Issue 70 (2020)

Andrei Griazev, The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan, 2020)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2020


A middle-age guy, with dodgy home-made tattoos and looking somewhat the worse for wear, addresses the President of the Russian Federation from his tatty bathroom, to request the re-introduction of 100ml miniature bottles (the sale of which has been restricted to combat alcoholism). Combined in a montage that alternates darkly comic scenes like this with heart-rending pleas, such as that from a woman sporting two black eyes, who begs Vladimir Putin to do something about domestic violence, Andrei Griazev skillfully subverts the “Direct Line” phone-ins that Putin held annually until 2019 (and, despite their flagging popularity, will presumably resume, whenever Covid restrictions permit).

These events are often derided as apparently spontaneous, but in fact very carefully vetted and stage-managed spectacles. However, Christine Evans and Susanne Wengle have argued that the Direct Line addresses are a form of symbolic state-building, promoting Putin’s personal guarantee of the state’s effectiveness and authority (Wengle and Evans 2018, 385). They suggest that it is precisely the scripted and staged nature of the format that underpins its power:

Each broadcast is a carefully staged and technologically sophisticated theatrical performance, the product of thousands of deliberate and negotiated decisions by media elites about selection of viewer questions, state responses, the use of media, the configuration of the studio, and much more (Wengle and Evans 2018, 385).

kotlovanThe subjects of Griazev’s film serve as a corrective to the Direct Line’s whitewashing of the country’s problems, and choreographed resolutions. Instead, they fight back with a kind of counter-performance. Indeed, we might view these uncensored addresses to Putin through Michel de Certeau’s opposition of “strategy” and “tactics”: the Direct Line performances are part of a strategy of projection of the smooth and efficient function of state power, whereas the addresses to Putin that Griazev’s film presents are tactics, a kind of inhabiting and subversion of the state-sanctioned genre.

kotlovanThese micro-acts of subversion are edited together skillfully in a kind of compilation or found footage film, so much so that they speak for themselves compellingly with no need for any voice-over commentary or captions, and only a very minimal use of non-diegetic music. The construction of the material may be seen in the best traditions of the compilation film genre pioneered by Russian (or Soviet) cinema with the works of Dziga Vertov and Esfir’ Shub, later developed by Mikhail Romm, Roman Karmen and latterly by Sergei Loznitsa. As with their work, Griazev groups the grievances addressed to the president: those who swear at him, those suffering economic problems in their factories or farms, those who have been victims of real estate scams, those whose relatives are in prison, those living in unsanitary conditions and threatened by pollution, the homeless, former policemen, children, and those who want to emigrate. The cumulative effect is to suggest a comprehensive picture of misery, despair and a swelling tide of as yet inchoate anger.

kotlovanThe compilation of YouTube video messages to Putin is preceded by another montage, this time mostly from national and local news reports, of foundation pits (hence the title). People address the camera to declare their pride at digging enormous pits, and even Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov reminisces how much he enjoyed digging a foundation pit for the Television Center when he was a student.

All of this is in turn cued by a sequence where a man switches on the Rossiya channel for a pensioner, telling him “this is your channel.” There is a faint echo of the prologue to Andrei Tarkovskii’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece, The Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975), where a young boy is cured of a speech impediment and states: “I want to speak.” Here the prologue, the statement “this is your channel: Rossiya,” makes it clear that the film we are about to watch is a metaphor for Russia, and that Russia is an enormous hole in the ground. There are echoes here, too, of Andrei Platonov’s 1930 novel The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan), in which dreams of building a “common proletarian home” get no further than the excavation of an ever-expanding hole in the ground, the function of which turns from foundation pit to grave. In Griazev’s film, too, the foundation pits do not lead to the construction of something, but take on a kind of life of their own, testifying to botched aspiration and failure to build. Some become sinkholes, others are clandestinely repurposed by children as improvised and hazardous playgrounds, swimming pools or skating rinks, sometimes with fatal results.

kotlovanThe film ends with footage of people urging the Yakutsk shaman, Aleksandr Gabyshev, who walked to Moscow in a bid to drive Putin from the Kremlin (or demons from Putin). He was subsequently put in a mental hospital, leading to the Human Rights organizations, Memorial and Amnesty International to declare him a political prisoner. Following his release in the summer 2020, he has stopped talking about politics. By contrast, in this, his fourth feature-length documentary film, Griazev has made his most explicitly political film, as well as— with the foray into compilation—marking a sharp departure from the method employed in his previous films: Sania and Sparrow (Sania i vorobei, 2009), Miner’s Day (Den’ shakhtera, 2010), and Tomorrow (Zavtra, 2012), which were all highly observational. They all enjoyed exposure at international film festivals, none more so than Tomorrow, which portrayed the Voina actionist art group (from which Pussy Riot sprang), and led to scandals as the group protested against their unflattering portrayal and demanded financial compensation.

While, Griazev always saw himself as making political films, arguing that all contemporary art must be political (Maliukova 2011), The Foundation Pit is without question much more explicitly so than his previous works. In a glowing review in Meduza, Anton Dolin praises the film for simultaneously undermining two myths about the Russian people that dominate contemporary Russian political debate: the liberal one, claiming that they are not capable of protesting; and the conservative one, arguing that they are happy with their lot (Dolin 2020). In articulating a picture of rising anger, The Foundation Pit also adds more evidence of an increasingly political dimension to Russian cinema, including documentary, and a further break with the political passivity of the “new quiet ones.” The question is, however, whether these messages and this film will find an audience in Russia, and not just on the international film circuit.

Jeremy Hicks
 Queen Mary University of London


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Works Cited

Dolin, Anton. 2020. “‘Kotlovan’—fil’m, sobrannyi iz iutiub–obrashchenii rossiian k prezidentu.” Meduza 25 February.

Maliukova, Larisa. 2011. “Andrei Griazev: Iskusstvo segodnia obiazano byt’ politicheskim.” [Art Today Is Compelled to Be Political]. Kinote 30 March.

Wengle, Susanne, and Christine Evans. 2018. “Symbolic State-Building in Contemporary Russia.” Post-Soviet Affairs 34 (6): 384-411. doi: 10.1080/1060586X.2018.1507409.

The Foundation Pit, Russia, 2020
Director and Writer: Andrei Griazev
Editing Andrei Griazev
Producer Andrei Griazev
Premiere: Berlinale 2020

Andrei Griazev, The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan, 2020)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2020

Updated: 2020