The First FIPRESCI Colloquium Dedicated to Russian Cinema
13-15 November 2017
Lenfilm Studio, St. Petersburg
Colloquium website: https://new.culturalforum.ru/event/2017-11-12-pervyj-kollokvium-fipressi-posvyashennyj-rossijskomu-kinematografu

Costumier Nadezhda Vasilyeva, Honorary President of FIPRESCI Andrei Plakhov and producer Sergey Selyanov (l-r) introduce Of Freaks and Men (Balabanov, 1998) at Lenfilm Studio. Photo by Denis Ishtokin.

The timing of my first trip to St. Petersburg was propitious; four days prior to the commencement of the First FIPRESCI Colloquium Dedicated to Russian Cinema, I had attended the opening night in my hometown of Melbourne of the 14th Russian Resurrection Film Festival, which boasts of being the “largest, oldest and most respected Russian film festival outside of Russia.”1 Its opening night film had been Anna Karenina. Istoriya Vronskogo (Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story), Mosfilm CEO and veteran director Karen Shakhnazarov’s very traditional – leaden, even – new film extrapolating upon very timeworn Russian source material. A week prior I had also been treated to a preview of said festival and to Valery Todorovsky’s Bolshoi (The Bolshoi) – again a prestige production, and this time a very enjoyable one, connected to a major cultural institution that could scarcely be more Russian.

Receiving the colloquium program just days before its commencement, I was intrigued that neither of these films made the cut in St. Petersburg, where as many as 12 films produced within the last two years, selected to provide a (presumably flattering) overview of the state of contemporary Russian film production, were to be screened on the storied grounds of the Lenfilm Studio to a pool of 15 critics and film programmers invited from widely disparate points on the globe, in connection with, and over the three days immediately prior to, the Sixth St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum (16-18 November).2

What then might be the criteria for selection at the Colloquium – would it be the 12 new Russian films deemed to be the best (which must then make them “better” than these two films)? Or perhaps the 12 thought most representative overall of the output of a midsize industry spread across the largest national landmass on the planet, a nation so vast it spans 11 time zones? Could politics inform the selection process – and could a Moscow/ St. Petersburg rivalry preclude from inclusion anything too Muscovite?

But first, before addressing these questions: a little further scene-setting contemplation upon Melbourne’s relationship to St. Petersburg.

Melbourne and St. Petersburg are each their respective nation’s second most populous city and cultural capital. They have been sister cities since 1989, although their sisterhood came close to being suspended by Melbourne in 2014 in protest against Russia’s introduction in June 2013 of its “Gay Propaganda Law”, or, to give it its full heinous due, a law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”. The beleaguered LGBTIQA+ community of St. Petersburg in fact spared its city this dishonour, stressing that their struggles could best be heard in faraway Melbourne if the sororal relationship were to be maintained.

As a conspicuously queer person – a trans woman travelling to Russia on a non-binary passport, even – I was keen to learn about queer life in Russia through being on the ground and, I hoped, through its cinema too. I hoped that one or more of the 12 films selected might address or at least allude to Russia’s notoriously dreadful official attitude towards queer folk.

I had also noted before embarking upon this trip that the tenth annual Side by Side LGBT International Film Festival would be commencing the same day as the Cultural Forum, held over an array of almost daily changing venues in St. Petersburg from 16-25 November, all of them necessarily operating at quite a remove from commercially operating cinemas. Apparently it was not always thus.

The very day prior to Side by Side’s opening, the results of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey were due to be announced. This $122 million, politically non-binding exercise was to ultimately deliver a resounding “YES” vote, but the path there had been causing great distress to people of the LGBTIQA+ communities, with especial “won’t someone think of the children” fearmongering directed at the gender non-conforming. Thus were there messages sanctioned by the Australian government being promoted by parties prosecuting the case for a “No” vote which scarcely rate as any different to those transmitted by Russia’s benighted Gay Propaganda Law.

What with this, and the wilful neglect of asylum seekers cynically and illegally abandoned by the Australian government on Manus Island – regularly and aptly referred to by the commentariat as a “tropical gulag”, a term rich in Russian and Soviet referentiality – I headed to St. Petersburg with anything but a holier-than-thou outlook, and very keen to learn not just more about contemporary Russian film, but to see for myself whether the Russian Federation, so often scorned in the Western media – the cinema included – for its transgressions, was really any more pernicious than the extremely well-to-do Australian Federation that I call home.

More propitious timing

The Colloquium was held only a matter of days after the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. There was a muted acknowledgment of this centenary around the city, almost as if the figureheads of the current regime did not want to draw too much attention to what the people can achieve when they rise up against a teetering kleptocracy – and not least when Vladimir Putin himself would be making a public appearance at the Cultural Forum, in his hometown. Furthermore, as would be borne out, anticipation was high that he would soon announce a run for a fourth term as Russian president, presumably brooking no dissent in the meantime.

Howard Film Festival

“The Winter Palace and the Hermitage in 1917. History was made here” exhibition. Photo by Cerise Howard.

That said, the Winter Palace, the seat of the Russian Provisional Government after Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication during the precursory February 1917 revolution, which was then captured by the Bolsheviks during the October events and appended to the colossal, now six building-spanning State Hermitage Museum, is host until February 2018 to the exhibition “The Winter Palace and the Hermitage in 1917. History was made here”.

With Putin a major force behind the restoration and modernisation of Lenfilm Studio, the very studio that produced Eisenstein’s Oktyabr: Desyat dney kotorye potryasli mir (October: Ten Days That Shook the World, 1928) played it coy about this anniversary. While part of the historic studio complex – to be expanded by 2020 in a US$60 million redevelopment which will include Russia’s first-ever cinema park3 – is given over to a charming museum replete with props, costumes, sets and miscellany from Lenfilm’s own productions, no displays there acknowledged October, neither the revolution, nor the film.

Outside of and after the Colloquium program, I wound up missing the “world premiere” of the omnibus film 20:17 (Arseny Zanin, Mikhail Arkhipov and Denis Shabaev), the one new Russian film (the only one!) to engage with this anniversary.4 There were, however, two films within the program set just prior to the 1917 revolutions, where the decadence of that setting more than hints at the epochal changes known to viewers to lie just ahead of the action being narrated.

Now, not to take anything away from the selection of films – undoubtedly an excellent overview of mostly lesser-travelled contemporary Russian film production, which I am getting to, by degrees – my greatest joy at this first FIPRESCI Colloquium Dedicated to Russian Cinema was derived simply from spending three days roaming the storied grounds of Lenfilm Studio – grounds so much more storied than I had been aware prior to being informed that the first ever film projection on Russian soil occurred there in the spring of 1896. (Was that a certain, restrained pride I detected when General Director of Lenfilm Studio, Eduard Pichugin, addressed us at the outset of the screening program, when he advised us that the first screenings didn’t occur in Moscow until a full three months later?)

What a privilege then, not only to attend a cinema showcase on these very premises, curated sagely by such major players in Russian film culture as the Honorary President of FIPRESCI, Andrei Plakhov, who gave erudite introductions to each screening, and his likewise knowledgeable and impassioned deputy Konstantin Shavlovsky, and replete with key creative personnel from each production as guests (all of them highly forthcoming during post-screening Q&As), whilst in the company of esteemed peers from the global critical community, most of whom I had not met previously, but also to be toured through and later, able to wander freely amidst, these wonderful exhibits. Such a balm to a cinephile’s heart that Lenfilm was brought back from the brink of dilapidation but a few years ago. I recall with a still very heavy heart a trip I made to the Odessa Film Studios complex in 2015, and to the dismal, loveless museum on its dreadfully neglected grounds.

Howard Film Festival

A tour guide on the reconstructed set of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson at Lenfilm Studio. Photo by Cerise Howard.

That the colloquium proper would constitute roundtable addresses given by each of us guest critics with a beautiful set from Lenfilm’s celebrated take on Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson 5 as a backdrop, could not have more perfectly underscored that this encounter with new Russian cinema was a delightful meeting of West and East, in which that which is familiar from the West could productively be “othered”, as in a classy Space Race film from the Russian perspective (Salyut-7, Klim Shipenko) or in a blockbuster alien invasion flick set not in the States but in Moscow, Prityazhenie (Attraction), directed by the Chair of Lenfilm’s Board of directors, Fedor Bondarchuk, who was also serving as the Head of the cinema section of the Cultural Forum.

But this is to say nothing of the strongest films on offer, Tesnota (Closeness, Kantemir Balagov) and Aritmiya (Arrhythmia, Boris Khlebnikov), wonderful films steeped in quite differing flavours of Russianness, and wonderfully irreducible both to analogy with Hollywood produce. More about them both in just a moment.

The film program: day one

A special treat: the screening program opened with a remastered edition of Pro urodov i lyudey (Of Freaks and Men), Aleksey Balabanov’s extraordinary 1998 film set in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, in which a familiar upstairs/downstairs order crumbles when basement pornographers seize upon the novelty of the cinematic apparatus and make moves, on camera and off, on well-heeled ladyfolk upstairs. Throw in liberal application of sepia tone, a subplot around singing conjoined twins, and deliciously mannered performances – Viktor Sukhorukov is indelible as a grinning henchman who doesn’t know his place – and you have a film quite unlike any other.

The grotesquerie and perversity is abundant and gleeful; women in the film succumb to their debasement with such haste that one wishes to give the late Balabanov the benefit of the doubt and presume this less indicative of his worldview and rather more consistent with the moral turpitude of the time being burlesqued in his film.

Nevertheless, there was a harbinger here of the treatment of women in the more contemporary films to follow; a presumed, or at least clearly privileged, male gaze would prove the norm over most of the films to follow.

Of the two other films presented on day one, for example, the first, Moy ubiytsa (My Murderer, Kostas Marsan) traded heavily in duplicitous women neo-noir tropes, while the other, Ptitsa (The Bird, Kseniya Baskakova), was to prove the only film in the program directed by a woman. Alas, it was possibly the worst offender in terms of casual objectification of women’s bodies, notwithstanding that it appeared to be aimed at a tween audience and had a young female protagonist. It was also of a whole order of accomplishment beneath the rest of the offering, such that one might surmise it found its way into the program purely by dint of being a Lenfilm production.

My Murderer, however, had much to offer – with its unfamiliar language and a setting far removed from that which normally represents Russia on film, it was my introduction to Yakutian cinema. Its embrace of familiar generic elements and strategies – ostensibly including the old one-actress-plays-twin-sisters trick – only highlighted that which was unique, or particular to the region about it. Featuring Siberian city- and landscapes whose intense cold was almost palpable, My Murderer presents a slice of Russia more redolent of Asia than Europe, with an interesting tension playing out between the two in terms of whether Russian or Yakut was spoken at any given time. The former seemed the language of authority, of bureaucracy, while the latter was the language of the everyday. Fascinating.

Day two: “Arthouse Cinema”

The second day opened with the superb Closeness, which would prove the strongest film overall. Following on from My Murderer, Kantemir Balagov’s debut feature shows another Russia little seen, and gives voice to Kabardian, another language seldom heard. Set in Nalchik in the North Caucusus in 1998, with the Second Chechen War soon to break out, Balagov works a tight 4:3 frame to reinforce the entrapment felt by the film’s protagonist, tomboyish 20-something Ilana (Darya Zhovnar), who finds herself an arranged marriage bargaining chip in her Jewish family’s quest to retrieve her brother and his newly betrothed, after they are kidnapped and held to ransom. However, she is headstrong, and moreover, has a Muslim boyfriend, a taboo, and a dangerous one, on his side as well, underscored brutally when she joins him and his excitable, anti-Semitic friends – and we, the audience – in watching what proves to be an actual execution video.

In the Q&A afterwards, Balagov explained that:

I decided to include this video to provide some geographical and historical context. Secondly, to show my personal connection to this because I myself saw this exact tape when I was 13 or 14. 6

Balagov also spoke of the benefits of Alexander Sokurov’s mentorship program at the Kabardino-Balkarian State University. While his film in no way resembles Sokurov’s work, it does help explain how extraordinarily accomplished and assured a debut it is, no less for being conceived, set and shot so far away from the industry centres of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Next: Tureckoe sedlo (Sella Turcica), a grim affair concerning a desperately lonely, retired surveillance agent from Soviet times who still feels compelled in the present day to follow people whom he finds suspicious, in lieu of any real human connection. Director Yusup Razykov spoke of casting Valery Maslov in the lead for what he saw in the actor’s face: “the embodiment of living history, an image that is tragic, threatening, yet yearning for compassion and understanding” 7 – not unlike Viktor Sukhorukov’s character’s sinister mien in Of Freaks and Men, if it were leached of all its vitality.

Sella Turcica would prove to be the only film in the program to engage with LGBTIQA+ issues; the homophobia rampant in the surveillance community and, by ready extension, Russian culture, assumes central importance in the film’s dismal dénouement, where a mistaken assumption of another character’s gender proves the agent’s undoing – but not his alone. It’s an overfamiliar disappointment that the film’s openly queer characters should have to be shown to suffer brutally at the protagonist’s hands in order to make a point about a culture’s homophobia, but Sella Turcica still impresses for taking on issues surrounding homosexuality, and for showing affection between same-sex lovers on-screen at all, given the hostile climate in Russia, as reinforced by a local journalist who voiced her splenetic outrage at having to witness such things at the Q&A after the screening.

Next up, Rustam Khamdamov’s dreamlike Meshok bez dna (The Bottomless Bag) contained a great many arresting black-and-white images, apropos of I have frankly no idea what. Po-faced, period costumed absurdity abounded in a nonsensical fairy tale subjected to the Rashomon effect, as related to Tsar Alexander II by a lady-in-waiting within the Imperial premises wherein further absurdity abounded. I found the film’s flights of fancy tiresome rather than magical, unfortunately.

Much livelier, however, was Aleksandr Khant’s stylish debut feature Kak Vitka Chesnok vez Lecha Shtyrya v dom invalidov (How Viktor “the Garlic” Took Alexey “the Stud” to the Nursing Home), a father-and-son road movie in which both are underclass sociopaths, reunited after many years of neglect of the orphaned latter by the lifelong criminal, now disabled, former. Evgeniy Tkachuk shines as anti-hero Viktor, a horrible young man who seems to relate too closely to the lyrics of the Russian gangster rap he adores, but who nonetheless proves sympathetic, a tribute to Tkachuk’s performance, and to just how ghastly his father proves to be, as performed by the superb Aleksey Serebryakov. The great Serebryakov apparently waived his fee in order for the film to come in on a very tight budget; evidently he arrived at a similar view to mine, which is that Khant’s might prove a rare talent well worth cultivating at this early stage of his career.

Last film for the day was Aritmiya (Arrhythmia). Boris Khlebnikov’s latest feature might, on the face of it, bear a timeworn premise – that those who are charged with tending to the wellbeing of others are often their own worst patients. But Arrythmia is just as interested in probing a shift towards clinical indifference in the middle management of the Russian health bureaucracy as it is in presenting a compelling character study of a married couple of late 20-somethings whose chemistry is appreciable, no less than their grinding frustration with one another’s foibles. 8

Alexander Yatsenko and Irina Gorbacheva are both excellent, though one can’t help but wonder why Gorbacheva’s Katya keeps dishing out extra chances to Yatsenko’s exasperating man-child, Oleg…

Day three: “Mainstream cinema”

Though mainstream cinema is typically less my bag than that which is more commonly considered auteurist cinema, the films on day three each came across as personal projects a lot more than does most similar Hollywood produce. That, combined with their all telling Russian stories, and made for a fraction of the cost of similar Hollywood films, rendered them all of interest. And as it turned out, the one truly scandalous film of the program was in this section: Aleksey Uchitel’s Matilda (Mathilde).

A perfectly agreeable costume drama – an overripe, bodice-ripping yarn, even – Mathilde concerns the pre-marital love affair between ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (the beautiful and remarkably versatile Polish actress Michalina Olszańska) and the last Tsar, Nicholas II (German actor Lars Eidinger).

It all seems pretty tame, but months ahead of its release there was great umbrage taken by State Duma Deputy Natalia Poklonskaya, emboldening Orthodox activists to make and act out on threats of pyromaniacal terrorist activity against cinemas which should dare to screen a film blasphemously showing the canonised final Romanov Emperor engaging in a pre-connubial fling. Uchitel in his Q&A seemed scarcely able to believe his film had generated such controversy.

Casting a nice through-line from day one, it emerged that Mathilde’s magnificent costuming – something of the order of 6,000 period costumes were made for the film – was the brilliant work of Nadezhda Vasilyeva, who was present on day one for the introduction of Of Freaks and Men, which she also worked on; additionally, she could speak on that occasion – and with some ribaldry – as director Aleksey Balabanov’s wife.

Preceding Mathilde on the final day, I thoroughly enjoyed the gripping docudrama Salyut-7, which would double wonderfully well with the narratively and factually similar Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1985) from the other side of the Cold War divide. Lastly, a work of purest science fiction rather than fact, Attraction had less convincing but necessarily more imaginative and spectacular special effects than Salyut-7, in imagining a YA-friendly alien invasion of the high-rise-heavy Chertanovo district of Moscow. In amongst all the mayhem there was a clear message promoting tolerance of others: after all, for all the fearmongering the suddenness of their arrival may bring, aliens might in fact be just like us. A same old story, and one with pretty shallow characterisations, but Attraction had a freshness by dint of its setting and language. However, with the attraction of the title referring to that of a young female protagonist towards a handsome alien-in-male-human’s clothing, who only overcomes her xenophobia because the latter proves to be so damned good-looking, it isn’t clear whether the tolerance towards others being promoted would extend to any sort of challenge to the most rote heteronormativity…

Afterwards: the colloquium

Following the screenings on the third day, we had the colloquium proper. With local media, students, and some of the filmmakers present, each critic in turn spoke of their impressions of the program and, extrapolating from that, the quality and exportability of contemporary Russian film production, mindful of high-profile absentees like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s official Russian Oscar contender Nelyubov (Loveless), or Andrei Konchalovsky’s Ray (Paradise), the previous year’s Russian Oscar candidate. It was widely agreed that the colloquium excellently fulfilled its brief of exposing its guests to Russian cinema that they would otherwise not have seen and can now champion or program in their home territories, as they see fit.

It was, however, widely agreed that new Russian films, irrespective of their quality, would continue to struggle to find audiences in the lazy anglophone world, but few of us thought it a good idea for filmmakers to sacrifice their work’s Russianness and authenticity in a bid to find larger audiences worldwide. That said, Mathilde’s employment of cast and crew from other nations pointed to a means of bridging a few borders and improving a new Russian film’s chances of cracking European markets at least, if not American or other Western nations’ as well.

Various of us lamented the absence of documentaries; the organisers were vociferous in assuring us that, when they stage a sequel event (a follow-up colloquium has been mooted for two years hence), they will be sure to address this, asserting that there is a wealth of quality documentaries available. And given Russia’s great animation tradition, animation (beyond the wealth of CGI in Salyut-7 and Attraction) will hopefully be better represented too.

Myself, I decried the lack of women with agency, on-screen and off; I was glad not to find myself alone in this. I also voiced an interest in more “resistant” films – films more antagonistic to dominant modes of narrative and representation, and more interested in tackling taboo subjects. Given Russia’s storied history of politically engaged avant-garde filmmaking, what does today’s Russian avant-garde film look like? Is there an active underground? Are there experimental queer films – whether feature length or short – being made?

For all these quibbles, I have to say I and my colleagues surely learnt a tremendous amount about new Russian cinema and all happily committed to disseminating our findings. British critic Amber Wilkinson compiled a précis of participants’ contributions to the colloquium for the FIPRESCI website 9; other commentary, including more of my own, was recorded for Russian television. I found the whole experience, including the company I kept, highly illuminating and enjoyable.

To cap things off, after a few days post-colloquium exploring the glorious city of St. Petersburg and taking in occasional cinema-related components of the Cultural Forum (e.g., a very cordial “battle” between special effects and electronics wizards Richard Taylor and Oleg Berezin over the future of audiovisual media), I found my way on my final night to Side by Side. This was not the easiest task – there was no signage, and the venue that night was in an apartment block a little off the beaten track, with a disconcerting (coincidental?) police presence on the street barely 100 metres out from the venue. But once there I found a thriving event full of community spirit, with a program of queer short films being screened to a large, full room under the rubric of “Gender without Borders”, opening with, of all things, a sparky short film from Melbourne, Tasty, which includes a dramatisation of an aggressively homophobic 1994 police raid of a Melbourne nightclub. It’s the work of filmmaker Meaghan Palmer, who is known to me personally. And thus in that moment did Melbourne and St. Petersburg seem truly kindred spirits – sisters, even.

Endnotes:

  1. Per the spiel on the Russian Resurrection Film Festival home page, http://russianresurrection.com/2017.
  2. As many as 12 films were scheduled, but in the end we were only obliged to attend 11; we were spared a fourth film on the first night, which would have been a public screening of Tri dnya do vesny (Three Days till The Spring, Aleksandr Kasatkin).
  3. See Vladimir Kozlov, “‘Russian Hollywood’ Planned by Studio Lenfilm”, The Hollywood Reporter, March 22, 2016, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/russian-hollywood-planned-studio-lenfilm-8772822017
  4. I’m casting aspersions on its claim to a world premiere in St. Petersburg during the Forum because 20:17 is listed as screening in festival programs elsewhere earlier in November – in Cottbus, for example. See http://www.filmfestivalcottbus.de/en/festival-en/program-en/movie/1038.html
  5. Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Igor Maslennikov) – there were five such television films spanning 11 episodes between 1979 and 1986.
  6. I am grateful to my colleague Amber Wilkinson for her transcription of this Q&A; it can be found in full at Eye For Film. See “Creating Closeness”, http://www.eyeforfilm.co.uk/feature/2017-11-23-director-kantemir-balagov-talks-closeness-feature-story-by-amber-wilkinson
  7. Quote pulled from the booklet for the Colloquium, p. 19, from an article originally run in Novaya Gazeta, attributed to Larisa Malyukova.
  8. I actually skipped Arrhythmia at the Colloquium, having already caught it in Karlovy Vary. I’ve cribbed this paragraph from “Arrhythmia – Irregular Heartbeats in Russia’s Body Politic”, my article on the film in Festivalový deník, the KVIFF’s daily newspaper, Saturday, July 1, 2017, p. 2 of the English language insert, http://www.kviff.com/en/festival-daily-file/2017/119230/#page=2
  9. This is not online at the time of this article’s submission on 8 December 2017, but should be soon thereafter.

About The Author

Cerise Howard is the Artistic Director of the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia, a member of the International Jury Board of the East-West: Golden Arch awards, a co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and a co-founder of tilde: Melbourne's Trans & Gender Diverse Film Festival. A freelance writer and peregrine film critic, she can regularly be heard on Plato’s Cave on Melbourne radio station 3RRR. She was a reporter for the KVIFF Festival Daily in 2017, and plays bass for Queen Kong and The HOMOsapiens. And how!