New Films 






Vadim Abdrashitov: Magnetic Storms (Magnitnye buri) (2003)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2003

Following a long-standing tradition of collaboration, the latest film by Vadim Abdrashitov Magnetic Storms is based once again on a script by Aleksandr Mindadze. But here the tradition ends. The film is not only unusually short (90 minutes), but it is also very ‘young’ in terms of its use of film language, tapping into very contemporary cinematic trends.

The plot of the film is extremely difficult to figure out: for the first twenty or so minutes the spectator is confronted with monochrome scenes of nightly gang fights in a factory, shot in a blue-grey tint that veils the two opposed sides in a cloth of uniformity. Indeed, they are all workers of the same factory somewhere in the Urals, maybe Magnitogorsk. The scenes of the fist-fights between the two gangs of factory workers are paced and almost choreographed, never showing any physical injury sustained in the fight but rather the movement of the racing steps and the beating fists. The speed with which these actions happen is also reflected by the camera, which never offers an overview of the situation, muddled as it is, but reflects the confusion and disorientation of those involved in the fight. The cameraman Iurii Shaigardanov is concerned primarily with close-ups, denying the spectator (like the participants) an overview and offering very few panorama shots. This absence of an overview and the breathtakingly fast movement of the camera create a sense of dizziness for the spectator, almost like in the Dogme films shot with a hand-held camera, or the recent film by Mikhail Brashinskii, Gololed. This is one of the reasons why the film has such a young feel about it.

At the same time, the absence of overview makes it difficult for the spectator to grasp the context of the events. Even if this context is hinted at in the first scene and the first replies of the film, it is a backdrop rather than the lens for the film’s events. In this sense it is an extraordinarily bold move on the part of the director to underline that history is not made by man. History may influence actions, but it is no driving force. Abdrashitov presents a film which, not unlike Aleksei German’s Khrustalev, views event from very close without placing them into a historical context, since it is interested in the view onto events from within the temporal context and within the history to which the characters are subjected. The grip of historic events that shake up human lives and that pass like a thunderstorm is one explanation of the film’s title Magnetic Storms.

The events are set in the late 1980s, during the period of factory strikes that were rooted in attempts to privatize state-owned enterprises. The factory stands divided between two bureaucrat-bosses who seemingly haggle over the ownership of the factory: part of the staff sides with Savchuk, the other with Markin. It transpires gradually that they have long struck a deal and use the factory workers for their own, common, political goals. They pay the strike leaders to kindle the strike and the confrontations, to the extent that the army has to be brought in to pacify the situation. The ‘bosses’ are paid for this, as it is part of central politics to use these strikes as proof against the unsuitability of the reforms planned by the Gorbachev government in the late 1980s and to undermine privatization of state property on the one hand, and on the other to cover the deals that had been struck locally between party bosses as to who would appropriate which property. However, this background is never set out in any coherent way but is left to the spectator (and this clearly must be a spectator with experience of the late 1980s, in other words not a young cinema-goer of the age group 18-25).

Having set the historical backdrop for the film, Abdrashitov develops the personal-romantic line of the plot: the relationship between the couple Marina (Viktoria Tolstoganova) and Valera (Maksim Averin). They are a happily married couple, hard-working and living in a small flat. They are happy and content with their lives, fulfilled in their love for each other: they understand each other without words, they cannot be apart from each other for long. Their relationship is that of two people made for each other. But the events literally intrude into their lives: first, when the street fighters penetrate into their flat and continue the fight almost in their bedroom as they are in bed, an intrusion into the a sacrosanct private space. Then Valera discovers the loss of his wedding ring, which had been stolen during a fight; soon after Marina discovers that her wedding ring has disappeared during the fight in their apartment. The first signs of a disruption to their marital bliss are looming on the horizon. Furthermore their relationship is threatened by Marina’s attractiveness in the dull industrial town. The only ‘beautiful’ and attractive woman (apart from Marina) is Marina’s sister Natasha, who comes to visit the couple. She stays in the local hotel, where she transforms into the prostitute Angela. She offers Valera money if he will let Marina go to Moscow with her as a prostitute. Corruption extends not only to the secret deals of the factory management, but also to the sphere of prostitution. Marina, who narrowly escapes rape after returning with Valera from the fields where they have stolen potatoes, understands that she has a choice: being, sooner or later, raped by the local workers, or going with her sister to Moscow to be ‘raped’ and paid, to prostitute herself. She chooses the latter, leaving Valera behind.

At the end of the film the workers march towards the factory, this time to work, in unison. Their marching not is similarly choreographed as in the opening scene, but this time it is one-directional, and takes place at daylight. As it were the nightmare of the strike wave (the magnetic storms) is over. Stability has returned, but happiness has gone for the individual. 

Abdrashitov captures very finely the historical context, but more importantly the social byt of the time. He has chosen two young actors for the parts of Marina and Valera: two people who have not themselves experiences the period in which the film is set. They play with admirable precision the roles of workers living a rotten life in the provinces, a dull existence lit up only by their love for each other. Averin creates an image of Valera through a series of precise gestures, but above all with his facial expression, telling his feelings with his eyes (remember we are largely presented with close-ups). Tolstoganova too offers a fine performance, although her face remains colder and more closed, withholding her emotions rather than expressing them, which is in line with the action that her heroine chooses: she leaves her emotions behind and goes to Moscow, denying her love.


Vadim Abdrashitov: Magnetic Storms (Magnitnye buri) (2003)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2003