Issue 65 (2019)

Kirill Serebrennikov: After Summer (Posle Leta, 2018)

reviewed by Laura Todd © 2019

posle letaThose who followed the creation and release of Kirill Serebrennikov’s Summer (Leto, 2018) will know that the controversy surrounding the film was not solely based on the long imprisonment of the director. Summer caused a considerable amount of outrage amongst some of the surviving members of the Leningrad rock scene, who predicted that it would be a travesty to try and capture the lives of young rock musicians in this time (see, for example, Ryabchikova 2018, Safariants 2018). While it had approval and the benefit of the doubt from some (including Artemii Troitskii, Russia’s most famous rock critic), the whole idea of the film caused outrage in other quarters, particularly on the part of Boris Grebenshchikov, who is credited with “discovering” Viktor Tsoi, and the music producer, Andrei Tropillo, both of whom refused to have their likenesses used in the film.

After Summer is a documentary (short, at only 48 minutes) that acknowledges some of the controversy amongst the remaining rock pioneers of the original and allows these figures the ability to present their own memories of that time. It is structured loosely around fragments of interviews with people who were close to Mike Naumenko and the rest of the Leningrad rock club in the early 1980s, interspersed with clips from Summer. The result is a combination of the mythology of the original Summer with the real characters behind the mythology. These figures are interviewed by the actor Aleksandr Kuznetsov, who plays the bridging character and exposer of lies, Skeptic in Summer, and is filmed wearing his costume from the original film. Whether Kuznetsov is in character or not, I think, is debatable and thus I refer to him as Skeptic-Kuznetsov throughout this review. Grebenshchikov is naturally missing from the line-up, but Serebrennikov has still managed to collect some important voices for the documentary. The cast of interviewees includes: Maik “Mike” Naumenko’s wife, Natal’ia Naumenko, whose autobiography supposedly served as the inspiration for Summer; Artemii Troitskii, treated at points as a kind of kindly, fatherly sage of rock; Andrei Tropillo, who is still rather tetchy; Russia’s most famous rebel broadcaster, Seva Novgorodtsev (who is notably wearing at-shirt with the logo of his BBC Russia show ‘Sevaoborot’); Naumenko’s close collaborator and friend, Igor’ ‘Isha’ Petrovskii; and a Komsomol organizer of Leningrad’s rock club, Nikolai Mikhailov. The cast of interviewees thus covers a broad range of different personalities and connections. Some of the most interesting interview scenes are vox pop interactions with regular rock fans from the time, including wonderfully warm interactions between Skeptic-Kuznetsov and some of the (former) young people who sold bootleg and restricted music in Leningrad’s music markets.

posle letaThe form and reason for creating After Summer is open to a variety of interpretations. It can serve as a way for Serebrennikov to provide documentary proof of his engagement with and affection (or respect) for the titans of Russian rock and their legacy. It can also serve as a means of providing extra, director’s cut material for those who thirst for more visuals of their rock idols. Yet it also continues engagement with a long tradition of documentary shorts about rock musicians both within and without Russia. Natalie Ryabchikova (2018) sees in Summer evocations of earlier rock documentaries Your Rock (Pro rok, 2017) and Aleksei Balabanov’s Nastia and Egor (1989). Rita Safariants (2018) meanwhile finds echoes of Aleksei Uchitel’s Rock (Rok, 1988) and Sunny Days (Solnechnye dni, 1996) in the film. After Summer is perhaps, by genre, close to these documentary predecessors, but the narrative is firmly fixated on depicting a clash between fact and fiction; some journalists have labeled it as more of a ‘film about the film’ than a rock documentary (see Maliukova, 2018, and Grigor’eva, 2018). Yet there are echoes of Rock in the additional ‘unseen’ scenes from Summer featured in the documentary; one extra scene shows Skeptic, in character this time, being hit over the head with a bottle, which is reminiscent of a similar blow in the surreal opening scenes of Rock.

In After Summer, Serebrennikov’s version of early 1980s Leningrad takes up as much of the stage as its interviewees do, although the director remains conspicuously absent behind the camera throughout. The interviews take place on the sets of the films, which allows the interviewees to interact with and approve, or disapprove, of their ‘authenticity.’ On the sets, each of the interviewees, Tropillo, Natal’ia Naumenko and Petrovskii, has something to add or correct, with their discussion leading to insights about the ways in which they lived and produced music. The interviews themselves are frequently both tragic and uplifting, with Skeptic-Kuznetsov clearly showing discomfort at certain points. At several points, Petrovskii, in particular, is overwhelmed completely in memory and loss, as he speaks of dreaming that his friends are still alive. Skeptic-Kuznetsov asks if Petrovskii misses them and he replies that of course he does. Our interviewer glances uncomfortably at the camera.

One of the mysteries of the film is who lies behind the camera and off the screen as Skeptic-Kuznetsov continually breaks the fourth wall (something that his character does frequently in Summer). His glance often flits to the camera as if to acknowledge the reality (or the memories) of how the rock scene actually was, as opposed to the deliberately stylized world of Russian rock that appears in Summer. Nikita Smirnov and Vasilii Stepanov (2018) suggest that Skeptic-Kuznetsov’s ‘expressive glances’ are directed at the ‘young viewers on that side of the screen [the intended audience].’ The documentary is positioned as allowing the main figures, who appear as themselves or inspirations for other characters in the film, to explain how Summer has purposefully changed some things. In the eyes of Smirnov and Stepanov, it becomes a kind of pedagogical activity for the young people on the other side of the screen to understand what rock in the Soviet Union of the 1980s was really like—emphasizing and acknowledging that the film has not got some elements right. Opportunities for learning do pop up in the film, with Natal’ia Naumenko teaching Skeptic-Kuznetsov how to light a match without it being blown out by the wind. In this moment, nothing makes him look more like the accursed ‘Moscow hipster,’ although his glee at being able to be more authentically early 1980s is palpable. In another scene, Skeptic-Kuznetsov’s naiveté shows again; when discussing how many of Naumenko’s friends would stay in their room in the communal flat in which they lived, he asks Natal’ia Naumenko if they all queued up for showers in the morning. She looks amused to inform him that they did not have showers, because they did not have hot water; the actor looks at the camera in mock shock.

posle letaThere is recognition on the part of Natal’ia Naumenko that young people who are fans of the music today do have a rose-tinted, distorted and somewhat sheltered impression of that time. She recalls meeting a group of young fans of Zoopark at Mike Naumenko’s grave in St. Petersburg. These young people spoke to her of their envy and about how they wished they could live the kinds of lives that Naumenko, Zoopark and other artists lived. Natal’ia Naumenko in response ponders their strange inability to judge just how restrictive life was, particularly in the early 1980s; the young fans spoke of envying their freedom in that time, when she felt they were anything but free.

The clash between the generational understandings of freedom provides poignant perspective on the ways that nostalgia for the 1980s appears in the present day. It also speaks great volumes about the ways that young people in contemporary Russia navigate what they see as a restrictive time. Continuing on this line in After Summer, Troitskii points out that the early 1980s was a dark time—when Brezhnev was still General Secretary, when few people imagined the kind of changes that would come about in 1985. Indeed, one scene from Summer engages with one of the darkest episodes of Soviet history for young people at the time—the drafting of young men into fighting in the Soviet-Afghan War. Yet Troitskii also speaks of the 1980s as a time when they lived ‘satisfactory’ and even ‘joyous’ lives—there was a sense that there were prospects for people and there was a future. Troitskii says that in post-Soviet Russia, there is a sense that there are no prospects and no future—and Troitskii blames this on the 1990s.

The horrors of the 1990s and the loss of the spirit of the 1980s in post-Soviet Russia is a topic that Troitskii frequently revisits in his contemporary writing (see, for example, Troitsky, 2017). Mourning the death of perestroika ideals in the 1990s and the relative freedoms of the 1980s before the emergence of unfettered capitalism is not a new theme amongst those key figures of Leningrad’s rock scene (see, for example, Todd, 2017). Perhaps Natal’ia Naumenko’s different reading of the 1980s is based on what she speaks of as a disengagement with the rock side of Maik Naumenko’s life; she remembers that her interaction with the Leningrad rock circle was not as active as Natasha’s is in Summer. Her nostalgia for the period has a different tone to that of Naumenko and Zoopark’s close friends and associates.

posle letaYet, it is clear that not all of Skeptic-Kuznetsov’s looks are intended to acknowledge these facts to the ‘young viewers.’ He performs different kinds of glances that break this fourth wall. Some of the glances are in the full view of his interviewees (who appear not to notice that he is purposefully turning away from them to address the camera), whilst other glances are mocking, disbelieving and even confused side glances. In an interview with Russia’s Hello! magazine (which in itself speaks volumes of the range of attention that Serebrennikov’s two films have drawn), Kuznetsov states that Serebrennikov intended him to go in like a magazine journalist and call the camera to engage with specific points of interest (Popovich, 2018). The unstructured nature of the interviews was an unexpected difficulty for Kuznetsov.  He describes feeling ‘bewildered for a large part of the interviews’ and ‘therefore in a particular, incomprehensible moment, or at any point which seemed interesting, strange or absurd to me, I turned my head and looked through the camera to the guys doing the playback, and gave them a look as if to say “Save me!” […]’ (Popovich, 2018). Kuznetsov himself openly admits that he had forgotten Serebrennikov’s instructions so quickly once filming had started that most of the answers the interviewees give are actually prompted from behind the camera (presumably by the director himself). In this case, the role and function of Kuznetsov appearing in costume and edited to be presented as the main interlocutor seems contrived. He slips in and out of the character he plays in Summer and the character he plays in After Summer. At moments, the conversation between Skeptik-Kuznetsov and its interviewees does clearly trail off, although the editing makes it look more like they are lost in reflection and memory.

It is in these dropped conversations that After Summer touches on the period that came after the time represented in Summer and it is clear why Nataliia Grigor’eva in her review of the film asked “is there life after Summer?” (Grigor’eva, 2018). Some of these memories are clearly still particularly painful for two of the cast—Isha Petrovskii and Natal’ia Naumenko—and life is clearly affected by the events that Summer depicts. For those who are unaware of the back-story of the couple, in the years leading up to Mike Naumenko’s death, he and Natal’ia became estranged and were eventually separated. She did not see him between their separation and his sudden death in 1991. Serebrennikov makes distinct efforts to include moments where there is nothing left to say between Skeptic-Kuznetsov and Natal’ia Naumenko. Nostalgia is memory laced with loss and longing. The two gaze out of windows and across the sets, smoking cigarettes in silence. Petrovskii meanwhile oscillates between grumpily pointing out parts of the set that are incorrect (they did not have the cassette players the characters have in the film) and sincere, tearful ruminations on the loss of his friends. Throughout many of these instances, Kuznetsov looks shiftily and uncomfortably at the camera. A skeptic might argue that he feels that their displays of nostalgia are overblown or exaggerated, but perhaps he feels like a caricature in his baggy trench-coat, smoking a “Belomor”cigarette. Or perhaps he realizes why many of these people were so outraged at the tenaciousness of a director who dared to depict this period on film. Regardless, the displays of emotion, nostalgia, loss and occasional anger in After Summer tell a very different story of the mythology behind Summer.

Laura Todd
University of Nottingham

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Works Cited

Grigor’eva, Nataliia. 2018. “Est’ li zhizn’ posle ‘Leta.’” Nezavisimaia Gazeta. 9 September.

Maliukova, Larisa. 2018. “Ephokha ‘mezhdu.’” Novaia Gazeta. 5 September.

Popovich, Irina. 2018. “‘Posle leta’ Serebrennikova: ‘Vremeni v zhizni nastol’ko malo, chto nuzhno delat’ tol’ko to, chto khochesh.’” Hello! 5 September.

Ryabchikova, Natalie. 2018. “Kirill Serebrennikov: Summer (Leto, 2018). KinoKultura 61.

Safariants, Rita. 2018. “Kirill Serebrennikov: Summer (Leto, 2018). KinoKultura 61.

Smirnov, Nikita and Vasilii Stepanov. 2018. “‘Posle Leta’ Serebrennikova i eshche 6 fil’mov Center.Seans. 3 September.

Todd, Laura. 2017. “Mourning the lost days of perestroika in Balabanov’s Brother.Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 11.3: 212-227.

Troitsky, Artemy. 2017. “No limit 90s: Artemy Troitsky on the cost of Russia’s decade of sex, drugs and excess?” The Calvert Journal, 16 October.

After Summer, Russia, 2018.
Color, 48 minutes.
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Producers: Ilya Stewart, Murad Osmann, Pavel Burya
Cinematography: Vladislav Opel’iants
Production Design: Iurii Karikh
Sound Director: Boris Boit
Production: Hype Film

Kirill Serebrennikov: After Summer (Posle Leta, 2018)

reviewed by Laura Todd © 2019

Updated: 2019