The (Cinematic) State of the (Former Soviet) Union By Anita Uzulniece

in 29th Moscow International Film Festival

by Anita Uzulniece

On Saturday, June 30, the 29th Moscow International Film Festival ended. It was my first return to Moscow in 16 years, and my first time at the MIFF for 19 years. This time I was there not as a member of the State Institute of Cinematography but as a member of the FIPRESCI jury. My jury work involved rating 20 films in the competition, while on a more personal level I tried to follow the changes that have taken place in Russian cinema during all this time. But evaluating a national cinema just by blockbusters such as Night Watch (Nochnij Zdvor) wouldn’t be fair.

Russian cinema was generously represented in the festival. A competition — a special showcase of Russian films — was held in the Russian Cinemahouse, including retrospectives of some genuine classics. There were a few international premieres, a commemorative day for Andrey Tarkovsky (with documentaries dedicated to his creative work) and festivities dedicated to the centenary of Arseniy Tarkovsky. I would like to widen the theme of my overview now to also include Ukrainian cinema and other films by people who experienced, first-hand, the Soviet regime. It was these films which raised the biggest discussions among our jury, and in the festival itself.

The FIPRESCI jury conferred its award on Larisa Sadilova’s Nothing Personal (Nichego Lichnogo). Its hero, Volodya (Valeri Barinov) is a private detective who installs hidden cameras in the apartments of his clients’ “victims”, then follows their lives through the monitor. At first, none of the subjects of his investigations are interesting for him. But when he mistakenly confuses two apartments, one of his subjects becomes his victim: The depressive Irina (Zoya Kaidanovska), who works in a drugstore, provokes Volodya into “loosening the borders of his profession”.

The film is about our desire to know “the lives of others” — the title of the German film about a Stasi watcher — in order to understand our own, in which our relationships with our fellows have barely been scratched by routine. Only when someone rocks the boat can we understand how dear this state of civility can be. The film has very good actors and a serious moral concept, although it avoids moralising, and concludes in ambiguity. How far may we intrude on the lives of others? Should we do it at all? Can we take responsibility for them — in Volodya’s case, by giving Irina the love she craves? Or would we just be refreshing our own faded feelings, sharpening our own senses at the expense of another’s?

My favorite Russian film was Vera Storozheva’s Traveling With Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi), a lyrical and poetic story about a girl and two animals abandoned on the margins of life — or, more specifically, on the side of a railroad. Like Stelling’s pointsman or Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the only means of transportation from her world to the larger world is a rail trolley. The echoes to Stelling’s film aren’t just in the story (an old pointsman’s unexpected death triggers the plot here, too), but also in the aesthetics of solitude — in the isolation of the girl and the rugged nature of her surroundings. The young woman’s tranquil aura is embodied by Fomenko studio actress Kseniya Kupetova (so Chekovian). The dramatic thrust of the film is created from the unexpected acknowledgement of her freedom: after the death of her husband she can listen to herself. The power and weakness of a woman, her tenderness, her feral side opening her heart and senses; suddenly, she can say to her lover, the driver: “Go away, I don’t need you anymore!”

The self-sufficency of the main character is not only egoistic, it is created by her school-of-life upbringing and the still waters of her persona. She actually manages to achieve what is contemplated: At the end of the film, they are finally together, both of them on a boat on the river, complete with pets — the goat and the dog – which look like they’ve accepted the red-haired, freckled boy from the orphanage who will now have a family and real home. It’s so simple, like a watercolour — I haven’t seen such a transparent film for a long time. It succeeds as a result of the collaboration between the directress and the lead actress (Vera Storozheva has appeared in the films of Kira Muratova; she was also Muratova’s scriptwriter, and directed Sky. Plane. Girl.) And a great impact is also created by cinematographer Oleg Lukichev.

And so, in this poetic parable about the coming of age of a girl who matures into both a woman and a human being, the adequacy of psychological realism does not matter anymore (people unfamiliar with this distinctly Russian style found it difficult to deal with Kupetova’s rough, unmaniucured hands, and so forth). The gentle face of the actress and her acting invite us to perceive her as an angel who has been dropped into this sinful world, and is learning to survive. The jury, led by Fred Schepisi, acknowleged Storozheva’s film to be the best.

The most Russian work, if such a thing can be truly determined, was Valeri Ogorodnikov’s Spawning (Putina). Its director has departed this life already. Its iconography is what we imagine “real” Russian to be, or as it is truly known by those who live in villages like those portrayed in the film, on the bank of the Lake Chudskoye, with the real atmosphere of a Russian village: Colorful characters, plenty of vodka and of course a superabundance of love. The solitude of the local fishermen’s lives is distracted by an upcoming wedding, for which all the village is preparing. The bride, Masha (Anna Iliyushenko), is ready to give birth; although her groom is actually not the father of the child, both he and Masha appear truly in love. But then the true “guilty one” (in the full sense of the word) comes to the village — he who, before going to prison, had told Masha not to wait for him on the outside. The film, with its strong Russian mentality, is reminiscent a little of Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves; its conclusion reminded me of the Latvian writer Blaumanis, with Masha, like Kristin, kissing an easy life goodbye because she’s in love with the other one — The One, The Only — who had to leave her to go to prison.

It may seem similar to the situation in Viktor Kosokovsky’s documentary Belovi, where alcohol appears to have flushed away the humanity of a similarly small village, but in fact it’s quite the opposite: In the finale of Spawning, Ogordonikov’s camaera observes the small island in the middle of the ocean and lifts the audience over and away from its dust, sweat and despair, allowing hope for a better future, and the possibilty that God hasn’t forsaken this place.

Although Eva Neimann, director of At The River (U Reki), comes from Ukraine, has studied in Germany and has worked as an assistant to Kira Muratova, I would like to call her film a relative of Russian cinema. Mighty eternity on the background of everyday life — this best summarizes the relationship between the 90-year-old mother (Marina Politsejmako) and her slightly younger daughter (Nina Ruslanova). They live together, but each is alone in her own world: The daughter tries to manage the tasks of everyday life, while her mother lives in her memories (precisely demonstrating the fact that old people remember nothing that happened yesterday but can recall every little thing from the past), where she used to be a grand dame.

Thanks to admirable work by both actresses, and the obvious love of the filmmakers towards them, we can feel every moment, especially during the more risky behaviour of the mother (some episodes are like a part of the show known only by her) that her daughter tries to cover up with apologies. And suddenly, a painful realization: Dear God, don’t let us bury our children before we do! And the mother has already buried her other children.

There are some more films with characters or plots somehow connected with Russia, or the regime of Soviet Union and its consequences. The film Russian Triangle (Rusuli Samkudhedi), by the young Georgian director Aleko Tsabadze, won the special jury prize for courage and selflessness, showing the festival is open to different and complicated themes.

A police procedural following the pursuit of a serial killer who leaves a worn-out book by Dostojevsky at the scene of his crimes, the narrative expands to uncover more difficult and painful motives connected with the war in Chechnya. After a building explodes with his pregnant wife inside, a former teacher chooses to track the killer on his own, though he operates from a position of humanity, understanding that revenge is not the best way…

You can clearly see a parallel with any number of shameful past and present conflicts where governments solve political problems by throwing bombs and using overwhelming force. And there’s a comment on the lost generation that has forgotten the easiest way of resolving conflicts, and know only how to use a gun.

The Children Of The Soviet Union (Yaden CCCP) — directed by Felix Gerchikov, who emigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union — is connected with the feelings and destinies of people from the former USSR. It is a story about people who aren’t welcome either in Israel or in Russia, like the fairly brutal but warmhearted Russian from the streets, who was a football player in the Soviet junior national team.

But now that his adult life has begun, and he must support his wife and child, fighting and stealing are no longer of any help. His self-infantilism brings scorn from his wife’s family. But if his team wins, then perhaps football might help — and afer a series of losses, hope appears as a small spark of the light — though red shirts with the CCCP insignia seem as absurd as symbols of lost power on every Moscow stoop.

Even the film Unknown (La Sconosciuta), by Best Director-winner Giuseppe Tornatore, is linked with the former Soviet Union. Irina (Kseniya Rappoport), a Ukrainian emigrant, cannot get rid of nightmares about some kind of meat-cutting machine — possibly representing the horror she’s endured as a prostitute, pimped by Michele Placido from the popular La Piovra (Damiano Damiani, 1984). She finds work as a maid, in order to achieve the much more personal goal of rescuing her child — and the curtain falls for one more frightening side of the business of using prostitutes for trafficking children.

Shot like an ordinary thriller, with a killer leading lady, Tornatore’s film reveals the crime and cruelty that resulted when the world separated along different political ideologies. It’s hard to believe this is the same filmmaker that made the beautiful Nuovo Cinema Paradiso in 1989 and directed Monica Bellucci in Malena. Nonetheless, we understand the meanest insight: That greed and violence are key components of democracy. The same democracy those of us behind the Iron Curtain always believed was freedom, and the best thing that could ever happen to us.