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Saturday, 13 April 2013

Dmitry Astrakhan's "Деточки" (Kids)

Dmitry Astrakhan is not a film director who gets much coverage outside of Russia even if he is an extremely prolific filmmaker. In many ways this is also because he is not the kind of director who receives much serious attention - his is no 'auteur' or art house cinema but neither is it the kind of blockbuster that has dominated the multiplexes and even got attention as representing the new 'Big Style' of the Putin era. The film scholar Julian Graffy is one of the very few academics to have written about this director - he rather aptly entitled his article Popular Cinema for a Time of Uncertainty, although this essay was published some time ago. Astrakhan's latest film Деточки (Kids) seems to fit particularly well into that description. In spite of the fact that this is popular cinema for a mass audience in Moscow, so far, it is being shown only at the Khudozhestvenniy cinema. Popular cinema in form and yet in content rather extreme. A band of orphans decide to avenge other child and young victims of violence and neglect- the perpetrators who range from paedophiles to indifferent and corrupt child medics, from drug dealers to army officers who subject their conscripts to hazing are, in most cases, killed or subjected to the punishment that they themselves deal out on their own victims.

In many ways the film recalls that old slogan Так Жить Нельзя (We can't go on living like this) from the perestroika period. The fact that the film has been called a сказка (fairy tale) doesn't seem to lessen the directly political and social reading that has been given the film. Indeed one of the few remaining opposition-minded parliamentarians Ilya Ponomaryev has himself spoken of the film in this vein. Others such as the Afisha correspondent seem certain that the film is doomed to become a national hit because of its rather scandalous nature. Scandalous, even though one giving hope in the form, as Maria Kuvshinova puts it, of knife-carrying youth. The obvious and ever-present comparison is with Govorukhin's 1999 revenge fantasy Ворошиловский стрелок (The Rifleman of the Voroshilov Regiment). Of course, Govorukhin has mainly turned his back on film and since become representative of that very hated system against which the new avengers seem to be intent on resisting. Yet apart from Govorukhin's film one can think of a whole set of films which one could relate this film to in some way or another. If the Afisha correspondent talks of Balabanov's Брат-2 (Brother-2), others such as the New Times journalist, Olga Galitskaya, refer to its similarities with the popular Soviet movie from 1966 Неуловимые мстители (The Elusive Avengers) by Edmond Keosayan.

 There is, of course, also the verbal allusion with Ryazanov's most successful fighter for social justice, Yuri Detochkin, in his film Берегись Автомобиля (Beware of the Car) in which a car thief steals others cars which he knows have been acquired through corruption or Блат:

And yet, of course, this particular fairy tale by Astrakhan is of darker stuff and, in so far as it reflects a general social consciousness far better described than other directors are capable of, reflecting, as Evgenii Margolit  puts it, "mass consciousness with its hopes and phobias", it speaks of much more dangerous times. However, it could also be a film which, nonetheless, awakes a certain life into the spectator. A film that chimes with the times in the re-emergence of the child at the centre of political struggle (especially given the recent controversy over the 'Dima Yakovlev' law) or a film that speaks to a fundamental fear of the anarchy that adults are transferring to a younger generation. Whether its scandalous nature will have any particularly powerful effects and re-awaken a slumbering society or cater to a general sense of the need for society to avenge its presumed (or actual) tormenters remains to be seem. Whether it really is a call to subvert a passive and general indifference only time will tell. Astrakhan's particular and rather unique style of popular 'trash' cinema surely will be of greater interest to the cultural sociologist or the sociological historian of years to come than to the student of cinema aesthetics. Astrakhan, however, is an interesting and rather singular (if not necessarily artistically significant) barometer.

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