Issue 67 (2020)

Mikhail Dovzhenko: Short Waves (Korotkie volny, 2017)

reviewed by Arlene Forman © 2020

What’s in A Name (or Two or Three)?

korotkie volnyGiven Mikhail Dovzhenko’s work as a radio host for Ekho Moskvy (Moscow Echo) and Serebrianyi Dozhd’ (Silver Rain), the title of his first feature film, Short Waves, should hardly come as a surprise. Also connected to the small screen, this Dovzhenko has served as an editor and TV presence on NTV, on the Kul’tura and Nostalgia channels, as well as a frequent contestant on the classic quiz show What? Where? When? (Chto? Gde? Kogda?) until his victory in the 2003 season. About a decade later, Dovzhenko shifted to the big screen, where he has appeared in number of minor roles (How to Raise a Million [Kak podniat’ million, 2014]; Loves Me, Love Me, Love Me Not [Liubit, ne liubit, 2014]; The Right to Love [Pravo na liubov’, 2014]) while co-writing, producing and directing his first short, Shredder (Shreder, 2014). When filming his next, Not Yet (Poka net, 2015), Dovzhenko already considered it a second segment of an omnibus film in celebration of the 120th anniversary of Aleksandr Popov’s invention (noted in the feature’s opening credits). In Short Waves the two shorts serve as the introduction and conclusion to a five-part comedy in which Dovzhenko attempts “to tell about how radio works from the inside.”

The first part, Shredder,”opens with a cab ride in central Moscow at night, the downtown ablaze with light, music filling the air. The passenger, Aleks Dubas of Silver Rain, typecast as an eponymous talk show host on Radio Z, will soon add his voice to the ionosphere. His topic tonight will be the merits or demerits of a contemporary Russian painting recently purchased for £320,000. As his two guests, screen favorites Vladimir Mishukov and Ekaterina Volkova, enter the dimly-lit studio, the capital reflected in its darkened windows, they are surprised to find a young boy there. Throughout the program, Iasha, the son of the host’s friend, will listen to children’s tunes on headphones and draw a picture, unawares of the challenge issued over the airways: listeners are asked to decide whether or not the aforementioned canvas (“Eternity”), should be destroyed in a shredder. Shots of callers sharing their opinions, as well as the artist (Vladislav Malenko of such TV crime dramas as Code of Honor [Kodeks chesti, 2004-2014]) and his muse (Alisa Khazanova of the series Tomorrow [Zavtra, 2015] and Dark World. Equilibrium [Temnyi mir. Ravnovesie, 2013]), are intercut with studio interiors until the verdict is delivered. If, as Dubas maintains, Shredder is based on real events, Dovzhenko’s recreation underscores the prejudices and vanity of the urban population, from the grizzled cabby (veteran actor Igor Iasulovich) to the collector of rubber ducks (Evgenii Grishkovets of the films Satisfaction [Satisfaktsiia, dir. Anna Matison, 2010] and Wake Me Up [Razbudi menia, dir. Guillaume Protsenko, 2017]).  All reveal their moral, rather than aesthetic, standards and in the final analysis both the manipulated and manipulators prove ethically compromised, save the young boy whose own artistic efforts are intended to leave viewers with a “feel good” conclusion to this social lampoon.

korotkie volny“Translator” (“Perevodchik”) opens on a close-up of Pasha (Pavel Barshak), a young man immodestly singing his own praises while dreaming of procuring state funding to film his wife, the radio host Olga (Ekaterina Volkova redux). Preparing to escape her radio studio for a while, Olga sheds her cut-offs and a well-worn Minnie Mouse T-shirt, dons black lingerie and garters, applies red lipstick, trades her sneakers for Louis Vuittons and emerges in a body-conscious dress, her dark tresses flowing. Returning home, her amorous plans vanish, replaced by thoughts of betrayal.  When she leaves, her husband reaches for the bottle. Thus begins an epic drinking binge, leading Pasha to venture into the streets, to bars, to the commuter rail and from there to a family dacha. In the morning he continues to imbibe, this time sharing the bottle with his uncle (Time Machine’s Evgenii Margulis in his acting debut). Frustrated by his inability to reach Olga by phone in this technological dead zone, Pasha can only hear her voice through an old Soviet radio. After drinking a toast to Popov, Uncle David holds forth on the permanence of radio, its superiority over contemporary technology, claiming for it (along with cockroaches and rock ‘n roll) eternal existence. Only when the young man finally steps away from the bottle and stumbles outside into nature, does he find inspiration for his future actions. Once again, it is a little child that leads him.

The third offering, “Card Game” (“Igra v karty”), easily could be subtitled “Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous.” After several establishing shots on the shores of Nice, the camera rises over expensive Riviera real estate to focus on one property, whose residents and possessions are unhurriedly revealed. The camera slowly pans over the grill of a parked luxury vehicle, a vintage red Eldorado convertible, while the car radio plays an interview. A man who fancies himself an urbane urbanite complains about the intolerability of gender role reversals to a female host. Events that have transpired in a card game at the estate only confirm his contention that the patriarchy has been displaced. Three card players, Russian wives (Anna Churina, Dar'ia and Ekaterina Nosik) as sleek and well-kept as the vintage Cadillac, impart new meaning to the phrase “trophy wife,” by taking the tradition of men providing compensation for their spouse’s gambling debts into the realm of the grotesque.

The fourth vignette, “Radio Room” (“Radiorubka”), explores the aspirations of some of the younger residents of Krivoluzhsk, many of whom dream of escaping this Russian backwater to live in the West. When their access to the Internet is unceremoniously terminated, they recall the older form of communication which would enable them to broadcast over the airways, albeit to a much more limited audience.  They run to the old municipal radio room, which has been manned for decades by Dmitrii Savel’evich (Vladimir Nosik, whose acting career then spanned 55 years). As the twenty-somethings adjust to a technology that is new to them, they confront questions of morality and deal with feelings of love and betrayal.

korotkie volny“Not Yet” presents the dilemma of radio host Irma (Lithuanian actress Severija Janusauskaite of Star [Zvezda, dir. Anna Melikian, 2014], The Norwegian [Norveg, dir. Alena Zvantsova, 2015], Dreamfish [Ryba-mechta, dir. Anton Bil’zho, 2016]), demoted by her boss and former flame to the early morning call-in show “Spinach with Eggs” (a ridiculous and sexually suggestive title of his creation).  Rebuffing listener requests for details of her off-air life, Irma leaves the studio and cycles around town. After a series of enigmatic speed dates (the pinnacle of cameos in this celeb-laden film), her personal tragedy is revealed with the introduction of her ailing husband (Latvian star Ivars Kalnins [Kalnynsh] of Janis Streics’ Theatre [Teatris, 1978] or the TV mini-series Little Tragedies [Malen’kie tragedii, 1980], or more recently an episode in the series The Taste of Pomegranate [Vkus granata, 2011–]). As the title suggests, there is no resolution to Irma’s dilemma, as she continues to navigate her literal and metaphysical journey through a liminal space.

Where does this leave the viewer at the end of Short Waves? Some may enjoy the opportunity to see so many household names in the space of eighty-three minutes. Cognoscenti of What? Where? When? will spot Dovzhenko as the news reader in “Shredder,” as well as prize winners Sergei Tsar’kov and Boris Eremin in “Translator” (which also includes a scene with poet Vladimir Vishnevskii). Fans of the series Six Degrees of Celebration (Yolki, 2010-2018) will identify Elena Plaksina, and others will recognize many of Irma’s potential suitors (Konstantin Iukevich, Aleksei Makarov, Viacheslav Manucharov, Aleskandr Bunin, Anna Churina). While these walk-ons are played for laughs, they are hardly enough to sustain the film as a whole. 

Short Waves’ quintet was shot by different cameramen. Closing titles credit Boris Litovchenko (who filmed the shorts Shredder and Not Yet) and Gevorg Markosian, but do not indicate who was responsible for the remaining three vignettes. Data bases at and IMDb complicate matters by adding Natal’ia Iudina, again not clarifying her participation in the process. So it remains unclear, for example, who shot the lovely aerial views in “Radio Room.” Litovchenko demonstrates versatility, as he casts Riga in pastel hues that contrast markedly to the nocturnal views of Moscow with which the film begins. While shots of Moscow at night or the Baltic’s blue shores have become commonplace today, they nevertheless provide a quick shorthand for viewers, quickly and efficiently establishing the appropriate mood.

korotkie volnyThe same can be said of the music. Zhenia Liubich’s rendition of “Steppe Wolf” starts the feature and more of her vocals will appear in subsequent pieces. Misha Luzin performs “Pink Wallpaper” for pedestrians in a Moscow crosswalk (“Translator”) and his recording of “Less than Zero” is broadcast to listeners in Riga. The Moscow trio French Whore Named Babette provides the suitable angst of pop punk for both “Translator” and “Radio Room.” The neo-retrodelic group Salute is featured in “Shredder” and “Not Yet.” The soundtrack provides something for a wide variety of tastes. There’s Unhappy Accident’s “I’m Freaking out, Momma,” a critique of the war in Ukraine, a symphonic instrumental, the classic “I’ve Got You Under my Skin,” Vladimir Presniakov Jr.’s ballad “Road” (especially composed for the finale) and much, much more. Given the film’s focus on radio, the sound is primarily diegetic, and most of the non-diegetic moments seem to imply that those tunes have been absorbed and internalized by the characters.

The lavish presentation of radio as entertainment, seems to overpower the medium’s other functions. While Short Waves begins with a dramatization of its more serious aspects, namely how talk shows and news broadcasts shape and influence the population today, this topic, initially treated with some seriousness, soon devolves into the ridiculous before the finale concludes on a note of sentimentality. In these five uneasy pieces Dovzhenko touches on such issues as state funding of the arts, homophobia, chauvinism, life abroad, alcoholism and gender roles, but explores them largely for comedic value. 

With a wealth of overt and covert references to Fellini, Woody Allen and other foreign directors, Dovzhenko reveals his love for world cinema. His expressed desire to provide his audience with a backstage look at the inner workings of radio translates into a film where viewers see little more than what they could find in Oksana Bychkova’s Piter FM (2006)While Dovzhenko maintains that radio is a litmus test which makes people real, in the hands of this neophyte director, those depicted on screen seem anything but. 

Arlene Forman, Professor Emerita
Oberlin College

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Works Cited

Anon. 2019. “Mikhail Dovzhenko: ‘Radio delaet liudei nastoiashchimi’.” Kinoafisha 17 April.

Feklistov, Igor’. 2019. “V prokat vyxodit fil’m izvestnogo tele- i radiovedushchego Mikhaila Dovzhenko ‘Korotkie volny’.” Komsomol’skaia Pravda 5 April.

“Novosti fil’ma.” 2015., 15 October.

Short Waves, Russia, 2017.
Color, 83 minutes
Director: Mikhail Dovzhenko
Script: Mikhail Dovzhenko, Anna Geizhan, Inna Tkachenko, Aleksandr Bunin
Cinematography: Boris Litovchenko, Gevorg Markosian, Natal’ia Iudina
Producers: Mikhail Dovzhenko, Katerina Mikhailova, Aleksandr Gagarinov, Artem Grigor’ev
Music: Artem Vassiliev, Vladimir Presniakov 
Cast: Aleks Dubas, Evgenii Grishkovets, Igor’ Iasulovich, Ekaterina Volkova, Alisa Khazanova, Severija Janusauskaite, Ivars Kalnins, Anna Churina, Aleksei Makarov, Viacheslav Manucharov, Pavel Barshak, Vladimir Nosik, Dar’ia Nosik, Boris Grachevskii, Ekaterina Nosik, Anna Tsukanova-Kott, Vladimir Vishnevskii, Addis De Grant, Natal’ia Tetenova, Maksim Rusanov, Vladislav Malenko, Kseniia Kniazeva
Production: Kinokompaniia Samolet

Mikhail Dovzhenko: Short Waves (Korotkie volny, 2017)

reviewed by Arlene Forman © 2020

Updated: 2020