St Petersburg Colloquium on Recent Russian Cinema

in 6th St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum

by Andrei Plakhov

Andrei PlakhovIn Russia, nothing of this sort happened since the early Perestroika. Recently, the hopes for the integration of Russian cinema into the world film process melted, and we are even more terra incognita than in the era of the Iron Curtain. Separate films and even brands (for example, animation) sometimes fall into foreign commercial releases, but more often, the case is limited. Yes, our films are shown and awarded at festivals. But still, only a few Russian directors’ names mean something to foreign professionals, not to mention the general public: Lungin, then Sokurov, was added to the long-known Konchalovsky and Mikhalkov in the 1990s, and now Zvyagintsev is better known than anyone else.

Sokurov and Zvyagintsev are helped by the fact that they are considered the heirs of the traditions of the main “image maker” of Russian cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky. But sometimes this stereotype only serves to harm the correct understanding of new phenomena: thus, the author of one of the major American film newspapers managed to find the “Tarkovsky trail” in the youth film of Valeria Gay Germanika “Everyone Dies But Me” (Vse umrut a ya ostanus).

Neither the Russian “new wave”, nor the heavily influenced Aleksey Balabanov have received the fame that they deserve abroad. The reasons are manifold. As before, we are divided from the surrounding world by economic, mental, and, more recently, political barriers. But even worse is the acute shortage of mechanisms for the promotion of Russian cinema. While the Roskino company and the Kinotavr festival do this to the best of their abilities, their activities are clearly not enough. We look with envy at the brilliant results achieved by Unifrance, a company that is generously financed by the state and works to bolster the world image and commercial success of French cinema. And it all begins with the fact that every January, in Paris, they call together film journalists from different countries, and they, after watching the French films, spread news about them around the world.

Here in St Petersburg, something similar happened in a more modest format. Famous film critics from different countries, from the USA to Serbia and from Brazil to Australia, (many of them – also selectors and consultants for international festivals) watched around a dozen films, which in many ways, changed their idea of Russian cinema.

Why was the idea of a “heavy ambitious Russian cinema” (the expression of one of the participants in the colloquium) turned upside down? First of all, it turned out that this cinema is multinational, as in the former USSR. The film “My Murderer” by Kostas Marsan and his new project, presented at the colloquium, showed the rapid development of the film industry in Yakutia. Meanwhile, graduate of the Kabardino-Balkar workshop of Alexander Sokurov, Kantemir Balagov, demonstrated with “Closeness” (Tesnota) the importance of life on the periphery and the thirst for identity as landmark features of the new cinema. Someone even predicted 26-year-old Balagov’s future victory in Cannes, where these qualities are particularly appreciated. And in the film “Sella Turcica” (Turestkoe seldo) by Yusup Razykov, our proximity to the motives of the fashionable Romanian cinema was revealed: politically, the time of surveillance has gone, but continues to live on psychologically and anthropologically in people.

The second thing that struck the guests was the very high quality of the mainstream movies. There are films made at the technical level of Hollywood, but with a tenfold smaller budget. Klim Shipenko’s “Salyut-7” impressed with its combination of scale and intimacy and the originality of the Russian perspective. Attraction – a film belonging to the “country of fiction” – saw Feodor Bondarchuk skilfully interweave with social commentary, an allegory of xenophobia. Shipenko was predicted to forge a Hollywood career and it was even suggested that, perhaps, in one of the future joint projects Bruce Willis, the world’s on-call saviour, “will speak Russian”.

A steady stereotype is interfering with the prospect of these dreams coming true: for example, in Israel, the distribution of “Closeness” and “Salyut-7” will most likely be dealt with by the same small company because both are “foreign cinema with subtitles”. The place of the “majority cinema” is firmly occupied by mass-market and high-budget films, but it is important to work from the perspective that the “minority cinema” (primarily intellectual) has a fighting chance. This can be helped by the rapidly developing Internet rental marketplace, the networks of which are able to form an intermediate zone between the mainstream and the arthouse.

After the presentation of “Matilda” (Mathilde) by Alexei Uchitel, a discussion broke out about Orthodox fundamentalism as one of the newest tools of indirect censorship. It is likely that this is connected with the underlying cause of the “deed” by Kirill Serebrennikov, that an ominous thread stretches from his “The Student” ((M)ucheni) (where the subject of religious fanaticism is raised with journalistic severity) to this case, as well as to the persecution of “Matilda” by the same circles. The trial of Serebrennikov who, officially, is accused in economic crime has a clear political smell. Guests who used to hear about all this only peripherally, understood much more deeply the dramatic context in which the cinema in Russia is developing.

Andrei Plakhov