The Russian Supremacy By Dragan Jovićević

in 18th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Dragan Jovicevic

Russian cinema was officially the big winner at the Cottbus Film Festival of East European Cinema, taking home six out of the seventeen awards. Without hesitation, the current Russian cinema could be defined as the most versatile and the most unpredictable national cinema in Europe. The Cottbus festival program tried to capture the wide variety of film styles and genres from Russia, including the music comedy Antisex, the family drama Mukha (Muha) as well as politically engaged films as Captive (Plennyy) by Aleksei Uchitel and Wild Field (Dikoe Pole) by Mikhail Kalatozishvili.

Captive is set in a Chechen village under Russian occupation. Amongst the numerous Chechen prisoners and the Russians there are occasional glimpses of fraternization. One young peasant woman is cooking solyanka for a Russian soldier, her sister is making love to another in the near-by laundry house. The commander, anxious about a convoy that has broken down in a mountain pass, orders the two young soldiers, Vovka and Rubakhin, to establish contact with the missing unit, and tells them to take along a Chechen prisoner familiar with the lay of the land. The film follows their laborious trek through the jagged mountains. When the trio is crossing a river, Diamil, the young POW, makes a break for freedom. His attempt fails, but all the same the relationship between the two soldiers and their prisoner gradually becomes less hostile.

Based on Vladimir Makanin’s story “The Prisoner of the Caucasus”, Captive carries forward the more differentiated and conciliatory perspective on the Chechen conflict recently displayed by Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 (2007) and Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra (2007).

Wild Field, on the other hand,is a film about personal happiness, and about how difficult it is to do one’s work well. It is a tale captured and then moved to a different location, like a boulder gone astray; as a frozen testimony of remote times — past and the future alike.

The landscape images in Wild Field are overwhelming. Magnificently alien, threateningly uninhabited. A place to which people would rarely stray willfully. Occasionally, a figure emerges from the distance, then vanishes again, like a short-lived eruption or a foreign body. The young physician Mitia is one of those strange newcomers. The nonchalance with which he goes about his work makes his absurd cases seem a matter of course. He treats people struck by lightning or having drunk themselves into cardiac arrest. Patches up a young couple with bullet wounds, inflicted in a jealous rage. Even gives relief to a cow that gobbled up a table-cloth. His operating table is a vast slab of sloping stone swept by the whistling wind. He apparently draws special powers from this hermitage in the steppe, from his long days rarely interrupted by visits of that other champion of civilization, the local policeman. The visit of his future bride seems like a short, sharp reminder of times long gone, of sensual bonds. She soon returns to her own world. He continues to settle in, apparently at one with himself and the rhythm of his environment. But there is a vague sense of menace, of something out there in the expanses of the steppe, a lurking shadow that is coming closer…

Russians nowadays have no problem discussing political, ethical and ethnic issues, which bother most people in the East. Russian film production owes its overwhleming success to open minded film structures, both important and much needed by other European cinemas, especially now, when borders are being shifted again in a most unusual manner.