IFFR special - February 2006, nr 274

Russia

A touch of reality

Andrei Plakhov reports from Moscow: 'the mythic battle between dark and white vampires resembles the absurd political situation of today's Russia'.

Dead man's bluff (Alexei Balabanov).

The philosopher George Lukács said that political films made in socialist countries always appear as parables or allegories. It's true that the largest social problems were portrayed as parables, but sometimes they were hidden in popular comedies as well. They disappeared when the communist system collapsed. Films that were classified as stupid realism, first tackled formally forbidden themes (poverty, violence, prostitution, problems in the army), but soon their interest faded.
Amidst the films of the nineties, Brat (1997) by Alexei Balabanov was remarkable for its seriousness. The hero Danila, who returns from the Chechen war and clashes with corrupt society, was called the Russian Rambo. In the sequel Brat 2 (2000) Danila exploits his cultivated fame and further develops his social revenge. The arena is international now. After having dealt with the criminals in Petersburg and Moscow, he starts dealing with America, the temple of swift action. Intellectuals thought Brat 2 was xenophobic. But filled with pop-music and fashionable characters the film was commercially successful. Sergei Bodrov Jr who played the part of Danila was so immensely popular that an election slogan said: 'Danila our Brother, Putin our President'.

Fresh air
Putin's presidency brought economic stability, also within the film industry, but didn't put an end to social injustice. In 2002 Moving by Filip Jankovski came out, a remarkable remake of Fellini's La dolce vita (1960). Jankovski, together with Michail Brashinski (Black ice, 2003) represents the Moscow Hypermodern Wave. Both young filmmakers focus on the lives of the nouveau riche. Decorated by expensive, fashionable bars and the newest architectonic buildings, Moscow looks like Rotterdam or Berlin.
The public however wasn't enthusiastic about these films. Neither could the films about the new poor, Granny (2003) by Lidia Bobrova or Old women (2003) by Gennadi Sidorov, move their hearts. After the provincial, feminine melodrama With love, Lilja (Tiger Award winner in Rotterdam 2003), Larisa Sadilova made Nanny wanted (2005) in which the poor and the rich clash. The film wasn't shown to large audiences: the image of the nanny who blackmails the child she takes care of was found too provocative.
It's important to realise that lately the best Russian films, The return (2003) and Koktebel (2003), aren't situated in Moscow or Petersburg. The filmmakers have been moving away from the two poles in Russian cinema. There's crime on one side and new Russian glamour, associated with the lives of the elite in central Moscow, on the other. Right now, the terra incognita of the provinces has the attention of filmmakers. The countryside isn't just used for its colourful and exotic background, but more so as a rich source for conflicts and characters that lead a completely different life. This is a change that has brought a breath of fresh air to Russian cinema. It made filmmakers turn to reality.

Comic book
That's only one small step. Many problems that cry for attention in today's Russian society (the growth of nationalistic and fascist voices, fear of terror and the regaining totalitarism and political corruption) are kept quiet about. A rare exclusion is Balabanov's Dead man's bluff (2005), a satirical comic book story that is screened in Rotterdam. Even the long-lasting Chechen war is a theme still to be discovered. In fact, the deeper motives and consequences of the war were never analysed. The most popular film of the past year, The 9th company (2005) by Fyodor Bondarchuk, sketches a superficial view on the Afghan-Russian war, without providing the viewer with a moral or historical judgement and without drawing a parallel with the Chechen conflict.
To this date there's no reason to speak about a recurrence of the censor in Russia, but it's not hard to notice the rehabilitation of governmentally directed assignments and economic control. Last year the government tried to ban Ilya Khrzhanovsky's film 4, and only after it was so successful in Rotterdam (by winning a Tiger Award) the ban was destroyed. Recently the government threatened to ban Polumgla (2005) by Artjom Antonov. This film about German war prisoners that were shot to death by orders of the KGB seemed to be provocative. But 4 and Polumgla aren't political; they are put in a political context and accused of lack of patriotism.
Right now, it's possible that apolitical Russian art house films reach the mainstream through different channels. Daywatch (2006) by Timor Bekmambetov (the follow-up to Nightwatch, 2004) is this year's loudest commercial hit. It shows an interesting example of the adaptation of social myth and political intrigue by mass culture. The subject of the film, the mythic battle between dark and white vampires, in which the dark vampires seem to represent the people of the Russian Caucasus, resembles the absurd political situation of today's Russia.

Andrei Plakhov

Film critic of the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, and president of Fipresci, the international organisation of film critics.

(Translation: Mike Naafs, thanks to Julia Tsjichatjeva and Rebecca Breuer)

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