An Act of Processing

in 30th Festival of East European Cinema, Cottbus

by Tina Waldeck


Conference (Konferentsiya) by Ivan I. Tverdovskiy, screened at the 30th Film Festival Cottbus, conceptualizes reality as a deconstructed remanufacturing — based on a true and frightful experience: More than 800 spectators in the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow were taken as hostages by the Chechen terrorist organization Riyadh as-Salihin (Gardens of the Righteous) on October 23, 2002. The hostage-takers included so-called “martyrs” — women dressed in black with explosive belts. On October 26, 2002, the theatre was stormed by special forces and 170 hostages lost their lives.

Now the fiction begins in this deeply emotionally charged, but figuratively calm feature film. There is Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova), one of the surviving hostages. Her whole family was at the massacre in the theatre and her thirteen-year-old son Yegor was killed in the process. Now she becomes estranged more and more from her adult daughter Galya (Kseniya Zueva), who has to take care of her father, who is paralyzed from the attack, while Natasha herself, mentally shaped and affected by the incident, became a nun. Every year, she organizes a memorial service for the former hostages, with the loyal support by her sister Vera (Natalya Potapova). But while she is concentrating on trying to draw the public attention to what happened with the hostages’ pain they have to deal with, these seem to just want to forget the suffering they experienced and the gnawing losses of the deceased. With her odd delicate yet determined persistence, Natalia herself symbolizes the question, how to process with traumatic experiences.

Ivan I. Tverdovskiy stages the individual positions with a touch of human pathos that sometimes hurts, but is aesthetically highly demanding. The social and political elements are conditioned by flowing transitions. The film focuses particularly on the scenes inside the theatre and the artistic reconstruction of the whole situation. During the memorial ceremony, which has been registered as a “conference” by the official authorities, inflatable mannequins sitting motionless as a substitute for the people who cannot or do not want to be present: white ones for the victims, blue ones for the survivors, and black ones for the attackers. Black, like the clothes of the nun, who is going around between all with a microphone, listening, suffering, and in the end, speaking herself. In these long and slow scenes, even the spectator gets the feeling of sitting on the upholstered seats and drawn deeply into the fearful suffering years ago. Lost in space and time with the processing of these life-changing emotions. In search of valves for the pent-up feelings, all human beings in the theatre share similar memories among sadness and fear, guilt and innocence, forgiveness and excuse, forgetting and constant remembering — and construct with their conversations an overall picture of the agonizing days from their different perceptions, without that the film explicitly shows the occurrence itself. Also, there are always gently and subtly ironic twists between good and bad, thus the film never even makes a judgment, but point out sensitive to the variant sides on this indigestible topic. Not only in the theatre: also outside these setting, there are details introduced, that create a closeness to the individual characters, that never becomes one-sided or flat: So discharges the daughter’s anger about the whole situation in her flat, hides in the public spaces and breaks out desperately at the conference. Cleaning and destroying things up, both: inside the humans and inside the theatre. Elegant and with a careful film setting, the film creates a deep fascination, that draws the spectator slowly but deeply into it. Some things take time to be processed.

Conference won the main prize for best film in the Feature Film Competition at the 30th Film Festival Cottbus, 2020. It is already the third award for the director in Cottbus since Zoology (2016) and Corrections Class (2014).

Tina Waldeck
Edited by Karsten Kastelan