20 years under Putin: a timeline

The 11th annual NYC Russian Film Week took place in Manhattan from October 28 to November 3, 2011. Caterina Innocente discussed the new Russian cinema, the kind you watch without pop-corn.


The festival’s curator, Katie Metcalfe, and Slava Ross, the director of Siberia, Mounamour


As Russian-American journalist Vladimir Pozner pointed out in a review on the Week's official page: "Russia currently produces a large number of films categorized as entertainment. These movies are often called “artistic,” but that is misleading since they are anything but artistic in content or form.”

“Luckily," he reassures New York filmlgoers, "these are not the kind of movies being shown to you this week.”

The festival’s curator, Katie Metcalfe of Future Shorts, chose Slava Ross' second feature film Siberia, Monamour to open the event. 45-year-old Ross graduated from the Russian State University of Cinematography and, upon graduation, was included in the Presidential Directory of the country's intellectual and artistic resources.

"After I watched the first few films submitted for consideration, I was astounded by the dynamic landscape of Russian filmmaking today," Metcalfe said. "Yes, the country is intriguing; yes, there is an element of wrestling with the past, the present and the future, but the effect that it has on the artistic expression – in this case filmmaking – blew me away with their [sic] deep socio-political narratives at a world class standard."



Vladimir Pozner didn't lie about the kind of films brought to Manhattan this year: Russian New Yorkers seen walking out of the legendary Village East Cinema on opening night were visibly shaken, angry, astounded, and even teary-eyed, but in no way indifferent to or disappointed with what they just watched.

"Mercy is higher than justice," quietly explained Ross to the audience in a discussion after the screening. "I encountered this phrase while looking through old Orthodox prayers after the script was already completed. At that instant I realized it was the film's main theme."

"This is a movie about faith that is lost, and about how it desperately needs to be brought back,” reiterates actress Lidya Bayrashevskaya who played the role of Anna. “Our country is facing a crisis. First and foremost, a spiritual kind of crisis – a crisis of basic values essential to any society, country, and to the world at large. This film represents a search for answers," adds Pavel Skurikhin, one of the film's producers.


© Siberia, Monamour


The plot of Siberia, Monamour is based on a short story that Ross wrote years ago. It then took him another ten years to make it into a movie. Being a native Siberian and having lived there for most of his life, Ross is no stranger to the hardships depicted in the film.

Siberia, Monamour is the story of 7-year-old Lyoshka and his grandfather Ivan, the only inhabitants of a now-abandoned village; of "uncle" Yura, eaten alive in the taiga by feral dogs, of his wife Anna, and their 2 daughters; and of a captain, who experienced shell-shock during the Chechen war and who had been sent to the nearest town to pick up a whore for his "bon vivant" lieutenant. It is also the story of that young prostitute Lyuba, who turns out to be less of a prostitute and more of a victim of constant sexual abuse by almost every man she encounters. It is the story of pillagers wandering around abandoned villages in search of old icons, and the story of two oddly misplaced North Caucasians managing a local dive bar in the middle of the Siberian backwoods. In Ross' opinion, every single story told in his film is a story about the two sides of the human spirit — about its nobility and its lowliness.

The stories in the film unfold in a world "permeated by harsh cynicism, one in which – just like after a nuclear disaster – only the simplest manage to survive, like bacteria or those that only understand blood and $$," Moscow journalist Alexander Garros wrote in a column just a few days ago. But people aren't degraded to that primal state so easily, even when they try hard to achieve it. It is not surprising, then, that an underlying nostalgia for normality continues to live on deep in the souls of Ross' characters. They live the kind of life that, in director's words, "doesn't give them the chance to remain human, while contrary to all logic and their life experience, they manage find the strength to be merciful."

At least some of them do.

Watching Siberia, Monamour is almost physically painful: it is too hard to comprehend that people – our compatriots, our fellow citizens, damn it! – actually live under such conditions, while their oil is being pumped from their land by a government, one that is more than ever unconcerned with their existence. In the film, a gigantic hammer and sickle strategically placed by the side of the highway is the only reminder of a theoretical government supposedly representing the inhabitants of this land in far-away Moscow. How then, can Russians still somehow consider themselves a great nation? Inertia, I wonder?

The characters in Ross' movie – and not only those populating the screen but also the real, flesh and blood Siberians – dispersed along the fringes of the "energy empire" (the Kremlin’s newly-coined expression) act much like hungry feral dogs inhabiting the same land as humans. What are these people supposed to do then, to survive?

"Save our grandchildren," says Piotr Zaychenko who plays the character of grandfather Ivan. "If we don't save our grandchildren, the country will simply cease to exist." The audiences may remember Zaychenko from his role in Pavel Lungin's 1990 award-winning hit Taxi Blues.

"If you want to survive, you must act," Ross is convinced. "It's like playwriting: your characters, they must act. And so should you. When one acts upon things, one finds the inner strength to carry out the action. It is then that both hope and love appear on the horizon. That is why I consider this movie a gift I was given."

"The director used the film to address several painful subjects related to contemporary Russia — a country without laws, morals, or a functional state, populated by a nation drenched in despair and doomed for self-destruction. In fact, the film astounded me with its symbolism: scenes of feral dogs devouring human beings contrasted with cannibals dressed in military uniforms. This was the most memorable of all the cinematic symbols in the film,” explained Pavel Ivlev, Institute of Modern Russia's executive director. "Ross chose not to use the now common ending for new Russian films in which everybody dies, an ending which could have fit quite logically into Siberia’s hopeless imagery. Instead, Ross wrapped his talented chernukha (a particularly dark cinematic representation of reality) up with an unexpected happy ending: the arguably-positive officer, soldier and prostitute save little Lyoshka and his grandfather and together depart into nothingness, their stolen army SUV dissecting the Siberian night with its high beams."

In part, Siberia, Monamour answers the eternal Russian question: "What is to be done?" Shoot the cannibals, the director suggests. Both the dogs and the human ones. "Agreed. But then what? Where do we go after that?", Ivlev continues.

The director leaves this question unanswered, but, the way I see it, we should be grateful to this movie for bringing up such tantalizing questions and prompting us to find our own answers.

Luc Besson, the cult French director, bought the film’s international distribution rights for the next 20 years. He also participated in polishing the film's final cut by editing out ten minutes of it, two of which Ross re-instated, including a very Russian scene of the captain sliding down the children's slide. It is not at all surprising that Besson's distribution company made such a statement in buying the rights, this kind of cinematography does deserve the trust and investments of professionals. Despite of this level of foreign trust and investment in Ross’ Russian-made film, Russian moviegoers will see no more than 50 copies of the film being distributed in Russia (that is, in a country of 143 million people, with 2.500 top-notch, newly built digital movie theaters, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of the old theaters).



"Russia, no doubt, is a cinematographic empire, along with the United States, France…[an awkward pause] and some other countries, too…," said Pozner in his video address. To me, that sounds unconvincing. "Our cinematographic empire did go through a variety of good and bad times: there an era of good movies, an era of great movies, an era of propaganda movies, too… and then there was an era of no movies."

"Today, the Russian Diaspora consists of over 30 million people living outside of the former Soviet Union," says Givi Topchishvili, President and CEO of Global Advertising Strategies, one of the Film Week's organizers. "They may have adopted a lifestyle much different from how people lived in the Soviet Union, but the way they view life, their values, their artistic appreciation has been undoubtedly shaped by the Soviet culture, which includes classic Russian cinema." Now, that's true.

Katie Metcalfe's choice of feature films, including Oleg Flyangolts' stylized black and white Indifference depicting the 60s, Vladimir Kott's endearing Gromezeka depicting the 70s, award-winning Brooklynite Dmitry Povolotsky's funny semi-autobiographical My Father is Baryshnikov, Eldar Salavatov's PiraMMMida depicting the 90s, and St. Petersbburg's Avdotya Smirnova's Two Days with Fedor Bondarchuk and Ksenia Rappoport depicting the current decade, give us hope that quality movie-making, with films that are deep, real, artsy, and, most importantly, Russian to the bone, may be making a comeback.

I am not sure if this can be called a Renaissance of the Russian cinema: Renaissance is a big word, and for such an immense country it would presume not just one, two, or even ten stimulating movies per year. Yet, as a filmgoer, I enjoyed seeing Lyoshka, his grandfather, Luba, and the captain driving away towards a better future, leaving me hoping, that this might also be the bright future of Russian cinematography.