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Friday, 7 June 2013

Kinotavr Film Festival - First Impressions

Russia's major national film festival which showcases its own  national film production - Kinotavr  festival in Sochi - is on its fifth day and so far there is little to suggest that this is one of its best years although there have been a few high-quality films to watch as well as the occasional lecture and a couple of retrospectives that still manage to indicate where Russian film has originated from. Of course, there are the occasional minor scandals and intrigues. The main one this year surrounds the reaction to Stanislav Govorukhin's noir which based loosely on a Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour l'echafaud (Lift to the Gallows). Instead of holding the audience in suspense they broke out in laughter during a number of scenes. The conservatively minded film director (who as a member of Putin's entourage has been trying to wipe out swear language from cinema) was said to be so offended that he withdrew his film from the second viewing slot. Other reports are that he has been reported to have stated that he is to withdraw from film-making per se. Whatever the case the film is not one of the more memorable noirs and will surely be soon forgotten in terms of cinematographic qualities - although the work of the cameraman Yuri Klimenko deserves some plaudits. 

There have been some altogether forgettable films - one of the worst being Maxim Panfilov's Иван, сын Амира (Ivan Son of Amir) - which has a feel of the mass produced feel-good film for television that it is truly perplexing as to how it found itself in the major national film festival as a competition film. Dmitry Turin's Жажда (Thirst) was much better but certainly not a film which needs to be over praised. The scriptwriter (and author of the tale on which the film is based, Andrey Gelasimov) suggested that one of the main points in the film was to overturn social and class stereotypes which he found even in films of the stature of, for example, Zviagintsev's Елена (Elena). A fine aim but there was too much of the opposite going on in this film- too much enforced emphasis on modelling the truly decent gopnik. The story of a talented artist whose face was disfigured during a stint in the Chechen war and whose talent was unrecognized, the film simply pulled on too many emotional strings to make it surprising in any way. It certainly earned the plaudits of many at the press conference but was far inferior to the uneven but very interesting film by Yusip Razykov Стыд (Shame). A film which will surely be seen as a take on the Kursk tragedy which happened at the beginning of Putin's first presidency over a decade ago (but which as the director stated was one of numerous such tragedies since the Second World War), the film had a very strong sense of landscape and most of the bones that Russian film critics had to pick at the press conference about the film (the scenes of the shooting of the dog or the scene  of the suicide/homicide of a mother and her children) were in many ways neither here nor there when judging this film. An outstanding performance by the main actor Maria Semenova - as a wife who doesn't love her husband (one of the victims of the underwater tragedy) and an outsider from the start in the community - is matched by an extraordinary fixture of location. Razykov can arguably be faulted for his rather reductive orientalist characterizations of one of the characters but otherwise this was far more an original film than many others at the festival so far. 

One of the most awaited films of the festival Taisia Igumentseva's Отдать Концы (Bite the Dust) seemed to be the hardest to characterise. An apocalyptic comedy (but hardly a black comedy) it seemed to be a far lighter film than most expected. It may appear as something of a setback after the Cinefondation award that Cannes gave to her first short film Дорога на... (The Road to…). This film took few radical steps in displaying any aspects of Russia realia. A fantasia on the theme what would you do if the apocalypse were to be announced, it was executed in a naïf style. The director enjoyed displaying an eccentric collocation of objects as much as characters. Bucolic and farcical the film was enjoyable but the madcap humour failed to raise as many laughs as one expected. It seems that Igumentseva wasn't quite ready for movement from short to full-length film even though the film was obviously an attempt to do many things at once. The hope, though, is that Igumentseva’s talent will develop further in as many unpredictable directions as this film took its viewer. 

The two genuinely outstanding films so far seem to be a sex comedy and a documentary.  

Vitaly Mansky's documentary Труба (Pipeline) is an extraordinary journey from Urengoy to Uzhgorod (from East to West) where the gas and oil pipeline run from and to. A documentary road movie, it explores life in those communities through which the pipeline runs. One of the central scenes is the 9th May celebrations in which veterans gather. The scene where the eternal flame is lighted and put out before and after the celebration is an indication of the theme of excess and deprivation that the film highlights. The film runs to almost two hours but there is no lack of fascinating scenes. In an interview Mansky was said to have written a 'script' for the film in Moscow - so it's one of the most controlled films in terms of documentary conception. Having said that, a return to a grand style and larger themes is welcome. It leaves behind the intimate story telling of much Russian documentary output to make a grand statement. And this statement showing poverty in the midst of vast wealth making potential powerfully runs throughout the film.

However, in terms of the first three days of the festival it was Natalia Merkulova's and Alexei Chupov's sex comedy Интимные Места (Intimate Parts) which impressed the most. One of the first films of its kind in Russian film (as well as a debut for the directors), this film genuinely did lift up the spirits of what was becoming a rather lacklustre competition programme. The film ran without a dramatic centre but its constellation of story lines attempted to push forward a radical challenge to dominant retraditionalisation of sexual mores which has been present in Russian society in recent years. A film about a country where no sexual revolution has taken place (apart from the 1920s) or a film that has some more universal subtexts was discussed by those present at the press conference. A press conference that was at times threatening to turn into a parody of the film itself when one journalist asked about whether didn't have too many sexual organs in it. To which the producer Bakur Bakuradze elegantly questioned the journalist what percentage of sexual organs should a film have? Much has been made as to whether the film will be allowed Russian distribution licences and whether the directors won't be called a morals commission. In any case Russia seems to have found a potential response to Almodovar (in terms of how they have sought to prize open certain secrets of national sexuality just as Almodovar did in his earlier days rather in terms of  film poetics).

While the film Intimate Parts certainly feels like something new and original (although it had some hints of the film Неадекватные Люди (Inadequate People) by Roman Karimov which was released in 2010), Yuri Bykov’s Майор (The Major), in spite of almost universal plaudits from the journalists gathered at the press conference, certainly didn’t win me to his cause. In spite of being shown at Cannes the flaws in Bykov’s approach were as extreme as his subject matter. Only one journalist bravely attempted to put her finger on the core of the matter by referring to how Bykov plays with his extreme subject matter in a rather dangerous way. Quoted as referring to the protagonist he himself played in the film (and one of the two major characters) as a ‘positive hero’ he then also states how this characters series of moral coordinates are flawed. Given the extreme subject matter of the film (the consequences of a policeman through dangerous driving running over a young boy and the cover up which consequently leads to several more corpses) this playfulness on Bykov’s part appears, to say the least, grotesque if not quasi-fascist.
That the subject matter has been treated so cavalierly suggests that Bykov – who cites his favourite cinema as the cinema of the American 1970s- has not the depths and the strengths of Vasily Sigarev who willing to confront extremity will do so in a far more morally courageous way.

Even if slight at times far better than Bykov’s film was Ira Volkova’s exploration of Chekhovian тоска in her film Диалоги (Dialogues). Strange dialogues of various types in a kind of personal ‘almanac’ film (although as Volkova explained the almanac film is a series of small films by different directors). Her own filming of five short dialogues in one film almost parallels the structure of other more recent films such as Рассказы (Stories). Her film brought to the audience moments of lyrical finesse and some moments of superb acting of an almost theatrical splendour to the screen. Absurdly small, nominally ‘insignificant’ and minimalist, this film carried far greater truth in it than was found in Bykov’s speculative drama. Another debutante among several in this year’s festival, Volkova is a promising director to watch out for.

There are a few more films to watch out for and Fedorchenko’s film is surely the highlight of the second part of the festival. What the films tell about in Russian cinema in general is hard to pinpoint. It doesn’t look as though it is a great year and the fact that two films fewer this year were shown in competition compared to last year is a worrying sign. Especially since it is extremely hard to justify the presence of one or two of the films presented. A whole round table discussion chaired by Andrei Plakhov was one of the supplementary events of the festival.  Rather depressing conclusions were reached at the panel with one critic, Victor Matizen, talking about the strange schizophrenia of the Russian film world towards the government. I’ll try to post about the other side of the Kinotavr in a post second post shortly. 


  1. Thanks for the news! Poor Govorukhin! His tv series The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed (Mesto vstrechi izmenit' nel'zia, 1979), starring the unforgettable Vladimir Vysotsky as a Russian Humphrey Bogart, was a wonderful, classical piece of - perhaps the first piece of - Soviet/Russian film noir. But then, Govorukhin's own voice in 'We Can't Live Like This' (Tak Zhit's Nel'zya, 1990) was cringeworthy and, despite the purported chernukha genre ('Russian Noir'), it sounded more cultural rather than countercultural to me.
    I am unsure, if there has never been anything like a sexual revolution in Russia. Vasilii Pichul's wonderful chernukha-ish 'Little Vera' (Malenkaya Vera, 1988) springs to mind; the first Russian film, to my knowledge, that either showed a sex scene or showed it with the woman, the (anti)heroine Vera, on top of her lover. Of course, one film is not a revolution, yet, as a reflection of the contemprorary Zeitgeist, it is suggestive of one (my studies of Soviet cinema are that long ago...)

  2. Thanks for the comment Florian. Yes I am not a fan of Govorukhin's later works - and you're right his documentaries were very reactionary in many ways. In terms of cinematic language too arguably. There is a very good article somewhere about the film The Russia that we've lost which includes some remarks about 'we can't live like this'. It emphasises the staticity of the film. As though Russian film had ground to a halt in terms of the dynamic nature of the shots.
    Yes about sexual revolution -you're right, it's rather more complex than this rather throwaway remark of mine(actually it was more or less a citation from the filmmakers). Yes Russia seems to live through times of great revolutions in all areas of life and periods of absolute conservatism and reaction (so yes the 20s, even to some extent the 60s and the 90s are places to look for more open films in this regard- and a film like Tretia Meschanskaya is another fascinating film in this regard (as well as Room's Strogii Iunosha- though, of course this was one of those censored and not seen by anyone for decades). Though Intimate Parts is perhaps more of a diagnosis of the sexual life of the middle classes. I'm not sure how long my enjoyment of the film will remain. It just seemed to lift spirits after what seemed to be an extremely conventional and dull Kinotavr. There is the feel of 2013 as being a rather low moment in Russian film especially with the death of German and Balabanov. Although hopefully there is something else out there.

  3. Thank you Giuliano! Your erudition makes me give another comment, just to tickle more of your knowledge out of you.
    Since you mentioned the 60s, there is this wonderful, wonderful modernist film - and I am so convinced that it went into Balabanov's Brother - 'Wings', by Larisa Shepitko, which fascinatingly portrays a female protagonist. Once a fighter pilot, now a tough, communist school mistress... to get to the point... there seems to be an episode in the film that suggests her attraction to another woman (or women as such). Please, let me know. I am pretty sure that you can explain more.
    And lets not forget the death of Piotr Todorovsky, who gave us Intergirl and What a Wonderful Game. What is is son, Valerii, doing these days? (I am so out of touch at the moment).

  4. as far as I can guess the scene must be the one in the cafe/restaurant - my reading of this scene is that the main protagonist of the film feels comfortable with this other woman because she is the only one who relates to her as a human being and not as a figure of authority/ a former war hero/ a mother/ school mistress etc. It's the only moment in the film where she seems to feel free of her official and imposed roles. I'm not sure how much more can be read into the scene than this and what Shepitko's intentions were but yes it does seem that it's the only moment where she obtains a kind of perfect harmony and joy when being with another human being.(I'd be interested to hear about the films influence on Brother).
    Yes Piotr Todorovsky's death was quite yet another shock for Russian film - after German and Balabanov - it's been an absolutely tragic time for Russian film. I'm not sure what Valeri Todorovsky is doing in terms of directing. Since Stilyagi he seems to have been involved more in producing films rather than directing them. In fact he was one of the producers of the film that won the Kinotavr this year: The Geographer Drank his Globe Away.