On Russian Cinema - The Participants Resume

in 6th St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum

by Amber Wilkinson

FIPRESCI members who attended the event give their thoughts on the experience: MK Raghavendra, Alissa Simon, Yair Raveh, Christina Stojanova, Leo Soesanto, Amber Wilkinson, Carlos Heli de Almeida, Hugo Emmerzael, Godfrey Cheshire, Jon Asp, Cerise Howard, Bozidar Zecevic, Senem Erdine

MK Raghavendra

A colloquium on recent Russian cinema was organised in St Petersburg between 13th and 15th November as a prelude to the St Petersburg International Cultural Forum held between 16th and 18th November 2017, writes Indian critic MK Raghavendra. Russian cinema remained isolated from world cinema for several decades in the 20th century and that may account for many of its greatest achievements being unknown to film students outside the country. The schedule began with the screening of Aleksey Balabanov’s characteristically wicked “Of Freaks and Men” (Pro urodov i lyudey, 1989) – digitally remastered – about Russian silent cinema and its efforts at producing pornography! The second day was devoted to art-house cinema and the two best films were from young people – Kantemir Bagolov’s “Closeness” (Tesnota) dealing with the Jewish community in northern Caucasus and Alexander Hant’s “How Victor ‘the Garlic’ took Alexei ‘the Stud’ to the Nursing Home” (Kak Vitka Chesnok vyoz Lyokhu Shtyrya v dom invalidov), a road movie dealing with an estranged father and son, both of them sociopaths. Also screened were coming-of-age film “The Bird”, directed by Kseniya Baskakova, Boris Khlebnikov’s relationship drama “Arrhythmia” and Rustam Khamdamov’s “The Bottomless Bag”.

The last day was given over to three mainstream films working with large budgets – Klim Shipenko’s “Salyut-7”, which is from the same genre as “Gravity”: a historical melodrama about Nicholas II’s love affair with a ballet dancer, Aleksei Uchitel’s “Matilda”; and an alien landing film, Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Attraction”, which all demonstrated that grand effects could be obtained on a fraction of the budget that Hollywood allows. The screenings concluded with a fruitful discussion from members of FIPRESCI from around the globe very well-moderated and responded to by Andrei Plakhov, one of Russia’s leading film critics.

Alissa Simon

It feels appropriate to write this on Thanksgiving, writes US critic Alissa Simon (Variety, Palm Springs Film Festival), since I am still filled with gratitude towards all those connected with the Colloquium. To borrow the title of one of the auteur films we viewed, the experience was a bottomless bag, containing uncountable riches. The line-up was extremely well thought out and programmed, from the restored “Of Freaks and Men” (perhaps the most darkly beautiful St Petersburg film) through the commercial titles such as “Matilda”, with the leitmotif of costumes by Nadezhda Vasileva, the widow of director Alexey Balabanov, whose spirited introduction to “Freaks” led this viewer to look at it and St Petersburg in an entirely new way.

The regional films were fascinating too, especially to see the indigenous filmmakers using landscape and genre in such tantalising fashion. Having the filmmaking teams available at the start and finish of the films was extremely helpful and offered an opportunity to hear and sometimes see a hint of their next projects. Having the viewing in the historic Lenfilm Studios deepened the experience and was made richer yet by a tour of costumes, props and sound stages. How enchanting it was to lunch in the fabled cafe where the directors of the 1950s smoked and drank. But above all, to be able to experience this range of Russian cinema with curator-colleagues such as Andrei, Sasha and Konstantine, while in the tender care of Anastasia, Helena and Vlada, and to debate the films with a convivial group of critic colleagues from around the world, this made it an experience of a lifetime. More Colloquiums should definitely be a FIPRESCI goal.

Yair Raveh

Tel Aviv critic Yair Raveh (cinemascope.co.il) writes: Two of the films that stood out the most were “My Murderer” and “Closeness”. Though entirely different, both had interesting similarities: they are debut features by young filmmakers who hail from regions far beyond the Russian capital or cultural hubs: “My Murderer “, a detective thriller that keeps a sharp eye on genre conventions, is set in the Yukutia region of Siberia; “Closeness”, the best of the dozen films shown at the colloquium, is a dense and violent family drama set in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic in North Caucasus (although shot in the outskirts of St Petersburg, for economic reasons). Both directors are natives of these regions, thus bringing to the screen fresh and raw sensibilities, unique to their locale, and imbuing their films with a rare sense of authenticity.

Interestingly, those two films brought to the front a notion that is the same for the huge country of Russia as it is to the tiny state of Israel, my home base, and probably to many countries who produce state-funded cinema: how to enrich the cultural output by the ideas and stories of those who live outside the cultural and economic centres. How to decentralise and diversify cinema, and bring forth characters and stories as told by local people and not by visiting filmmakers who look from the outside and often take short cuts through condescending ethnic folklore. These days audiences crave the local eye and ear of a filmmaker telling the story of the region he or she grew up in. Closeness is a model that should be explored and emulated: a master filmmaker (Alexander Sukurov) set up a mentoring program that takes place in Nalchik, far away from all Russian film school. Sukurov’s mentorship helps local filmmakers, who not so long ago were practically shut out of any chance of making a film and having it released, bring to life the sights and sounds and characters only they know best. With Sukurov’s assistance, Kantemir Bologov’s “Closeness” is at once a raw and gritty debut, but with a surprising flourishing of virtuoso filmmaking decisions (most noteworthy is the exemplary use of sound design). Sukurov’s name may have had the pull to get us to see the film, but it was Bologov’s talent and cinematic voice that made “Closeness” a true gem.

Christina Stojanova

Canadian critic Christina Stojanova (Offscreen, Kinema), writes: What brings together these very different Russian films is their renewed energy and passion for innovation. And while the naturalistic claustrophobia of “Closeness” and the documentary-type candour of “Arrhythmia” bear out similarities to New Romanian cinema, the other art-house works venture into the absurd (Sella Turcica), the grotesque (How Victor ‘the Garlic’ took Alexei ‘the Stud’ to the Nursing Home) and the surreal (Bottomless Bag) – aesthetic territories Soviet and Russian cinema has rarely, though quite successfully, explored.

A similarly robust appetite for challenges marked out the mainstream genre films – the bold indigenous Yakutian take on the detective thriller (My Murderer); the ingenious Soviet-style rendition of the space-race adventure (Salut-7), and the superb sci-fi spectacle (Attraction) – which effortlessly balance technological versatility with a poignant humanistic message. Certainly, the centre-piece of this section was Matilda – its réputation scandale aside – as one of the best period melodramas recently made. With such a strong and diverse output, Russian producers and filmmakers should be making their films much more aggressively available to critics, journalists, and academics worldwide.

Leo Soesanto

French critic Leo Soesanto (Cannes Critics’ Week, Bordeaux International Film Festival, Rotterdam Film Festival), writes: The highlight of the colloquium was the day dedicated to so-called mainstream films, Russian “blockbusters”. We don’t see many of them and I think commercial cinema — specifically genre films — allows us to understand a country as well as arthouse stuff, so it was nice to check what is being produced there since my first exposure to the wild, messy, uneven and undoubtedly very Russian Timur Bekmambetov’s “Nightwatch” (Nochnoy dozor, 2004). Kim Shipenko’s “Salyut-“7 is, for example, ambitious in scope (space race! Space station in danger!), delivers thrills nicely but feel surprisingly intimate – “small” in the good sense. And Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Attraction” may dwell too much in “District 9” and “Super 8” familiar territories but has, at least, a more prominent lead female character than in most auteur films we’ve seen. Both films are proof that Russian cinema can do as well as Hollywood, achieving a polished look for half the budget while maintaining a specific national touch — I’m not sure that American teenagers would spontaneously think of kicking some alien’s butt after their landing as in Attraction.

Amber Wilkinson

British critic Amber Wilkinson (Eye For Film), writes: This week has been a welcome and refreshing eye-opener regarding the strength and depth of new Russian cinema. Although those of us lucky enough to travel to festivals will often see one or two Russian gems along the way, there is much to be said for being able to see a large number of films from a single country in a short space of time. Beyond the merits of the individual movies – from technical expertise to immersive storytelling – there was an infectious sense of energy and passion to find new narratives outside the city environments such as Moscow and St Petersburg. Having the filmmakers on hand to talk about their work also offered vital additional context. I would urge Russian filmmakers to flex their muscles more in terms of showing their work to the outside world – and not to forget that their mainstream movies are just as worthy of promotion abroad as their “arthouse” output.

Carlos Heli de Almeida

Brazilian critic Carlos Heli de Almeida (O Globo), writes: If there is a common denominator among the films shown at the colloquium, it may be a sense of preservation of the country’s own identity. As diverse as the showcase proved to be in terms of genre and scope, it also showed the universal desire of filmmakers to tell stories that offer a glance at Russian society.

While we expected this kind of concern would come from art house productions such as “Closeness”, by Kantemir Balagov, an impressive drama set in multi-ethnic community in North Caucasus, it was surprising to see it also appear in “Matilda”, a luxurious historical piece about the affair between a ballerina and the last tsar, Nicholas II.
Even the most commercial blockbuster made in the country is grounded in national values: “Salyut-7”, by Klim Shipenko, reminds us about the cosmonauts who recovered the titular space station in the 80s. The formula may have been suggested by Hollywood, but the heroes are 100% Russian.

Hugo Emmerzael

Dutch critic Hugo Emmerzael (Filmkrant, Rotterdam Film Festival), writes: As global film history progresses in line with Hollywood’s dominant narrative, we’re all wrapping our heads around the question: what defines a nation’s cinema? To be part of country and to know its history, culture and language enables you to engage with that question more directly. Still, finding a common denominator between all films, filmmakers and stories is impossible. As an outsider getting a sense of a nation’s cinema is even more challenging, as there’s a whole body of work unavailable for viewing. That’s what made this FIPRESCI colloquium on Russian cinema so important: it opened a window into Russian film productions that I was previously unfamiliar with. Films such as “Closeness” and “Arrhythmia” have been screened on international film festivals, so they were already on my radar, but I never assumed I’d be so impressed by Yakutsk-detective thriller “My Murderer”, controversial period piece “Matilda” or contemporary Russian blockbusters “Salyut-7” and “Attraction”. These films brought me closer to Russia and further away from the question “what is Russian cinema?”, thus complicating my notion of what it could be.

Godfrey Cheshire

US critic Godfrey Cheshire (RogerEbert.com, Cineaste), writes: I found the event fascinating, well-organised and very informative. The aspects that proved most striking and unexpected to me were, first, the evidence that technical skills of Russian commercial filmmakers (most evident in two sci-fi-oriented movies) have grown exponentially in just the last few years, to the point of making them competitive even with many Hollywood productions; and, second, examples of regional filmmaking (in such films as Costas Marsan’s “My Murderer” and “Closeness”, by Kantemir Balagov, a student of Alexander Sokurov) that suggested parallels to Sundance-oriented American indie films of the 1990s; the polish and artistic sophistication of these films were impressive indeed. At the event’s end, I found myself pondering two possible ways to help such films reach audiences outside Russia: presenting some (including the sci-fi and regional films) as genre films rather than “art films,” and reintroducing the practice of dubbing non-English-language films at a time when the tolerance of most audiences for subtitles has become minuscule.

Jon Asp

Swedish critic Jon Asp (Svenska Dagbladet, Aftonbladet, Point of View), writes: Apart from the wide range of films – a truly educative and enriching selection –  often with strong technical and narrative qualities, one topical element stood out: the strong male perspective. These films favour and centre on men, from one of the least interesting films “The Bird” (directed by a woman), to one of the more arresting, “Arrhythmia”, prized at Karlovy Vary and Chicago and an arthouse hit in Russia, with 1.4m admissions at box-office.

When society falls apart, it seems to be the male characters who, according to several films, are worst affected, whereas women suffer secondarily, and at the most become heroes by being supportive towards men. “Arrhythmia” is one good example. Even if it’s already been successful abroad I would say its chances to travel further would have been bigger with a more balanced gender perspective. That said, it is a good film that probably does justice to contemporary Russian life.

In contrast, the best film programmed was “Closesness”, featuring not one but two strong female portraits, where one (the mother) sticks hard to tradition, whereas the other (the daughter) wants to break loose. Already in his debut, director Kantemir Balagov demonstrates mature and challenging imagery, and it’s further gratifying to learn that he is, to a certain extent, a “product” of Alexander Sokurov’s film programme, aimed at the decentralizing Russian film industry – an ambition that many countries should aspire to and benefit from.

Cerise Howard

Australia-based critic Cerise Howard (Senses Of Cinema), writes: Not to take anything away from the excellent overview of lesser-travelled contemporary Russian film production, my greatest joy at the colloquium was simply in spending three days roaming the storied grounds of Lenfilm Studios. What a privilege, not only to attend a cinema showcase at these very studios, curated sagely by major players in Russian film culture and replete with key creative personnel from each production as guests (all of them highly forthcoming during post-screening Q&As), and in the company of esteemed peers from the international critical community, but also to be toured through and later, able to wander freely amidst, wonderful museum exhibits of props, costumes, sets and miscellany from Lenfilm’s own productions. That the colloquium culminated in roundtable addresses given by each of us guest critics with a beautiful set from Lenfilm’s celebrated take on Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson as a backdrop, perfectly underscored that this encounter with new Russian cinema was a delightful meeting of West and East, one in which that which is (over)familiar from the West could productively be applied to a Russian context, as in a gripping Space Race film from the Russian perspective (Salyut-7) or in a blockbuster alien invasion flick set not in the States but in Moscow (Attraction). (But this is to say nothing of the strongest films on offer, “Closeness” and “Arrhythmia”, wonderful arthouse films steeped in differing ‘Russiannesses’, and wonderfully irreducible both to analogy with Hollywood produce!)

Bozidar Zecevic

Serbian critic Bozidar Zecevic (Filmograf), writes: Being in St Peterburg on the occasion of the centennial of crucial historical events and the Sixth Cultural Forum, with such a firework of amazing happenings in almost every field of art and culture, was the fascinating experience. The colloquium itself has been less than a window into the new Russian film than a keen and highly professionally thought out profile of mainstreams, genres and personalities of contemporary Russian cinema. Introduced by Aleksey Balabanov’s “Of Freaks and Men” just to remind where and and how the disease of the century began, this survey showed the highlights of three main trends in production – arthouse, commercial and regional (and Eurasian). With “Closeness” and “Sella Turcica” leading the first, “Salyut-7” and “Attraction” the second and “My Murderer” and, again, “Closeness” the third division (sort of an extension of Sokurov’s practice in the Caucasus) we could see and consider how Russian film has been emerging again to an important and influential position. It is facing, however, a dramatic urge to achieve wider distribution – moving forward from festivals, clubs and cable towards commercial theatres and public television. Films made by minorities and for minorities, as some define indie film today, are no longer the priority in Russia: ambitions are greater. Films like “Salyut-7” and “Attraction” were made to face world box office challenges. This is why such a colloquium or review made for foreign film press is important and might transform into an institutional event. Perfect organisation, warm hospitability and keen attendance of the entire crew strongly supported that idea.

Senem Erdine

Turkish critic Senem Erdine (TURSAK, Turkish Cinema and Audiovisuel Culture Foundation, Rendezvous Istanbul International Film Festival), writes: The first St Petersburg Colloquium on Russian Cinema was a very well-thought and well-organised showcase, which offered a comprehensive picture of the recent Russian Cinema, reflecting all its diversity in a compact programme.
The selection included the new gems of Russian arthouse cinema such as “Arrhythmia”, “Closeness” and “The Bottomless Bag” – which may be comparatively easy to spot in film festivals around the world ¬besides some remarkably well-made national box-office hits with big budgets, such as “Salyut-7”, “Attraction” and “Matilda”, which are the obvious proof that Russia doesn’t need Hollywood any more to offer Hollywood-style blockbusters to the audience.

The event offered a unique and invaluable opportunity both to film critics and film programmers to observe and discover the latest state of Russian cinema with wonderful guidance; to see how that great tradition of cinema created by pioneers in film theory and peerless artists who left their marks on the history of film was reflected by the new generation of Russian talent; to meet and talk to the new generation of Russian filmmakers through a set of very well moderated Q&A sessions and get the opinions of the respected colleagues from all around the world about the new Russian cinema. Last but not the least, the event was also a great chance to get an idea about the spirit of the Russian society today through this wonderful selection of movies.

Texts assembled and edited by Amber Wilkinson