Well over a hundred films are being shown at this year's Art Doc Fest and the last for some time to be held in Moscow's Khudozhestvenni cinema (which after the festival will be closed for rebuilding). Art Doc Fest prides itself on getting even the politically controversial documentaries to the screen and this year it is Putin's Games which promises to be its flagship controversial film of the year) as well as Alina Rudnitskaya's socially sharp film Blood (in which Rudnitskaya once again looks at a social institution - this time blood banks- with a critical eye) which will serve to bolster its reputation of it being one of the freer 'mainstream' festivals on Russian soil. However, neither of the two films on Pussy Riot (the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film which has just been shortlisted for an Oscar award and the film by the collective Gogol's Wives, Pussy versus Putin which won the IDFA Competition for Best Mid-Length Documentary) are getting a showing at the festival. I'll review these films in a separate post for their absence is significant (Lerner and Pozdorovkin's film had been expected at Art Doc Fest) even though one's reading of this absence can't be put down to a straight issue of censorship.
That which is on offer at Art Doc Fest is hard to categorise even though a number of themes have already crystallized. Of competition films shown so far revolt and revolution are on the agenda but not in the way one normally expects them. Here Kossakovsky (with 32 documentary students of the IDEU Pompeu-Fabra University in Barcelona) have attempted a portrait of revolt as ballet in their film DEMONStration whereas Alyona Polunina in her film Nepal Forever has added clear farcical elements to her portrait of two St Petersburg revolutionaries on a trip to Nepal to conciliate between revolutionaries. (Her previous film also shown here The revolution that wasn'tgave a more rather tragic portrait of Limonov's National Bolsheviks). Whereas Polunina's new film generated a lot of laughs among the audience last night it seemed to lack the gravitas of her earlier film. Anna Moiseenko's S.P.A.R.T.A. Territory of Happiness, a portrait of a commune trying to rebuild local communism in the Post-Soviet space (and shown first at last year's festival but reshown again this year) gives a much more balanced view of utopian dreams and realities.
Marina Razhbezkina has made a return to directing after concentrating on her pedagogical career at her School of Documentary Films and Theatre with a new film Optical Axis which attempts to look at contemporary reality through a comparison with the photographs of Maxim Dmitriev taken a century ago. It is a gentle social portrait which includes an extraordinary moment of filming the process of a man carving out a wooden spoon in real time. Filmed in natural light, the film offers little sharp social commentary but regards its protagonists generally with a certain warmth.
Sergei Loznitsa's return to documentary with Letterafter his two feature films is another look at the rural, peasant countryside. Shot through a pre-World War Two, the halo-like figures in the blurred film give appearances of almost ghost-like beauty. An extraordinary twenty minutes which makes much else watched on the same day seem far too conventional even when they recount exceptional stories of hardship.
Another competition film Darya Verditskaite's The last one's ... beyond the river (За рекой... последние) also looks at rural Russia through an optic of a dying world. Not as radical as Loznitsa's poetic arthouse, the films feels overdone and doesn't quite know when to end. But as a debut film it still suggests that the director will have much to say in the future.
It was a great pleasure to watch Kossakovsky's early film The Belovs (Беловы) -a film that gets better at every viewing. A retrospective of festival director Vitaly Mansky has also been without doubt another important part of the festival (if one could have only drawn oneself away from the main location of the festival). Every now and again one stumbles into films that one didn't even suspect were on show such as the portrait of one of Russia's greatest untold secrets, Shavkat Abdusalamov: art director of Tarkovsky and Klimov, artist, author , actor, director in his own right and friend of Antonioni, Tonino Guerra and Yuri Norstein. The film portrait The Eternal Wanderer(Вечный Странник) may not, in itself have been innovative in technique, but it was a joy that someone has made a portrait of this unackowledged but great artist. A shame, though, that only three people came to view this film during its single showing at the festival.
Coming days promise much more including many of the long awaited competition films.
A year ago I published a post entitled Gennadi Shpalikov- The Soviet Vigo?. I wrote "it is, perhaps, not too great an exaggeration to call him a kind of Russian Vigo ". More recently I discovered a text in Shpalikov's volume of writings which includes his scripts, his letters, his poetry, stories and just one off diary pieces. One of these is written as though addressed to Vigo. In this piece (a kind of stream of consciousness piece with only dashes and no full stops) Shpalikov explains his debt to Vigo and poignantly speaks about Vigo's early death (a fate that Shpalikov would, unfortunately, share). This is one of the many small pieces from Shpalikov's writings - writings including some still unaccountably unadapted scenarios. All in all after reading Shpalikov one can only state, that like with Vigo, what a tragedy it was for cinema that his life was cut so short. Here, then is the text - it is, of course, impossible to imitate his style - but hopefully something will come across of the kind of figure that Vigo was for Shpalikov and the reverence that he had for Vigo (and that any contemporary filmmaker should have for the figure of Shpalikov).
ON MAGIC This is dedicated to the memory of Vigo, my teacher in film, and yes even in life, even though I can not imagine him alive.
Once some time ago, it was a very long time ago, when I had just started in film - and not even very much aware of the masters of film, since I was basically drinking in the morning, and falling in love with every girl I met- even those who thwarted my every advance - but - what can be done? - what? - if it's like that - and it was at that time when in someone's conversation I heard - about Atalante, I was afraid to watch it - for a long time I was afraid, because at that point I was writing things in the same vein- maybe worse, maybe better - that's not important - no - it's not important - I wept - later on, at that great picture- yes, and not even because of the film - but because you, Vigo, died so young - and no one made such films anymore, and I - in your memory- shot a long crazy final scene to my first film- in your memory,Vigo, in your memory, Vigo and once again in your memory - it's terrifying me that we are the same age now- yes - and we need each others friendship- but what could I do? - I could only shoot a long - crazily long shots- of a barge crossing the water, water, a girl with a harmonica - what more could I do? - this was my declaration of love to you, Vigo, - where are you now, Vigo? - where are you? - dear Vigo- where are you,Vigo? - I know where you are - but because I know - what anguish I feel!
This year clearly has been a year of Parajanov revival. What with a major biopic on the man acted and directed by Serge Avedikian (and co-directed and scripted by Olena Fetisova) as well as a retrospective of Parajanov films shown at the Odessa Film festival this year along with an exhibition of his collages in both Moscow and Odessa. The topping on the cake seems to the year is the first English-language biography of Parajanov by James Steffen. I've been waiting for the publication of this book for some time and it's great news that it has finally been published. I'm hoping to read it in the near future and plan to review it for a major online film journal (as well as add a smaller review on this blog). Here in the meantime is James Steffen explaining how his own interest in Parajanov has developed over the years:
“I first learned of Parajanov in 1987, when Alan Stanbrook published an article about The Legend of Suram Fortress for the magazine Sight & Sound. I was intrigued by his description of Parajanov’s films, especially their striking use of color. In 1988, during a course in film analysis at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas taught by Jean Decock, we watched excerpts from the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in class and I was completely stunned; it looked like nothing I had seen before, it opened up an entire world to me. That same semester, Yuri Illienko visited Las Vegas on his way to screen his long-banned film A Well for the Thirsty at the San Francisco Film Festival. He was friends with the composer VirkoBaley, who was at time the Artistic Director of the Nevada Symphony Orchestra and composed the score for Illienko’sSwan Lake: the Zone. Illienko spoke to the film analysis class and Baley arranged a for a special screening of A Well for the Thirsty and the first few reels of The Eve of IvanKupalo at a theater in town. Those films likewise left a tremendous impression. Later, I saw Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in its entirety in a course on Soviet cinema, and I arranged for a special screening of the Armenian release version (the so-called "director's cut") of The Color of Pomegranates with the help of Hart Wegner, the Chair of the Film Department at UNLV. Even though Parajanov was recognized as a major figure in world cinema and obviously lived a colorful and dramatic life, at that time there was almost nothing published about him in English, so I decided to enroll in graduate school and devote myself to studying him and his work. It has been quite an adventure, learning multiple languages over the years, doing research in Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia, and meeting many fascinating people as a result.” James Steffen has his own blog at this address: http://www.jamesmsteffen.net/
I've decided to write a more or less regular digest of news on this blog as there are too many things to catch up with which then go forgotten. In many ways I'm hoping to make this a more regular blog but to vary the length of these posts so that they may range from a few sentences to much larger pieces with any proper articles being published elsewhere. To begin with I wanted to draw readers attention to my article for Bright Lights Film Journal which has just been published on the Kinotavr Film festival held in early summer. My article held out some provisional optimism on Russian film while not neglecting the more negative aspects that have become so prominent in recent years: creeping censorship, clericalisation as well as commercial pressures. It is extraordinarily difficult to write about these issues in a truly accurate way without succumbing to some kind of over generalisation. The festival in Sochi, for example, represented all of this: the rather absurd exclusion of what many have reported to be an excellent film - Sergei Taramayev's Зимний путь (A Winter Tale) due to fear of loss of state funding
for showing a film with a homosexual character (even thoug homosexuality wasn’t
the theme of the film) but also Kinotavr had novelty in showing a first in its
genre: a Russian sex comedy as well as some excellent films by Razykov and
fedorchenko and with Stempkovsky showing some real promise. Even Yuri Bykov’s
film (for all the scepticism I feel about the director’s approach) has surely
gathered enough interest to travel to prestigious foreign film festivals. However,
summing up I stated this:
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...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. The editor of Bright Lights introduced my piece thus: We can all thank Giuliano Vivaldi for going to the Russian film festival at Kinotavr so we didn't have to. Vivaldi brings an insider's knowledge to his review of what's happening, cinema-wise, in that increasingly theocratic, censorship-happy nation. In a way I was cut to the short about this. I would still urge people to see the nuances between Russia as a state an the Russian nation and posted this on my Facebook page as a reaction: I'd say that Russian cinema is still worth defending and promoting. Things ARE increasingly theocratic and censorship-happy (I would say censorship-trigger rather than censorship-happy) but, my question would be, where does the state end and the nation begin? no-one who I know in Russian film favours censorship (although, of course, I know OF some who do) and neither have I made any acquaintance of theocrats in this sphere (again I know OF some who could be characterised thus but my guess is that they are few). For me it is clear that much of the state is becoming increasingly theocratic and it is attempting to forcefully inculcate this theocratic/autocratic mentality as much as it can. But replacing the word state with the word nation is an altogether more complex. I'm reminded of Ilf and Petrov's description of their trip to fascist Italy that I read once. There was some fascist comizio going on with a local dignitary speaking and all Ilf and Petrov (or maybe it was just one of the two writers) could see around themselves were bored faces and a complete lack of enthusiasm. The state's turbo theocratic drive generates barely any enthusiasm in Russia just a strange cocktail of paranoia, boredom and abulia for those entrapped in the mentality of state-sponsored hysteria but also a healthily-corrosive wit (sometimes ferally satirical, sometimes more allusively aesopian) which promises little future compliance with state ideology. This wit and this resistance may also produce another generation of great art and even great cinema. In short, one should not forget entirely the tale of the cuckoo clocks and the Medicis. The Cinema Museum. Back In July, I reported on the situation around Musei Kino and Naum Kleiman. It seemed at that point that the whole project of restoring risked sinking. A few days ago this situation seems to have move in a slightly more positive direction. At least, a steering committee, a real building and some hope that quicker progress will be made than has been true in the past decade. The Cinema Scientific Research Institute (NII) is said to be the new home of the Cinema Museum for the first five years while a new building will be built for it. Naum Kleiman will be the President of the Museum although there will be someone else taking care of more practocal tasks. The steering committe of around 20 people will include directors such as Karen Shakhnazariv, Alexei German Jr, Vitaly Mansky, Stanislav Govorukhin, Renata Litvinova and film scholars such as Kirill Razlogov. Good news? Maybe, but anyone who remembers the destruction of the Musei Kino in the early years of this decades will remain sceptical to the end. As they say in Rome fidarsi e' bene, non fidarsi e' meglio (It's good to trust but better not to). The World Premiere of the late Alexei Germana's Hard to be a God. This, of course, is the event of the year for enthusiasts of Russian film. Apart from Deborah Young's article in the Hollywood Reporter , assured that this film will only be shown at the special events of festivals like Rome's (maybe true owing the plain stupidity of cinema programming these days), she complains about its frustrating incomprehensibility and that it would have been cutting edge in the 1980s but now longer feels so avant garde. The film was shown in April (but not in its final version and an account by Ksenia Chudinova for Snob magazine suggested that the reaction was non too positive. Some of her review was translated thus in a blog for Russian Science Fiction:
Meanwhile, on screen an ambitious and primarily physiological bacchanal unwound: close-ups of mud, animal and human excrement, blood, guts, a donkey’s penis, a woman’s vagina, crumpled clothing, horses, dirty fingernails, animal corpses. The characters are constantly defecating, spitting, scratching themselves, beating each other, cutting stomachs and throats, copulating or killing each other. Without speaking’.
From April to November things have changed and most of the press in Italy and Russia have given wildly positive readings. The first review was, of course, written by Umberto Eco before the premiere. His small essay was printed in Novaya Gazeta and an admittedly rather poor English translation has appeared here. In a fine piece for the Calvert Journal, Andrei Kartashov states that Hard to be a Good goes further in the complexity of his earlier Khrustalev, My car!: It would seem impossible to exceed Khrustalyov’s visual and aural complexity, but Hard to Be a God does just that, proving that 15 years in production weren’t spent in vain (the inordinate length of production time stems partly from financial difficulties, but the director’s perfectionism also played a role). Having achieved ultimate sophistication in resurrecting a world of memory, German took on the task of creating his own universe from scratch.
Two other Russians made waves at the Rome Film Festival. One was the documentary by Alyona Polunina, Nepal Forever which will be shown again at the Art Doc Fest which I hope to report on. The other film was Birmingham Ornament-2, directed and produced by the head of Cine Fantom, Andrei Silvestrov. Some of the press reaction regarding this film has been reported here for the Kinote site.
A New Pussy Riot Film showing at IDFA in Amsterdam. The Amsterdam documentary film festival IDFA is showing two films one of which is the Pussy versus Putin filmed from inside the Pussy Riot story (rather than the more 'objective' film by Michale Lerner and Maksim Pozdorvkin). The Gogol Wives group are an anonymous collective and there is, as yet, little hope of any public showing of this film in Russia so far.
An Independent article has some information on this and the other film showing at Amsterdam. Other news and things to look out for are the Art Doc Fest (Moscow's main documentary film festival starting in less than a weeks time), a retrospective of Elem Klimov and Larisa Shepitko's films also shown in Moscow in the same period. That's not mentioning the popular end of Russian film: Fyodor Bondarchuk's Stalingrad as well as Veledinsky's winner at Kinotavr The Geographer Drunk the Globe away. The comedy Gorko! and a horror film Shopping Tour by Mikhail Brashinsky should also be covered. The long-standing uncertainty about Russia's only LGBT film festival was eventually settled in the festivals favour. One will have to see how the festival goes (homophobes are unlikely to completely let it go on in total peace). The main news reported is that Gus von Sant will be attending to show his support. The festival will feature among other films Diederk Ebbinger's Matterhorn which was shown at the Moscow International Film Festival in late June and Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm (which was shown at the Zavtra/2morrow festival more recently).
Tomorrow the 7th Russian Film Festival will open in London. It is one of those showcase festivals aiming to show a representative sample of national cinema and includes a small selection of documentaries and animated films as well as feature films. Most of these films have been shown at different Russian and international film festivals in the past year or even longer and a number have been on general release. Looking at the films on show it appears that the selectors have tried to had a criteria of mixing popular Russian films while not excluding art house films altogether. The film festival has, thankfully, avoided showing the patriotic blockbusters including those which have gained some minimal critical acclaim such as Legend No. 17. Whether this choice of concentrating on popular middle brow films will satisfy a film buff looking for the next Tarkovsky is open to question, but at least it does give some indication of the range of films that are likely to appear in Russian cinemas (with the odd exception). Of the competition films, the film that most exemplifies this popular but middle-brow taste and what many Russian ex-pats in particularly may have long been looking for is Aleksander Veledinsky's The Geographer Drank Away His Globe. An adaptation of a work of literature which was originally set in the 1990s, Veledinsky's film is the kind of well-made 1970s lyric comedy mixed with a hint of drama. The film that it comes closest to in subject matter is Roman Balayan's 1984 film Flights
in Dreams and Reality. Other critics have mentioned the Ryazanov or Danelija type of comedy as a reference. Yet it also may be compared to a kind of film more well-known in the west as the 'inspiring teacher' drama (a la Dead Poets Society) with the difference that the Russian doesn't come up with the inspirational tone but remains the tale of a loser, or of the typical 'useless man' of Russian letters. Whether it is far too steeped in Russian and Soviet tradition to reach a wider public is yet to be seen but it will surely please Russians who believe that the last golden age of Russian cinema were the 1970s and early 1980s and who believe that everything that has been made since is a lapse into bad taste and chernuka.
Natalia Merkulova and Alexei Chupov's Intimate Parts should be a treat in the terms that it is a truly novel film in a hitherto unheard of genre in Russia- the sex comedy genre. Causing quite a storm at Kinotavr, it had a more subdued reaction on general release. The character of a government bureaucrat played superlatively by Julia Aug seems to have an all too obvious counterpart in the Russian parliament today in the guise of the architect of the anti gay laws. Attacking middle class glamour (it was billed in the Kinotavr programme as an ironical melodrama about the
contemporary Moscow middle class) and been compared to the work of Todd Solondz and John Cameron Mitchell. It is certainly one of the films that most deserves a viewing at the festival and I would put in the top three or four films shown this year at Kinotavr. Whether it will delight a general audience remains to be seen.
Of the films that are more likely to play to the sentimental crowd, I'd put Ivan,
son of Amir Maxim Panfilov's Soviet-style paean to tolerance. It really felt too forced when I watched it at Kinotavr and, if anything, the very weakest of the films that were shown there. It is really quite hard to gauge how the festival chose this film rather than others which have been left out.
Equally, the festivals opening film was not one that really lived up to the expectations placed in the director Taisia Igumentseva after she won an award at Cannes for her short film The Road to... Filmed in a naif style, a group of bucolic eccentrics await the end of the world. However, it is an apocalyptic comedy which makes one almost start to plead for the end of the film (and the over-egged gags). Igumentseva will have ample opportunity to prove herself in the future but it is a regret that it was this film which has been so hyoed as her entry into the full-length feature film.
A Winter Path is the film that Kinotavr which to its shame seems not to have shown for fear of the political reaction of showing a film that may have fallen foul of its new anti-gay law. Not a gay film as such but with a character who is gay, it seems to have delighted those critics who have seen it and have won awards at smaller film festivals in Russia. The Kommersant critic, Lydia Maslova, was quoted as stating that it would "look great at any European festival" in an article by Anna Malpas on the film and the scandal surrounding it.
For me, the best choice of the festival is Yusup Razykov's Shame. This film about a community of families
of submariners awaiting tragic newsabout their
husbands will clearly take many people’s minds back to the Kursk submarine
tragedy. It is not so much the relevance of the subject matter which strikes one but the extraordinary inner journey of the protagonist inside her personal shame and in her relation as outsider to the community as a whole. The extraordinarily ability to fix a landscape in this film as well as to explore the main characters inner world (and the actors performance has an almost haunting character to it) means that Razykov is one of the few contemporary directors able to generate a new cinematic language not tied to the Soviet past but still carrying on a significant dialogue with this past. Shame is a quiet rejection of much post-Soviet cinema and for the genuine film buff who wishes to see the very best of Russian cinema in terms of artistic excellence this would be the film I'd most recommend viewers to watch here. Unfortunately, it seems to have had a difficult post-festival destiny in Russia itself, in spite of gaining a number of prestigious awards at important European festivals such as Karlovy Vary.
Serebrennikov's Betrayal seems to have come late to London but it is certainly a film of significant power and for those yet to watch it, it should also be there amidst the must sees. Marina Migunova's biopic on Marina Tsvetaeva will also delight a certain type of Anglo-Saxon russophile as well as those less conversant with her complicated and intriguing biography. Competently made, the film wasn't over warmly received at the Moscow Film Festival but I, for one, would be curious to watch it once again.
In terms of documentary films the most awaited film is surely Vitaly Mansky's Pipelines. Shown at a great number of film festivals throughout Europe already, it is certainly a documentary of great power. Documenting both absurdity and poverty as well as affluence along the pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe, Mansky has managed to create a documentary road movie of great force. He, in many ways, deliberately avoided the overtly political (even reportedly excising a scene in this regard) but provided a defiantly satirical portrait. Mansky also has a retrospective of films shown at the Russian Film Festival, a festival which has highlighted his films a number of years and which Mansky has been associated with in the past. Whether the Russian Film festival has offered the best of Russian documentary in the past remains arguable, especially given its ignoring the (in many ways) far more unique portraits offered by Rastorguev, Kossakovsky and rarely showing much of Loznitsa's work.
Other documentary films on offer this year are more directly political films (at least with a political theme). A very revealing portrait of the leader of the left wing of the non-systemic opposition, Sergei Udaltsov, is perhaps one of the most interesting political documentaries to come from Russia in recent years. Evgenia Montaña Ibañez'sMarch, March With Your Left!managed to avoid the usual traps
of a political documentary and as well as portraying unusually honest moments
that most political leaders would avoid, portrayed events that have since
become sadly seminal -such as the Bolotnaya demonstration of May 6th- in
turning Russia from being a mildly repressive regime to something more
sinister. This film will remain an important document.
The other semi political film describes a period where Russia seemed to be thawing whereby critical poems by one of Russia's leading writers and one of Russia's leading actors teemed up to rewrite (and then recite) poems by Russia's leading literary figures throughout history and turn them into satirical broadsides against the regime. Tolerated initially on television they then were played to live audiences. The film records this but it doesn't seem to do much more than this and to my mind is far more an imperfect film than the one on Udaltsova.
Other documentary films to watch are Route 31 by Denis Klebeev recording the rather isolated life of a village in Kamchatka. Able to capture life unawares in many more ways the average documentary this film was justifiably very well-received at last year's Art Doc Fest and is well worth a viewing. As is the film Graffiti about what happens when a street artist with a great gift for painting religious images with no imaginable blasphemous content plies her art in a small provincial town. Valery Ostavnykh manages to highlight the real story about 'blasphemous art' in contemporary Russia in this small tale.
The odd special event and a selection of animated films chosen by Novaya Gazeta's cinema correspondent and animation expert Larisa Malyukova will complete the festival. In terms of my own tastes the festival doesn't live up to an exploration of the best of Russian cinema. Of the finest films from this years Kinotavr only Shame, Intimate Parts & Geographer...(with Mansky's Pipeline as documentary) are represented. On the other hand, Fedorchenko's poetic, documentary fairy-tale Celestial
Wives of the Meadow Mari and Stempkovski's European-style New Wave film Delivery Man have not been included. Even worse, Kira Muratova's Eternal Homecoming is not being shown. One could have argued that this is not a Russian film but then her film Melody for a Barrel Organ was shown at the festival. Lopushansky's film Role is also absent. There is no underground/ alternative Russian cinema represented here either and films represented at Berlin such as Khlebnikov's A Long and Happy Life (far, far better than his Till Night Us Do Part which was shown at last year's Russian Film festival in London) as well as Svetlana Baskova's For Marx also failed to be shown. In this sense the Russian Film Festival has failed to live up to any promise that it may show the best of Russian film. In years to come surely many Russian films that will remain in film history will not have been shown here. All the same, this seems not to be its remit and one must be thankful that there are some gems to watch.
Shame - Yusup Razykov
Intimate Parts- Natalia Merkulova and Alexei Chupov
Pipeline - Vitaly Mansky (and as much of his retrospective as one can see would be highly advisable)
A Winter Path- Sergei Laramaev, Ljubov Lvova
The Highly Advisables:
The Geographer Drunk Away His Globe- Aleksander Veledinsky
Route 31, Graffiti, and March! March! To your Left! in the documentary section.
With the gradual publication of Andrei Platonov's published works in Russian, there is now finally a chance to view his work in film. It's true that the six screenplays published offer only a limited selection of what he actually wrote for film (many others may still be discarded in some obscure corner of a film archive). As far as I know one of these scripts, Father and Son has been translated into English. The review introduces it thus:
Father-Mother’ seems to have been written in parallel with Platonov’s unfinished novel Happy Moscow,
whose protagonists yearn to transcend their existing selves while
around them the Soviet capital is being physically remade. The upheaval
of demolition and construction also forms part of the backdrop for
‘Father-Mother’. The screenplay’s main narrative strand is enclosed in
one paragraph of the novel, but ‘Father-Mother’ otherwise stands further
from Platonov’s prose than the rest of his film scripts—making it an
even more unusual document of his response to the brutal reforging of
the world going on around him. Littered with Socialist Realist tropes,
it consistently subverts them with its humour, sadness and intense
engagement with the fears and contradictions traversing its time.
Platonov was not unique in terms of writers turned script writers in the 1920s and 1930s- Mayakovsky, Shklovsky, Babel, Tynyanov, Sergei Tretyakov, Kirson, Shershenevich, Erdman Zazubrin, Mariengof and even Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (to name but a very few). Platonov, himself, replied to an appeal for screen writers after a 'script famine' in the mid 1920s. Platonov replied to this appeal and worked very enthusiastically. the enthusiasm was mutual. In letters to his wife he talked about the reaction of the film studio to his first script Песчаная учительница (The Sand Teacher). At one point, Pudovkin was expected to shoot the film and in another letter Platonov informs his wife that "I was told that I could become a great screenwriter and as soon as Eisenstein gets back from Leningrad then they'll introduce him to me." However, the work on the scenario during the second half of 1927 proved to be a long and unsuccessful one and he was called on to do many rewrites. Even though it was in keeping with the general line of proletarian the film wasn't released until it went under a completely reworking by another scriptwriter Maria Smirnova as Айна (Aina, 1930). The film theme was the transition of nomads in the peripheries and their transition to a more settled way of life. Alas, even in the film Aina (directed by Nikolai Tikhonov) has not been preserved.
Whether Platonov was introduced to the "maker of obscure films" (as Platonov had referred to Eisenstein in a short story) is uncertain but his enthusiasm did not dim immediately. Platonov sent in suggestions for turning practically all of his tales from 1927-28 into films. Some of the names of other scripts known about but not published or accepted for publication have come down to us. One of these was entitled Лампочка Ильича (The Lenin Lamp). In many ways Platonov's scripts represent documents through which we can interpret his prose given that so many of them as reworkings of some kind.
One such script is Машинист (The Engine Driver) is very much related to the tale of Котлован (The Foundation Pit). Because of the impossibility of staging this text, he was to reuse much of what he had written in new texts. This screenplay was, in many ways, an original development of the themes and heroes (especially in the Kolkhoz part) of Kotlovan. In 1930 Platonov was working on several scripts about the year of the Великий Перелом (The Turning Point or the Great Break) both related to village and city life. However, it was Platonov who in an unpublished article in 1931, was to call for a turning point in cinematography calling the Great Blind One. He was to write that "our cinema is blind, like a new-born creature; the majority of
pictures say nothing at all to the pressured consciousness of
contemporary man". This great ignorance of life could only continue under Stalin's socialist realism: art's role was to produce reality and not to reflect it by this time.
Platonov's break from script-writing and, it seems, his disillusionment would last a few years. But in the mid 1930s the film factories renew their work with Platonov. A contract is signed in May 1936 for a screenplay written in the framework of a state-inspired project to create works about railway heroes and entitled Воодушевление (Enthusiasm). Unlike his previous film this was written for sound cinema. It, too, had to be rewritten four times and while it gained a positive response from the film studios it wasn't sent into production even if Platonov continued to fight for it.
A similar fate was to await a screenplay originally written for Soyuzdetfilm (the film studio for children's films) and for which a contract was signed in 1938. The script eventually entitled Неродная Дочь (Step daughter) was never to see production in spite of rewritings and a change of genre which would be sent to Viktor Shklovsky at Mosfilm in 1941. Other scripts from Platonov were laying in the script studio, not one of which was accepted.
After the war, in December 1945 another script was contracted by Mosfilm, entitled Семья Иванова (The Ivanov Family) but once again, tragically, nothing come of this either.
The story of Andrei Platonov and film seems one of the many but most depressing stories to emerge in the history of Soviet cinema. One could only imagine what could have been and yet was not to be.
Films based on the imagination of one of the Soviet Union's most original writer whose works will live on while others are forgotten.
This is both a comment on a film which
attempts to reimagine Soviet cinema and its role in the Twentieth Century as
well as an interview/dialogue conducted with the director of the film. Being
shown at many film festivals throughout the world but will soon be out on
general release throughout Spain in early November. It is only to be hoped that
as well as a Spanish release, it will gain an international release of some
sort. Imagining Soviet cinema and the cultural and artistic revolution
accompanying the Russian Revolution has rarely been attempted before by a
non-Russian film. That Valenti Figueres has attempted this and found a way to
reflect on the Twentieth Century merging cinema and utopia and brooding on
the century’s light and shadows is an achievement that deserves to be
Being able to watch El Efecto K (The K Effect) in Russia- a film
that has been shown at over 50 film festivals worldwide and gained more than
twenty festival awards- seemed like a special treat. For this is a film
designed to evoke a Russia at the very centre of world cinema- a Russia that
seems painfully distant from the present day Russia of religious conservative nationalism
but not altogether forgotten. At the Moscow Film Festival it was presented by
one of Russia’s foremost film critics as well as the Festival’s Programme Director,
Kirill Razlogov, and shown as part of the ‘Russian trace’ programme (a programme of films related, at times tenuously,
at times directly, to Russia).
The foreign film about Russia
Films about Russia or with Russian characters
or set in Russia tend to get a rather rough ride with the Russian viewer. This
may be because there are just too many implausibles or false notes which make
the film unacceptable for a Russian audience and this was, for example, the case with another film in the programme: A Siberian
Education by Gabriele Salvatores. Yet El efecto K disoriented this type of easy
dismissive reaction amongst the Russian audience because it had other claims, mainly that of representing a highly stylized, re-imagining of history. The
'implausibles' in this film are there for a reason (a stylistic one). In some ways it would be wrong to emphasize any comparison between Maxime Stransky and Forrest Gump (as one critic suggested) or with Zelig
(as I was first inclined to think). Rather, I would make some comparison to a Russian film which imagined an
unknown Soviet space programme launching its first man on the moon in
1938. In Fedorchenko’s film First on the Moon the character returns to earth in
Chile and travels back to the Soviet Union only to be captured by the NKVD and
be interned in a psychiatric ward from which he escapes and is forced to assume a series of different
identities in order to survive in the Soviet
environment. In Valenti’s film the
mockumentary form allows us to follow the life of a childhood friend of Sergei
Eisenstein recruited into the Soviet intelligent agencies as a spy acting
as Stalin’s agent in decisively important moments of twentieth century history but also as his eventual unmasker. When given orders to make a film he decides to tell the tyrant the unpalatable truth. In a way Valenti’s film (like Fedorchenko’s) through the mockumentary form seeks a
way to return to that moment when cinema had the ludic spirit it had in the
One of the reasons why Figueres has avoided falling into the trap of trying to recreate Russia realistically is that he has had the opportunity of living in many of the cities of the former Soviet Union. He reels off the names of places he has been to or lived in: Moscow, Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), Novgorod, Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, Almaty ... This acquaintance with these places didn't push him towards a greater realism but prompted him to try and recapture the dreams of a time and a place through stylization.
The dawn of
When I asked Valenti to comment on what
attracted him to a story about Soviet cinema in the first place he had this to
The dawn of Soviet
cinema[was a time] full of instinct, creativity, research, investigation… They
had an eagerness to represent the reality they were living in a different way.
For me [early Soviet
cinema] was an outbreak of creativity, intense, like a light that illuminates
the shadows. This lasted only a few years, 7 or 8, but those years were a gift
I see this cinema
like a tool, like a fist, a plough, a finger that points out. Or just as mere
eye that looks through the artists’ subjectivity, the creators that made it
There was also a
fusion and mixing of different arts: performing arts, painting, theatre,
architecture, and the new art that started getting ground: the cinema, the
In the very moment
where constructivism, Dadaism, surrealism, social utopia like anarchism,
socialism and communism came together, an exceptional breeding ground was
created: the years from 1921 till 1929. An exploding magma of creativity and
social change that marked global cinema forever.
Valenti’s film wanted
to show both the dreams and nightmares of the Soviet period and indeed the film
starts with the protagonist Maxime Stransky on a mission in Madrid 1937 to
assassinate the Spanish anarchist and civil war hero, Cipriano Mera (the
protagonist of Figueres’s previous documentary film) Living on Your Feet. In
many ways this is indcative of how the film aims toset the scene of the Revolution plunging from
light into darkness which is the central leitmotif of the film. Maxime
Stransky’s odyssey through the twentieth century (from Russia to the US, China,
Australia, Spain etc) is the odyssey of the Revolution itself. So that Maxime
Stransky becomes a high Symbolic figure as well as a figure who portrays all
the demons as well as the hopes of the Revolution. He is there, too, to give
voice to the great debate in Soviet Cinema between the Cine Fist (of
Eisenstein) and the Cine Eye of Vertov. The manipulator of images and
attractions versus the searcher and manipulator of reality. Yet there is also a
sense that they were finally searching for what the other represented.
Valenti Figueres: Cine-Eye (documentary) becomes
Cine-finger (fiction). The film represents the moment in which these two paths
separate, both in the personal friendship between Eisenstein and Stransky (
here representing Vertov) and in filmmaking. Both schools – documentary vs.
fiction – will move apart to get to these days as a common field: storytelling
through images which of course tell their meaning. This is the great discovery:
how the meaning is built in the mind of the spectator. How it is possible to
change that meaning and its consequences in the immediate future. Stalin knew
that memory was fragile and the past is a gun loaded with future.
The Critical Roots of
Figueres and his co-scriptwriter Helena Sanchez are both philosophers by
training and being close to critical theory for them cinema always aims at some
kind of transformative effect. In this way it is not difficult to understand
why the Soviet 20s were chosen being the time when cinema was at its most
transformative. Moreover, the list of names that Figueres’ mentions when asked
to comment on possible influences are not contemporary but show a broader
historical sweep speaking to us of a time when cinema really did seem to be on
a mission of some sort:
VF: Tarkovski, Eisenstein, German expressionism, a Brechtian approach to acting, epic cinema, adventures of solitary heroes, social cinema…
The fascination with the artistic
explosion of the 1920s is palpable in the film and the fact that it was at this
very moment that artistic transformation was to appear indivisible from a
social (and civilisational) transformation of reality. So, in the words of the
director, the Soviet Union becomes a unique breeding ground, where both artistic
and social utopias live together; they interlink and feed each other. They will
shape the way people look and see, which will then change their way of being.
It is what Figueres
calls a blinding moment that will enlighten future generations of filmmakers
and social change-makers…an endless
moment where people believed that the future had yet to come. It is a pristine
and eternal present with no past.
This is the moment of
Vertov, Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Maiakovski, Lili Brik, Pasternak, Pudovkin,
Meyerhold, of the Proletkult and so many others whose names deserve recording.
That so many are forgotten or were eventually eliminated under Stalin makes the
character of Maxime Stransky a kind of collective portrait of those hundreds
and thousands of figures, that history has, in some way or other, consigned to
oblivion being at the same time a portrait of those who consigned this dream to
Stransky as a collective
Stransky is, then, in
the wordsof Valenti: a fictional character that lives the life
of hundreds, thousands of people who existed and were wiped away. People with
no face and no memory. The forgotten of history, the ones who died in the
transit camps of Valdivostok and Magadan. This is the hidden history. The
consequences of the great social K effect.
What Figueres calls
the social K effect is how the images were not simply merged amongst themselves
on film but that life itself was contaminating (and being contaminated by)
these images. A K experiment was being carried on in both cinema and in society
so that new worlds and new meanings were created. While in cinema this was a
creative process, in social reality this had more sinister undertones given the
character of the editor:
Stalin, the Cannibal-God, the Great Vulture of Memory,
the creator of a vast social K Effect.
The Chiaroscuro of
the Revolution, Memory and Resistance
It was the past which
would soon become unpredictable and Comrade Stalin using the fragility of the
past would drown the blinding light out whith his dark shadows. In many ways
this is close to the central theme of this film: the chiaroscuro of the Revolution
as well as about how memories can be manipulated and distorted to give a new
meaning to events lived and the hope for resistance against this. Figueres gives what
seems to be a rather optimistic vision of Stransky trying to resist Stalin at a
final moment. Optimistic ? Or perhaps not- for wasn’t Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part Two just such a
moment of resistance whereby cinema tried to resist and throw back everything
that the arch manipulator had done to imprison the original dream? While
Eisenstein’s meeting with Stalin about his incorrect picture was eventually to
lead to Eisenstein’s premature death by heart attack (The K Effect has a scene where Eisenstein celebrates his 50th
and final birthday with Stransky), Stransky’s truth-telling film gets him sent
to the camps from which (implausibly) he escapes and lives out Maxime was to say at
the beginning that: ‘Reality was our testing ground. Filled with a radiant
spirit of justice and humanity, we were going to change the world. We were the
innocence with no past.’ Yet years later Stransky by trying to alter reality
under the order of the great Editor was to find that he had become the past
with little innocence left. The Making of The K
In terms of how the film was made, Valenti Figueres had this to say: We made it was quite quickly: fundraising for one year
(2010) our principal photography started in 2011. During the year we shot,
edited and finalized post-production. It was quite a complex film to make in
terms of shooting fragments of scenes with the actors which later would be
included in a bigger editing. The actors were prepared for each scene of with a
different mind set and needed to perform a different kind of movement. Later we
had to coordinate all the home movies in order to fit them within the story as
a whole, so that they shared the overall aura and worldview adding to the sense
of this story as a kind of wonderful fairytale, an epic odyssey and an
historical road movie.
The editing was quite easy for me and the editor
(Carles Candela) as we got to know each other in my last film, Living on your Feet. The
Struggles of Cipriano Mera where we edited 3 movies at the same time. Everybody thinks that
it was hard, but it wasn’t. We acquired around 500 home movies in 16mm and 8mm
a year before. We selected scenes with kids, planes, boats, tanks that we
thought could be included. We had a list of different cars divided by years and
makes, typical Hollywood and Moscow dressing codes. We managed to find amateur
videos from Russia from the 20s and 30s, and with a great deal of visual memory
and instinct we managed to square it.
I even edited an extra 30 minutes, but my friends and
the film team rose up to put an end to the film. It was great fun to edit more
than 5.000 shots and remember each and every one of the first and final takes
of each shot. As well as the emotions that the shooting bring with it.
As well as a
chronological editing evidenced in the films chronological movement, the film
also tried to capture the successive styles of the periods in question. So
while recounting the 1920s it was done in a Dadaist – Constructivist style. The
shadowy spirit of Stalinism would be captured with an expressionist tinge that
gives way to socialist realism. The 1940s would then be captured using film
noir techniques with the 1950s portrayed in the more open shots of cinemascope.
Equally the broken Black and White film of the 1920s shots would be turn to
contrasted Black and White in the next decade with the first colour images
being used at the time of the Spanish Civil War and World War Two. In this way the interplay between styles,
techniques and the vicissitudes of the social utopia comment upon each other.
The Significance of
film is a rare attempt to return to that period of bright explosions of the
mind and of victories over the sun when a whole generation seemed ready to
storm paradise and remind us that, however, far it plunged into the darkness of
disapparance and and the nightmare of terror, the dreams of the utopians and the
artists in their grandeur – the Eisenstein’s, the Vertov’s, the Dovzhenko’s and
the Meyerkhold’s – seem like towering giants of a new Renaissaince- whose time seems irrevocably lost. That Valenti has
attempted to recapture the best minds of another generation that prefigured and
towered above others of the twentieth century is testimony to the importance of
this film. That he has done it so valiantly with such an impassioned force
dragging back those dreams lost to that nightmarish machine symbolised by the
Lyubyanka’s and Magadan’s of Stalin’s infernal gambol. Valenti, himself,
should be given the final word:
The Effect K is an odyssey of those who dared to dream and were swollen by
their dreams. An adventure in the origins of cinema and utopias, but at the
same time a story of adventures, a mythic tale about cinema, the legend of a
friendship, the myth of an hero and his descent into hell…
It is a fiction film made of fragments of reality.
With this film, we go through a tumultuous XX Century with beautiful utopias
that engendered nice dreams and terrible nightmares. Lights and shadows. The
great metaphor of Cinema.
My interests include Soviet/Russian (as well as ex- and post-Soviet)film, Soviet/Russian literature,Argentinian literature,radical thought, and anything that Juan Rodolfo Wilcock and Roberto Arlt would have thought relevant. I have a twitter account @GiulianoVivaldi where smaller news is added and a Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/GiuVivRussianFilm