A Walk from Moscow to Koktebel

in 25th Moscow International Film Festival

by Anjelika Artyukh

Three Russian films were presented in the competition program at the XXV Moscow International Film Festival: “The Stroll” by Aleksey Uchitel, “Petersburg” by Irina Evteeva and “Koktebel” by Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksey Popogrebski. “The Stroll” opened the festival and one could call it “a promotion” as well as “a conceptual choice”.

The film is part of a new generation of Russian Cinema. It is aesthetically oriented towards both the cinemas of the “New Wave” and of the Soviet Thaw. Thus it is able to satisfy both foreign observers at the festival in search of the “westernization” of the new generation in Russia as well defenders of national traditions in connection with Russian-Soviet Cinema in general. Looking at the film’s characters, it becomes clear that youth is a thrilling condition for everyone: for those who are young as well as for those who were once young.

A mention of the late scriptwriter, Gennadiy Shpalikov, at the Festival’s opening ceremony was no accident. Thanks to Shpalikov’s script for the film “I Walk in Moscow”, then-actor Nikita Michalkov, the present director of the festival, became a symbol of the young generation of the 1960s. Shpalikov was Soviet Cinema’s best at describing the meaning of being young. He wrote a kind of manifesto for that generation – the scripts of “I Walk in Moscow” and “I Am Twenty”. Their influence can be traced in “The Stroll”.

“The Stroll” could easily be called “I Walk in St.Petersburg”. Remember, the celebration of the city’s 300th birthday was recently “a main event” of Russian daily life and the mass media. The characters of “The Stroll” meet each other while the city prepares for the celebration. St. Petersburg is full of construction, restoration, and painting, as if deciding to change into a European capital in several days. Not a good time for a walk. But young people have their own reasons.

The film is conceived as a stroll through the most beautiful places in St. Petersburg. Imagine, a boy meets a girl on Nevskiy Prospect; flirting, they reach the Hermitage where the boy introduces his best friend to the girl and by doing so provokes a love triangle. The three continue to Isaakievskaya Square, then cross a bridge and find themselves on Vasiliy’s Island where they finally stop. This entire trip is shot in documentary style (Aleksey Uchitel started as a documentary filmmaker). The camera follows the characters all the time, not leaving them even for a split second. At times, it seems as if the camera is going to be hit by a car or fall into a ditch (of which there are many considering the preparations for the celebration). Because of “la cinema-verite”, fresh street air rushes into the over-talkative film: the picture finds its touch and the title starts working as a key to a metaphor.

“The Stroll” is a metaphor for a present condition of a modern young man in Russia, who by walking-and-talking can live through a whole love story until he decides to participate in a boring building of a new Russian Empire. This blissful and carefree condition has nothing in common with the lives of those who build the Empire. It’s like a dream – desirable but elusive. The film declares its love for this dream.

Owing to “The Stroll” as well as to Irina Evteeva’s animated film, St. Petersburg might be called a leading character in the Russian competition program; but another film “Koktebel” took part in the contest.

Koktebel is a resort area in Crimea and at the same time a dream for the film’s characters. Conceived as a road movie, the film allows us to see a non-urban but important side of modern Russian life in the provinces. A father and his son are hitchhiking from Moscow to Koktebel, crossing all Russia with its absence of roads, huge unpopulated territories, alcoholism and ancient wooden huts. They think they are going to start a new life but, as it turns out later, they just escape the meaninglessness and boredom of their old lifestyles.

Provincial Russia had been flashily and explicitly described in Russian-Soviet literature as well as in Soviet films. However the new generation of filmmakers (in most cases) has been concentrating on the noisy and enterprising lives of Russian cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg. That is why “Koktebel” is so important; because it demonstrates that the modern Russian cinema is starting to search for new ways of cinematic expression and to reevaluate its thematic context.

“Koktebel” is also attracting the attention of audiences and critics because it displays how bits of modern life are finding themselves into the provincial, post-Soviet space, huge and still available for its future energetic owner. “Modern” is connected with an understanding of yourself and your country within the rest of the civilized world. The film’s authors are trying to convey this understanding. Because of it, the city of Koktebel, a former El Dorado of the Soviet intelligentsia, is now brought low, perceived as only a forced stop for a traveler. It’s not a heaven for an outsider, but only a way station for a person in search of his own identity.