A Year of Living Dangerously

By James Norton

live-and-remember-aleksandr-proshkin.jpgLive and Remember, 2008

A newly aggressive Russia is on the move again, as many over the past year have found to their cost. Despite the cut-throat capitalism now prevailing, the current regime have not forgotten Lenin’s dictum “the cinema is the most important of all the arts”. The Russian state is still the country’s biggest investor in film production, and the Ministry of Culture has given substantial support to the Second Russian Film Festival, to be held in London, which runs from September 18 - 29 at the Apollo West End Cinema, Lower Regent Street, showcase for a well-chosen selection of arthouse gems and superb examples of genre cinema from sci-fi to thriller and psychological drama.

The past year has been a triumphant one for a resurgent Russian film industry buoyed up by the nation’s expansive mood. The poetic, experimental strand for which Russian cinema was so celebrated in Soviet times has survived in the contrasting but also adverse circumstances prevailing today. The highlight of last year’s festival was Euphoria, a rhapsodic tragedy of forbidden love and vengeance, played out on the stunning, epic sweep of the southern steppe and the river Volga, as gorgeous and elemental as the classics of Dovzhenko.

Euphoria was the debut film of its director Ivan Vyrypaev and many of the films in this year’s festival are also debuts, tribute to a creative renewal in Russian cinema. One remarkable phenomenon is that of the dynastic continuity of cinematic talent. Wild Field, in this year’s festival, marks the debut of Mikhail Kalatozishvili, grandson of the Georgian-born Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov, responsible for classics such as The Cranes are Flying and I am Cuba. Alexei German Jr. has just won two prizes at the Venice film Festival for Paper Soldier, which dramatises the heady atmosphere of the early Soviet space programme. Both Paper Soldier and Wild Field are set on the bleak steppes of Kazakhstan, as indeed is Tulpan, the fiction debut of the bleak and minimalist documentary master Sergei Dvortsevoy, which won the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes and which will be shown at the forthcoming London Film Festival. All Borat’s children… Alexei German senior, one of the most brilliant and least prolific of all Russian directors, is the subject of a documentary in the festival, A Melody for German and is currently completing his first feature in ten years, Hard to be a God, based on a science fiction novel by the Strugatsky brothers (originators of Tarkovsky’s Stalker), which according to preview screenings in Moscow has all the magnificent complexity of his masterpieces Kroustaliov, My Car! and My Friend Ivan Lapshin. There is also the tragic example of Sergei Bodrov Jr. who, having become a major young star in his father’s film Prisoner of the Caucasus was killed along with many of his crew by a landslide in North Ossetia while shooting his second film as director. Sergei Bodrov Sr. meanwhile is represented in the festival by the surprising follow up to his epic blockbuster Mongol, a documentary on magnificently grotesque British cabaret band The Tiger Lillies entitled Drunken Sailor.

tiger-lilies-band.jpgThe Tiger Lillies

As with other areas of Russian life, the state is now tightening its grip on the film industry and increasing its control of film studios. The Ministry of Culture actively invests in “patriotic” films and the FSB security service even has a fund devoted to their production, although the resulting films are mostly crass and derivative action pictures and historical war films. Putin’s chief cinematic cheerleader is Nikita Mikhalkov, who last year made a documentary celebrating Putin’s 55th birthday and publicly called for the president to remain in office. Mikhalkov is best known for Burnt by the Sun, his dramatisation of a family idyll destroyed by Stalinist oppression, and is currently shooting a sequel, personally endorsed by Putin and the most expensive film in Russian history. Mikhalkov’s latest film 12 is showing at the festival, a remake of Twelve Angry Men in which a Chechen boy is accused of murdering his stepfather, a Russian army officer.

The war film is a genre that remains dismaying topical and the most popular of all with Russian audiences and directors. The 9th Company, released here last year, and made once again by the son of a great Russian director, Fyodor Bondarchuk, whose father Sergei made the epic War and Peace, was the most successful Russian film of all time, and much admired by Putin. The film recounts a bloody battle between the Russians and Afghan Mujahideen towards the end of the Soviet occupation and movingly portrays the plight of the rank and file, although altering the historical record to enhance their status as victims. Cargo 200, perhaps the most powerful Russian film of the past year, was also set in the context of the Afghan war, the title a code for shipments of dead soldiers flown back to Russia. Director Alexei Balabanov was already well known for his dark pornographic vision in Of Freaks and Men and the gritty thriller Brother. This real-life horror film deals with a serial killer in the squalid Russian provinces of 1984 and culminates in the nightmare vision of an abducted teenager raped while tied to the rotting corpse of her soldier fiancé. But its cast of corrupt policemen, backwoods distillers, teens in peril and clapped-out intellectuals also makes the film, set on the eve of the Gorbachev era, a vicious satire against the nostalgic vision of the Soviet era as better than the present. The film aroused considerable controversy at home and its distribution was heavily restricted.

The last golden age of Russian cinema flourished, oddly enough, under the ‘stagnation’ of the Brezhnev era in the 1960s and 70s, with a flowering of fresh and original early work by directors such as Klimov, Konchalovsky, Muratova and Tarkovsky, the greatest of them all, still clearly imitated in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s intriguing The Banishment. Now, with Russia at its most stable and repressive since the Brezhnev years, and with the world reaping the whirlwind of Brezhnev’s invasion of Afghanistan, Russian cinema is at its strongest since that time. Its one enduring star auteur is Alexander Sokurov, whose prolific 25-year career has continued with the recent release of Alexandra, his immensely moving comment on the atrocious war in Chechnya, about which Russian filmmakers have remained at best ambivalent. An old woman, played by operatic diva Galina Vishnevskaya, wanders around a brutal and Spartan army camp, filmed at a real camp in Chechnya in dangerous conditions, visiting her army officer grandson and sharing the sorrows of her Chechen counterparts in the neighbouring town while the futile war grinds away offscreen.

sergey-garmash.jpgSergey Garmash

With feature directors either compromised by the state or their own patriotic allegiances, it has been left to journalists and artists to reveal an alternative picture of the dangerous new Russia. Last year, the AES&F group stunned the art world with their hyper-real and ultraviolent video installation Last Riot in which statuesque youths played by Bolshoi dancers armed with samurai swords and baseball bats engage in a digital whirl of deadly combat in an apocalyptic CGI landscape of crashing trains and airliners, mountain peaks, radioactive deserts and launching missiles to a thunderous Wagner score. The effect is overwhelming, both a monstrous fascistic kitsch fantasia and a crystal clear depiction of the hallucinatory chaos of war, multimedia and desperation that is our experience of the world today.

Given the current circumstances, oppositional filmmaking in Russia is all too rare, and films critical of the regime are more likely to come from abroad, such as Jean-Michel Carre’s recent feature length documentary The Putin System. A crucial exception is Andrei Nekrasov’s Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case, a brilliant and terrifying exposé of the rampant corruption of the Russian secret services for whom Litvinenko worked. The film airs Litvinenko’s allegations that Putin was involved in embezzling aid money while a political boss in St. Petersburg and that the FSB security service was behind the 1999 Moscow apartment block bombings which sparked war with Chechnya. With remarkable interviews and archive footage, it documents the growing influence of the FSB in the new Russia and shows that when Litvinenko and other agents were asked to become involved in extortion, selling state secrets and assassinations that they rebelled and went public. The agent’s subsequent murder, argues Nekrasov, was the defining image of Putin’s true nature.

James Norton is a researcher and producer working in arts television in London.