Issue 66 (2019)

Yusup Razykov: Kerosene (Kerosin, 2018)

reviewed by Vida Johnson and Elena Stishova © 2019

kerosinIn the opening few sequences of Kerosene, Yusup Razykov’s latest film about Russia in what might be called his Russian “trilogy”—along with Shame (Styd, 2013) and Sella Turcica (Turetskoe sedlo, 2017)—he lays out a rich and complex pattern of images, fairy-tale motifs, and metaphors in a deceptively realistic tale of the last old woman in the last house standing somewhere in the post-Soviet Russian provinces overrun by tank trucks in the present-day rush for power and oil. The village has been destroyed by fire, but the old woman won’t leave, despite her daughter and granddaughter living in the nearby town. But Razykov here not only records in authentic detail the daily lives of his characters—the people (narod)—buffeted by post-empire forces unleashed by the destruction of the Soviet Union; he overlays his story with dreams, fairy-tale elements, and miracles. This becomes clear right from the start of the film.

The film opens with an eerie, slow-motion, foggy scene with equally eerie music (perhaps the Scythian motif that Razykov talked about in his Kinotavr press conference), showing a seated man (Petr Ivanovich, played by Valerii Maslov) holding a speckled hen while an old woman (Pavla, played by Elena Susanina) looks on and asks if everything is alright, or if she has done something wrong. His stern demeanor and her nervous supplication will later be explained, when we discover that he “stomped” on her, causing her to be lame. When the man tears off the hen’s head and it runs around the yard headless, the director grabs the viewer’s attention, using this act of senseless cruelty to foreshadow much of what will befall the long-suffering heroine.

kerosinA close-up reveals the old woman in bed with the same hen nearby, now alive. A cut takes the viewer to the wall of pictures with the husband’s prominent photo, in a kind of iconostasis formed by other family photos in an almost cross-like layout. There are no icons in the old woman’s rooms, nor does she ever cross herself. This was a dream, after all, which will in various permutations be repeated throughout the film, as the old woman will try to carry out what her dead husband seems to tell her. Thus, her insistent and ultimately unsuccessful search for a piglet (two piglets die, another is stolen) will be one of the many losses she, for the most part humbly and stoically, suffers in the film. She cries only in the depth of tragedy and despair and, in a moment when she is finally rewarded for her suffering, in an ending that justifies the director calling his film an “industrial fairy tale.”

kerosinThe industrial part literally appears in the sequence following the film’s title, as tank trucks whizz past, producing the harsh, industrial soundtrack that will alternate and contrast throughout the film with the pure and raw folk music collected, authored, and orchestrated, at times as women’s lament, or sung by the inimitable Sergei Starostin. The first song appears over the trucking sounds, as two long-distance truckers decide to stop at the old woman’s, babka Pavla’s, for food and rest. Two other sounds, introduced in the first sequences and repeated in the film, help frame the contrast of the contemporary industrial theme and the timeless village theme: the loud tick-tock of Pavla’s ancient clock as she wakes from her dreams and goes about her daily chores; and, incongruously, the radio she turns on as it reports on the current price of oil set by OPEC, wondering whether it will fluctuate above or below $49 per barrel.

kerosinBabka Pavla obviously has absolutely no understanding of oil prices, which are just background noise, but oil, it turns out, is everywhere: underground, in the trucks that carry it far afield throughout Russia, in the wealth of the oil-magnate who rescues Pavla after almost running her over on the road. The only person who does not have it, in the form of kerosene used for cooking and light, is Pavla, and by extension the impoverished Russian provinces. 

kerosinThe two truckers who stop for Babka Pavla’s hospitality talk of what they know and carry: oil and petroleum. While the older man relates how he spilled oil in a river in an accident, setting it ablaze and awe-struck by the fire’s beauty, the vodka-swilling younger man says water does not burn and demonstrates in a dish that vodka does, frightening Pavla, who remembers her burning village. Yet in her subsequent dream of the burning river there is something primeval in the beauty and the power of fire that will tie the contemporary voracious hunt for oil and the rapacious power it brings to the timeless force of nature—what lies beneath it, and what it may reclaim at any moment. The unexplained change of water to kerosene and back again as Pavla ladles the liquid from an empty oil barrel used to collect rainwater underscores both the industrial and fairly-tale aspects of the film, which is divided into seven chapters (seven days of creation?), with titles such as “living water” and “dead water,” and the final one as “kerosene.”

kerosinThe film perhaps should have been more aptly titled “oil” (neft’) as the younger trucker explains that beneath is an “ocean of oil” that feeds us, and when the older man cynically says: sure it does, since they receive no benefit in their tough existence, the younger man continues: he is talking about the state—it is “the gift of history to us,” and for good measure, in his need to blame someone, he adds: “Screw NATO.” The Russian people—whether Pavla without kerosene, or the truckers without access to the power and wealth of the oil they transport—have never benefitted from what the state and the oligarchs claim as their right.

Not only is Pavla surrounded by the post-Soviet race for fuel, but she lives amidst the detritus of the Soviet one: her dilapidated yet beautiful traditional wooden house (izba) is next to an ugly, defunct tire-repair shop with its front yard full of oversized truck tires that presumably fit the old, Soviet-made trucks rather than the new gleaming western models. The repeated cutaways to the Soviet-era shop keep reminding the audience that Razykov’s industrial fairy tale is also about how average people negotiate the old Soviet and the new post-Soviet worlds.

kerosinWhen the grocery store on the other side of the tire shop closes due to lack of business, a truck arrives to remove the electrical wiring from the pole, leaving, probably inadvertently, Pavla in complete darkness. This may be the plot element Razykov needed to develop the fairy-tale elements, the miracle not of turning water into wine, but into kerosene that Pavla needs to light her lamps. Yet it can also be read, like the tire shop, as the undoing of the most fundamental and even sacred element of Sovietization, the 1920’s push to raise the country from its literal and metaphoric darkness: “Communism is Soviet Power and Electrification of the Whole Country.” Two films spring to mind here: Old Grannies (Starukhi, 2003) by Gennadii Sidorov and the Kyrgyz picture The Light Thief (Svet Ake, 2010) by Aktan Arym Kubat.

kerosinIn darkness for most of the film, Pavla withstands many losses, starting with her hen, then the above-mentioned piglets that her husband directs her to keep, then the dearest person in her life, her granddaughter. The truckers’ sequence ends with a needless act of cruelty when the younger trucker kills, cooks, but doesn’t eat Pavla’s pet speckled hen, now repeating in real life the destructive act of the husband in Pavla’s dream. The film is probably at its weakest in its most dramatic moment, in the perhaps predictable and made-for-TV resolution of the horrific story line of granddaughter, which lacks the fairy-tale elements that elsewhere surround Pavla’s existence. (Her hen may be gone, but she nevertheless leaves eggs on Pavla’s bed.) Yet in the case of the granddaughter, Razykov clearly wanted to show that the path to the west, so desperately sought by the young girl, in not an option. What then is left?  Russia, of course, for better or worse.

kerosinPavla finds her fairy-tale knight in the unlikely image of a dying oil magnate who, most importantly, does not want to leave Russia and is willing to lend a hand to those less fortunate. It may be a tongue-in-check happy ending, with the rich man’s beefy hired enforcers now playing the role of the three larger-than-life knights (bogatyrs) from the famous painting by Viktor Vaznetsov (1898), a copy of which hangs in the room of Pavla’s granddaughter, right next to Princess Diana and Audrey Hepburn. The literally monumental gifts that they deliver—a gigantic prize-winning pig and gleaming tank truck full of oil (where will she put it?)—infuse the film with humor and irony.

Razykov finds humanity in the places one least expects when Pavla is finally rescued from the literal and metaphorical darkness in which she has spent much of the film. In the final scenes, the sheer brightness of her room, now with lighting, of her colorful dress and scarf, visually lift the spirits not only of Pavla, but of the audience as well. In the end, at least in her dreams, Babka Pavla will once again find the happy family she so loved. The music, which has anchored the film throughout, now provides a kind of catharsis in the final song performed by Starostin, starting with “Deep, deep, deep under the earth is ore (oil, too, it turns out)… but deeper still is my sadness,” and ending with “High, high the falcon flew… but higher still is my happiness…”

kerosinStarting with the brilliant acting of Elena Susanina, a stage actress from Yaroslavl in her first film role, the film’s spare, yet emotionally expressive cinematography, the tight framing (especially on Pavla and her humble house), the detailed attention to authenticity in sets and props (Razykov himself did the production design), the magnificent musical score—all make for what quite a few Russian critics and fellow filmmakers called a “flawless” film, well deserving of the prize awarded at Kinotavr by the Guild of Film Scholars and Critics. Many felt that he should have been recognized by the main jury, but Kinotavr juries have never been kind to Razykov. The question on everyone’s lips was:  How could an Uzbek make such an authentic film about Russia? One who, as he says himself, was “in love with Russian literature” and who now identifies himself as a “Russian filmmaker of Uzbek origin.”

In the meantime, Kerosene is starting a robust festival life in Russia and abroad. Razykov sees himself and is seen as a productive, serious filmmaker, dare one say, an auteur with his own complex vision of post-Soviet Russia. 

Vida Johnson, Tufts U
Elena Stishova, Moscow

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Kerosene, Russia, 2019
Color, 77 minutes.
Director and Scriptwriter: Yusup Razykov
DoP: Iurii Krochuk, Iurii Mikhailishin
Production Design: Yusup Razykov
Music: Sergei Starostin
Editing: Elena Luzanova
Cast: Elena Susanina, Valerii Maslov, Inna Stepanova, Anna Belenkaia, Evgeniia Molotova, Grigori Molotov
Production: Tritona Film
Producers: Aleksandr Gadalov, Denis Luzanov, Yusup Razykov, Mikhail Molotov, Vladimir Kislitsyn


Yusup Razykov: Kerosene (Kerosin, 2018)

reviewed by Vida Johnson and Elena Stishova © 2019

Updated: 2019