Sergey Solovev’s Imagination

in 38th Moscow International Film Festival

by Evgeny Mayzel

The opening film of the 38th Moscow International Film Festival was Sneakers (Ke-dy), by director Sergey Solovev, one of the brilliant representatives of Russian auteur cinema.

Perhaps in any developed national cinema there are numerous talented and important auteurs who are more celebrated at home than abroad. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) there are many such directors here in Russia and in other former Soviet countries, filmmakers who for various reasons are not establishing themselves in a global context. Despite the fact that Solovev has received many international awards at major film festivals over the past 40 years—among other honours he received the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 25th Berlin International Film Festival for One Hundred Days After Childhood—his fame largely remains contained within Russian borders.

In Solovev’s filmography one can trace at least three motifs: adaptations of classic Russian literature (The Stationmaster, Anna Karenina , et cetera), movies about scholars and their almost angelic conversations (One Hundred Days After Childhood, Spasatel, et cetera) and eccentric opuses, more or less carnival in tone, with modern, quasi-trendy, quasi-bohemian young characters, strange children of disappeared empires and illusive worlds (Assa, Chyornaya roza – emblema pechali, krasnaya roza – emblema lyubvi, et cetera). Typically in Solovev’s movies, in a collision with a rough world, his heroes can suffer greatly, and are sometimes even killed, but they never lose their dignity, artistry and charm.

Sneakers belongs to this third lineage: it is a movie about what it means to be young in a world governed by mighty adults who have lost access to a fresh, gentle and philosophical perception of the world. Sneakers is based on the short story ‘Paradise Found’ by modern Russian writer Andrey Gelasimov. On the eve of his draft day, a youngster named Sasha, whose nickname is Jagger, decides to buy stylish sneakers. This decision takes him to a girl named Amira. Amira asks Jagger and his friend to help her to deliver her nine-year-old son Mitya to an orphanage. Then Jagger is taken to the army.

As is often the case with Solovev, a plot synopsis does not provide main thing you should know about this movie, which is very poetic and metaphorical. On the one hand, we can see many recognizable images, topics and motives closely linked to Solovev’s cinema, of gentle youth, pacifism, humanism, respect for people and love granted to the differences between them, philosophical humor, noble poetic detachment from the mainstream media, a neglect of fashion in favour of personal style. On the other hand, these elements exist in Sneakers in intensified isolation from so-called reality.

“Kedy” means gumshoes. (Not “ke-dy”; there is no such word in Russian. It is unclear why it is written so.) Nevertheless we see in the picture not gumshoes but, rather, sneakers. (In the English translation this strange difference disappeared). There are many such misunderstandings in the film and the need to explain, if not all, then at least some of them, becomes imminent.

That is why in order to feel the charm of Sneakers, it is necessary, I think, to regard the narrative circumstances as deeply surreal autonomous worlds of Solovev’s imagination. That is why his heroes are always speaking in a very artificial manner (I have no idea how the dialogues could be translated for foreign screenings); that is why their poverty never prevents them from enjoying an idle and aristocratic lifestyle; that is why episodes of their lives are dramatized through musical numbers performed by different rock and pop artists, stars of the independent alternative Russian scene, such as Kino and Aquarium, and the Russian rap-artist Basta.

For me, the most reasonable and relevant method is to accept all images and definitions of this work as different elements of a deeply autonomous aesthetic system created by an outstanding and original filmmaker. This method lets us feel ourselves as the part of small but loyal audience at the concert of our favorite avant-garde composer.

Edited by José Teodoro