By Giuliano Vivaldi
The Kinotavr film festival in Sochi is Russia’s major national showcase of new films and has been going now for one year short of a quarter of a century. What this particular year’s festival had to say about the state of Russian cinema was not as straightforward as first impressions seemed to offer. It is one of the paradoxes of the festival that out of the four films that had been already shown at either Cannes or the Rome Film Festival only one really generated any real enthusiasm from many of the most established Russian film critics at Sochi. The films by Yuri Bykov (The Major) and Taisia Igumentseva (Bite the Dust) which were shown out of competition at Cannes earned few critical plaudits among the more serious film commentators (although Bykov received some enthusiastic noises among the film journalists at the press conference) and Bakhtiar Khudoinzarov, whose film Waiting for the Sea opened the Rome Film Festival, was almost openly derided for his very flawed parable film. Only Alexei Fedorchenko’s Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari gained plaudits from the more serious film critics even though large quantities of the audience left the hall in the middle of the film and the overall reaction of the spectators was divided between those in raptures over the film and others who were altogether confused by the strange form and content of the film.
The taste of the public and the jury went to other films some of which may have a mainly national resonance but are unlikely to play well in the international arena. This could certainly be said of the Grand Prix winner, Alexander Veledinsky The Geographer Drank Away His Globe which, while a favourite of both the audience, the press and the jury still probably remains too much of a popular film (however well-made and well-acted) to travel in terms of its specific artistic contribution. It is hard to believe that Veledinsky’s film, made in the competent tradition of some fine late-Soviet era films and recalling, in terms of its depiction of the contemporary ‘useless man’, Roman Balayan’s 1984 movie Flights in Dreams and Reality, will attract the film buff beyond national shores.
It is almost as if Kinotavr is starting to build up a reputation of awarding main prize to this more popular trend in national cinema having almost given up on serious international recognition of its own cinema. Last year Vasily Sigarev’s truly radical Living was passed over in favour of the redemptive film by Pavel Ruminov I’ll be Around (in fact Ruminov’s film was a reworked television drama). The previous year a Bakur Bakuradze offering The Hunter was passed over in favour of a far weaker film by Oleg Fliangolt‘s entitled Indifference. It seems as though one is forced to look at the secondary prizes at Kinotavr to find out what is truly promising in Russian cinema. This year was no exception with three of the critics’ favourite films being awarded other prizes. The critics themselves on the day before the awards ceremony met to choose Victor Mansky’s documentary film Pipeline for their award. This film was one of the most ambitious Russian documentary films of recent years with its attempt to portray a state of the country (or countries) through following the major energy pipeline from the Russian North through to Central Europe. Not a directly political film, Mansky manages, in this road movie documentary, to offer a powerfully critical glance at how the riches accruing from the selling of energy resources totally fail to benefit the population of those through whose territory the pipelines run. A central scene in the film depicts the switching on and off of the ‘eternal’ flame to commemorate the anniversary of the victory of World War Two in front of a dwindling number of veterans who are intent on discussing the demise of the Soviet Union. The strange scene of economising energy in a location through which the pipelines run through supplying a whole continent with energy is one of the absurd parallel images of excess and poverty which run through the film. Parallel scenes of funerals in Central Europe and in Russia also give some idea of how far apart the two worlds linked through the pipeline really are. Mansky, a westerniser in terms of his philosophical allegiance in the Russian context with this film seems to belie the hopes on which his vision is based.
Another favourite amongst critics was the debut film by Natalia Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov Intimate Parts. The reception to the film was, to tell the truth, both critical and popular (at least from the attitude of the auditorium). Whether the film will survive the test of time is hard to say but it is certainly a film that poses a direct challenge to the re-traditionalisation of sexual mores in Russian society. A sex comedy without a particular dramatic centre but with a number of converging stories that explode in a dramatic and explosive finale, it is noteworthy for its strong originality in terms of Russian cinematic traditions being the first major Russian film to dissect with such a wicked humour the sexual foibles of middle class Russians. One can argue that the film has a certain universality to it too and may well surprise and delight audiences outside of Russia as much as inside it. Included into the Karlovy Vary festival this may yet be the path through which this film can attain a more international audience. Given the present circumstances within Russia (laws against ‘homosexual propaganda’ and blasphemy) many in the press conference were predicting troubles ahead for the film as possible victim of censorship.
In terms of cinematographic worth Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari had something far more radical to offer. Following on from his earlier documentary fairytale Shosho (which he stated could have been Celestial husbands of the Mari), this strange poetic series of portraits of Mari women all of whose names begin with the letter O delved deep in cinematic mystery. The kind of mystery from which the cameras of Pasolini and Paradjanov draw their strength and inspiration. Fedorchenko is certainly the most playful film director in contemporary Russia even if much of the recognition of his genius comes from abroad. The superb camerawork by Shandor Berkeshi was rightly recognised by the Kinotavr jury but it still seemed a shame that no higher recognition was given to the film itself. A film which fits within the rich traditions of Soviet poetic cinema that have still yet to have been fully recognised – outside of the occasional names such as Paradjanov and Yuri Illenko.
An Uzbek-born director Yusup Razykov contributed what was perhaps one of the most surprising discoveries of the festival. Working for many years at Uzbekfilm as its director and artistic director, his film Shame is a complete break from previous work both cinematographically and geographically. Set in the icy landscape of the Russian north, this film tells the story of a community of women whose husbands serve in the underwater fleet. Their growing realisation of a disaster at foot (very much recalling the Kursk tragedy which made international news headline at the very beginning of the Putin Presidency) sets off a series of personal dramas and tragedies at the heart of the collective. This is set off against one particular drama of a woman who is an outsider in more ways than one. Arriving from St Petersburg she is married to one of those who have perished but is set apart from the others also by her indifference to her husband’s fate (and her lack of love for him). Her sense of shame starts to drive her actions towards the final part of the film. Razykov achieves a lot in this film portraying both a landscape and an extraordinary picture of community transmitting a sense of the Russian north through his extraordinary collection of portraits. The face of the main actress, Maria Semyonova, remains etched in the viewer’s mind well after the end of the film.
Andrei Stempkovsky, who presented his second major film The Delivery Guy at Kinotavr after its international premiere in Rotterdam, has the reputation of being Russia’s ‘new wave’ most ardent cinephile. In many ways this shows through in his film in the sense that Stempkovsky is one of Russia’s most ‘European’ film directors foregoing psychological motivation for certain experiments in cinematic language still rather alien to Russian film. His slow ‘thriller’ (though his film defies genre considerations as such) of a pizza delivery guy turned hit man through chance and opportunism is strong on certain formal qualities (especially his experimentation with sound). The fine editing and photography still leave many critics (in Russia at least) unhappy with the mechanical progression from one action to another. Others have compared this passive hero to Bakur Bakuradze’s Shultes even though Bakuradze seems to have had something wider to say.
Weaker and slighter films were Dmitry Turin’s Thirst which like the Grand Prix winner of the festival, was based on contemporary Russian literature. Fine sentiments of overturning the social stereotypes all too present in Russian contemporary film (including in such classics as Zviagintsev’s Elena) were not enough to save this film’s reputation. Ira Volkova’s Dialogues was also slight but more interesting. One of those ever-present almanac films it was very eclectic. Some very fine acting, some understated Chekhovian touches, and a focus on unusual but everyday dialogues that happen between various groups of people (father and son, lifelong friends, ex partners and lovers). The almanac film and the film inspired through theatre (especially the theatre.doc current present in Russian film) nevertheless seem to have something stunted about them in terms of a real contribution to any ‘new wave’. Recent films in these veins in the past year of Russian film such as Mikhail Segal’s Short Storiesor Boris Khlebnikov’s Till Night Do Us Part haven’t really managed to trail blaze genuinely new directions for Russian cinema.
In the light of the deaths this year of some of the greatest names in Russian film – Aleksei Balabanov, Aleksei German and Petr Todorovsky – this year’s Kinotavr gave little reason either for joy or for complete despair. Nothing of the value of Sigarev’s Living was discovered but given the large number of debut (or second) films present at Kinotavr there is some hope that during this decade some new world class directors may emerge. There is also a positive note in how the festival had such an eclectic range of films and that, finally, popular cinema in the guise of Veledinsky’s film can also be so versatile and well-made and alien to that ‘national patriotic’ trash that has flooded Russian movie houses in recent years. Further Russian film entries at the Moscow Film Festival and at other film festivals still give a glimmer of hope that a new wave in Russian cinema might eventually emerge.