marriage is given a deterministic quality by a repeated motif: in moments of high emotional tension, or when the heroine makes some consequential choice, the film cuts to an image of three women playing mahjong. As Yang Ge remarked, this is not only an homage to her cultural heritage, but also a reference to the three goddesses of fate. Despite several interesting artistic decisions, the film’s conservatism is explicit: despairing over the momentary disappearance of her husband, Margo falls to her knees in passionate prayer and runs to the church to find her husband waiting for her there—a testament to her mother’s admonition, “Little Princess, it’s time to go home.”

trubchevskThe theme of preserving the family at all cost is equally central to Larisa Sadilova’s Once Upon a Time in Trubchevsk (Odnazhdy v Trubchevske). As the title suggests, the film takes place in the small town of Trubchevsk, near Bryansk, and centers on an affair between two married people, Egor (Egor Barinov) and Anna (Kristina Shneider). They leave their families, in which they no longer feel happy, and run away together to live in an idyllic Russian izba—only to return to their families shortly after. Using on-screen dialogue sparingly, the film affords its viewers some license to interpret the images that pass before them. However, this poetic quality notwithstanding, the film’s traditionalist message is again readily apparent and was confirmed during the press conference.

Trubchevsk emerges in the film as an image of idealistic “true Russianness.” The film opens with a panorama of a rural landscape reminiscent of the paintings of Isaak Levitan and Arkhip Kuindzhi, with a customary Russian church in the foreground. This mode is sustained throughout the film, where the representation of Russian provinces borders on cliché—the izba that becomes the sanctuary of the illicit lovers appears to have been taken from a lubok miniature, an image so naïve as to be unrealistic. The ending of the film, however, provides a sense of ambiguity that could have salvaged the film from its disconcerting conservatism. After the protagonists return to their spouses, the viewers see both families participating in a celebration of the anniversary of the town’s liberation from the Nazis. The celebration, as it often happens, takes the form of a historical reenactment complete with period uniforms and costumes, patriotic songs, and field kitchens. The setting—emphatically artificial, a simulation—allows for a reading in which the return of the protagonists may be construed as disingenuous and temporary, challenging the film’s apparent insistence on traditional values. And yet, when asked about her film’s finale, Sadilova dismissed this interpretation, confirming the ideological persuasion of Once Upon a Time in Trubchevsk: “Yes, there’s ideology in the film […] I’m all for socialist realism and socialism in general” (Press Conference). Opening to the sound of church bells and ending with a pageant to the Second World War, Once Upon a Time in Trubchevsk becomes a film that promotes a patriarchal familial image most explicitly.

vyshe nebaThe theme of adultery lurking within a bucolic landscape is similarly explored in Oksana Karas’s High Above (Vyshe neba). An affluent family with two teenage girls arrives at a sanatorium in July. One of the girls’ friends, the sultry Rita (Daria Zhovner), immediately becomes the center of everyone’s attention, in particular the father’s (Aleksei Agranovich). Trouble stirs as the mother (Viktoria Tolstoganova) becomes aware of her husband’s wandering eye. In the meantime, their daughter Sasha (Taisiia Vikova), who allegedly suffers from a congenital heart defect, befriends a local boy named Misha (Filipp Avdeev) and the two of them fall in love. Sentimental education is interrupted when the boy is accused of killing his own father, whose body had been found in the river near the sanatorium on the day of the family’s arrival. Sasha helps Misha prove his innocence, and along the way finds out that she has actually been healthy for years. Her mother had lied to everyone about her daughter’s condition. When the truth is revealed, the mother confesses that she forged Sasha’s medical history in order to keep her husband, who was having an extramarital affair at the time, from abandoning the family. The husband leaves, and the film closes with a shot of Sasha and Misha paragliding across the sky.

As in the case of Karas’s earlier films—for instance, Good Boy (Khoroshii mal’chik), which received Kinotavr’s Grand Prix in 2016—High Above has a kind of visual beauty that makes it appear barely realistic. The sundrenched landscapes, wicker furniture, and flowery dresses are all too reminiscent of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem, 1994) or the settings of Chekhov’s plays—in fact, Karas’s cinematographer Sergei Machul’skii confirmed that these served as references. The luminosity of the resulting images and the sensuality of the coming-of-age story also echo such films as Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (2004) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996). The “corporeal excess” (telesnaia izbytochnost’, to quote the director) pays homage to Aleksandr Deineka’s paintings (Press Conference). And yet, the visual intertexts and saturation cannot compensate for the screenplay’s shortcomings, particularly the film’s uneven pacing and generic ambiguity. High Above starts as a slow-burning coming-of-age story interspersed with a murder mystery. In principle the two genres can coexist, but in Karas’s film there is very little cohesion between the two plots. The film becomes particularly uneven as it approaches the end—in the final fifteen minutes or so, the narrative splits into two conflicts, the family drama and the murder—creating a muddled conclusion. It appears that High Above would have worked better without the murder plot. More freewheeling than Sadilova or Yang Ge’s films, High Above nevertheless ends with a scene that is conventional in its own way: the family falls apart but the closing shot shows young love blossoming.

Free Love

davai razvedemsia An alternative look at family drama and adultery was first offered in Anna Parmas’ feature-length debut, Let’s Get Divorced (Davai razvedemsia), starring Anna Mikhalkova in one of her most successful comedic roles to date. Masha (Mikhalkova), a successful Moscow gynecologist, lives a comfortable life with her stay-at-home husband Misha (Anton Filipenko) and her two young children—that is, until her husband leaves her for his much younger fitness instructor, Oksana (Anna Rytsareva). Crushed, Masha makes desperate—and intentionally comic—attempts to bring Misha back. Along the way, she becomes involved with a police officer (Fedor Lavrov) and the affair has an uplifting effect on her, making her wonder if losing Misha was altogether that tragic. Meanwhile, Misha realizes that being unemployed and living with Oksana and her grandmother in a cramped apartment has significantly less charm than he expected. When Misha finds out that Masha is pregnant with their third child, he returns to the family—only to hear Masha say that she no longer wants to be with him. The film ends with Misha, tired and overworked, phoning Masha from Oksana’s apartment, while Masha comfortably vacations with her children, happily pregnant—and happily single.

Let’s Get Divorced is an unusual choice for both Kinotavr’s main selection and the film’s production company, Sergei Selianov’s CTB: a genre film, it could have easily been deemed a poor choice for a festival (“ne festival’noe kino”). And yet, the film became one of the festival’s favorites and garnered Parmas an award for Best Debut and the Grigorii Gorin Prize for Best Screenplay. Famously one of the hardest genres to write and perform, a successful comedy is rare in recent Russian cinema, with exception, perhaps, of Zhora Kryzhovnikov’s Kiss Them All (Gor’ko, 2013) and Kiss Them All 2 (Gor’ko 2, 2014). Mikhalkova went as far as saying: “I hate comedies. It’s very difficult to make people laugh […] Everybody starts talking about taste right away” (Press Conference). And yet it is Mikhalkova’s undeniable comic talent and Parmas’ fast-paced screenplay that create a refreshingly sharp and clever comedy. The story does not lapse and is interspersed with a multitude of witty details: from Misha pensively reading Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier, to Svetlana Kamynina’s cameo, to an aerobics class scene reminiscent of John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect (1985). Mikhalkova carries the plot with the skill and talent of such comic stars as Lucille Ball and Arkadii Raikin, as critics remarked at the press conference. And yet, it’s not just the roaring laughter in the audience that became the film’s biggest achievement. Among the films that postulated the importance of preserving the family no matter what—and generally in the context of Russia’s growing patriarchal traditionalism—Let’s Get Divorced offers an alternative view. Parmas not only reverses traditional gender roles—to the point that when the couple finds out that Masha is pregnant, it is Misha who vomits, not the expecting mother—she subverts the expectation that the film will end with Misha’s return to the family. The closing shot of the film, refreshing and rather liberating, is a good first step in showing that there is, indeed, life after divorce. And a better life, at that.

vernostNigina Saifullaeva’s Fidelity (Vernost’), featuring explicit sex scenes uncommon in Russian cinema and extended the exploration of female sexuality, was much talked about at the festival. At the center of the story is a young woman, Lena (Evgeniia Gromova), who—suspecting her husband Sergei’s (Aleksandr Pal’) infidelity—begins to have sex with the men she meets. Frustrated by a lack of interest from Sergei, she starts to push the envelope even further. It is revealed that Sergei never cheated on Lena to begin with and he finds out about her trysts. The film’s erotic scenes are matched by the final dialogue between Lena and Sergei, perhaps the most straightforward discussion of the mechanics of sex in recent Russian cinema.

Similar to Saifullaeva’s debut, What’s My Name (Kak menia zovut, 2014, also in collaboration with the screenwriter Liubov’ Mul’menko), Fidelity makes ample use of spaces. The film is set in Kaliningrad, and the city’s unusual architecture and desolate, pristine beaches have an estranging effect on the viewers—so unlike Russia it looks. One may even be reminded of Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student (Uchenik, 2016), where the unknown landscapes of Kaliningrad served to highlight the drama. In Fidelity, the unfamiliar landscapes and spaces of the city echo and emphasize the uncharted territory of Saifullaeva’s genre: erotic drama. The further the heroine goes in exploring her sexuality, the more of the city we see: the scene of her first rendezvous begins outside, until she insists on going to a pay-by-the-hour hotel, but her second tryst occurs out in the open, on the beach. While Saifullaeva’s film is very explicit by the standards of Russian cinema, it is relatively tame compared to the works of directors like Catherine Breillat, Lars von Trier, or Gaspard Noé. The elegant camerawork serves to mask a significant amount of the nudity, and the film’s extended sex scene occurs between husband and wife. However, the film’s open ending—Lena is seen getting on the bus and eyeing up men next to her—certainly eschews conventional closure, choosing to live a little more dangerously, both with regard to female desire and the basic standards of Russian cinema.

liubi ikh vsekhMaria Agranovich’s Love Them All (Lubi ikh vsekh) explores the topic of female sexuality and power through the character of a present-day courtesan. A young woman named Vera (Alena Mikhailova)—alias Liubov’ or Nadezhda—lives a life of luxury paid for by wealthy men. Calculating and chameleonic, Vera transforms to meet her targets’ desires: sometimes she is the polished socialite Nadia, other times the fresh-faced student Liuba. As the latter, she scams the elderly businessman Gleb (Sergei Garmash). A visual quotation of the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962)—a close-up of Vera’s foot in Gleb’s hands—accentuates both the alarming age gap and the idea of Vera performing a role for her newest paramour. Her ruse is eventually uncovered and she is beaten up by Gleb’s men. When Gleb’s estranged son saves her and offers her a comfortable life, she refuses and continues her previous life. All the while, Vera’s ex-boyfriend Dima (Aleksandr Kuznetsov, in one of his many appearances at Kinotavr) is desperately trying to get her back.

Like Fidelity and Let’s Get Divorced, Love Them All has an open ending, but its representation of gender is perhaps not quite as liberal as it thinks. The narrative explores the connection between sex, money, and power. Vera proclaims: “This isn’t money. This is freedom. This is an opportunity to not have to screw anyone.” When Gleb’s son promises Vera to be a loving husband and father to her (yet unborn) daughter, and a life in the lap of luxury, she refuses. But despite presenting this refusal as a sort of female empowerment, Agranovich entraps her heroine within a number of stereotypes, particularly those associated with sex work: Vera’s icy exterior predictably conceals an unidentified childhood trauma related to her mother, who appears twice—and only in order to ask Vera for money. In a scene that feels entirely out of place, Vera kneels by the door through which her mother exits, begging her absent parent to love her. Agranovich—who stated at the press conference that she is not committed to feminism as “we [women] have nothing to fight for”—offers us a vision that is less than clear. Love Them All uses glamorous aesthetics (for which it was criticized by some) to suggest a sort of female desire set free, but also seems to channel a desire that is wholly more domesticated (To the extent that, when Vera briefly reconnects with Dima, he straightforwardly says “I want my woman to make my breakfast.”)

sheenaThe last film to center on the topic of adultery was Grigorii Dobrygin’s feature-length debut, Sheena667. An independent film (without state funding), Dobrygin’s work follows Olia (Iuliia Peresil’d) and Vadim (Vladimir Svirskii), who work at a garage in the town of Vyshnii Volochek. Olia and Vadim are happily married and in love, until one day Vadim discovers an adult video chat room where he meets an American woman, whose online handle is Sheena667 (played by Jordan Rose Frye). Vadim becomes infatuated with her, spending all of his time online and learning English to be able to talk to her. The two become close and Vadim decides to leave for America. After getting his visa approved, Vadim sits in a car with a blank expression. The closing shot of the film shows Olia and Vadim riding a snowmobile together, a scene mirroring the opening of the film, which can either be interpreted as Vadim’s decision to stay, or as a memory of a happy past now gone by.

With Mikhail Krichman’s masterful cinematography and Peresil’d and Svirskii’s powerful performances, Sheena667 is undoubtedly a successful debut. But it is perhaps Dobrygin’s vision and method that are most noteworthy. Dobrygin noted during the press conference that the film had in part sprung from his own growing awareness of the hours we are now used to spending on the internet and how it can become a sort of second life. It is possible that it was this disembodied, virtual quality that determined the director’s approach to the shooting process: the actors playing the two characters on different sides of the computer screen knew very little about each other’s characters and how their stories interact. They were not allowed to discuss the film or the extent to which they knew the script. Svirskii admitted that not only did he not know that Frye spoke fluent Russian, but he also did not realize that she was a professional actress and not an internet sex worker. Whether or not this was an ethical choice or a game, in Dobrygin’s words, the result is a strong and beautifully-shot debut.

No Poetry after Lugansk: Buddy Films & Back to the 90s

great poetry The Prize for Best Director went to Aleksandr Lungin for Great Poetry (Bol’shaia poezia). The film focuses on Viktor (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) and Aleksei (Aleksei Filimonov), two war veterans who work at a private security company. They deal with their trauma in different ways: by writing poetry or passing their time betting on illegal cockfights. As they become increasingly frustrated with life, they decide to rob one of the banks where they used to work, and both end up dead.

In its focus on PTSD—particularly with regards to Viktor, a role for which Kuznetsov received the Best Actor award—Lungin’s characters have been compared to Martin Scorsese’s Travis Bickle and Aleksei Balabanov’s Danila Bagrov. And yet Great Poetry lacks the elegance and screenplay coherence of either its predecessors. The heist does not contribute much to the narrative, other than adding even more gratuitous violence and screen time. On the other hand, the symbolism, however facile, brings about several noteworthy sequences and images. The choice of location—the outskirts of Moscow, with a spectacular quarry and an abandoned construction site—contributed to the themes of abandonment and isolation, and became a visual metaphor for the post-war self. The symbolism of the cockfight in an aggressively masculine world is perhaps the most interesting element in the film, reminiscent of the dogfights in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000). And although Lungin staunchly denied that the film provided any commentary on the war in Ukraine, the fact that Viktor served in Lugansk—a biographical detail brought up several times—suggests that, perhaps, Russian cinema has started looking at this military conflict and the trauma of those who went through it.

bykBoris Akopov’s The Bull (Byk) became the unexpected winner of the festival’s Grand Prix. Set in the 1990s, the film focuses on the criminal gang leader Anton Bykov (alias “Byk”). Byk is released from custody thanks to a local mafia kingpin and must return the favor by rampaging through a local market and terrorizing its Caucasian owners. The latter, predictably, seek revenge, murdering and mutilating Byk’s associates and family. At the end of the film, they discover a mortally wounded Byk, who pulls the pin out of a handgrenade, killing himself and the bandits. The film ends in the year 2000, with the remaining living characters watching Yeltsin’s New Year’s address announcing his retirement—and the end of the “wild” nineties.

Borrowing heavily from the aesthetics of the cinema of the 1990s, Akopov achieves the necessary verisimilitude of the first post-Soviet decade, abetted by notable performances by Iurii Borisov (as Byk) and Stas’ia Miloskavskaia (as Tania, Byk’s love interest). The film is saturated with homage paid to Balabanov’s Brother: an assault at the market, a drug-spiked rave, an ambush in an apartment where a pornographic film is playing in the background. Perhaps unwittingly, with his meticulous imitation of Balabanov’s aesthetics, Akopov also ends up with a heavy-handed, xenophobic vision of the Caucasian person and an exploitative image of women. The director’s standpoint on gender caused a backlash against Akopov: not only is his focus entirely on the male world, but his interview following the awards revealed the extent of his disinterest in other topics and dislike for female directors (“I principally don’t believe in women directors […] The coolest woman’s film [zhenskii fil’m] is [Larisa] Shepitko’s Ascent. But that’s a men’s film [muzhskoi fil’m].” Given these views, Akopov’s plans to make his next film about World War II may suggest that viewers should expect a work that is traditionalist, if not propagandistic.

kuratorTwo full-length debuts that similarly focused on male subjectivity but offered a less heavy-handed approach were Petr Levchenko’s The Curator (Kurator) and Aleksandr Zolotukhin’s A Russian Youth (Mal’chik russkii). The Curator focuses on the murder of the mayor of a small Russian town by a Georgian businessman named Dimur Kavsadze (Mikhail Gomiashvili). When the perpetrator vanishes, the former special-forces agent Aleksandr Danilin (Iurii Tsurilo) begins to investigate the case, uncovering the extent of connections between money, power, and the criminal world.

Inspired in part by the story of the so-called Krasnogorsk Shooter (the businessman Amiran Georgadze, who murdered a high-ranking official in 2015), The Curator is anything but a blockbuster. In fact, it was one of the few works in the competition that may truly be considered an art film. Nor is it, despite being inspired by a real-life event, cut from the same cloth as Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan (2014). Levchenko refrains from moralizing: in fact, his choice to almost entirely deprive his film of words endows The Curator with the qualities of a good film noir like Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) or Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). The plot is hard to follow but that is, without a doubt, the director’s intent. The cold beauty of the industrial landscape in twilight accentuates the noir aesthetic. While the near-absence of dialogue and a convoluted storyline may problematize the film’s run in mainstream cinemas, The Curator is certain to be a success on the international festival circuit.

malchikThe winner of the Diploma of the Russian Guild of Film Scholars and Critics, Zolotukhin’s A Russian Youth was also admired for its artistic qualities. The film, which had played in Berlin’s Forum section, concerns a young Russian soldier—an endearing teenager portrayed by the non-professional actor Vladimir Korolev—during World War I. Within days after being drafted, he loses his eyesight and can only serve as the operator of a passive acoustic locator, a military air defense machine used during the early twentieth century.

If The Curator employs a noir aesthetic, A Russian Youth looks at national cinema for inspiration. Zolotukhin was a student of Aleksandr Sokurov at his workshop in Kabardino-Balkaria, and his cinematography and sound editing bear the imprint of his mentor. The film is intercut with scenes of an orchestra rehearsing Sergei Rakhmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor (1909) and The Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940). Notably, Zolotukhin intentionally desynchronizes the sound (both speech and music) in order to further convey the chaotic, unnerving experience of war. As the director remarked during the press conference, “The war cannot be aesthetic, it cannot be beautiful,” hence no harmony and no synchrony in the sound are possible. A sophisticated choice for the 30-year-old director’s debut, the sound remains one of the most notable elements in the film. Together with the impressionistic feel of the film, its somewhat grainy sepia visuals—another nod to Sokurov— and the casting choice of Korolev, who conjures association with the protagonists of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Elem Klimov, the film quickly became the critics’ favorite.

Don’t Believe, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg

storozh Iurii Bykov’s Watchman (Storozh) offered a more balanced approach to gender, showing both men and women as they deal with personal trauma and fears. Vlad (Iurii Bykov) works as a watchman at a derelict sanatorium in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of winter. One night, an intoxicated woman, Vera (Alla Iuganova), crashes her car into the sanatorium gate and hides inside the building. Soon afterwards, her husband Stas—played by Vladislav Abashin in a spellbinding performance—appears and it becomes evident that the couple is on the run. Sensing that there is more to their story than business troubles, Vlad allows them to take shelter in the sanatorium. It is soon revealed that the couple’s dysfunctional relationship has been aggravated by the recent death of their child. Later on, Vlad confides in Vera that he used to be a surgeon and became a watchman to live as a hermit after he failed to save a patient whilst drunk. The depth of tragedy and loneliness is gradually revealed to the viewer and, predictably, the film does not end well.

Perhaps as a result of the scandal surrounding the TV series The Dormants (Spiaschie, 2017) and Bykov’s temporary leave from filmmaking, the director chose not to pursue the genre of social drama. In fact, among Bykov’s films, Watchman is possibly the furthest removed from politics. Instead, the director delves into the psychology and personal trauma of his three characters, allowing the actors’ talent to shine through. New themes are complemented by the change in cinematography—much like in The Factory (Zavod, 2018), Bykov privileges dramatic aerial shots and panoramas. On the one hand, this allows him to better capture the monumental, arresting beauty of an empty sanatorium against a snow-swept landscape—an image similar to Kubrik’s The Shining (1980) that almost creates the anticipation of a psychological thriller or a horror film. But on the other hand, and more importantly, the spaces of the film articulate the depth of the characters’ trauma and alienation. A shot of Vera drinking on the roof—a tiny dark figure against a blindingly white, empty landscape—coalesces into perhaps the most powerful image of inner tragedy and loneliness in Bykov’s films to date. The focus on the woman marks a new chapter in his work, too.

volkValeria Gai Germanika’s The Imagined Wolf (Myslennyi Volk), much anticipated after a five-year break following Yes and Yes (Da i Da, 2014), continues the themes of fear and alienation, albeit in a different genre. The film is likely an allegory and focuses on two female characters, a mother (Iuliia Vysotskaia, in an unlikely role) and a daughter (Liza Klimova). Their soured relationship briefly improves when the daughter visits the mother, and the two try to hide from an imagined man-eating wolf that the mother allegedly invented.

Notoriously disinclined to speak about her work, Germanika did not answer the many questions posed during the press conference. She declined to comment on how one should interpret the prologue to the film—a scene in which a body is exhumed, followed by what can only be described as the resurrection of said body—and the image of two women in red robes, evocative, perhaps unintentionally, of HBO’s serial The Handmaid’s Tale (2017). Nor did she confirm the genre of the film; rather, she strongly denied that the film in any way belongs to the horror genre. In more general terms, the film may be an allegory, a twisted reflection on the nature of fear and faith, as demonstrated by the film’s most memorable exchange, which becomes a tagline for the film: – Does the Wolf exist? – Probably. – Does God exist? – Probably not. Later this is followed by “Believe, Fear and Beg” (ver’, boisia, prosi), in a reversal of “Don’t Believe, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg” (Ne ver’, ne boisia, ne prosi, a prison aphorism quoted in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, 1958-1979). Yet, despite its many unanswered questions, what the film manages to successfully convey are the feelings of fear and discomfort. They are communicated through conflicting generic elements as well as odd details. For instance, the fear caused by the classic horror image of a dark forest at night becomes interspersed with a visceral sense of discomfort when the mother puts plastic bags on the daughter’s feet instead of socks. Once again Germanika’s skill of manipulating her viewers’ emotional response comes through.

keroseneYusup Razykov’s Kerosene (Kerosin) also engaged with the topic of loneliness and abandonment. The film follows an elderly woman living alone in the country. She is a widow, although the viewers occasionally see the ghost of her husband whom, despite the violence he inflicted on her, she remembers with love and respect. Her giving nature is her most emphasized feature: strangers come into her house, eat and drink and interfere, and she helps everyone, without ever complaining. Her only concerns are about obtaining kerosene for the kerosene lamps she still uses, and buying a piglet, presumably to replace her other pet, a hen that was mindlessly killed by one of her unwanted guests. Of all the misfortunes that befall her, the most tragic one happens late in the film: her granddaughter is murdered by a gang. When she gets an opportunity to exact revenge—in a strange twist, the gang shows up at her house asking for food and drink—she cannot act on it: she locks up the criminals and splashes kerosene on the walls, but she cannot strike a match. Nevertheless, fate interferes—the vodka that the perpetrators were drinking turns out to be poisonous moonshine and all of them go blind. At the end of the film, the woman is shown to live peacefully the life she had always lived—now with plenty of kerosene and a pig gifted to her by a benevolent businessman.

keroseneThe winner of the Daniil Dondurei Prize of the Russian Guild of Film Scholars and Critics, Kerosene touches upon a number of topics addressed by other films in both the short and feature film selection. Very much like Mikhail Arkhipov’s Fuel (Toplivo), the winner of Kinotavr.Shorts competition, Razykov’s film dwells on the idea of Russia’s vast natural resources that never belong to its people—a topic whose economic, ecological, and political repercussions one hopes to see more often at Russian film festivals. And yet despite the resonant title, this theme does not become the film’s leitmotif and gives way to a profound and beautiful reflection on the heroine’s resilience and selflessness. Razykov’s elegant approach to tragedy becomes a hallmark of the film: everything happens behind the scenes, paradoxically, to more powerful effect. For instance, the murder of the granddaughter is not shown; we only see the heroine entering a morgue, presumably to identify the body, and crying as she exits. The sound is muted, making her cries seem even more hopeless. The only other time when the heroine cries in the film—the cries, again, muffled through the sound editing—is when she fails to burn down her house with the murderers inside. Moreover, she cries not because she cannot kill them, but because, to quote Razykov, she “has come too close to sin” (Press Conference). Even though the film has a reasonably happy ending, it is Razykov’s piercing portrayal of suffering and perseverance that constitutes Kerosene’s biggest artistic achievement.

grozaThe festival’s competition closed with an outlier, at least in genre and style, if not entirely in theme: Grigorii Konstantinopolskii’s The Storm (Groza), a contemporary adaptation of the eponymous play by Aleksandr Ostrovskii from 1859, well-known to Russian audiences from the school curriculum and also focusing on the theme of family and adultery. Made in a style similar to that of Roman Kachanov’s Down House (2001), Konstantinopolskii’s spoof on classical Russian literature is arguably even more psychedelic: the inventor Kuligin (Ivan Makareevich, the star of Konstantinopolskii’s Russian Psycho/Russkii bes, 2018) is a rapper and a performance artist, sometimes surrounded by aliens; the wanderer Feklusha (Maria Shalaeva in a memorable performance) is a popular psychic, and the first love scene between Katerina and Boris features dancing CGI dolphins. In this postmodern excess, Konstantinopolskii’s meticulous attention to Ostrovskii’s text is particularly impressive: the original is preserved almost in its entirety, with only a few words changed. When asked what inspired him to choose this particular text, Konstantinopolskii responded that for him, Ostrovskii has renewed relevance because “we live in the second half of the nineteenth century,” gesturing to the conservatism and neo-traditionalism of contemporary Russia (Press Conference). It could be this statement that prevented the film from winning awards. Moreover, when Viktoria Tolstoganova, whose performance as Kabanikha is nothing short of a tour-de-force, went on stage to receive her award for Best Actress, she made it clear that the award was for her performance not in The Storm, but in High Above, a significantly less demanding role in a film devoid of social commentary. The “safe” choices for the rest of the awards, including the Grand Prix, proved once again that adultery is a more contentious topic than it seems. After the familial is, above all, the political.

Daria V. Ezerova
The Harriman Institute, Columbia University


Main competition

GRAND PRIX: “The Bull” by Boris Akopov

BEST DIRECTOR: “Great Poetry” by Aleksandr Lungin

BEST DEBUT FILM: “Let’s Get Divorced” by Anna Parmas

BEST ACTRESS: Viktoria Tolstoganova in “High Above” by Oksana Karas

BEST ACTOR (OLEG YANKOVSKY AWARD): Aleksandr Kuznetsov in “Great Poetry” by Aleksandr Lungin

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Gleb Filatov for “The Bull” by Boris Akopov

BEST SCREENPLAY (GRIGIORII GORIN AWARD): Anna Parmas, Maria Shul’gina, Elizaveta Tikhonova for “Let’s Get Divorced” by Anna Parmas

MIKHAEL TARIVERDIEV PRIZE FOR THE BEST ORIGINAL FILM MUSIC: Igor Vdovin for “The Imagined Wolf” by Valeria Gai Germanika

SPECIAL DIPLOMA OF THE JURY: “Fidelity” by Nigina Saifullaeva



Kinotavr. Shorts

MAIN PRIZE: “Fuel” by Mikhail Arkhipov

DIPLOMAS OF THE JURY : “Catfishing” by Elizaveta Stishova AND “I Cry With You” by Paulina Andreeva

DIPLOMAS OF THE RUSSIAN GULID OF FILM SCHOLARS AND FILM CRITICS:“Catfishing” by Elizaveta Stishova AND “The Interview” by Ivan Sosnin

PRIZE OF RUARTS FUND: “Quiet Life” by Ivan I. Tverdovskii

References to KinotavrTV. Press Conferences 2019, YouTube Channel

Davai razvedemsia.” 13 June.
Groza.” 16 June.
Kerosin.” 11 June.
Liubi ikh vsekh.” 15 June.
Mal’chik russkii.” 14 June.
Odessa.” 10 June.
Odnazhdy v Trubchevske.” 13 June.
Sheena667.” 15 June.
Troitsa.” 11 June.
Vyshe neba.” 16 June.

Daria V. Ezerova © 2019

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Updated: 2019