I. Economics & Film, or, "Isn't it ironic?"
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..."
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.
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.
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
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.
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...
And its variations:
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.
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."
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).
My review here.
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.
My review here.
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)
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:
Whispering Pages (1993)
Russian Ark (2002)
Father and Son (2003)
Burnt By the Sun (1994)
Peculiarities of the National Hunt (1995)
The Muslim (1995)
The Rifleman of the Voroshilov Regiment (1995)
Prisoner of the Caucasus (1996)
Brother 2 (2000)
The Return (2003)
The Banishment (2007)
Irony of Fate: the sequel (2007)
You I love (2004)
The Italian (2005)
Piter FM (2006)
The Island (2006)
The Mermaid (2007)
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
Russian Film Blog
So - have you seen any of these films? What did you think about them?