Cinema as Salvage Operation: Brother (Aleksei Balabanov, 1997)

One of the “accursed questions” of Russian cinema, at least from the early Soviet period, has been: how to do a lot with a little? Soviet cinema, in particular, was torn between the desire to make films at the most advanced technical and artistic level – indeed, to “catch up to and overtake” the US in this regard – and the reality of (relative) poverty. Hopes of closing the gap found expression not only in famous plans, dating as far back as 1924, to create a “Soviet Hollywood” on the Black Sea, but also in enormous amounts of do-it-yourself innovation within the film studios, whose administrators eventually began, as directed by the state authorities overseeing the film industry, to encourage and exchange the novelties and solutions – lens attachments, mechanisms to move cameras around, filters and much more – that their DIY tinkerers came up with.1 (I suspect that Aleksei Balabanov, whose dad was chief editor of the film studio in Sverdlovsk [today Ekaterinburg], probably imbibed some knowledge of these workarounds early on, by osmosis if not directly.)

In a less obvious way, the problem became a major subject of Soviet film as well, detectable in works – as varied as Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929), the late extravaganzas of Mikhail Kalatozov, and even Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966; think of the bell-forging scene) – that either make the task of innovating-despite-impoverishment a theme of the film, or absorb it on the level of style.

Brother

Aleksei Balabanov

To be sure, the post-Soviet 1990s, during the early phase of which the existing systems of film production and distribution collapsed almost entirely, saw the resurgence of the same problem in new forms. Balabanov was one of 13 signatories of a 1996 statement proposing a set of rules for filmmakers who were intent on making small-budget films without state assistance (hardly forthcoming in those years in any case): a shooting schedule limited to two or three weeks; filming exclusively on streets, in courtyards and in the apartments of friends and relatives; crews working gratis, with payment contingent upon any profit the film might make. (Cinephiles will recall the anti-big-budget “Vow of Chastity” enunciated a year earlier by the Danish Dogme 95 movement, headed up by Lars von Trier – a director comparable to Balabanov in more than one way.)

Out of necessity as much as any desire to escape dependence on the state, Brother, Balabanov’s third feature, was made rigorously in accord with these rules.2 The film was shot in the apartments of Balabanov and his acquaintances, and amid the glorious decrepitude of mid-1990s St. Petersburg; almost everyone, including the famous singer Vyacheslav Butusov (an old friend of Balabanov’s, luckily enough), worked for free or for peanuts; actors provided most of their own costumes; costume designer Nadezhda Vasilieva (Balabanov’s wife) found Danila Bagrov’s famous sweater in a flea market; cinematographer Sergei Astakhov was recruited to play the trucker in the final scene (a country boy from the Mordovian ASSR, he was the only one on the crew licensed to drive a big rig); and the whole film was captured on Kodak stock left behind from the shoot of Bernard Rose’s big-budget (and mediocre) Anna Karenina adaptation (1997; starring Sophie Marceau). The investment paid off, even financially: after its premieres at Cannes (in the Un certain regard section) and at Kinotavr in Sochi in May and June of 1997, Brother began to do enormous business on VHS – probably the format in which most Russians initially encountered the film.3

Brother opens with a scene of filmmaking; and that rather elaborate starting-point, along with other references to movies (especially to “directors,” not much loved by Danila; and to video clips, not always of the desired quality) suggests that we might think of the film not only as a highly creative response to a specific (impoverished) production context, but as actually about (among other things) that context and that response. We see a well-equipped and prolifically staffed crew, replete with bodyguards, joylessly filming a commercial music video, only to be interrupted by local boy Danila rising out of the swamp like Turgenev’s Bazarov. The film’s true antagonism – between Danila and “the director” (first incarnated by Sergei Debizhev, a real director of music videos and good friend of Balabanov) – is established here; and for the rest of the film, we can regard Danila as both counter-director and counter-audience, the figure whose attitudes and activities advocate for the kind of creative practice Balabanov is engaged in, and the kind of reception he’s looking for. If Balabanov plunges us into a ruined world wracked by violence, he also shows that this world contains all kinds of unexpected (cinematic) resources that can be salvaged if you’ve got the know-how, and a strong stomach.

Roles for both audiences and artists are proposed and endorsed clearly enough in a couple of the film’s musical scenes, starting with the video production – destined to be a glamorous advertisement for the tune, of course. Our Danila barges in to demonstrate that for an everyday Russian audience, even of the younger generation, the music carries its own charge, its own attraction, independently of any elaborate spectacles constructed to sell it (and which Danila conspicuously ignores). Balabanov confirms his claim later, in the remarkably moving central section (very different from indications in the script, incidentally) when together with Danila we simply watch Russian rock artists entertaining one another, “unplugged”.  No need for any fancy video: just train the camera on these talented people and the magic will happen. This haunting sequence is shot with real love – Balabanov’s very first amateur films, never publicly screened to my knowledge, were on-the-fly documentaries of his beloved local bands in Sverdlovsk – and is regrettably unseen by Styopa, the professional director waiting for Danila downstairs….

The contrary, dismissive view of (Russian) audiences is best expressed through the actions and remarks of Victor Bagrov, by far the most cynical “director” in the film. Note that Victor not only lies in order to get his brother Danila to commit and catch the heat for the murder of the “Chechen”: he also lures Danila into the crime by pushing all the right nationalist buttons, acting on the belief that his recently demobilised younger brother is also a stereotypically bigoted village idiot from deepest Russia (which, on a fundamental level, Danila certainly is). Yet it turns out that this native material, unpromising though it might seem, has far more resilience and imagination than the urban professional and profoundly exploitative Victor assumes. It is in this sense, I think, that the film is at once anti-capitalist, philosophically conservative and (a somewhat different matter) deeply anti-Soviet. Neither audiences for the film nor its real-world sources need to be better, or made better, than they are: warts and all, they already have what it takes to create and appreciate strong and compelling cinematic tales. (This would include a properly trashy taste for crime films, known even in the Soviet period via such pop imports as the beloved Fantômas movies from the 1960s, starring Jean Marais.) The older transformative or humanist-reformist ambitions of Soviet cinema are not only gone, but are actively rejected; and the only pedagogy here involves teaching filmmakers (especially Hollywood-oriented filmmakers) a new way of thinking and working. Indeed, in the film’s central scene, we see Danila attempting to educate the director Styopa, to get him to trust his fearsome audience, without demanding that the audience give up any of its fearsomeness.

Brother

Then there’s the question of Danila’s production crew. Danila finds help not among professionals (be they gangsters or filmmakers), but among the most down and out, who nonetheless bring along a certain wisdom and a certain culture (“you’re a smart guy, German”): their habitat, after all, is the Smolensky Lutheran Cemetery, burial site of such luminaries as the mathematician Euler, the chemist Hess, the diplomat Nesselrode and (since 2013) the film director Aleksei Balabanov. These are the kinds of people, Balabanov seems to say, that you need in order to get a film made (and note Hofmann’s rejection of the money at the end). To be sure, certain associates are lost along the way: the outsourcing Victor, who shows no faith in the people and has to be sent back to the village; Kat, who rejects Russian music and embraces money and McDonalds; and perhaps Sveta as well, who helps by bringing along a certain “social subsidy” (the tram) from the Soviet era, but is also iconographically a Soviet-type female “tractor driver” and therefore must, along with that entire legacy, be rejected.4

The most overt instances of DIY practice in the film pertain, of course, to (death-dealing) technology. In both script and film, the director devotes loving, detailed sections to Danila’s low-tech souping-up of borrowed or stolen old weaponry – Balabanov’s only claim to fame in Sverdlovsk, he said, was his ability to make bombs using Soviet chemistry sets – and then proceeds to show how this homemade firepower can be used as the basis for disturbingly intense sequences of gangsterly mayhem. The pricy “barrel” [pistol] that Victor tries to peddle to Danila proves not only superfluous, but the very sign of that easy reliance on technology that the film declares to be (cinematically) ineffective. We might link this celebration of the artisanal to one of Balabanov’s most explicit denunciations of his own profession, which contains a secret desideratum:

Cinema’s in no way an art! What sort of art? It’s not even close to art. Painting’s an art; music’s an art. What a person can do on his own, or can make without any help, without any means – just sit down and write – now that’s art. But in cinema one’s dependent on other people, on money, on all sorts of things.

Might Danila Bagrov, carefully pouring his buckshot and taping up his soda bottle “without any means,” be not a new Robin Hood (as is often said) but rather Balabanov’s exemplary and independent artist-auteur – working in familiar conditions of poverty, but no longer under communism?

Endnotes

  1. As shown by the film scholar Irina Tcherneva, http://www.cercec.fr/irina-tcherneva.html.
  2. Although it did receive some amount of state help, as evidenced by the acknowledgement at the beginning of the credits.
  3. Much of my information on the film comes from http://vozduh.afisha.ru/cinema/aleksey-balabanov-kak-delalsya-brat/; this work was also published in a major scholarly book on Balabanov in 2013. I’ve also referred to the interviews at http://alekseybalabanov.ru/.
  4. On “social subsidy,” see Tony Wood, http://newleftreview.org/II/74/tony-wood-collapse-as-crucible.

About The Author

John Mackay is professor of Film & Media Studies and Slavic Literatures & Languages at Yale University.