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 news about 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's March, 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.
Betrayal - Kirill Serebrennikov.