From Sochi to Moscow: Last Season’s Film Festivals in Russia

After his election to the Chairman of the Filmmakers’ Union in 1998, Mikhalkov immediately announced his plans to make the Moscow International Film Festival (whose chairman he became automatically with his election) an annual event. Since its first regular run in 1959 (there had been one film festival under Stalin in 1935) MIFF had been a biannual event, held in uneven years (with their notoriously hot summers). The first MIFF held under Mikhalkov’s in 1999 was opened by the then Prime Minister Stepashin, who officially confirmed at the opening ceremony what had been sought after by Mikhalkov: the festival would become an annual event. This year’s MIFF was the first “annual” festival, a fact underlined once more during the opening ceremony in current Prime Minister Kasyanov’s speech. Mikhalkov’s trump card was clearly less the attendance of Hollywood stars, but the presence at the closing ceremony of President Putin and Minister of Culture Shvydkoi (in charge of matters of cinematography since the merger of Goskino with the ministry in the summer) — an unprecedented (at least in recent years) attention from the highest political level. Mikhalkov followed his predecessors in the attempt to invite international film stars to the festival, but these were hampered by the Hollywood stars’ lack of interest in the Moscow IFF, which comes just after Cannes (in May), and before Venice (in August), in the height of the summer (at worst vacation time, at best the peak of the shooting season). This year, Muscovites awaited Quentin Tarantino and Nicole Kidman in vain.

The XXII Moscow Film Festival was directed by Renat Davletyarov and held from 19-29 July 2000. The competition programme of the Moscow International Film Festival is usually not that one would expect in a category A festival. In the past, it often gave the impression that only those films were entered that could not get into the competition of one of the ‘big’ European film festivals like Berlin, Venice, Locarno, or Cannes. But this year’s programme showed a lot of improvement with the inclusion in the competition of films such as Walkow’s Beat, Leconte’s Veuve de Saint Pierre or Zanussi’s Life as a Fatal, Sexually Transmitted Disease. The Russian entry for the competition programme was Vitaly Melnikov’s The Garden was lit by the Moon, a rather conservative film that reflects the policy of Russian directors to give their films rather to the – for Russian films — more prestigious Sochi Film Festival. The jury reflected the high standard of the festival with its president Theo Angelopoulos, and including among others Caroline Ducey, Irvin Kershner, Samira Makhbalbaf, Sergey Soloviev and Bakhtior Khudoinazarov.

Nevertheless, speculations that Zanussi had given his picture into the competition of MIFF only under the condition that he would get the grand prix dominated festival rumours and were confirmed by the outcome of the competition, which awarded the Saint Georg statuette to Zanussi’s picture. The festival still has not managed to get rid of its reputation that the prizes are stitched up beforehand, especially after a long period when it tended to award the main prize to filmmakers who afterwards vanished from the film scene. MIFF also offers a variety of other programmes, often much more interesting and certainly attracting greater public attention than the competition. These were the special screenings of Lungin’s Cannes entry The Wedding and Panfilov’s The Romanovs, shown at the opening ceremony. Panfilov’s long-awaited movie about the life of the tsar’s family and their last weeks before abdication and execution, starring Linda Bellingham and Alexander Galibin, was a bit of a disappointment. By concentrating on the personal (rather than the political) life of the tsar, and by emphasising Nikolai’s paternal feelings, Panfilov willy-nilly suggests that the tsar was unsuited for the job, and thus almost legitimises the forced abdication.

The programme “8 1/2”, named after Fellini’s film that won MIFF in 1963, and scheduled by Peter Shepotinnik, film critic and author of the ‘Kinescope’ programme, has proven to be most popular with critics and the public alike. This year’s programme showed for the first time in Russia Being John Malkovich, Fast Food Fast Women, Topsy Turvy, The Filth and the Fury, Boys don’t Cry, Taboo, France we are Here, Beau Travail and Yellow Submarine and several other films. Other programmes included a retro of the films of the jury president Theo Angelopoulus; a retrospective of Philip Noyce; a special programme of films shot by the director of photography Pavel Lebeshev to mark his 60th anniversary; a programme of the films of the director Anatoly Efros (better known for his work in theatre), who would have been 75 this year; and a retrospective of Boris Barnet.

The most attractive programme for film freaks is the Forum of CIS and Baltic States, which offers a rare opportunity to see films from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kirgyztan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaidjan, and other former Soviet states. This year’s programme included the much talked-about Lithuanian film Else’s Life by Algimantas Puipa, set in the 19th century and the Latvian film Frightful Summer by Aigars Grauba, about the annexation of Latvia. Serik Aprymov (Kazakhstan) presented his splendid new film Three Brothers about three young boys who believe in a story they are told: that a locomotive will take them to the rosy lake. They steal the train and run into a military training exercise. The forum also screened a special programme of films from Uzbekistan, where the studio Uzbekfilm has recently been handed over to Yusup Razykov (director of Orator, and this year’s MIFF entry Women’s Paradise), an extremely talented film-maker who is undertaking the difficult job of boosting Uzbek film production. Surprisingly, none of the round-table discussions mentioned the theme that had moved the film world only weeks before the festival season: the abolition of Goskino, and its merger with the Ministry of Culture, which was announced at the end of May 2000 and had given rise to a series of emergency meetings at the Filmmakers’ Union.

The other festival that usually marks the beginning of the end of the film season for the year is the Sochi Film Festival, with two competitions, an international competition and the Open Russian competition. The international part of the festival has been struggling for years to define itself; it is now slightly separated in time from the Russian festival, with which it used to overlap. The International Festival (7-17 June) is one of debut films (first to fourth film only), a selection principle that will be abandoned in the future, because it does not bring in stars. This is a shame, since the debut competition offers a splendid view of new names in cinema, European and non-European, and this principle could be explored and developed further by including short films as well, which could give the festival a unique shape. Indeed, two films from Sochi can be found in the programme for this year’s London Film Festival (non-competition).

Better known is the Russian Open Festival (1-13 June), which screens all major new films made over the last year in Russian, and thus offers an overview over the entire year’s film production. The jury included Igor Maslennikov (chairman), Sergei Garmash, Yuri Grymov, Lidia Bobrova, Gennadi Ostrovsky, Vladimir Repnikov, Viachaslav Shmyrov. The films in competition were: Alexander Atanesian: 24 Hours; Alexei Balabanov: Brother 2; V&O Basov: Instead of me (Vmesto menia); Albert Minga: The Gates of Eve (Vrata Evy); Roman Kachanov: Demobbed (DMB); Alexei Uchitel: His Wife’s Diary (Dnevnik ego zheny); Vladimir Fokin: House for the Rich (Dom dlia bogatykh); Valeri Akhadov: It is not Recommended to Mistreat Women (Zhenshchin obizhat’ ne rekomenduetsia); Vladimir Menshov: Envy of the Gods (Zavist’ bogov); Egor Konchalovsky: The Recluse (Zatvornik); Ilya Khotinenko: A Person of “French Nationality” (Litso frantsuzskoi natsional’nosti); Bakhtyor Khudoinazarov: Luna Papa; Mikhail Kalatozishvili: Mysteries; Alexander Proshkin: The Captain’s Daughter (Russkii bunt); Alexander Polynnikov: The Cunning Type (Tonkaia shtuchka); Georgi Danelia: Fortuna; Boris Giller: The Cheque; Dmitri Svetozarov: Fourteen Colours of the Rainbow (14 tsvetov radugi).

The Golden Rose went to Bakhtior Khudoinazarov’s Luna Papa and the Grand Prix to Alexei Uchitel’s His Wife’s Diary. Khudoinazarov’s Luna Papa is a fairy story of a girl in search for the father of her unborn child, featuring Chulpan Khamatova and German actor Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run). Alexei Uchitel’s His Wife’s Diary is a film about the Nobel-Prize winning writer Ivan Bunin, starring Andrei Smirnov and Galina Tiunina. Although the film captures the spectator with its plot and the acting, the script calls for criticism in that it elevates Bunin’s wife to heroic status, implying she sacrificed her life for Bunin. Also problematic is the fact that the picture was filmed on the Black Sea, not in southern France (for financial reasons). But here, no film-maker, however talented, can betray. The ill-chosen location spoils the first hour or so, when the spectator tries to figure out when the film is set, why Bunin is in Yalta (rather than Grasse), and indeed why Grasse should be located on the seaside…

Overall, this year’s releases are not of a high standard. One thing that is striking (especially when watching all the films over ten days) is the amount of murders in this year’s release. Personally, I would have pleaded for an award of a ‘Bloody Rose’ (rather than a Golden Rose), for the film with the greatest amount of murders in a maximum variety of ways in which the victims are killed. The films that stood out were Balabanov’s Brother 2 for its parodic treatment of the gangster world; Roman Kachanov’s Demobbed (DMB) for its ironic view of life in the army; Uchitel’s His Wife’s Diary for its choice of subject matter (the life of Ivan Bunin); Egor Konchalovsky’s debut film The Recluse (Zatvornik) for its witty attempt to make a good thriller; Rogozhkin’s Peculiarities of the National Hunt in the Winter for maintaining the high level of comedy established with the first two films of the series; Khudoinazarov’s Luna Papa for a well-made film with a decent plot; and Zeldovich’s Moscow for attempting to transpose conceptualism onto the screen.

My feeling that the state should fund young film-makers rather than old, established directors, was once more confirmed: neither Ryazanov’s Old Hags, nor Danelia’s Fortuna, nor Menshov’s Envy of the Gods are capable of pulling audiences into the cinema. Firstly, these films prove that the directors are incapable of communicating with contemporary audiences; and secondly, they are by no means art-house films, but pretend to be commercial. The same thing could, in fact, be said for Pavel Lungin’s The Wedding, which I consider to be a flop. The carnivalisation of life that he makes the subject of his film has been exploited by Rogozhkin much more successfully in his Peculiarities of the National… than in Lungin’s latest Franco-Russian co-production.

The two films that I would deem the ‘best’ of 1999/2000 are Balabanov’s Brother 2, a sequel to Brother, which takes the killer Danila Bagrov to Chicago, where he bails out his friend’s brother from the ice hockey mafia. Balabanov remains true to his emphasis on the unreal and playful component when transferring a gangster-plot onto the screen, following loosely the Tarantino tradition. The official site offers information on the film and is one of the most exciting sites on new Russian films.

The second film is Alexander Zeldovich’s Moscow, released at the Venice Film Festival.This film is based on a script by Vladimir Sorokin, and stars Tatyana Drubich, Natalya Kolyakanova, Ingeborga Dapkunaite as the ‘three sisters’ who have finally reached Moscow, but the Moscow of the 1990s. One is an alcoholic, the other autistic, and the third a schemer who secures for herself a rich husband, who gets shot on the day of the wedding. But in fact, one of them is their mother, and in the end both sisters marry the one man in their company who survives in the underworld of Moscow. The film displays a total lack of emotional engagement, rather it abstracts and constructs a view of the life of the intelligentsia in Moscow of the 1990s. Moscow‘s website is http://www.welcome.to/moscow_movie.

These two films mark attempts of directors to find a new cinematic language, without following the ‘old’ respected masters of the past too closely in their search. Even if neither film deserves an award as it stands, they are the two most interesting and promising pieces of the season.

I should like to thank ‘Kinotavr’, and Mark Rudinstein, Sergei Lavrentiev, Irina Rubanova and Sitora Alieva personally for their hospitality during the Sochi Film Festival; Svetlana Khokhriakova of the newspaper Kultura for her help during the Moscow Film festival; the University of Bristol and the AHRB for making possible my attendance at these festivals.

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