“This year’s Kinotavr didn’t suggest a Russian film industry in meltdown even though some of the expected highlights were to prove deeply disappointing. On the other hand, there were pleasant surprises, including a debut film that would seem to mark the birth of a completely new genre in Russian film.”
The Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi has grown in significance over the past two and a half decades. It is now the main showcase of Russian film and one that reaches beyond the arthouse/popular divide. While Russia’s may still be a film industry that talks mainly to itself, a number of the films shown at Kinotavr do make it to the world film festival circuit and occasionally find some form of distribution outside the country, sometimes gaining wider public recognition. However, looking through a list of prize winners, Sochi doesn’t always manage to pick the films that will endure in film history. Having said that, at least a number of Alexei Balabanov’s films were shown here being awarded both major and minor prizes. Other big names of the Russian or Russian-language film world have also been present (albeit sporadically): Alexander Sokurov and Kira Muratova, Alexei Fedorchenko and Vasily Sigarev are cases in point. Moreover, much of what has been described as Russia’s “new wave” or the “new quiet ones” (as they have been referred to in Russia) were discovered at Kinovatr even though some of the genuine masterpieces have bypassed this festival. This year the main competition could only be described as eclectic — the films in competition had very little in common, so no real general trend could be discerned. Many directors linked with the “new quiet ones” (Nikolai Khomeriki, Aleksei Popogrebsky, Andrei Zviagintsev, Bakur Bakuradze) were away working on films that may well be coming to Kinotavr 2014, and others such as Sigarev and Boris Khlebnikov though present, had nothing to show this year. In spite of these absences, this year’s Kinotavr didn’t suggest a Russian film industry in meltdown even though some of the expected highlights were to prove deeply disappointing. On the other hand, there were pleasant surprises, including a debut film that would seem to mark the birth of a completely new genre in Russian film.
That film was Natalia Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov’s Intimate Parts, Russia’s first sex comedy. Or at least so it appeared to the audience at Kinotavr watching it through power cuts that interrupted the showing more than once and that gave rise both to audience bemusement and amusement. The Sochi programme itself billed the film as an “ironical melodrama about the contemporary Moscow middle class,” and in many ways this is another useful angle for reading the film. At the press conference the day after the screening, the main talk was about whether Intimate Parts would be given a licence by the government (this fear has come on the back of many attempts by the government to “re-traditionalise” public morality as well as to create an atmosphere in Russian film where (censorship is back on the agenda). Otherwise, people questioned whether it was specifically Russian or could have been shot in any country. Natalia Merkulova’s attempt to explain the film through the fact that it was made in “a country that has not undergone a sexual revolution” in part falls through. Russia had a kind of sexual revolution in the 1920s, and some commentators have even depicted the country as more “socially liberal” than parts of the United States. Early Soviet times oscillating as they did between the libertarianism of Alexandra Kollontai and the bigotry of Joseph Stalin, between an enthusiastic adoption of the ideas of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in the early years and its repression of psychoanalysis later on, means that any generalisations on the history of Russian sexuality could be disputed.
Returning to the present day, Intimate Parts’ portrait of the government bureaucrat sitting on a Morals Committee judging (rather anachronistically. it must be said) Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris will call to mind for Russians alone one of the instigators of the country’s new anti-gay laws, Yelena Mizulina. Caught between her public moralistic intransigence and her dependence on a none too dependable vibrator, this figure is played with consummate skill by one of Russia’s most interesting new actresses, Julia Aug. However, the film as a whole (and, of course, the script was written and even filmed some time before the new morality laws were in place) would not feel completely out of place beyond Russia’s shores. One of Russia’s prominent film critics, Zara Abdullaeva, has mentioned Todd Solondz and John Cameron Mitchell as possible influences in their open delineation of the psychological disorders and erotic dramas of the middle classes, yet it is in the Russian filmmakers’ challenge to the prevailing “cinematic glamour” of this bourgeois ambience that one may discover the radicalism of Intimate Parts for a Russian audience. Indeed, now that the film is in general release in Russia, one can feel an audience reaction that is far more ambivalent than at Sochi. Some Russian film blogs have even reported people leaving the screenings with rather irritated expressions on their faces. My own experience of a second viewing at one Moscow movie theatre recently was to sense a far more muted reaction than at Kinotavr. The mainly youthful audience sniggered occasionally but seemed rather nonplussed for the most part. Moscow in September (with swear words absurdly bleeped — a hitherto rare occurrence in a Moscow screening) is already a noticeably darker ambience than Sochi in June. The Tiger Lilies’ song “Crack of Doom” playing the credits generated more than a hint of sinister intimations after an explosive finale that will surely have enthusiasts for this scene alone). It is almost that given the context and the rapidly changing circumstances in Russia, Intimate Parts has been overtaken by its times: a fine film and very much a promising debut with great acting, it still seems not quite radical enough, failing to pack a powerful punch at its target. The lack of a thread between the stories owed a little too much to an unlikely meeting between a psychotherapist and his various clients and friends in a bar. In spite of that, its disclosure of a theme and the way it does so opens up new possibilities in Russian film. All in all, though, the film doesn’t quite hit the level of Swiftian or Gogolian satire that sexuality in contemporary Russia would merit.
While Intimate Parts was accepted into the competition, it has since been reported that Sergei Taramayev’s film A Winter Journey based on a gay character may have been the victim of self-censorship on the part of Kinotavr’s organisers. With strong praise from a film critic from one of Russia’s main newspapers, Lydia Maslova, who suggested that the “film would look great at a European film festival,” there is some suspicion that the decision to withhold the film was more a question of politics and funding than of considerations of quality alone.
If Merkulova and Chupov remained well within the realms of modern urban bourgeois sexuality, Alexei Fedorchenko’s “documentary fairy-tale” Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari appears to capture the often strange rites of passage of a pagan and rural national group by representing 22 highly improbable stories of women whose names all begin with the letter “O.” Fedorchenko is no stranger to playing with fact and reality, and his mockumentary First on the Moon recounting a supposed Stalin-era space flight managed to fool many. Here he appears to continue in a similar vein (although in this case the national group that he refers to does exist). In many ways, for the Sochi public at least, this film seemed to be the hardest to watch. Almost half the hall walked out of the screening at one point or another even though the wild enthusiasm of those who remained was palpable after the screening. The stories with little real relation to one other (though sex and sexuality here too featured strongly in the subject matter) slowly delivered up a poetic masterpiece that Russian film has rarely seen since the times of Paradjanov. Actually spoken in the Mari language (and most, if not all the actresses from both within the Republic and other parts of Russia had to be specially trained to say their lines), the film has something of the feel of a modern-day Decameron or even Afanasiev’s more salacious Forbidden Fairy Tales. Parallels to Pasolini’s playful trilogy which included Boccaccio’s masterpiece readily come to mind. Fedorchenko’s director of photography Shandor Berkeshi surely deserved his prize at Kinotavr for the superb camerawork, but it was a shame that Fedorchenko was denied the major award as Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari will surely have a longer shelf life than the film that eventually won.
The victor Alexander Veledinsky with his The Geographer Drank Away His Globe was one of two directors who chose to adapt a work of literature set in the 1990s and transfer it to the modern day. His was undoubtedly the most successful attempt (the other adaptation, by Dmitry Turin, Thirst, from a novel by Andrei Gelasimov, was one of the most disappointing works of the festival — a film of good intentions but little else). It must be said that The Geographer should be welcomed as a return to the kind of well-made popular films of the Soviet 1970s and early 1980s; films much missed by the Russian public, meaning that it should garner considerable popular success in Russia and thus is arguably more deserving of such success than many of the recent Russian national blockbusters. Yet it may be too far steeped in this tradition to find success with an international public. Working within a very Russian tradition of the “useless man” typology, the immediate cinematic reference is Roman Balayan’s 1984 movie Flights in Dreams and Reality. Veledinsky’s seemingly conservative male-based misogyny (which permeates a number of his films) would perhaps put many viewers off even though the dramaturgical strengths of this film shouldn’t be entirely underestimated.
Of the films that gained least notice in the festival were the rather pedestrian family melodrama Ivan, Son of Amir, Bakhtiar Khudoinzarov’s almost openly derided ecological parable, which, although opening the Rome Film Festival the year before, gained very few plaudits in Sochi 2013 in spite of the good critical response to his earlier film Luna Papa (1999). This year the omnibus, or almanac, film (almost a trend in Russian film of late with Mikhail Segal’s Short Stories being the more recent success in this genre) was represented by Ira Volkova’s Dialogues. Some fine set pieces, Chekhovian moments, and a focus on some well-acted situational dialogues made this more theatre on film than a unique cinematic discovery. It almost replicates the disappointment one felt at Boris Khlebnikov’s Till Night Do Us Part — fine dialogue and portraits of social disintegration but lacking any true centre (and Volkova’s almanac film only made this more apparent).
For many, though, the biggest disappointment was the film that many expected to be a revelation after her Cannes win in the short film section. Taisia Igumentseva’s apocalyptic comedy Bite the Dust was a film in a naïf style but featured scenes that lasted far too long. A village of bucolic eccentrics await the end of the world announced on the radio but survive the nonexistent apocalypse, although by that point their lives had been transformed through a series of wife swaps and declarations of love. The village intellectual and film buff (with constant references to her Cannes mentors the Dardennes brothers’ film The Silence of Lorna, as though Igumentseva was writing a long and painful thank-you note throughout the film for her previous award) let her hair down, finding love with the painfully shy inventor type while attempting to rescue her DVDs — cue more filmic references — from the never-ending flood). This is more or less the plot of a film that tries to be madcap but ends up only maddening. The humour is overplayed and stretched out to complete a lacklustre 100 minutes.
There were other films that will gain an international audience and distribution, deserved or not. My least favourite, The Major by Yuri Bykov, has earned accolades in Cannes and elsewhere — most probably because of the insights it gives into the mentality of those serving a corrupt, authoritarian, and increasingly sinister Russian state (at least when it comes to dealing with its own people). However, the way the director himself insisted on the positive nature of the main protagonist at the press conference astounded many. While showing the moral degradation of the Major (covering up a crime of a fellow policeman who runs over a young child with a further series of unjustifiable but “necessary” crimes), Bykov, at the press conference went so far as to pin the term “positive hero” to his character. Challenged, he seemed to backtrack but still played with the idea in a way that seemed rather grotesque to some. Bykov’s film could be contrasted to Stempkovsky’s far more humanist The Delivery Guy, about a pizza delivery boy turned hitman. The character gets the job by chance and uses it to finance his father’s desperately needed operation. Yet he displays and reflects a much more human side than Bykov’s Major, and Stempkovsky reflects a worldview far more subtly humanistic and less fiercely feudalist than that of Bykov. Stempkovsky rather than Bykov would hopefully represent any emergent Russian “new wave” in the future. His formal experiments with sound and his openness to European and world trends in cinematography suggest that he is capable of grafting Russian realia onto a new way of making cinema. His name, along with figures such as Bakuradze and Mamulia (absent from this year’s festival), represent the greatest hope that Russian cinema can present something like the recent Romanian renaissance of filmic language.
Another extremely powerful film — though sadly much underrated by most of the Russian critics at the festival’s press conference — was Yusup Razykov’s Shame. Featuring unforgettable landscapes, this film about a community of families of submariners awaiting tragic news about their husbands will clearly take many people’s minds back to the Kursk submarine tragedy that happened at the beginning of the first Putin presidency. Of course, as Razykov himself stated, these tragedies have been more regular than many people realize (and Kursk was just one such among many). The central drama in the film surrounds the character played by Maria Semenova — a wife who has recently married one of the submariners, not out of love but to change her life. Having just settled in the community (and thus an outsider to begin with), her character’s marital betrayal (which was to become immediate public knowledge) of her submariner officer when no one knew of the fate of their loved ones only further ostracizes her from the community. Semenova plays the role superbly, and her on-screen persona has an aura that remains in the mind long after the viewing. Submariner disaster as subject matter in Russian film is not new, and it had already been turned into a patriotic Russian blockbuster by Vladimir Khotinenko in 72 Metres (made a decade ago). Razykov does well to reject this path by taking seriously the quotation from Tarkovsky’s Solaris of it being shame itself that saves the world. Shame also saves the main character, who seeks out the other “dissident” woman in the community, incarcerated for reasons opposite to that of the character played by Semenova. Razykov’s film seems able to generate a new cinematic language neither tied to the Soviet past while carrying on a dialogue with this past. It feels almost revelatory in terms of its quiet rejection of much that has come to Russian screens since Soviet times. (Though whether it will come to many Russian screens is highly doubtful in spite of its successful runs in other European film festivals from Karlovy Vary to London.)
Vitaly Mansky (almost the godfather of contemporary Russian documentary) came to Sochi with his long-awaited Pipeline, the single documentary in the competition programme. It has since traveled to a number of festivals and aroused much interest, as his documentaries always tend to do. Mansky deliberately avoids making any major political statement (even, according to his own words, deliberately cutting one of the more acutely political scenes from the film) as well as not mentioning the word Gazprom throughout the film. Yet the film remains a powerful social portrait of those who live near the pipeline that runs from the Asiatic part of Russia to Western Europe as well as a powerful comparative look at the Eastern and the Western societies at the extremes of the pipeline. This road movie documentary portrait details much absurdity and poverty on the Eastern side, but it is not uncritical of the affluent (but rather empty) Western European reality either. One of the central scenes is of a World War II Victory Day commemoration ceremony in Ukraine: it manages in a single scene to highlight the central absurdity of pipeline excess and poverty that is the film’s leitmotiv. The ridiculous lighting and unlighting of the “eternal flame” (due to energy-saving measures) seems the ultimate symbol of Mansky’s gently subversive message. The director also manages to find parallel scenes between East and West demonstrating funeral ceremonies that depict the far East and far West of the pipeline as belonging to two alien civilizations. Though thankfully Mansky doesn’t seem to say about this what we expect him to say. He is certainly an accomplished and polished documentary filmmaker — there seems nothing rough in his films, though arguably this fact may be the strongest criticism of Mansky than one can offer.
All in all, this year’s Kinotavr competition offered an eclectic grouping of films. Few were genuinely enthused by the short film competition this year, with only two or three works that genuinely delighted. The winner of the shorts competition, “F5” by Timofei Zhalnin, represented a reflection on integrity in art, while Evgeny Bialo’s “The Norm of Life” observed social reality from a very particular and memorable perspective depicting indifference and passivity through a sudden family death.
As far as the supplementary events at Sochi were concerned, many of the roundtables failed to inject much optimism into the situation. Russia’s main film critic, Andrey Plakhov, perhaps caught the mood best by quipping that one of the roundtable discussions should be entitled “How to Save a Drowning Man.” One of the master classes to be given by one of Russia’s prominent film historians, Evgeni Margolit, was, unfortunately, sidetracked by a rather persistent questioner. Margolit managed to pack some fascinating details into some of his answers to what seemed to be one and the same question ten times over. Retrospectives and special screenings offered up the occasional diamond. Sergei Lavrentiev’s mini retrospective of Soviet war films presented a special nugget in the form of a 1968 surrealistic masterpiece entitled The Eastern Passage by Valentin Vinogradov, who, in spite of being no dissident, was obstructed at every step by cinema bureaucrats of the time. Of a retrospective of diploma films it was Vadim Abdrashitov’s 1974 Stop Potapov that really shone. A devastating portrait of a whimsical Soviet slacker, it had a lightness of touch as well as an energy that one could only have dreamed of at the shorts competition this year.
Of the special screenings, the most interesting one was that devoted to the last film made by Gennadi Sidorov (which, alas, he was unable to edit before his untimely death in 2011). An adaptation of M. Ageev’s (a pseudonym of philologist and translator Mark Levi) cult underground émigré classic Novel with Cocaine, it transferred the story to the Moscow of the present. Uneven but atmospheric, this curio nevertheless demonstrates what a lost talent Sidorov was for Russian cinema. In his all too short lifetime, Sidorov rarely directed movies, although on the basis of this film, if he had been more prolific, recent Russian cinema would have been all the richer for it.
The less said about Govorukhin’s opening film Weekend the better. A noir billed as a remake of Louis Malle’s Lift to the Gallows, it provoked laughter in the audience, which in turn provoked a furious response from the director. A member of Putin’s campaign team, Govorukhin’s cinema talents have been in decline for decades now (even his established perestroika-era documentaries are far too overrated), and his often bad-tempered denunciations of some of his fellow filmmakers hardly mean that, even in his political role, he can be much of a champion of the Russian film industry as such.
It is hard to judge the state of the Russian film industry from Kinotavr 2013 given the large number of significant directors absent from this year’s competition. Many of them are likely to return next year. The missing films from the Khlebnikovs, Popgrebskys, Mamulias, Sigarevs, Bakuradzes, Zviagintsevs and Khomerikis suggest that even without these names, Russian cinema is far from moribund, although it is still certain in which direction it is heading. Much was missing from Sochi — one or two of the Russian films shown at the Moscow and Odessa film festivals deserve higher praise than many of those shown at Sochi. Nevertheless, Kinotavr remains the best observatory point to get a general overview of Russia’s bigger names. As for the festival as a whole, it is very much mainly for an in-group of industry figures (even if it does have an open-air public programme in the square outside the main movie theatre). Avoiding some of the worst excesses of Moscow’s crowds of poorly informed local hacks and their infamous habit of storming the food stands or turning press conferences into shameful public airings of bigotry, Kinotavr, nonetheless, doesn’t have the inclusive amicability of Odessa’s more open and more international atmosphere.