Issue 66 (2019)

Kira Kovalenko: Sofichka (2016)

reviewed by Cassio de Oliveira © 2019

sofichkaSofichka is a film of puzzling contrasts. Kira Kovalenko’s first feature film and her final project for Aleksandr Sokurov’s filmmaking workshop in Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria), the film is a Russian production set in Abkhazia and spoken in Abkhazian, but based on a story written in Russian by Fazil Iskander, the self-described “Bard of Abkhazia.” Sofichka is in turn a narrative set against a sweeping historical panorama yet compressed into an 80-minute film; a film about the meandering paths of memory and remembrance, but at times strangely particular about maintaining an iron logic of the plot; and a film focused on telling a coherent story by means of a rushed, elliptical narrative style. The result is a promising directorial debut that falls somewhat short of its lofty aspirations.

Since its inception, film has always strived to assert its autonomy as an art form. Therefore, to speak about the “fidelity” of an adaptation to its source text is a futile endeavor, and even a non-judgmental comparison of a film to its source text can seem fastidious and superfluous. Yet it is hard not to write about Sofichka without referencing Iskander’s novella, among other reasons because the film preserves so much of its plot while radically changing the pace at which the plot develops.

Kovalenko set herself a challenging task in choosing her source material: Iskander’s prose is marked by a deliberate disregard for neat storylines and by a narrative perspective that oscillates between light, distancing irony and a heart-rending empathy towards the heroes and their plight. His story Sofichka is no exception: in it, Iskander sharply displays his nostalgia towards the traditional lifestyle of Abkhazia while lamenting both the societal damage imposed by the Soviet regime and what he perceives as the breakdown of social relations during the Soviet collapse. We encounter none of the irreverence and “local color” of the early stories from his novel Sandro of Chegem. While Sofichka is set in the same village of Chegem and features many characters who had figured in the earlier stories, its focus and tone are quite different. It follows the title character, an orphan raised by her aunt and uncle, as she marries Rouf, a man from a neighboring clan, in what seems to be a match made in heaven. Little does Sofichka know what she will need to endure in her life: Rouf’s murder at the hands of Nuri, her own brother; an attempted rape by the local kolkhoz manager; interrogation and torture by the NKVD as Shamil, her brother-in-law, avenges her and murders the kolkhoz manager; exile in Siberia with Rouf’s and Shamil’s family; return to Chegem and exploitation by Shamil’s orphan daughter. Throughout these tribulations, Sofichka sensed that her husband’s soul was with her and endorsed her actions, but it all falls apart when Nuri returns to beg her forgiveness for the murder—an event motivated by practical interests rather than an intrinsic feeling of repentance. Sofichka had always avoided Nuri’s presence, but now she is somehow constrained into forgiving him, against Rouf’s death wishes. Sofichka unexplainably falls ill after that, feeling that Rouf’s spirit abandoned her. She dies; as her morally and financially corrupt brother, years later, realizes how much he loved her and how much damage he had done to her life, he commits suicide. Along the narrative, Iskander interweaves traumatic events of the Soviet era, such as the Great Patriotic War and the mass deportations of ethnic groups in the late Stalinist era, as well as a reflection on the collapse of human relations in the late- and post-Soviet eras.

sofichkaThis feels like a literary tour de force, the kind of story that contains so many nuances that a simple plot summary is unable to convey its true importance. It also feels like the kind of narrative that would be difficult to adapt in full into a feature film. Taken in isolation, each of the episodes is not particularly remarkable or original: we have the happy marriage in the village; blood ties and revenge in a (stereo)typical “Caucasian” setting; hardship in exile. What ties them together, and makes the whole feel so poignant, however, is Sofichka’s staunch love and loyalty to Rouf, which transform her into a kind of martyr figure.  This perspective is further reinforced in the narrator’s digression following her death, when Nuri, the embodiment of the ills of Perestroika (from alcoholism to immorality and winner-takes-all capitalism), in a drunken stupor, achieves some understanding of the magnitude of the harm he has done. Iskander’s worldview is guided as much by the traditional beliefs of the Abkhaz people as it is by well-known intellectual tropes of the Russian (and Soviet) culture in which he established himself: the tendency towards historicization, the role of the writer as moralizer. Iskander’s multiple identities (as an Abkhazian “insider” and a cosmopolitan Soviet subject) explain a central enigma in the story: we never quite understand whether Sofichka brings all that suffering upon her because she violated the traditional law that would have constrained Shamil into avenging his brother’s death, or whether her suffering is the product of historical and local forces against which she had been powerless from the very beginning. Perhaps Iskander is telling us that this ambivalence is the explanation of her suffering: Soviet modernity (and what came in its wake) and Abkhazian traditional life were ultimately incompatible, and individuals end up bearing the burden of this clash. 

Despite the evident challenges of adapting such a story to the screen, Kovalenko went ahead, and—astoundingly—preserved the major narrative arc as described above, minus the narrator’s extemporaneous digression on the brother’s depravity—precisely the moment that, in the context of Iskander’s story, wraps up the entire narrative into a more or less coherent whole. It is not hard to see that to convey all the intricacies of the plot in a conventional, linear way would be nearly impossible in such a short film. The scriptwriter could reasonably have preferred to focus on a smaller assemblage of episodes from Sofichka’s life, or could otherwise have changed the plot more radically in order to achieve similar effects as the written narrative but through the language of cinema. Kovalenko, instead, maintained the events themselves mostly unchanged. What she changed was the guiding aesthetic principle of the narrative, as well as its motivation. Iskander’s narrative is marked by a metonymical movement, in which one thing leads to another with no clearly established logic other than proximity or contiguity. This is replaced in the film by a reliance on ellipsis and what occasionally feels like frenzied editing: the viewer, if inclined to follow the plot, often needs to fill in the blanks herself, especially during the first third of the film or so.

As I was watching the film, in fact, I began to wonder how understandable the story would be to a viewer unfamiliar with Iskander’s novella, and whether being able to follow the plot even matters. The answers, I believe, are the following: a viewer would have a hard time understanding everything that takes place on screen; if she did understand, she might not be able to gauge the relevance of what was happening before her eyes. Maybe my observations stem from having read the novella immediately before watching the film for the first time, which highlighted the ways in which the film alternately resembles and differs from the story. Having watched the film again months later, by which time my recollection of details of Iskander’s story had worn off somewhat, I struggled, not so much with following the plot, but rather with how easy it was to follow the plot at times. Characters utter lines that are meant to address precisely such concerns by reminding the viewer who a given character was or what she had done in an earlier scene. We are also shown a helpful flashback of a character in his youth as he reappears on screen as an elderly man. The intention is presumably to seem “realistic” by showing instead of telling or, when telling, by having a character tell it on screen. The result, however, can feel stilted and contrived. 

sofichkaThe fast editing and what feels overall like a rushed narrative most likely stem from the circumstances of the production itself rather than any particular principle at play, and in this sense the film feels truly like a final workshop project rather than a first (commercial) feature. The motivating event for the narrative, on the other hand, is a deliberate artistic choice: Sofichka’s return to her house after her Siberian exile, which triggers a flood of remembrances as she walks throughout the house. This device of narrative construction owes much, presumably, to Sokurov’s own guidance and influence on his pupil: we perceive echoes of Sokurov’s technique in the acting mannerisms of old Sofichka as she stares into the void, in the elaborate sound architecture of the film (snippets of dialogue, as noted earlier, become a major vehicle to fill in details of the plot), or in the emphasis overall on the power of memory and place to conjure the past and bring it back into existence.

This viewer wished that Kovalenko had incorporated yet another trait of Sokurov’s filmmaking into Sofichka, namely his disregard for the source material when the circumstances make it difficult to remain faithful to it (while remaining truthful to it at the same time). Perhaps the best example of this approach is his Days of Eclipse (Dni zatmeniia, Lenfilm,1988), a film ostensibly based on a book (and a script) by the Brothers Strugatskii, but which preserves from the source just the mood and its overarching questions, while blazing its own path as an artwork in a completely different medium. Sofichka the film disappoints when it attempts to tell a story that clearly does not fit into its intended format. It seems to focus too much on telling this story, however, without reflecting on it enough. Perhaps the most representative omission from the story (for the film does omit some things) is the episode in which Sofichka—bearing a single photograph of her deceased husband—asks a photography studio in the “big city” of Mukhus (the stand-in for Sukhum(i), the capital of Abkhazia, in Iskander’s Chegem cycle) to retouch it so that Rouf can be shown smiling rather than staring sternly into the camera. Sofichka had heard that the studio would be able to recreate anything in a photograph, much as it had managed to manipulate a photo in order to show Uncle Sandro riding a horse when there was no horse in reality. Sofichka leaves disappointed: the studio is unable to manipulate Rouf’s photo, to give him a facial expression that he does not possess in the picture. Whether as a meditation on the limits of images or on the fact that images alone do not suffice to convey the presence of those who are gone, this episode speaks to an inherent yearning—of Sofichka for her husband, and also of film itself towards the events it registers.

Why talk about a scene that does not exist in the film? This episode from Sofichka the novella encapsulates things we never quite get from Sofichka the film. The viewer does not really understand the extent of Sofichka’s love for her husband, of her suffering, or her inherently good nature. Things happen to her, and Sofichka seems to endure things stoically—and passively. In Kovalenko’s film, Sofichka is not an example of empathetic abnegation, but rather of a grim acceptance of everything that life throws her way. She lives her life, then she dies, and that is all. In this sense, she is not that different from so many other women in Russian cinema (including in Sokurov’s films) who endure similar hardship against the background of momentous historical events, but it was not clear why her story in particular had to be told. Having done away with Iskander’s moralizing ending (something that Kovalenko is entitled to do), the film leaves a void in its place. Nuri, at the end of Iskander’s novella, finds himself in the ruins of his childhood home, a cathartic event that triggers a stream of remembrances and his painful realization of Sofichka’s irrevocable absence. The film, on the other hand, concludes with a panoramic shot of the mountains of Abkhazia.  The implication may be that Sofichka’s spirit has risen to the heavens, but it is a rather banal ending all the same. Ultimately, the film viewer has met Sofichka, witnessed her plight, and seen how it relates to major historical events of her time. Was Sofichka’s suffering worth anything, though? The film does not even hint at an answer (or, if it does, it is unconvincing); the book, by contrast, laments her suffering as, essentially, futile, and herein lies the core of Iskander’s moralizing reproach of society for allowing such suffering to exist.

Perhaps the best way to understand Sofichka the film is to regard it as a semi-documentary, a film that deliberately embraces a sometimes “flat” realism in contrast with Iskander’s “deep” reading of Abkhazia as alternately symbol, victim, and spiritual core of the Soviet brotherhood of nations. Hence the decision to have the film be spoken entirely in Abkhazian (except for one short scene in which a few words are spoken in Georgian) whereas Iskander’s oeuvre, including Sofichka, had been written in Russian. Hence also the use of non-professional actors for a variety of roles, including most notably the young incarnation of Sofichka herself (Lana Basariia). And hence, finally, the decision to shoot the film on location in Abkhazia, a breakaway republic of Georgia with a self-declared independent government recognized only by Russia and four other states (Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Syria). This emphasis on a kind of Barthesian reality effect, however, clashes with the film’s attachment to conventional storytelling. Sofichka is not quite sure of what it wants to be as a film: a “standard” ekranizatsiia of a work of highbrow literature; an arthouse film in an “exotic” setting and language (but helpfully, if confusingly given the film’s estranging intentions, subtitled in Russian); an epic meditation on the Soviet experience; a documentary spotlight on a forgotten corner of the post-Soviet space. It is fascinating to consider the film in light of these individual paths, and Kovalenko’s ambitiousness in her directorial debut deserves praise. Yet, by trying to be so many things at once, Sofichka disappoints by being master of none.

Cassio de Oliveira
Portland State University

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Sofichka, Russia, 2016.
Color, 78 min.
Director: Kira Kovalenko
Script: Anton Sergeev, Kantemir Balagov, Kira Kovalenko
Based on the eponymous novella by Fazil Iskander
Producer: Nikolai Iankin
DoP: Airat Iamilov, Filipp Martynov
Cast: Lana Basariia, Tsiala Inapshba, Sergei Tomashevskii, Said Kamkiia, Raul Kouv
Production: Primer intonatsii—Nekommercheskii fond podderzhki kinematografa (Fond Aleksandra Sokurova), Lenfilm, Klub 418, and Fond Vladimira Smirnova i Konstantina Sorokina.
Premiere 17 November 2016 at Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF), Tallinn, Estonia.

Kira Kovalenko: Sofichka (2016)

reviewed by Cassio de Oliveira © 2019

Updated: 2019