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Contemporary/New Russian Cinema (1991-)

by poemless Wed Jun 4th, 2008 at 02:21:37 PM EST

Previous posts:
May Film Blog: Introduction
May Film Blog: FAQ

I began this little survey of recent Russian film knowing next to nothing about the subject.  Which is kind of embarrassing, since I spent all my undergraduate tuition money on the study of film (specifically film theory and nationalism) and Slavic studies (specifically Russian).  I thought I'd use this ET Film Blog series to do some serious repenting.  Also, it dovetails nicely with my ongoing propaganda campaign to convert you all into crazy Russophiles.  So my motives are entirely selfish.  Vanity and manipulation.  Fortunately for me, I've learned a lot and have rediscovered a passion of mine.  Unfortunately for you, I've learned that there is a lot left that I don't know, and have rediscovered a passion of mine.  I'm like a crack fiend.  I can't stop!  And I'm going to drag you down with me!

Before we get to the films themselves, I'd like to take a moment to share with you a few brilliant observations I've made.  To put things in context.  And I'm going to qualify everything I say from here on out with the possibility that I may be entirely wrong, but something I say is bound to be right, so you should pay attention anyway.  Ok, Context:

Promoted by Migeru


I.  Economics & Film, or, "Isn't it ironic?"

Soviet Cinema
During the Soviet era, films were funded by the State.  Although there was censorship, once you had your script green-lighted, you had the money to make your movie.  Lots of films were made.  

Post-Soviet Cinema (the 90's)
When the Soviet Union was dismantled, the state had little money and no real obligation to fund filmmaking.  So, while you could theoretically say whatever you wanted in the new fabulously free Russia, good luck finding the money to actually say it.  Or to buy movie tickets.  Or eat.

In the early 90's, there was a short burst of filmmaking when funding was provided by benevolent, cinephile wealthy new businessmen, or by gangsters looking for a way to launder money, depending upon who you ask, or how you look at the situation.  But more liberal free-market laws were passed, opening up much more lucrative opportunities for "investment."  The businessmen/gangsters moved on to greener pastures and the natural resources below them.  Apparently a number of gangsters continued to produce "vanity" films about their gangstery lives featuring their probably soon-to-be-trafficked girlfriends.  But these brought in little revenue.  OTOH, by the end of the 90's, Nikita Mikhalkov mused that there was no clean money in Russia, so you could argue that all films, privately or publicly funded, were funded by criminals.  Hahaha.  Still, the production of films, in the hundreds before '93, dropped off dramatically.  Only 20 films were made in Russia in 1996.

Other methods of funding came from joint international projects, often with the French.  While these were considered symbols of open artistic collaboration afforded by the end of the Cold War, they were also simply necessitated by money.  Or the lack thereof.  

New Russian Cinema
At the end of the 90's there began a state-run drive to revive the industry through both private and governmental initiatives.   Chalk it up to benevolence, perceived opportunity for profit, or a desire to influence the shaping & export of a new national identity - whatever the motivation, it is working.  Also, the overall economic boom gave a boost to the industry: the Russian people now had enough money to buy tickets to the movies.  The following article (absent hysterical headline) gives you a glimpse of the continually changing role of the State in filmmaking and the improvement witnessed over the past decade in terms of production opportunities.

Hollywood reporter May 13, 2008

MOSCOW -- Question marks hung over future state funding of Russian films Tuesday after the agency for culture and cinema was disbanded amid a restructuring of the Russian government.

When Vladimir Putin took over the prime minister's office Monday following the end of his term as the nation's president, he announced a new set of government structures -- but the agency for culture and cinema was no longer there. Its functions have instead been transferred to the ministry of culture.

It is not clear how this will affect the government's support of domestic cinema, which this year was said to stand at 3 billion rubles ($127 million). A spokesperson for the disbanded agency could not comment.

Earlier this year, the agency spoke about stepping up support for domestic cinema. Speaking at an industry conference in Kiev in late April, Sergei Lazaruk, agency deputy head, said that the state was participating in the financing of about 210 feature films in various stages of production and 70 projects had been approved for support in 2008 and '09. There were plans to introduce cash bonuses to film production companies that make commercially successful movies.

A comprehensive overview of the topic can be found here.

~~~~~~~~~~

II.  Ideology & Film, or, "The more things change..."

Revolution
Lenin said that, "For us, film the the most important of all the arts."  See here for an explanation of what he meant.  At the beginning of this era, filmmakers were employed by the regime to create "agit-prop" (agitational propaganda in support of the Revolution), but were allowed a significant amount of artistic license.  It wasn't until Stalin that an official aesthetic was enforced.

Soviet Cinema  
During the Soviet era, filmmaking was controlled by the State, and in order to have a film made, the script had to pass muster with the censors.  I've read that the entire upper echelons of the industry were staffed with KGB.  Some periods under the Soviet rule were more lenient than others, such as Khrushchev's "Thaw" and Gorbachev's "glasnost"  and "perestroika."  

Related to the practice of censorship, but certainly (and this is important) not to be conflated with it, was the traditional role of film in Russia as a kind of authority national consciousness, identity, values, spirit etc.  Film was considered a valued profession, imbued with a sense of mission.  They had a tradition of film as artform & intellectual endeavor, rather than purely mindless entertainment (the American tradition).  Not that there wasn't purely mindless entertainment.  But even the purely mindless entertainment had a "purpose" and a "responsibility to the people."  If we think only of censorship (even self-censorship) we think only in terms of top-down regulation.  But don't underestimate the "bottom-up" sense of purposefulness among the filmmakers themselves.

Post-Soviet Cinema
With the collapse of Communism came the collapse of official censorship.  People were now able to produce scripts not deemed socially or politically acceptable in the past.  And people with no background in the industry could make their own films.  However, many filmmakers were still a product of the culture of the state-run industry and held onto some of the philosophies about the role of film that had informed their work in the past.

New Russian Cinema  
From what I can glean, there are roughly 4 schools of thought on the matter at the moment, resulting in roughly 4 classes of film: Hollywood, Social Realism, Traditional, and Art.  Of course there is a lot of overlap among these genres, but this is how I would explain it to an alien.  

  • The Hollywood genre places high priority on slick production values, revenue, often catering to a young audience.  These films may or may not have a message, but have a significant budget and are comparable to your traditional Hollywood flicks, be they action or romantic comedy.  I think films like Night Watch (whose director has gone on to make actual Hollywood films) and You I love (about the racy romantic lives of Moscow yuppies) would fall into this category.  

  • The Social Realism genre eschews the decadent production values of the Hollywood film, but also the moral obligations and political propaganda of the past.  These films depict the unpleasant realities of life, often without  condemning them.  This is probably the kind of film the West was expecting a plethora of after the end of Communism, as they are free to expose the dirty underbelly of the glorious Russian nation.  These are not fantasies or moral allegories or art for art's sake.  I would place a film like Brother in this category.  This is what our uncensored lives are like, they say.

  • The Traditionalists.  Making films of artistic genius is a fine, fine tradition to carry on.  Being a self-appointed moral authority, less so, yet it also seems a tough habit to quit.  As tradition has it, I'm sure it remains an effective way to ingratiate yourself with those who control the state coffers.  Adherents to this school are also ideological descendants of the Slavophile strain of Russian intellectuals that dates back before the invention of film.  The Island is an archetypal film of this genre.  And while Mikhalkov's films contain many of the elements of Hollywood filmmaking, ideologically, I'd put him in this camp too.

  • The Art genre, for lack of a better term (because I don't want to imply any of the previously mentioned genres are not art) places the highest priority on film as creative expression.  These filmmakers may tow the line of the current administration or social mores, or they may be in complete opposition to them, but maybe you will see one of these films and say, "WTF was that supposed to be about?"  Perhaps "lacking cohesive linear narrative" would be a better description.  Whatever their political loyalties, these filmmakers seem more interested in what crazy stuff they can do with the medium than in edifying an audience or making gobs of cash.  These filmmakers are a bit mad.  I would make strange bedfellows of Sokurov (Russian Ark) and Khrzhanovsky (4) by placing them in this genre.

~~~~~~~~~~

III.  Me, making stuff up.

So, there is a question of whether or not we can learn anything about contemporary Russia by watching movies from contemporary Russia.  Given the long history of film being a tool of the state to tell us what we should think about Russia, you'd think, yes, ... I mean, no, ... I mean ... I don't know.  But I think I can say with shaky confidence that these films are at least a reflection of some facet or other of contemporary Russian reality, be it economic, spiritual, social or political, as it is experienced by its filmmakers.

Three films which appear to have elicited strong response domestically, Brother, Night Watch and The Island do, I think, reflect the atmosphere in which they were made. Brother, made in 1997, depicts the life of a rural kid who comes to the city looking for a job and almost inadvertently becomes a hitman.  It illustrates both the decay, moral and economic, of the time, as well as the social freedoms afforded by the anarchy.  Gangsters, McDonald's, Walkmans, raves, tourists ... but a low budget film shot against a bleak backdrop of peeling wallpaper, polluted air, general cynicism and sadness at what has become of everything .  Night Watch, made in 2004, well, like I said, I never watched the whole thing, but it is a flashy, fast-paced, high budget (for Russia) tale of fantasy, vampires, good .v evil.   Money, fast-paced, fantasy, vampires ... words you'll find in any number of articles describing that newly cash-infused country and those running it...  The Island, made in 2006, is considered by some to be Orthodox propaganda and is a fair illustration of the conservative backlash in social mores in response to the delinquency of the 90's.  I would also make a connection between religious fervor and national fervor...  Oh, I wish Russia would stop inadvertently becoming more like ... America.  Anyway, also, unlike the gaudiness associated with the New Russians, this film has money, yes, but knows how to spend it with taste.  There is a certain trajectory of "maturation" here, isn't there?  

[Warning!  Sarcasm Alert!]

I think it interesting to note that several films which enjoyed a positive reception in America also shed some light on America's attitude toward Russia.  Burnt by the sun won an Oscar in 1995.  Not only did this illustrate our burgeoning friendship with our former enemy, it did so in a way, as if to say, "So you are admitting that Communism stuff was, like, a total mistake and you have learned your lesson?  Ok, here's a token of our appreciation.  Thanks for falling in line.  Also, we think the little girl is charming and your women are beautiful."  The success of Russian Ark is no surprise, as it is about Tsarist Russia (good, no Communism) seen through the eyes of a Westerner (good, the West is good.) Night Watch, well, it's a vampire action flick.  Confirms our belief that Moscow is crawling with evil non-humans and also places faith in the primacy of the flashy action flick. The Italian. Heh.  Proof positive Russians can't take care of themselves without us.  Ok.  We will buy your precious little children...  

[Warning!  End of Sarcasm Alert!]

~~~~~~~~~~

IV.  Themes & Motives

Here are some of the themes I found repeated as I watched these films.  Maybe you did too.

West v. Russia/Slavic/East

Ah, the age old debate is alive and well.  They should just chose "all of the above" and get on with things... ;)  

And its variations:
Secular v. Spiritual
Amoral v. Moral
Hollywood aesthetics v. Artistic/Intellectual aesthetics
Young v. Old
Rebellion v. Tradition
Urban v. Rural

Dislocation, Abandonment

The other day I was listening to the brilliant writer, Aleksandar Hemon, talk about the "rupture" created in his life by the war in Bosnia and his forced emigration.  He was talking about how we think of things "before" and "after" and that the goal is to heal the rupture, create continuity and completeness...  This made me think about the rupture created by the end of the Soviet Union, and the current national project of creating a continual and complete Russian history, identity.  And about healing...  All of this may or may not be related to anything.

Separation of parent and child

And its variations:
Separation of Russian and Motherland
Separation of citizen and nation
Separation of individual and social unit

There are all kinds of abandonment issues in a number of these films, explicitly in films like The Italian or The Return, but almost all of the films I saw included these generational dislocations, and on more than one occasion they seemed rather metaphorical.

Sequels

There are sequels being made to both Soviet and post-Soviet films.  A pedantic type would say something here about national psychology coming to terms with the past, and expressing a need for continuity of the grand narrative of the Russian people.  It's possible.  It could also just be about making money with a tried and true formula...

Spirituality

And its variations:
Mysticism
God
Moral parable

Expansive Landscapes

Different films give the vast backdrop of the Russian countryside different significance.  Sometimes it conveys emptiness, backwardness, poverty, inaccessibility, a feeling of being lost, the past.  For others it is where the "Real Russia" is found, the spiritual realm, the root of conscience.  But, it always means something.  Be sure of that!

Current, controversial topics

Subjects such as the war Chechnya and sexuality are usually skirted around, but ... usually brought up anyway.  Undercurrents that can't be ignored but won't be hashed out right here and now today.

~~~~~~~~~~

V.  Random selection of films and Brief commentary

Burnt By the Sun

Won an Oscar.  The West loved "Burnt by the sun" for its impressive but accessible production quality, its bittersweet condemnation of the Stalinist era, and that insanely adorable little girl.  Since then, Mihkalkov's become a rather sycophantic supporter of Putin (I don't judge!) and I think that it is possible, now, to go back and interpret this film through a slightly different lens.

Brother

OMG.  Best. Soundtrack. Ever.  I would absolutely recommend seeing this movie for the kick ass music alone.  I have to get ahold of that soundtrack...

Also, this is the Russia that I lived in.  I didn't go around shooting people or asking directions in English, but it's a very realistic depiction of the time.  The color scheme, the characters, the music, the thugs running things right out in the open, the economic desperation and McDonalds.  The moral ambiguity, nihilism.  The weird combination of bleakness and euphoria.  Some of the scenes feel like they're taken right our of my own experiences.  (The rave party is a classic.)  When I watch movies like "Burnt by the sun" or "The Island" or "You I love" - they are wonderful, but impersonal.  "Brother", OTOH ... I was almost sentimental about it.  The sequel (which I've yet to get my paws on) is set in Chicago.  So I expect my head to just explode when I see it.

Also, Russia Blog has a review of Balabanov's new film, "Cargo 200."

Russian Ark

 

Not my favorite Sokurov film.  It is known more for its gimmick (was filmed using a single 90-minute shot) than for its content (based on the travelogue of the French Marquis de Custine, who visited Russia in the 19th century and wrote a famous book about it.)  Lovely film to watch, though.  In fact, all of the films of Sokurov I have seen share the same dreamlike, hypnotic aesthetic.  He is described as an "intellectual" filmmaker - which is accurate.  But his films are also extremely visually gratifying.

I would say that Sokurov is perhaps my favorite contemporary Russian filmmaker, along with Balabanov (Brother) and Zviagintsev (The Return).

The Return

My review here.

Night Watch

This film did not manage to hold my attention for long.  Maybe it gets better, but I never made it through the whole thing.

You I love

This was the first film made in Russia to tackle the issue of homosexuality, which remains pretty socially unacceptable there (though from what I can glean, it is already much more acceptable than it was 10 years ago...  so, it was pretty effing unacceptable.)  Not a brilliant film from a critical standpoint, though not bad at all.  I liked the use of color, and the comedic way they approached the subject - kind of like Almodóvar, without teeth.  Also, unlike "gay" films made in America, this one was consciously made for a heterosexual audience, so it doesn't have the cultishness or sexual explicitness found in most films on the topic.  In the end it is a charming little film about love.  I recommend it for what it is.

4

My review here.

The Italian

Oooh, there is nothing we Americans love more than feeling sorry for Russian orphans.  First they have the bad luck to be born in Russia, then to be abandoned by their parents.  I tell ya, it's a good thing we're here to rescue them.  <-- this was the prevailing sentiment in America when this film about the bleak existence of little Russian orphans came out.  It was pretty popular on our shores.  Also stars one of those insanely adorable little Russian kids.  We all want one of those.  (sigh)

The Island

This film is like the intoxicating mysticism & religion found in 19th century novels (usually couched as one position in a philosophical debate) teamed up with the heavy handed propaganda of the Soviet era (where the debate bit is squelched).  Best of both worlds, or worst of both worlds?  As a work of art, it is quite accomplished - Lungin's talent is undeniable.  As a morality tale, it is a bit tedious.  Sorry, Dostoevsky was able to convey the same message without being so predictable and pedantic.  </ducks, runs>

~~~~~~~~~~

VI.  Resources, or, "I know you're not going to go back and read the previous diaries."

Selected notable films, by director, in vaguely chronological order:

Aleksandr Sokurov
Whispering Pages (1993)
Russian Ark (2002)
Father and Son (2003)
Aleksandra (2007)

Nikita Mikhalkov
Burnt By the Sun (1994)
12 (2007)

Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Peculiarities of the National Hunt (1995)
Kukushka (2002)

Vladimir Khotinenko
The Muslim (1995)

Stanislav Govorukhin
The Rifleman of the Voroshilov Regiment (1995)

Sergei Bodrov
Prisoner of the Caucasus (1996)

Aleksei Balabanov
Brother (1997)
Brother 2 (2000)

Andrei Zvyagintsev
The Return (2003)
The Banishment (2007)

Timur Bekmambetov
Nightwatch (2004)
Daytwatch (2006)
Irony of Fate: the sequel (2007)

Olga Stolpovskaya
You I love (2004)

Ilya Khrzhanovsky
4 (2005)

Andrei Kravchuk
The Italian (2005)

Oksana Bychkova
Piter FM (2006)

Pavel Lungin
The Island (2006)

Ivan Vyrypayev
Euphoria (2006)

Anna Melikyan
The Mermaid (2007)

Selected references:

Articles:

The State of Contemporary Russian Cinema

Gloom in the east: Jonathan Romney on Russian cinema

The New Russian Cinema

Prophets and Gain: New Russian Cinema

Orphans of the Storm: Economic Destitution, Physical Lack, and Social Alienation in the Contemporary Russian Melodrama

Russian rebellion: The exciting young film-makers emerging from Moscow's movie industry

Its Freedoms No Longer New, Russian Cinema Matures

Websites:

Russian Film Blog

Kino Kultura

KinoEye Archives

~~~~~~~~~~~

So - have you seen any of these films?  What did you think about them?

Display:
Now my head hurts.  Tips and recs appreciated.  

Has anyone seen "Brat"?  OMG - I'm obsessed with it now.  I think I've watched it every day for the last 3 days.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Tue May 20th, 2008 at 06:43:59 PM EST
The color scheme, the characters, the music, the thugs running things right out in the open, the economic desperation and McDonalds.  The moral ambiguity, nihilism.  The weird combination of bleakness and euphoria.  Some of the scenes feel like they're taken right our of my own experiences.

Indeed it had a very realistic and direct feel when I watched it a few years back. Unsentimental post-collapse. (Or was there a love-story with a tram driver? I don't remember its details well.) Question: do I remember right that the cast was largely amateur actors?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 09:29:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To kick off some discussion: I pair The Rifleman of the Voroshilov Regiment and Brother in my mind. Both portrayal the post-Soviet "moral downfall" in their way. But the first does it in a kind-of 'Hollywood' style: I don't mean the budget, but the one-rightful-man-against-the-world theme, and the happy ending. When I sat down to watch Brother, I expected something in that direction, mixed with that other Hollywood template of the rise and fall of a mobster - but both of those themes were fused into something other.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 10:26:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I haven't seen The Rifleman of the Voroshilov Regiment so I can't comment.

But Brother lacks any heavy handed moral of the story message, leaving you to judge things for yourself.  I've read that it angered people with its apparent amorality, because it does not explicitly condemn Danila's actions.  But I don't know.  I think there is a subtle "moral message" about sending a kid off to war (he obviously did not set out the war in HQ as a clerk.)  There's some sense that society, the war, the poverty, etc. has created this seemingly amoral person.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 11:37:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Indeed it had a very realistic and direct feel when I watched it a few years back. Unsentimental post-collapse. (Or was there a love-story with a tram driver? I don't remember its details well.)

There was a "love story" with the tram driver, but it didn't have a happy ending.  She was beaten and raped by gangers and chose to stay with her abusive husband rather than run off with Danila.  But you know, "unsentimental" is not the word I would choose.  There is a certain sentimentality about it, more implied than explicit.  Maybe Danila is even absurdly sentimental, doing these things all for his brother, or the way he saves the director who stumbles accidentally into that hostage situation.  

Question: do I remember right that the cast was largely amateur actors?

I have no idea.  I didn't do much background research on the making f the individual films (unless it was included on the DVD.)  I was more interested in having an overveiw of the current state of things.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 11:25:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Brat?

not that I've seen it, but just checking you're not talking about This ;-)

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Tue May 20th, 2008 at 07:15:24 PM EST
For my movie I watched Dr. Zhivago.   I kid, I kid!!

I watched The Return.   (I have Burnt by the Sun sitting here waiting for me to watch it.)

I'm not much of a film critic so I have nothing profound to say.  I liked it although I found it somewhat disturbing.  It was beautifully filmed and I found myself looking at the landscape when I should have been reading the subtitles.  The whole boreal forest region has always appealed to me here on this continent so I was interested to see it on another continent.

I kept trying to impose American movie values on the story and, therefore, I kept being surprised by the twists in the story.  I assumed until about halfway through that it was a typical coming of age movie and that nothing really bad would happen.  I also expected that there would be rapprochement and understanding between the father and the younger son (as there would have been in an American movie).  But it soon became clear that this was a harsher story than you would see in American cinema (although maybe not harsher than American fiction set in the west.)  I started to get disturbed when he left the kid on the bridge and it wasn't clear if he was coming back.  And I was particularly disturbed when the motor conked out on the way to the island in that dilapidated boat with a storm coming up.  Of course as they survived each of these I assumed that we were moving toward a happy ending (or at least a neutral ending).

Boy was I wrong. The end was a total surprise to me.  

So - what should I learn about Russia from this?  

by Maryb2004 on Tue May 20th, 2008 at 08:37:23 PM EST
Well, there are some answers in this diary, and in my previous review of it.  I think there is a lot of metaphor (think it is a coincidence the dad comes from the past driving a red car, or that he dies, leaving the kids to take on the role of adults?) but also a lot of reality just about kids being abandoned and have no good male role models (at the time the father would have left there actually was this social problem with deadbeat dads, husbands, lots of joblessness and alcoholism and family units disintegrating...)

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 11:46:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What does the mother stand for?  I was really ambivalent about her.  I liked her and at first I didn't think there was anything odd about her letting the two boys go on a fishing trip with their dad - who had been missing for 12 years.  But as the dad manifested his lack of concern for their safety (which at first I attributed to him wanting them to learn to be independent but then I began attribute to him just not caring if they were in dangerous situations as long as he, the dad, got his way) I found myself really angry at the mother for letting them go off with him.  So is she symbolic of anything in Russian society?
by Maryb2004 on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 01:32:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why does she have to stand for anything?

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 01:43:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
She doesn't but you said it was filled with metaphor so I thought maybe she did.
by Maryb2004 on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 06:26:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I really loved the cinematography and acting in the film, which is why I recommended it.  It is hauntingly beautiful, I think.

And I think that it can be universally understood, with or without the benefit of esoteric knowledge about Russia.

Like all art or storytelling, it says to you what you hear.  It means what it means to you.  It's not for me to say what that is...

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 02:03:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It is beautiful.  

And most of the background to the story was pretty universal - it made me think that living in that area of Russia wasn't much different that living in parts of ... Maine.  Similar scenery.  Lakes, ocean.  Even the cafe looked familiar.

We are more alike than we are different ;)

by Maryb2004 on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 06:28:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In popular culture, the comedy Peculiarities of National Hunt and its sequels (# #) were quite a phenomenon.

The last two Russian movies I saw looked like zealous Hollywood crap. "Okhota na Pirahiyu" was a James-Bond-lite overkill (with rather original Siberian settings), while the other (of werewolfs or something) was a Disney-proportions fairytale with "Lord of the Rings" associations...

by das monde on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 03:15:54 AM EST
Then there is the director's other outstanding work, Kukushka.

This film is trilingual: its main characters are a Sami widow, and a Finnish and a Soviet-Russian soldier, who end up in one place in the last weeks of WWII. The far Northern landscape features as de-facto fourth main character.

The film is trilingual because none of the three speak the another two's language. Thus they sometimes guess right but usually misunderstand each other, living together in parallel words, and the viewer knows that things could blow up between them anytime. Meanwhile, while all of them were ostracised from their communities in some way, they feel forced to play out the national roles or such.

My favourite scene is the intro of the Finnish soldier at the beginning, but here is one with all three of them. (The version I found is one with Russian voiceover and English subtitles.)



*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 12:02:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
but maybe you will see one of these films and say, "WTF was that supposed to be about?"

Well, I watched 4, and am full of such questions...

  • What's the symbolic significance of the four trucks that appear three times?

  • Who hanged him/herself(?) when the girl is leaving the puppetmakers' forbidden village?

  • Who are the Iron Monsters Zoya's boyfriend constantly babbles about? (And why is the village forbidden military area - unless it has to do with the clone experiment? Or the bigs? Or both?)

  • What is the significance of the two versions of the girl in thre train, with two versions of why she is leaving town? (My lame guess is: that it doesn't matter, the City is bad for health)

  • What was that between Marina and Zoya? And in the opening, are the other two asses those of the four sisters, in which case I'm confused about the timeline, or 'clients'?

  • Was the piano tuner framed or did he really commit something (in case it's that I missed some details); or it doesn't matter?

One thing I thought I 'got' in the film was countering the rural-urban counterpoint of the traditionalists by following up urban desolation with a brutally unsentimental picture of even worse rural desolation.

PS: don't tell me the old woman who always ran shouting wasn't Terry Jones from Monty Python!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 09:58:48 AM EST
those of the four sisters

those of the rest of...

And, by the way: was the meat business guy's father, and the train passengers, manifestations of Sovokism?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 10:11:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
  1. "The leitmotif of of the number 4 - clones, dogs, piglets, dolls, sisters, prostitutes, etc. provides commentary on everything from mass production to alienation and ultimately, I believe, the valuing of life, human and non-human."  is what I said before.  Why 4?  I don't know.  But the effect of the clone story in the beginning (is it true?)  is a feeling of being creeped out by anything identical in multiple numbers.  It's a damnation of conformity  - I think.

  2.  The pupper maker guy, right?  Yes.  

  3.  Oooh, is he just mad?  I thought the clone experiment took place in a forbidden military area but didn't realize the village was also one.  Well, you assume the guy was making up the story at the bar, but get the feeling this is the village, Iron Monsters are the military, the sisters are the clones!  

  4.  I don't remember.  She's leaving the city to attend her sister's funeral, though.

  5.  I don't think those were sisters, but other prostitutes.  Zoya is a the dead sister, right?  

  6.  I think he was being framed or punished randomly for something.  I don't remember the details, but do remember thinking it was unjust what he was being punished for...

  7.  Yes!!! Rural=decayed, disturbing, past, creepy, etc.  A prize for you!  


"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 12:04:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
  1. Re Iron Monsters = military, by brain is dead... We are told about military area because of the scene in the train (below) and then the crossed barbed wires.

  2. In the doubled train scene, the co-passengers who are eating in a semi-disgusting way, ask her where she's going, and upon her reply ask what she wants to do with the military? In version 1, she answers her doctor sent her there to shoot grenades, because that is so exciting it gets her off heroin. In version 2, she answers that her therapist sent her there because it helps her get away from depression and suicidal thoughts. (The foods the co-passengers are pushing into their mouths are also different between the two versions.)

  3. He seemed to be accused of throwing a girl (who looked like Marina) out of the window, based on the testimony of a neighbour. But, thinking further, I believe this and the next scenes with the piano tuner are illustrations to the point of the aquarium cleaner, that names don't matter, and you are this one day and that another - then, indeed he was framed.

  4. One to the Orthodox, too.


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 12:42:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The clip of Brother is yet another reminder of what a good actor Sergei Badrov was. The scene with the crude man without a ticket who gets caught by an official ticket checker was too realistic for comfort. It would have been enlightening to see the movie with a Russian audience in Russia. Did any of them clap after the scene? I'm told New York audiences clapped when Jodie Foster shot dead the two violent punks on the New York subway in the movie The Brave One. I especially remember Badrov for his magnificent performance in Prisoner of the Caucasus. What a shame he died at the age of 30.

I am still waiting for first-class Russian films to take up other longstanding virulent issues of Russian society like anti-Semitism and racism in a way that's convincing and moving. Moscow authorities in recent months have sounded alarm bells about racist youth gangs on the streets murdering people the youngsters thought didn't look like Russians. In a TV interview, some of the buddies of a brutal young criminal known as the "hatchet" explained some of their racist theories. They made my hair stand on end. It's regrettable, in my opinion, that the Russian Orthodox Church has not been able to condemn anti-Semitism in its own ranks and has also made statements about homosexuality that can only be seen as pouring oil on homophobic fires in Russia, where many people throughout the country appear to have a deep loathing for homosexuals and zero tolerance of them.

by Anthony Williamson on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 10:35:39 AM EST
  1.  Omg.  I hadn't realized he'd died.  He was really very talented.  

  2.  I agree.  It is one of the reasons I chose to include You I love.  Not because it is nec. remarkable as a story or work of art, but because of its social significance.  Both Putin and Medvedev have repeatedly talked about needing to improve ethnic relations and tackle the problem of hate crimes, but yes, at the very same time they not only say nothing about the bigotry of the Orthodox Church and groups like "Nashi", they're quite closely aligned with them, if not officially.  Sigh.  But I do have hope.  All of these things are rooted in ignorance and insecurity.  We're talking about a society that was very insulated in the past, and has experienced any number of upheavals over the past few decades - so the dynamics that have created the current atmosphere of intolerance are not perplexing.  However, as there is more and more interaction with the rest of the world and more opportunity and stability domestically, I don't see how things can't improve, absent another national crisis.


"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 11:13:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I am still waiting for first-class Russian films to take up other longstanding virulent issues of Russian society like anti-Semitism and racism in a way that's convincing and moving.

Claims of Russian anti-Semitism are very much overblown, with usual line of supporting arguments including pogroms (a century old), Stalin's post-WWII anti-Semitic purges when he was clearly running out of enemies of the people (50+ years old), quotas for some (mostly Moscow and St. Petersburg) higher education establishment (30 years old), and the fate of a triple of oligarchs - Gusinsky, Berezovsky, and Khodorkovsky.

Putting aside ridiculousness of the first set of arguments, only the oligarch story holds some water - until, that is, you recall that 6 out of "7 bankers" manipulating Russian government in mid-90es happened to be described as Jews (Berezovsky, actually, converted to Orthodox Christianity, and didn't try to use his ethnicity in the way some others did). If anti-oligarch pressure is taken to be more political than ethnic, there's nothing left of "evil Russians hate Jews" story.

Anti-Caucasian and anti-Central Asian racism is an entirely different and all too real story.

As regards "moving" - try watching 2004 movie called "Papa". Get some tissues ready.

by Sargon on Sat Jun 7th, 2008 at 07:55:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It looks like you've done a wonderful job poemless. I was going to buy "Burnt in the Sun" from Ebay France but with my back problems for the last month I haven't been able to work up too much enthusiasm for anything. Sorry to miss this one.

Hey, Grandma Moses started late!
by LEP on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 02:48:27 PM EST
I wish Sargon and blackhawk were around to tell me what I'm wrong about.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 03:04:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Summer Guide To Russian Movies


"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 06:02:45 PM EST
I want to thank everyone who read and commented.  I'm dismayed by the fact that the other film blog people chose not to participate, as well as those who encouraged me to do this (I feel a bit set up, frankly) and that only 2 people watched a film (that I can gather from the comments.)   So a BIG thank you to those who did, and to anyone who might have bothered to read this; a LOT of work went into it.  

Ciao.


"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 12:43:32 PM EST
Allow me to voice my ideas on this subject. In my humble opinion, you wrote a superb diary about Russian cinema, an interesting subject for which there appears to be little comprehensive coverage available in English. That seems to me to be a subject perfectly suited to European Tribune (ET) where some readers surely come by in hope of getting a glimpse of familiar and unfamiliar European countries, with their many political issues, and of every facet of culture here. Therefore, you have done ET readers a service. Unfortunately, the Internet is the marketplace of yesteryear expanded to the nth degree, grouping all kinds of people, often most unlikely bedfellows. You could write your heart out on a topic that you feel strongly about, and at least one of the people in the marketplace would surely label your contribution "troll." For that reason, you have to write to satisfy yourself.  I cannot help but believe that you yourself must feel that you did an excellent job on your diary. That's what counts. Accolades are gratifying, but they're still icing on a cake that has to please you personally.

The Russian cinema, in my opinion, gives insight into tastes not only of Russian filmmakers but also of Russian audiences since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Therefore, the subject must be interesting to those watching the development of events in a country that's such an important international player. I was especially interested in The Island because public treatment of religious topics will probably long remain a novelty to me after observing the ruthless persecution of religions in the USSR for a very long time. I particularly appreciated the performance of Pyotr Mamonov as Father Anatoli. He's also a well-know musician, poet and translator of English. I chuckled over the exchange in the clip when Father Iov (Dmitry Dyuzhev) drags in a coffin, explaining how to improve the looks of it, and Father Anatoli says dryly: "Мне гроб нужен, не буфет" (I need a coffin, not a buffet).

by Anthony Williamson on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 09:33:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this comment.

Allow me to voice my ideas on this subject. In my humble opinion, you wrote a superb diary about Russian cinema, an interesting subject for which there appears to be little comprehensive coverage available in English. That seems to me to be a subject perfectly suited to European Tribune (ET) where some readers surely come by in hope of getting a glimpse of familiar and unfamiliar European countries, with their many political issues, and of every facet of culture here. Therefore, you have done ET readers a service. Unfortunately, the Internet is the marketplace of yesteryear expanded to the nth degree, grouping all kinds of people, often most unlikely bedfellows. You could write your heart out on a topic that you feel strongly about, and at least one of the people in the marketplace would surely label your contribution "troll." For that reason, you have to write to satisfy yourself.  I cannot help but believe that you yourself must feel that you did an excellent job on your diary. That's what counts. Accolades are gratifying, but they're still icing on a cake that has to please you personally.

Thank you, and I do write to satisfy myself, and I did do this mostly to address my own curiosity on the subject.  But I also do it because I want other people to care and you can't make people care.  Over on Sean's Russia Blog there was a post talking about a new Politkovskaya documentary, and how it probably won't get much play in Russia, and how some people will interpret that fact as proof of everything they fear about Russian totalitarianism - censorship.  But in fact, it's a matter of economics - all film is - and there is probably not a big audience for such a documentary.  Anyway, I try to make people care about such things so they don't just believe everything they read in the papers...

The Russian cinema, in my opinion, gives insight into tastes not only of Russian filmmakers but also of Russian audiences since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yes.  (see above comment.)

Therefore, the subject must be interesting to those watching the development of events in a country that's such an important international player. I was especially interested in The Island because public treatment of religious topics will probably long remain a novelty to me after observing the ruthless persecution of religions in the USSR for a very long time. I particularly appreciated the performance of Pyotr Mamonov as Father Anatoli. He's also a well-know musician, poet and translator of English. I chuckled over the exchange in the clip when Father Iov (Dmitry Dyuzhev) drags in a coffin, explaining how to improve the looks of it, and Father Anatoli says dryly: "Мне гроб нужен, не буфет" (I need a coffin, not a buffet).

It's a great film.  I am just worried about jumping from one frying pan into another.  Religious ideology can be every bit as totalitarian and oppressive as Political ideology.  And I do not accept the argument that this is some celebration of newly gained religious freedom, because while the Orthodox Church is wildly popular, other religions are not so well-accepted, such as Protestantism, Judaism and Islam (depending on what region you are in.)  Some of this is political maneuvering, some of it is just variations of racism.  The Island doesn't celebrate or signify religious freedom, but religious freedom for those who are Orthodox and the primacy of their religion.  It's a beautiful film and I am glad it could be made.  But it doesn't make me optimistic.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 12:54:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Russian Orthodoxy is intricately intertwined with Russian nationalism. The Church does not suffer competition from other churches gladly. Young Russians polled recently about whether they were Russian Orthodox answered in many a case: "Yes, of course, I'm a Russian." It was the state religion under the tsars and survived the brutal persecution of the commissars, albeit not unscathed, both physically and morally. In some quarters, the Church seems to have returned to some of its regrettable old ways before the Revolution, like not being able to bring itself to issue resolute condemnations of anti-Semitism, which some people even accuse it of still promoting in Russia. Russian nationalists continue to be embroiled in bitter arguments about whether Dmitri Medvedev has Jewish roots and is therefore unsuited to be president of Russia. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz had a good article about this.

Soviet films invariably showed religion - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism etc. - as harmful superstition befuddling the mind. One such film ridicules an old peasant woman who often prays to her icons and is caught by her husband invoking an old folk belief by trying to entice the spirit of the hearth into a shoe for the move with her family to a new home. During a period of some liberalization known as the "Khrushchev thaw," the antiwar film The Cranes Are Flying with Tatyana Samoilova was released (1957). In that film, Boris's grandmother makes the sign of the cross on him before he leaves for the war. That was considered "daring" at the time, although it fitted Soviet stereotypes of old people unable to rid themselves of religious superstition. It was not for nothing that Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, told Soviet media that he hadn't seen any angels up there. Many a Russian Christian was doubtless hurt by his remark.

Anna Politkovskaya is another case typical of modern Russian society. Just a handful of Russians insist on knowing the whole truth about her murder and the people behind it. Vladimir Putin was right when he said the case was more important to foreigners than to Russians. Nor are Russians clamoring for democratic elections or democratic media.

These are all ideas with potential for great films.

by Anthony Williamson on Sat May 24th, 2008 at 04:24:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It was not for nothing that Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, told Soviet media that he hadn't seen any angels up there. Many a Russian Christian was doubtless hurt by his remark.

So what?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat May 24th, 2008 at 07:03:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry, I didn't make the Gagarin remark clear. The comment by the top hero of his day in the USSR
was hailed as a contribution underpinning Soviet teachings against religion. The brutal persecution of religious denominations, including the execution as well as the imprisonment of the clergy, is one of the darkest chapters of Soviet history. It's one of the many Soviet themes that might offer subjects for the Russian cinema today.
by Anthony Williamson on Sun May 25th, 2008 at 06:59:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
BBC: Genghis puts Russia on cinema map

To many in the West, Russia is one of the bad guys of the film industry.

Hard-nosed KGB types are reliably cast as stock villains in mainstream fare, but the country's piracy problems are perhaps more troubling to the businessmen of Hollywood.

But Russia's own burgeoning film industry has been gaining confidence for several years, with breakouts like Timur Bekmambetov's action adventure Night Watch achieving a modicum of success outside Europe.

Bekmambetov has already made the leap to Los Angeles, where he directed James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie in forthcoming blockbuster Wanted.

Meanwhile, budgets and ambition are on the rise in Moscow.

Director Andrei Borisov has come to the Cannes Film Festival with an ambitious epic based on Genghis Khan, the Mongol warrior who built a vast 13th Century empire.

(...)

Despite the majestic sweep of the film's locations and the intense battle scenes, the film may prove to be a difficult sell outside Russia - not least because its dialogue is a mixture of nine Turkic languages.

But its presence in Cannes is a convincing sign that Russian film-makers are ready to take their place on the world stage




"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 01:55:48 PM EST
Heh, this is funny. There is another giant epic movie on Ghenghis Khan out by a Russian director, this one by Sergei Bodrov, titled Mongol. Maybe the two come in pair - Bodrov's film is about Temujin's youth.

It is reportedly a big success in Japan (and the two Mongolian sumo grand champions watched it) - no doubt thanks to a Japanese actor playing the main character.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 03:30:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, poemless, if you liked Brother, I think you'll like Prisoner of the Caucasus (if you haven't seen it already).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 03:32:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have it on my list.

I can't find Brother 2 at all!  No place has it for rent.  And the places selling it only have it in PAL format and without subtitles.  

I'd be happy if I could rent it without subtitles.  But not buy it, and certainly not in some problematic format.  gah.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 03:42:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Have you tried to download it (BitTorrent)?

BTW, I just now realised that the main character of Brat - as well as Prisoner of the Caucasus - is THE SON of the director of Prisoner of the Caucasus! Heh.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 03:59:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I know, it's confusing - I momentarily was thinking he'd also directed Brat and had to snap out of it.

I see Oleg Menchikov is in Prisoner of the Caucasus (called Prisoner of the Mountains here.)  I do like Oleg Menchikov...

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 04:12:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, Menshikov did a rather good job in a not too sympathetic role. (The title is singular, but there are two captives, Menshikov's is the senior.)

called Prisoner of the Mountains here

Hm. All I can think of as a reason, did some stupid distributor thought potential viewers would be even more geographically stupid than him?...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun May 25th, 2008 at 07:36:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hm, was nominated for an Oscar, but was Kazakhstan's official submission.  Anyway, I guess they have Khan on the mind over there.  Oooh, wonder what that means... ;)

Bodrov is the real-life father of the actor in Brother, right?  I am seriously bummed to hear about his death...

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 03:57:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hm, was nominated for an Oscar, but was Kazakhstan's official submission.

Apparently, it was a truly trans-Eurasian project, with actors also from Mongolia, China and Japan; it had German co-producers and lots of crew, the score was by a Finn, one cameraman was Dutch...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 04:07:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
thanks for this, poemless.

i know absolutely nothing about russian cinema, but you write so well, it was a pleasure to read. i sure hope you don't lose heart, the amount of work you do is inspiring.

He was talking about how we think of things "before" and "after" and that the goal is to heal the rupture, create continuity and completeness...

this phrase hit me especially deeply today, it is so profound and true...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Jun 6th, 2008 at 03:01:13 PM EST
Thanks!  Of course, this was written for people who know absolutely nothing about Russian cinema, so I was hoping to inspire someone.  I suppose I must return to the more, ahem, accessible Odds & Ends.  Waiting for Medvedev to do something halfway interesting...  

Yes, I was also really hit by the way Hemon described that "rupture" situation...

Why today, especially?  If you don't mind my asking?

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri Jun 6th, 2008 at 03:08:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
oh, i was having a particularly introspective day, and your reference hit me hard, in a 'whole-life overview moment' kind of way.

re-uniting the unruptured beginning and end....two positives trump a negative....

hella hard to language!

it was good before, it will be good after, resplicing those timelines helps re-establish the continuity of narrative, repairing the identity from the state of shock induced by the irruption of rupturous forces.

that help at all?

didn't think so, lol...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Jun 8th, 2008 at 03:59:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Are you into animation at all? Besides some short animations getting international prizes but never seen, there are several projects that met commercial success and were universally popular. My personal fav is Smeshariki, a set of shorts with the following concept:

The world of "Smeshariki" is a world of adventure, of creative approach to life, a world without violence and brutality.
The heroes all have different characters and preferences, different dreams and ways of looking at life.
The world of "Smeshariki" is not divided into black and white. Everything is under the sign of the rainbow, which includes all the colours of life.

There's a complicated way of buying them on-line, but almost everything is on YouTube these days. Not translated into English, regretfully. Marketing research showed that all demographic groups watch them, excluding 15-24 years old males.

Another recent project is a trilogy loosely based on Russian epic byliny. The first one, Alyosha Popovich i Tugarin Zmey, is actually a cross between "Beowulf" and "Shrek", with the other two, Dobrynya Nikitich i Zmey Gorynych and especially Ilya Muromets i Solovey Razboynik moving more into some political satire.

In contrast to Smeshariki, which, IMHO, have some international potential, the trilogy is destined to remain a mostly Russian event (but the Czech TV did buy all three, continuing a long history of mutual exposure to fairy tales).

BTW, Czech TV just loved "Peculiarities of National Hunting" and "Brigada" serial, both showing how horrible modern Russia is and how wise  was the Czech Republic by moving to the West. I was left speechless seeing "Ivan Popovich" for the first time (granted, on the lowest-rating public TV channel on Sat morning...) the times are changing, even here.

by Sargon on Sun Jun 8th, 2008 at 04:01:49 PM EST


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