Revelation of the Year 2003: Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky's "Koktebel"

in 57th Cannes Film Festival

by Derek Malcolm

During the year, FIPRESCI presents the “Prize of the International Critics” at a variety of film festivals. In Moscow, in the summer of 2003, the film “Koktebel” has been our winner. The jury motivated its decision: “Koktebel” wins “for its depth and variation of characters, its rich humor, its subtle interweaving of spirituality, its clever script and its mature classical direction.” In Cannes, we present “Koktebel” in the framework of the Critics Week as “best of the best” among the young filmmakers and as our revelation of the year 2003.

This winner of the Jury Prize at the Moscow Festival, a debut of the same quality as “The Return”, Venice’s Golden Lion recipient, can rightly claim to have been neglected after its Russian premiere. Yet this simple and unadorned odyssey, which follows the 1000-mile journey of an 11-year-old boy and his father from Moscow to the seaside resort of Koktebel in the Crimea, is a road movie of great sensitivity and human appeal. It was made by Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky, two young film-makers who have directed shorts together but only one of whom has studied film.

Father and son (Igor Csernyevics and Gleb Puskepalis) have no money and no means to travel except on foot. They survive by doing odd jobs, like mending the roof of an old man’s dacha. Even then there are problems. The old man unjustly accuses them of stealing his money and is about to take them to the police at gunpoint when his firearm goes off and the father is wounded. A woman doctor tends him and would be willing to take the couple in but for the boy’s insistence that the journey must go on. In fact, he goes off on his own, leaving a rueful father, who likes the doctor, to catch up.

Gradually we learn why they are undertaking so difficult a venture. Father is an aerodynamics engineer who started drinking after his wife’s death and lost his job. There is a sister in Koktebel who will help him start a new life. The boy is even more determined than his father to achieve some sort of freedom. The first sequence in the film shows a barking dog scaring them out of the drainage pipe under a roadway where they are sleeping. The last has the pair sitting on an abandoned pier by the sea, gazing into what may be a more hopeful future.

In-between, the directors pay great attention to the countryside through which the couple slowly move, sometimes at a distance from a motionless camera. They are figures in a landscape that’s constantly changing as they proceed to the less chilly and bleak south. The screenplay is spare and both actors have to rely on presence rather than performance. They are aided in this by the film-makers, whose unhurried pace and long takes allow a formidable atmosphere to generate and develop.

If the film glories in the vast, empty spaces of Russia, and uses them as a metaphor, its main task is to examine the relationship between father and son. It does so without telling us what to think but allowing visual details to explain everything. The fact that they do shows not only great confidence but a considerable sense of style too.

The film is thus in no way as dramatic as “The Return” but in the end achieves a similar power and certainly a greater feeling for the profound mysteries that make for happiness or unhappiness in life. We hope the pair will find peace and freedom but we can only guess that they might. Khlebnikov and Popogrebsky let us think our own thoughts.