Film Festivals

RUSSIAN FILM WEEK 2006

By • Oct 22nd, 2006 •

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RUSSIAN FILM WEEK in New York happens every fall since the beginning of this century. FIR thought that I, a Russian filmmaker, might have a particular interest in this event.
Russians used to consider cinema not an entertainment but an art form. Meaning that watching a movie didn’t imply just spending money and time for a two-hour, more-or-less successful break from reality, but being touched and/or changed by more-or-less profound thoughts and emotions. The recent political developments in Russia have made certain alterations in the art-versus-entertainment attitude towards cinema: it’s fast-forwarding in the American direction. So, I was curious to find out what films are considered to be “the cream” of the contemporary Russian movie industry.

TRANSIT (dir. Alexander Rogozhkin), a World War II story, opened the week. I went to see the film with grave feelings of apprehension at having to endure gallons of blood, fashionably utilized graphics of destruction, explosions, torn limbs and lots of weaponry; and to lament a catharsis that I will not experience, based on nearly everything I’ve seen for quite some time now.
To the contrary, I was astonished by the opposite: no close ups of wounds, no mutilated bodies, no glow of guns and an invisible touch of visual images that brings you to a different state of mind.
The film’s story unfolds in a realistic set of 1943, at the transit aerodrome located on the Chukotka Peninsula where a group of American pilots from Alaska ferry “Air Cobra” (P-37) fighter planes across the ocean on “lend-lease”. The military routine is disrupted by the occasional presence of American female pilots. It catalyses the internal drama marked by murder and a love affair, deeds of honor and friendship.
The script (by Alexander Rogozhkin) is infused with irony and sad humor. It reminds me of the prose of Andrey Platonov whose writing unfortunately is not very popular in the US. It evokes nostalgic memories of Russian intelligentsia and times when human values were not measured in units.

The Florence Gould Hall, where the opening night took place, was full of people – dressed up Russians, casual Americans, decorated veterans, celebrities, men with flashing cameras, lovers of festivities and connoisseurs of cinema. Not all of them reached the Cinema Village Theatre on 12th Street where the rest of the week was to unfold.

ELLIPSIS (dir. Andrei Eshpai) is a melodrama set in the 1960s. The main character, Kira Georgievna (Evgenia Simonova – a Best Actress award winner), is a well-known sculptor married to a well-known painter. Her happy life is disturbed by the sudden entry of her first husband, unjustly arrested 25 years ago, sent to a faraway labor camp and presently released. Responding to his love, Kira Georgievna is ready to leave her second husband and move with the first one to a different city. But another sudden entry of the first husband’s girlfriend and son from the faraway place prevents this from happening.

VOICES FROM THE BATHROOM:

1. Hey, that’s where all the people are!
2. It’s way too heavy. I wanted to stay for the next film, but I forgot how Russian films are – too much, too heavy, too tragic. I’m leaving.
3. They mixed so many artistic elements that I lost the line of thought and plot.
4. It’s very beautiful. And I was touched.
5. Is he (Andrei Eshpai) the son of our Eshpai (the composer)?
6. And Simonova (lead) is his wife. He clearly did it for her, so she could shine.
7. She’s getting old. But still plays really well (She deserves an award for this role – FIR).
8. The music was wonderful. Such an elaborate score.
9. Are you on line or just talking?

THE MAN OF NO RETURN (Dir. Ekaterina Grokhovskaya) is shot in the contemporary settings of a provincial town. The multi-layered fabric of the film is woven out of colorful threads of mini-plots concerning the lives of twelve main characters. A military student rebels against following in his father’s footsteps. He makes money by sleeping with a rich older woman, who is the daughter of a retired doctor who used to work in a hospital where a young, paralyzed (from the waist down) girl is brought after poisoning herself. There she meets a young, paralyzed (from the waist down) guy who is beaten up by gay bashers after his attempt to become a whore, following in the footsteps of his classmate, who is the son of a military officer… – You’ve got the picture…?
This is the debut feature from director Grokhovskaya, producer Zadorin, and lead actor Sergei Krapiva – just to name a few.

INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKERS

FIR: Did you have any previous acting experience?
SERGEI KRAPIVA: No. I did modeling. The producer and director saw my face on a billboard and contacted me about a screen test, which I passed. My character has lots of similarities with me, and I am very grateful to Ms. Grokhovskaya and my fellow actors who helped me with techniques to fill in the gaps.
FIR: What do you expect from showing your film in New York?
IGOR ZADORIN (producer): To sell it here.
FIR: Did you contact any distributors?
IZ: No. The film speaks for itself.
FIR: Are you aware of the fact that it’s not commercial?
IZ: Why not? It’s just like CRASH.
FIR: Structurally maybe?
IZ: I have already recouped investments by selling the TV and DVD rights in Russia. I consider this film to be a name-making vehicle for us – myself and director Ekaterina Grokhovskaya. She is also my wife. And as we speak, my team is working on two mega-profitable projects.
FIR: Where did you get the money to begin with?
IZ: I used to have a construction business. My friends, who quadrupled their money in a wink, are laughing at me, but I believe that soon I’ll increase my capital a 100 times while doing what I love.

I checked on what the Russian press were writing about this film. Mainly they were overwhelmed with the return to the big screen of Galina Jovovich (she immigrated to the US in 70s), whose present fame is built up by the success of her daughter, Milla Jovovich (RESIDENT EVIL, RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE).

PLAYING THE VICTIM (Dir. Kirill Serebrennikov) is a dark comedy. The main character, Valya, works with a police to play a crime victim in the reconstructing of events for a crime scene investigation. The absurdity of his job matches the absurdity of the crimes being reconstructed: one man “feels like” dissecting his girlfriend because she didn’t fully respond to his feelings, another one drowns his woman for the same reason, a third one, for no reason at all, shoots his classmate, and finally Valya himself poisons his entire family.

I wasn’t sure if this highly ironic film, saturated-with- cultural-references, could be fully understood by American moviegoers. Not that there were many of them in the house. But I could count two. Let’s ask the one without a press pass.

CONVERSATION IN THE HOUSE

AMERIAN VIEWER: Lots of killings happened in this movie. Though it’s different.
FIR: In which way?
AV: There are different types of killings: no blood. And the violence is not graphic but suggested.
FIR: So, you’d rather see blood and mutilations?
AV: When you don’t see these elements it makes you use your imagination and think. And when you think, you understand the absurdity of killing and violence. In American movies you usually don’t have time to think.
FIR: Did you see any other Russian films?
AV: Yes. I saw POLUMGLA (Dir. Artyom Antonov). It’s a beautifully shot film about World War II. A young wounded Russian officer is building a tower for radio communications in a northern village (Polumgla) with the help of a crew of captured Germans. They develop human relationships, but in the end all the Germans are shot. The film is tragic.
FIR: Any blood?
AV: No blood. Makes you think…

For me, as a Russian, this week was an incredibly unexpected treat. I cried almost all the time. Cried like beluga. (It’s a Russian expression, I don’t know where it came from, and it makes sense to me. Who am I but a smoked sturgeon, taken out of its pond, but preserved enough not to vanish too soon, taken out of my culture, never embraced an American one, suffocating in the smoky sting of linguistic handicap.) I cried over my beautiful childhood, my ceased-to-exist country (the Soviet Union), my native language, enriched with numerous verbal forms. I cried over the stories told.
Most of the films were about love, regardless the genre, time, period or settings. The characters’ actions and motivations were not driven by monetary or power gains, but by love. And the Russian notion of love implies a great deal of sacrifice. So, all the sadness of these cinematic tales comes from loss of everything, devoured by the pagan fire of love.
Once I spoke to Elena Solovei – a great Russian Chekhov actress now residing in the US. She was invited to NYU to lecture on acting Chekhov. And one of the main topics was about the motivations behind the actions of Chekhov’s women she played so well. “They sacrifice themselves for love,” Elena explained. The students couldn’t understand, and the actress didn’t know how to explain it better. And I don’t know why I’m recounting this incident.
The point is whether the great films of Russian Week have a chance to be seen by general American audience or not. Will there be people who’d enjoy them? – Of, course. Will distributors pick them up? – The prospective is less enthusiastic: not commercial, subtitled, etc… Wait, I’m doing it again – finishing in a minor key. America sings in major! So, let’s say I was really lucky to see 9 out of the 12 great “art-house” films presented. And long live Cinema!

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