Issue 70 (2020)

Aleksandr Galibin: Little Sister (Sestrenka, 2019)

reviewed by Tatiana Filimonova © 2020

sestrenkaAleksandr Galibin’s Little Sister, a family drama set during World War II, is an adaptation of “The Joy of our House” (“Radost’ nashego doma,” 1951), one of the most famous texts by Soviet-Bashkir writer Mustai Karim (1919-2005), whose centennial the film marks. This socialist-realist novella, aimed at young readers and narrated by a six-year-old Bashkir boy, centers on the temporary adoption of an orphaned Ukrainian girl by his nurturing mother. After the war ends, both children are reunited with their fathers. The film takes many liberties with the novella’s text; however, apart from its opening scene, which zooms past bullet-riddled corpses to reveal a terrified child in the chimney of a smoldering house in war-torn Soviet Ukraine, Little Sister remains appropriately placid for its designated 6+ film rating. That is, if the audience possesses the attention span of adults: in the age of 3-D animation and frantic fantasy adventures, this film, free from battle scenes and special effects, offers a quiet (if not bland) respite, which may not be an asset by young viewers’ standards today.

Even though the last fifteen years have witnessed a burgeoning of Bashkir cinema, this Bashkir-language film is a production of the Moscow-based Motor Film Studio, funded by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and produced in consultation with the Mustai Karim Fund, run by the writer’s family. Released fully in Bashkir, the film was financially successful and garnered positive audience reviews, despite some initial skepticism. As one of the producers, Dmitrii Fiks, explained: “The sound of the Bashkir language, the nature and beauty of these places are the most important components of this film. […] Russia is a multinational country and we want to reflect the whole of our culture’s rich palette” (Anon., 2018). This comment addresses at least one of the several assumed criteria from the Ministry of Culture’s agenda that this film meets—it promotes the culture and language of a national minority from within the Russian Federation in an idyllic fashion, seemingly free of contemporary politics and strife. Additionally, the film serves as a perfect ideological vehicle for the advancement of the new national ideology of Russian-lead multiculturalism: it focuses on Bashkirs as the ‘model’ minority within the Soviet (and Russian) state. Set during the last year of World War II, the film returns to the historical moment that has been revisited increasingly over the past decade in mainstream Russian culture, often at the behest of the government aiming to create a national idea and foster a sense of unity among its multicultural subjects. Finally, Little Sister steers clear of controversial topics, preaching friendship, kindness, respect for labor and patriotism—values intrinsic to the tradition of Soviet children’s films, which Galibin attempts to continue.

sestrenkaThe film centers around an inquisitive six-year-old boy, Yamil (Arslan Krymchurin), who lives in a Bashkir village with his mother (Il’giza Gil’manova). His father is at the front , and the boy lives from letter to letter, constructing a heroic image that inspires his daily endeavors. When his grandmother (Sulpan Abdrakhimova) suddenly arrives to take care of the boy, his mother leaves, eventually coming back with a “sister” for Yamil named Oksana (Marta Timofeeva)—the girl whom Yamil’s father had saved from the Nazis in the opening scene. After initially displaying signs of trauma, Oksana opens up to Yamil’s friendship and care, quickly picks up the Bashkir language and participates in the boy’s adventures—like, for example, looking for escaped German POWs and getting lost in the woods, or confronting the neighborhood bullies who are playing toss and catch with Oksana’s new shoes. The latter conflict is resolved by an event that reins in even the worst of the bullies: a weathered man clad in military uniform strolls over to the children asking for Yamil’s address and tearfully discovers Oksana, his long-lost daughter. The film ends dramatically. As Yamil and his mother are taking Oksana and her father to the train bound for Ukraine, in the middle of a stream they catch sight of Yamil’s father, who had been presumed dead, being alive and well, riding on the back of a truck. The Bashkir family’s happy reunion is abruptly cut off by their tearful parting with Oksana, whom the mother calls “the joy of our house,” reminding the viewers of the title of the novella that inspired the film.

sestrenkaYamil’s mother’s absurd disregard for her miraculously recovered husband and her shift of focus to Oksana, “the joy of [their] house,” is one of the blunders in the screenplay. Many liberties had to be taken with the text of Karim’s cheerful narrative to render it suitable for a plot-driven family drama. In the novella, Yamil’s father is never assumed dead, Oksana’s PTSD is not nearly as severe, and the village bullies are not nearly as prominent. Several scenes – like one in which the children stone German POWs, or another one where Yamil almost burns down his house with Oksana inside, and especially an extended sequence in which Yamil and his friend run away attempting to join soldiers at the front—were written especially for the film and make it excessively dramatic. Only a few of the key plot elements remain, but, given the novella’s strong socialist-realist underpinning, some of these changes and additions are for the better. Few children today would be motivated to watch a boy holding up a banner for minutes on end or share his enthusiasm about sweeping the yard clean.

Tsestrenkahe film’s new focus serves to promote Bashkir national culture, as intended by the Ministry of Culture’s generous funding. The film omits most of the Soviet propaganda, which occupied a prominent place in the novella: Yamil’s veneration of the Russian language spoken on Moscow radio; the whole village’s joy over International Workers’ Day; and Yamil’s exhilaration at holding the red banner at the parade. In the book, the village elders are exposed as illiterate, regretting having refused the Bolsheviks’ offers to teach them; in the film, Islamic heritage is embraced, as it turns out the local elder simply cannot read Cyrillic but is well-versed in Arabic script. The socialist-realist fascination with Moscow, Soviet Pioneers, and May 1, is replaced in the film by Yamil’s infatuation with Bashkir folklore and its epic heroes battling snakes of mythic proportion. Instead of red banners, the mise-en-scene often includes carefully selected and, therefore, somewhat aseptic combinations of authentic objects of prewar Bashkir byt. However, in the film, Bashkir culture is still celebrated only within the context of a greater Russian or Soviet state, as together Russians and Bashkirs fight against the common enemy in World War II.

While the war itself was enough of an antagonist for a socialist-realist children’s story, in the film, the village bully takes on the role of the “villain” in at least three prominent scenes. Naturally, he is reformed at the end. The numerous conflicts added to the screenplay, like the ones with the bully, might propel young viewers to keep watching this “archaic” film, in the words of Andrei Korolev (2019). One critic, however, remarked that, unlike in the classics of Soviet children’s cinema about the war, such as Marlen Khutsiev’s Two Fedors (Dva Fedora, 1958) or Lev Golub’s A Girl Seeks Her Father (Devochka ishchet ottsa, 1959), Little Sister’s characters fail to develop any depth or ambivalence; their representation on the screen lacks authenticity, and the film thus appears as lubok-style propaganda (Gritsai, 2019). Perhaps the 6+ audience is not quite ready for the more mature dialogue that Gritsai accuses the film of lacking; however, the film does sometimes fall flat. The screenwriter’s and director’s attempt to include multiple additional side-plots and plot-driving conflicts resulted in a failure to fully develop some of the key characters. The film, however, successfully preserves select lively details from the story—such as the moment when a desperate Yamil, unable to find his boot, runs out to greet his mother barefoot in the snow.

sestrenkaAmong the film’s redeeming features are its successful casting and cinematography. Oksana, played by Russia’s child-star actress Timofeeva, is a pleasure to watch, despite occasional overacting. The true star of the film is Krymchurin, whose candid portrayal of Yamil adds uncontested authenticity and vivacity to Karim’s young protagonist. The cinematography of Mikhail Agranovich, most famous for his work on Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (Monanieba, 1984), skillfully captures the fresh emotions of the young cast members, as well as the pastoral beauty of Bashkir landscapes.

While focusing on children’s joys and sorrows might relegate broader political implications to the periphery, making a film about World War II in the middle of Putin’s third term cannot be devoid of politics. With World War II having taken on a symbolic role as a spiritual bond, a skrepa, holding together the post-Soviet Russian society and members of its Eurasian alliances, the film serves to promote the understanding of a common history and culture among Russia’s multiethnic subjects. Moreover, the film implicitly makes a political statement that might be overlooked but will, eventually, reach young Russian viewers, if even on a subconscious level. One detail of Karim’s novella, which is eagerly embraced by the film, hints at the perceived folly of Ukraine’s current anti-Russian stance. The film conveniently features the dramatic rescue of a Ukrainian girl from a ravaged village, and her subsequent integration into peaceful Bashkir life away from the front, sending contemporary viewers a reminder about Ukraine’s historical debt to Russia and the Soviet army.

Having integrated into the plot some crowd-pleasing moments—a dog that aids in saving Oksana, and the dramatic family reunions—this movie will likely satisfy older adults of the Soviet generation who are nostalgic both for low-action films about the Great Patriotic War and the Soviet children’s cinema of their youth. However, it will hardly enter the canon of internationally-renowned World War II films or attract a large audience of young viewers in the years to come.

Tatiana Filimonova
College of Wooster

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Works Cited

Anon. 2018. “Fil’m po povesti Mustaia Karima ‘Radost’ nashego foma’ vyidet v prokat k 100-letiiu pisatelia.”  Fond Mustaia Karima. 9 August. 

Gritsai, Semen. 2019. “‘Sestrenka’: retsenziia kinoafishi. Chto takoe novoe rossiiskoe voennoe kino i kak s nim borot’sia.” Kinoafisha 20 September.

Korolev, Andrei. 2019. “Arkhaichnaia sestrenka Galibina otchaianno vsmatrivaetsia v sovetskoe kinoproshloe.” 20 May.

Little Sister, Russia, 2019
Color, 94 minutes
Original Language: Bashkir
Director: Aleksandr Galibin
Script: Aidar Akmanov, Mustai Karim
Composer: Il’ia Dukhovnyi
DoP: Mikhail Agranovich
Editing: Igor Medvedev
Cast: Arslan Krymchurin, Marta Timofeeva, Iusuf Rakhmetov, Il’giza Gil’manova, Sulpan Abrakhimova
Producers: Dmitrii Fiks, Timerbulat Karimov, Mikhail Kurbatov
Release date: 16 November 2019

Aleksandr Galibin: Little Sister (Sestrenka, 2019)

reviewed by Tatiana Filimonova © 2020

Updated: 2020