Contents of Issue#2
[In Focus]

The State of Contemporary Russian Cinema
A Brief Survey by David Gurevich

No one can say television has been skimping on images of Russia lately. Statues of Communists being toppled from pedestals. Yeltsin atop a tank addressing enthusiastic crowds. Yeltsin recovering from surgery. But, unlike in America, East European art, with its tradition of engagément, has traditionally been a better barometer of what is going on in society. This is echoed by the old Russian chestnut, "In Russia, a poet is more than a poet." Change "poet" to "filmmaker", and an absurd hope springs in your chest: perhaps modern films provide a clue to the confusion that is post-Soviet Russia? They make movies, don't they? Remember, there was this Russian guy dragging his daughter onstage during the Oscars last year?

Sergei Bodrov, Jr. and Oleg Menshikov are two Russian solders being held hostage in a Chechen village in Sergei Bodrov's Prisoner of the Mountains (aka The Prisoner of the Caucasus). (Copyright 1996, Orion Pictures)

Well, Tolstoy is not the only Russian writer, and the Bolshoi is not the only Russian dance company--surely there must be other Russian movies besides Nikita Mikhalkov's glossy Burnt by the Sun. What is a typical modern Russian film? Hoping to find an answer, I dropped everything to attend The Museum of Modern Art's recent Film Fest, which featured films made in Russia and in the ex-Soviet republics.

The series purported to present the best, rather than the typical. At least two of the movies--The Moslem and Peculiarities of National Hunt--were nominated for this year's Nikes, the Russian answer to the Oscars. (From the way things work in Russia, I would not be surprised if the athletic-shoe company were indeed one of the sponsors.) If you add a few more pictures from the festival circuit, like The Prisoner of the Caucasus--soon to come out in the US--the forest behind the trees begins to take shape.

When asked about the biggest problem faced by the Russian film industry, most filmmakers--as well as Galina Verevkina, the Russian coordinator of the MOMA show--will say one word: Money. In the old days, this was not an issue: as long as the proposed script was politically (well, ideologically) correct, the Party's checkbook opened wide. In the imperial ideology, Big was Good; Huge was even Better. Thus Sergei Bondarchuk, the Cecil B. De Mille of Soviet movies, could commandeer Army divisions to stage Napoleonic battles for his ten-hour-long War and Peace (recently shown on PBS in its entire jaw-breaking boredom); or Yuri Ozerov could do the same for the WWII in his Liberation of Europe epic. (It seems that, between WWII and the Afghanistan invasion, moviemaking represented the most strenuous form of exercise for the Soviet Army.)

Responding to glasnost, Soviet filmmakers hastily shook dust off the scripts long hidden in their desks and stormed the studios' suddenly amenable Creative Councils. It was in the late '80s that films like Victor Pichul's Little Vera and Sergei Soloviev's Assa broke through, exposing Russian life as it was: in the former, vodka-sodden citizens went for one another's throats at the slightest provocation; in the latter, the hypocrisy of the older generation resisted the change demanded by young hipsters. Other directors rushed to attack the dogmas of recent history; according to one filmmaker I talked to, at least six films were made that featured scenes depicting Stalin's funeral.

And then the Party fell, and its equivalent of the studio system fell along with it. When I visited Mosfilm a few years ago, a walk through its dimly lit catacomb-like corridors, with crumbling walls and rotting odors, was not for the faint-hearted. Nowadays, things are reportedly worse. Right: there is no money. The entire Russian industry is an exaltation of independent producers, who often form companies on the project-by-project basis. According to Ms.Verevkina, the state, represented by Roskino, still can foot up to 80% of the bill; but no producer can do without venture capital from banks or trading companies. If the filmmaker has some international cachet, like Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt by the Sun) or Pavel Lungin (Taxi Blues), a French or a German company will step in to help. While an average Russian film's budget is still not on Hollywood scale, ranging anywhere from $1 to $10 million, it's quite a chunk of money for a country where $300 a month incomes are the rule. No wonder that last year only 24 films were made. This does not cover vanity productions that serve to launder money and typically showcase brand-new millionaires' girlfriends; these seldom get wide distribution. (Now that's a setup I'd dearly love to see on film, with a Russian Steve Buscemi surrounded by Mafiosi in gaudy track suits).

At least Russia has not produced its own Michael Ovitzes, so the budgets are not burdened by the stars' salaries. Although, whipped up by lavish media coverage, screen-idol worship flourishes; not even a fine actress like Inna Churikova (seen here in Adam's Rib) or Oleg Menshikov (the Chekist in Burnt by the Sun) can guarantee box office. And what is box office, anyway? Three years ago, theaters were dominated by the unbeatable combination of Arnold, Jean-Claude, and assorted Hong Kong high kickers. Now the distribution is in a state of decay, the theater owners (read: their former managers) have rented space to Jeep dealerships; video market is barely opening, and foreign sales are the real make-or-break factor. Yet another irony Russia abounds in: an American-owned lushly appointed theater named Kodak has opened in Moscow, complete with Dolby system and buttered popcorn. Why not? The Nikes nominations were announced at the Moscow branch of Planet Hollywood. (Wha? Yep. They got that, too. Next year, Dunkin' Donuts, an establishment eagerly awaited by Moscow's finest.)

from The Moslem
(photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art)

I don't know if Vladimir Khotinenko's The Moslem--the MOMA program's main attraction--will play at Kodak; if it does, the irony will be magnified. Does it go with popcorn? Judge for yourselves: a simple country lad named Kolya is taken prisoner in Afghanistan, converts to Islam, and, after seven years of captivity, returns to his home village. His readjustment is anything but peaceful. He prays to the Allah, he refuses to cross himself or to get drunk or steal or fornicate: in short, he is a major thorn in the hide of the villagers, including his own brother, a stone drunk and an ex-con. Even his long-suffering loving mother suggests that, perhaps, he should leave, for there will be no peace for him here.

The director loads the deck to the full with shots of Evgeny Mironov's (who plays Kolya) pure Russian features, ovine blue eyes and flaxen hair, under his kaffiyah; of a lonely figure kneeling on a prayer rug in the middle of an oh-so-bucolic Russian meadow; of the mugs of fellow villagers frozen in vodka stupor; of their pseudo-democratic leader carrying wads of dollars in a sleek briefcase. There is nothing complicated about this competently shot piece of social criticism; at least, not until an Afghan war buddy shows up to settle the score for the six soldiers who died while trying to rescue Kolya from captivity. The film is a well-intended clarion call for religious tolerance and moral rebirth, as serious and urgent as an Op-Ed piece. Yet, though this film falls neatly into the tradition of engagé art, the Russian village, with all its mud and misery and vicious gossip, is palpably, breathtakingly real, which gives the film an emotional, if not intellectual, depth.

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