17th Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival Sochi
Ron Holloway, Berlin, 20 June 2006
Credit the convertible ruble (effective 1 July 2006) to partially making the 17th Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival in Sochi (4-12 June 2006) under managing director Alexander Rodyansky a truly watershed event. For Sochi 2006 not only marked the end of an era of stagnation in Russian cinematography, but it also heralded the birth of a dynamic new art film that is currently capturing the attention of film professionals the world over. Let the facts speak for themselves. Sochi 2006 was a $3 million festival event, whose importance exceeded that of the other two June-scheduled Russian festivals: the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) and St. Petersburg Festival of Festivals. Spectators could watch the cream of Russian film production with new state-of-the-art projection equipment installed in the Winter Palace. And invited guests resided in plush five-star hotels overlooking beach restaurants on the Black Sea. Indeed, Sochi the “Russian Riviera” is a must for cineastes on the festival calendar.
Circa 1500 guests 250 representing 15 TV channels and 200 periodicals attended this year’s blowout to celebrate, for the first time in two decades, the victory of Russian cinema over American movies at on the home box front. Indeed, 2005 was a genuine breakthrough year on the home market. The collective take at 1036 venues ranged in the neighborhood of $350 million, of which $101 million could be accredited to two Russian blockbuster features alone: Timur Bekmambetov’s science-fiction Nightwatch / Daywatch epic bagged $24 million in 2005, while Fyodor Bondarchuk’s patriotic war drama The Ninth Company is predicted to pass that figure by mid-2006. This “goldrush” mentality prompted Sochi festival head Alexander Rodyansky to invite key representatives of the “Club of European Producers” to Sochi for a two-day seminar. The upshot? An announcement was made to the effect that Russian producers in the future no longer feel the need to rely on European coproduction partners for a place in the festival sun. They will now go this thorny path alone.
Altogether 70 feature films and 130 shorts were sent for consideration to the Sochi festival, from which 120 were screened at three venues. An announcement was made that, following the festival, the award winners would be presented at key cities across Russia and the Ukraine: St. Petersburg, Kiev, Ekaterinburg, Perm, Samara, and Tomsk. The Competition numbered 15 feature films, plus another 32 in the Kinotavr Shorts showcase. As for the attractive sidebars, these included “Russian Euphoria” (6 films curated by critic Andrei Plakhov), “Cinema on the Square” (10 films programmed as outdoor screenings on the square before the Winter Palace, “Special Screenings” (6 reconstructed and restored Russian masterpieces), “In the Mirror of the Document” (17 new documentaries selected by critic Rita Chernenko), “1990s The Cinema That We Lost” (9 reevaluated film curated by critic Larisa Malyukova), “The Beginnings of the Leningrad School” (4 films programmed by historian Alexander Shpagin), “Festival Winners” (8 awarded films at key international film festival programmed by Sitora Alieva), and “9 Palms” (previous Cannes Golden Palm winners selected by critic Sergei Lavrentiev.
Altogether, 70 feature films and 130 shorts were sent for consideration. The festival opened with an out-of-competition screening of Pavel Lungin’s Ostrov (The Island), a World War Two expiation tale about a man who owes his life to monks living in isolation on an island. The top award went to Kirill Serebrennikov’s Izobrazhaya zhertvu (Playing the Victim), a screen adaptation of a popular stage play by the brothers Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov, that leans heavily on comic antics to reconstruct crimes for fumbling criminal investigators by paying needy bystanders to “play the victims” before a running video-camera. Kirill Serebrennikov also received a share of the “White Elephant Award” by Russian critics. The other half went to Boris Khlebnikov’s Svobodnoye plavaniye (Free Floating), its director also singled out for Best Director by the festival jury. Free Floating, an absurdist tale set in a provincial town on the Volga, follows a young man in pursuit of a job, any job, in an environment where work is almost synonymous with lethargy.
Visiting festival directors and foreign critics praised the Competition in the 17th Kinotavr Open Russian festival as the best in recent memory. Among those sure to receive festival invitations were films that also received a boost from the Russian jury. In Alexei Balabanov’s light comedy Mne ne bolno (It Doesn’t Hurt) a trio of would-be designers fresh out of school find work by pulling the wool over the eyes of the nouveau riche. Their antics won Best Actor and Actress awards for Alexander Yatsenko and Renata Litvinova, both of whom are talents to keep an eye on in the future. The same goes for popular young actor Andrei Chadov in Alexander Veledinsky’s Zhivoy (Alive). He plays an war-injured soldier returning home from Chechnya to find that a “normal life” has already beyond his grasp. Unable to understand why he is still alive while his two best friends are dead, he enters upon a give-and-take dialogue with their ghosts as he wanders aimlessly around in search of a way to redeem himself.
The award for Best Debut went to Avdotia Smirnova for Svyaz (Relations). A poignant story about an extra-marital relationship between a woman from St. Petersburg (Anna Mikhalkova, Nikita Mikhalkov’s daughter) and a man from Moscow (Mikhail Porechenkov), both professional people with family obligations who meet by chance and fall in love. Thereafter, they seek ways to meet each other on the sly in hopes that their mutual deception will not be discovered, although both sense that, in the end, their game plan will lead to naught. “Dunya” Smirnova, an accomplished journalist and talented scriptwriter for features and documentaries, has crafted a sophisticated psychological drama rich in nuances and surprising twists. Another debut feature, Yury Moroz’s Tochka (The Spot), exposes the soft underbelly of the prostitute trade in Moscow and other big cities. As much documentary as it is fiction, the focus is on girls working the “spot” on street-corners and alleys, girls who consider themselves lucky if they an elude the grasps of brutal pimps and crooked cops on the beat.
The Russian taste for the philosophical parable was present in Konstantin Loposhanky’s Gadkye lebedy (The Ugly Swans), a science-fiction tale set at a boarding school in a kind of ghost town that’s inhabited by children with extra-sensory powers. This human mutants, referred to as “ugly swans” in the film, are the subject of an investigation by a writer who hopes to find the key to the aberration. With good reason: he has a child of his own in the school. The Ugly Swans received the Tariverdiev Prize for Best Film Music by Andrei Sigle. Another mystical tale that drew some critical prize was Sergei Karandashov’s debut feature Strannik (The Wanderer). The story begins when a sensitive young man, Fyodor (Vitaly Pichnik), witnesses an accident in which his loved ones perish. Believing that he has survived for a reason, he retreats to a forest to live the life of a hermit. There he is joined by an orthodox monk who seeks to show the “wanderer” the way to God, but when he too loses his life in a freak accident, Fyodor is left on his own again. Returning to the real world to end his life, he only to be halted in his tracks by witnessing a miracle and experiencing a revelation. As parables go, The Wanderer is worth noting for its reliance on images rather than words to tell the story.
Two other Russian feature films stood out as ripe festival entries and possible winners for the international circuit. Ivan Vyrypaev’s Euforiya (Euphoria), awarded a Special Jury Prize for Visual Imagery at Sochi although it was clearly the best film at the festival, introduces a talented writer-dramatist-actor with a poetic chronicle of a passionate love affair on an isolated farm that ends in tragedy. Euphoria, reportedly headed for the Venice festival, reminds this writer of James Agee’s 1936 account of the plight of American share-croppers during the Depression in his “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” classic with its stunning portfolio of photos by Walker Evans. Alexander Rogozhkin’s Peregon (Transit), selected to compete at the upcoming Karlovy Vary festival, is a warming tale of Soviets and Americans cooperating with each other in 1942 at Chukotka on the Pacific coast at the height of the Second World War. Short of aircraft, the Soviet Union had to commission lend-lease fighter planes from the USA, which were then flown from Alaska to Siberia at regular intervals by American woman pilots (a half-truth, to say the least). Of course, in this fictional version, a romance develops between a Russian and an American that leads to naught. Still, this display of old Yank fighter planes is a real eye-catcher and enough to hold the flimsy story together from start to finish.
During a conversation with Russian actress Olga Bodina at the Sochi festival, we talked first about her brief absence from stage and screen to have a baby. Then I ventured into unsure ground by asking how it felt to play Nadya Alliluyeva Stalin, the dictator’s second wife, in a forthcoming TV drama with the working title Josef and Nadya. “It wasn’t too difficult,” she immediately responded. “After all, I am exactly the same age as she was when she committed suicide in November of 1932 at the age of 31.” Asked if she had researched the background of both Nadya Alliluyeva and Josef Stalin, particularly their age difference of 22 years, she said that she had read several books on the subject in an attempt to fathom why a young wife with two children would impulsively chose suicide to put an end to a rather passionate yet tumultuous relationship. “Wait until the film is released,” Olga said, closing the conversation. “Then we’ll see whether or not I succeeded.”
Best Debut Film
Best Screenplay (Gorin Prize)
Special Jury Prize for Visual Imagery
Best Film Music (Tariverdiev Prize)
Best Short Film
Russian Critics “White Elephant” Award (ex aequo)