Issue 71 (2021)

Vasilii Kuzovlev: Hear Me (Uslysh menia, 2020)

reviewed by Olia Kim © 2021

hear meHear Me is a peculiar film in the context of the contemporary Russian film industry. This film does not belong to the category of big budget commercial genre films, such as patriotic blockbusters or cosmopolitan romcoms featuring stars. Neither is it an arthouse film intended primarily for festival audiences. Hear Me was made with a minimal and mostly private budget, (the director, Vasilii Kuzovlev, sold his apartment and car to make the film), with non-professional crew and actors (all the participants are amateurs, except for the director, who is an actor by training), and was primarily intended for a local audience (according to Kuzovlev, the film is made “for Siberians and by Siberians”). Perhaps the peculiarity of this film could be best understood within the framework of regional cinema, which has gained some traction in recent years thanks partly to what now is known as the “Yakut cinema boom.”  

According to Nevafilm Research (Leont’ieva et al. 2014), in some Russian regions—especially in Buryatia and Yakutia, but also in Karelia, Udmurtia, Chelyabinsk, Orenburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan—locally produced cinema is blooming. The genres of such films vary from horror, to drama, to action and most popular are comedies. These films are made primarily by self-trained enthusiasts and non-professional cast and crew, using private or rented equipment. The films are released in local movie theaters and often successfully compete against big budget commercial productions. Although not the most successful example of this phenomenon, Hear Me could be seen as an example of the regional cinema that emerges between the cracks of commercial and auteur cinema in the contemporary Russian film industry.

hear meHear Me is produced by Sibirfilm company. The company is based in Krasnoyarsk and was founded and is run by the director of the film Vasilii Kuzovlev and the lead actress of the film Marina Kuzovleva. So far, the company has produced two feature-length films. The second film Starlet (Zvezdochka) was released in December 2020 and the third film about the regional experience of the Great Patriotic War is at the pre-production stage. All films are directed by the same director. In addition to film production, the Kuzovlevs run a filmmaking camp for children and adults of the region. Prior to shooting, the cast members of Hear Me were trained in one of those camps.

The film is eclectic and uncomfortable to watch, especially for viewers who are used to slick narratives and some appearance of high production value. The cinematography and editing are rudimentary, the acting is theatrical. Nonetheless, the film manages to convey some sincerity and innocence reminiscent of early cinema, in that it lacks many contemporary cinematic conventions and tricks. Such technical awkwardness or innocence works perhaps well with the genre of the film, which is often listed as children’s adventure and fantasy film.

hear meThe plot revolves around the adventures of a twelve-year-old boy Vasia and his clairvoyant sister. Together with their parents the children spend their summer in the village, which is cut off from all the comforts of civilization such as internet, electricity, or running water. The abandoned village with few inhabitants is located in the midst of taiga forests. Not far from the village a group of goldminers are prospecting for gold and among them is Vasia’s father. The gold in the film serves as an allegory of greed and corruption that runs counter to organic traditional life in the taiga. As the film progresses, Vasia gets lost in the forest and is led to mysterious encounters in the depth of taiga caves with literal skeletons from the post-revolutionary past. Meanwhile, his clairvoyant sister, who has a mysterious connection with the local witchdoctor, sees in her dreams how the idyllic pre-revolutionary life of the villagers is disrupted by the appearance of the Red commissar, who attempts to confiscate the villagers’ gold. The parallel structure between past and present that intersect through the dream and the motive of treasure (gold) is somewhat reminiscent of Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora. Trapped in the cave, Vasia refrains from the temptation of taking the gold left next to the Red commissar’s skeleton and successfully escapes with the help of his sister and children from the village. At the end, the boy is airlifted onto a helicopter by the local members of MChS (Ministry of Emergency Situations) and rewarded with a medal for bravery. In plot terms, this scene is redundant, but it allows the filmmakers to show off some stunts for entertainment and to feature the local MChS who supported the project.

hear meOverall, for an unsympathetic viewer, the film looks like a hodgepodge of fragments from Eralash (a children’s comedy TV show aired since the late Soviet era), folk fairy tales, and nature documentary, artlessly sutured by patriarchal values with a primordialist tinge. Despite such a traditionalist stance, it would be unfair to equate the film with the state-funded propaganda of patriarchal values. The camera in the hands of the filmmakers is perhaps mirroring rather than forging the image of the self. Along with the images of undisguised patriarchy, however, the film also mirrors a unique relation to nature, which is closer to mutual respect than conquest. The mutuality is particularly prominent in the scenes when Vasia is learning to hunt—the local hunter teaches Vasia to “hear” the forest and be attentive to it. The implication of passivity in the title Hear Me (uslysh’ menia), as opposed to the more aggressive “listen to me” (slushai menia), points toward an attitude of mutual attentiveness in the relation to the surrounding nature. The breathtaking landscape of the vast taiga forest and the dynamism of the river exude their majesty on screen almost regardless of the cinematic skills of the filmmakers. It would, however, be unfair to criticize this film for lack of cinematic skill or artistic sophistication. Hear Me cannot be criticized by the standards of commercial or arthouse cinema; it needs to be seen as an instance of emerging regional cinema. In some sense, the film fulfills the dream of a literally democratic cinema in the hands of the people.

Olia Kim,
Williams College

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Works Cited

Leont'ieva, Ksenia and Valerii Kustov, Viktoriia Maksiutenko, Aleksandra Starostina. 2014."'Keskil' ili 'chainik'? Slovo o rossiiskikh regional'nykh fil'makh. Sinemaskop 47 (07-09).

Hear Me, Russia, 2020
Color, 128 minutes
Director: Vasilii Kuzovlev
Script: Vasilii Kuzovlev
Cinematography: Konstantin Liskov
Cast: Timur Khasanov, Irina Alibekova, Yevgenii Meliadin, Marina Kuzovleva, Shamil' Daitov
Producers: Marina Kuzovleva, Vasilii Kuzovlev
Production: Sibirfilm Company

Vasilii Kuzovlev: Hear Me (Uslysh menia, 2020)

reviewed by Olia Kim © 2021

Updated: 2021