Film-loving Moscow: what does it believe in?

in 39th Moscow International Film Festival

by Wieslaw Godzic

Nikita Mikhalkov, president of the 39th Moscow International Film Festival, opened the ceremony with a speech quoting a famous poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (albeit one that rather only the older generations would remember). His words clearly implied that “in Russia, a poet is more than just a poet.” There is no reason to think the same does not apply to filmmakers. Especially that no one reads books anymore, and watching a film is not considered anything close to reading a book only by a rapidly declining minority.

Russians, us and the film! Anyone who read the brilliant essay by Sergei Eisenstein entitled “Dickens, Griffith and Us”* will know how much emphasis is put on the consequences of using the pronoun “us.” Well, that is clearly the right of the great and proud Russian nation. Several days ago I had the limited pleasure of seeing with my own eyes what film subculture means in today’s Russia. I was one of the five FIPRESCI jurors at the 39th Moscow International Film Festival which took place from 22–29 June 2017. The jury was presided over by Kristin Aalen from Norway. There were also representatives from the USA, Germany and Russia.

Sadly, the festival was a little provincial. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing. It may not be the top notch of the film festival circuit with its red carpet not as red as the ones in Berlin or Cannes. Also, there was never enough room and seats were always too few in the Oktober Cinema hall located on the famous New Arbat where most of the screenings took place (including all competition entries). I remembered “Small Letters” (Male listy) by the great Polish writer Slavomir Mrozek, where the author reviews a film saying that the only thing he really remembered was the smell of his fellow viewer’s shoes. Such were the conditions with which this spectator was provided with. But it wasn’t all that bad this time. However, there was a certain smell to it.

And let’s face it: being “provincial” doesn’t have to be bad as long as you tap into the available potential which might include authenticity of communication across cultures or doing away with the glamour of celebration. Unfortunately, the festival failed to take advantage of these possibilities. In fact, rarely have I seen such a homely show as the opening and closing ceremony. It was dominated by bizarre mirror combinations, glaring lights and deafening background music only too reminiscent of the 1990s. Or was it just me? Nikita Mikhalkov is an outstanding showman and this is where he feels best: on a brightly lit stage and among other stars (albeit of more local fame). He probably knew what he was doing!

But let’s leave the pop-culture background of the festival alone for now. It’s the films that really matter (at least that is what a purist would say). As a film scholar I feel obliged to say that our perception is usually influenced by a number of other factors that all make up what we call the film experience. And in every festival there is one more factor, which may just be the most important one: the viewer.

Every festival requires making choices. If the selection committee chooses 13 out of a thousand films to be presented in the main competition, it means the group has made a fundamental choice. And that, in turn, means that the assessment will not be based upon any objective trends in the industry. And if Kirill Razlogov, director of programming, says that a tendency starts to show which can neatly be summarized in the phrase “festival of opposites,” let me be the devil’s advocate and ask if it appeared all by itself or, perhaps, was made by someone? Taking these factors into account, it is always worth asking what exactly the “authors” of the selection consider to be important in the communication between viewer and screen. Or, in other words, what is the image of cinema that prevails in Russia today?

It seems that Moscow doesn’t put faith in (i.e. refuses to acknowledge) the filmmaking talents of its western neighbours in the same way as it does in authors from China or Turkey. There were no French, German, Polish, Czech or Italian films in the competition. The winner was from China, and the abundance of entries from Korea (south and north alike) was supposed to remind us that this country is divided also along the lines of the film industry. Crested Ibis (Yuan Shan, dir. Qiao Llang), winner of the main prize—the statuette of Saint George—is built upon stereotypical opposites. A boy from the countryside moves to Beijing to return to his home province as an investigative journalist. He reminisces about the early days, tries to clarify past misunderstandings, and finds out about a love he never noticed. Moreover, the ibis becomes a metaphor for the various ambiguities surrounding the ecology. That’s enough, quantity is not usually a synonym of quality. This verdict is nothing more than a political gesture towards the Middle Kingdom. The same is true about Korea (the Republic of Korea): two lengthy, special presentations entitled “Republic of Korea: History and Present Day” and “Films by JK Youn,” were devoted to that part of the world.

And on top of the special presentations (ever film festival has to have them) Korean film was noticed in the main competition as well, where the role of the police officer in Ordinary Person (Botong saram, dir. Kim Bong-Han) was considered to be the best male part. Every story based on fact deserves recognition, and so does Ordinary Person. But in this case recognition is scarce, as the protagonist goes too far convincing the viewer of his moral choices working as a police officer being corrupted by his superiors. The program entitled “Discovery: Today It Is Korea” blows the viewer away by its use of a socialist realist style of magnification that is so well known to the older generation. For example, the film entitled The Story of Our Home (Uli jib iyagi, dir. Ri Yun Ho, Ha Yong Ki) includes elements of both melodrama and family saga, with genres spiralling into music scenes featuring the character portraying the Party’s secretary general. Listen comrades, the film changes! That is, of course, unless the viewers don’t.

The Russians also appreciate the Turks, showing old conflicts in the manner of neo-realism of the 1940s and 1950s in a new package (award for directing, strongly exaggerated). And we know what the Russians don’t like—the aggressive contemporaneity around us. For example, divorces and their tragic consequences (the Finnish Star Boys [Kaiken se kestää] directed by Visa Koiso-Kanttila), or parents’ addiction to drugs and the broken childhood that follows (The Best of All Worlds [Die Beste aller Welten] directed by Adrian Goiginger). And while it’s hard to say whether Russians are afraid of consumerism and moral liberalism (up to voluntary prostitution), their film entitled Buy Me (Kupi menia, dir. Vadim Perelman) is a clear warning against the overabundance of the so-called “religion of consumption.” However, Russian filmmakers seem to lack directing competence when it comes to tackling the very important problem of corporate careers and the resulting breakdown of family ties (Thawed Carp [Otmorozhennyi karp], dir. Vladimir Kott). They’re hardly convincing with their specific type of happy ending and a return to the roots. In any case, they show a world where no one is to blame, neither us nor the system; things simply have to be this way. That, in turn, means there’s a lot to run away from, but none of the directors have shown where to run to.

There were much less tears (the type shown in Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, the 1980 cult film [Moskva slezam ne verit] by Vladimir Menshov) than I had expected. The audience (what is a festival audience, anyway?) wanted a reason for laughter: the type which is a safe distance from mindless guffaw and resembles the warm, nostalgic smile with a half-opened mouth. I think (and this may be a little too idealistic) that the audience expected a kind of film that Vasilii Shukshin used to create, but more modern, a little nostalgic, intelligent and moderately poetic.

There’s no good answer to the question “why do we have festivals in the first place” (or to celebrate them, which is actually the case). Sure, you need to show new films as a product that gets symbolically consumed; this is why we invented promotion and public relations. Filmmakers should also meet and talk: this is actually a valid argument in favour of festivals. But there’s another factor that is often neglected, and which every artist has to bow to: the audience.

The festival opened with a reading of a cordial letter from president Putin—clearly an important gesture towards Russian filmmakers. Sadly, we are not sure if it was addressed to all the creators of this “most important of the arts,” or only Mr Mikhalkov, who is Putin’s loyal friend (as we learn from reports on Russian celebrities). As for me, I simply feel sorry this once great cinematography still hasn’t recovered from its malaise (and I base that only on my festival experience).

I think what Russia needs right now is more high-quality, modern films that would be broadly popularised. It needs more intelligent directing. Russians know perfectly well how to depict various states of mind without obtrusive portrayal. It needs humour and (perhaps just apparent) lightness—this is what the modern audience demands. And all that can be achieved gradually, for example as was shown in Selfie (dir. Victor Garcia Leon): with the use of a second camera which works with a little bit of cheekiness and humour. If the Russian film industry wants to avoid a bitter end, it has to deliver what the audience demands. Or, at least, make the audience believe that film expresses their desires and works in line with their communicative competences.

Edited by Birgit Beumers

*The 1944 essay by Eisenstein is correctly entitled “Dickens, Griffiths and the Film Today” (note by editor)