Thursday, 5 July 2012

Is there hope for Russia?

For Moni

To the Royal Castle today for a talk about contemporary Polish and Russian cinematography, led by Gazeta Wyborcza's Tadeusz Sobolewski, and Russian movie critic, Irina Rubanova. The meeting was part of a series promoted by the Ministry of Culture and the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding. The two pundits agreed that movie-making in both countries was better in the communist days. Mr Sobolewski touched on the important influence of the Afghan War (1980-1989) on Russian movie-making, which, for the USSR started and finisheda decade and half after the US involvement in Vietnam, and had similar social fall-out. Polish cinema, he said, had no Afghanistan or Vietnam hanging over it. Poland's cinema industry may churn out drivel like Kac Wawa or Wyjazd integracyjny, but it does make 50-60 films a year and they do attract a reasonable, though undemanding, audience.

Russian audiences used to love Polish films in the old days, said Ms Rubanova; today's generation of cinema goers, however, are largely ignorant of the works of Wajda and the other great Polish directors. Russia currently makes fewer films than Poland does, she said, speaking of the huge wall of money on hand to make state-sponsored films - some €1.25 billion a year. Yet few directors are willing to make such movies, distributors are not interested, few privately-owned cinemas would want to show them and few Russians would wish to see them. Yet at the same time, 64 anonymous directors have recently signed a petition calling for an end to 'dark' films that portray Russia in a bad light.

After the discussion - a screening of Aleksey Balabanov's Kochegar/('Stoker'). A well-crafted film, but a 'dark' one; so utterly bereft of hope for the Russian condition that any concept of Polish-Russian dialogue might as well crawl under a carpet and die. For how can Poland (or indeed any other nation) have a meaningful dialogue with a nation as brutal, dumb, greedy and so entirely lacking in redeeming characteristics, as the one portrayed in this film?

The titular stoker in the film is a Hero of the Soviet Union, a Red Army major of Yakut nationality, who was invalided out of the war in Afghanistan and now spends his life keeping the fires burning in the basement of a run-down block of flats somewhere in Russia. As a Yakut, he is an outsider, a gentle and honourable man. The local mafia use the furnaces to dispose of corpses; something to which the stoker turns a blind eye as one of the mafiosi is another Afghanistan vet. If he tells the stoker that it was a bad person going into the furnace, then so must it be.

Unlike Hollywood, where the American mafia is portrayed with generous dashes of humour and humanity (I'm thinking Goodfellas here), the Russian mob as shown in Kochegar are devoid of any human characteristics whatsoever. Murderous, deceitful, avaricious, without any scruples - or thoughts, or reflections, or conscience - they are one-dimensional cut-outs of mindless evil, driving around in their black SUVs with darkened windows, murdering colleagues for a bundle of banknotes or for a larger cut of the business.

Between shovelling coal into the furnaces, the stoker spends his time typing a story about an evil Russian coming into a Yakut home, back in tsarist times. The stoker's daughter, tarnished by Russia, has herself become like Russia; bereft of emotion, sponging the last roubles off her father despite being co-owner of a furrier business. Russia is shown as without any redeeming features; utterly corrupt, crumbling and mindlessly brutal. The film carries in it a strong charge of nostalgia for the USSR; there was order back then; order and honour.

If you've been to Modlin (the fort, as opposed to the airport), you will find the scenery familiar - the film was set in Kronstadt, the fortress-island in the Gulf of Finland, 25km west of St Petersburg. Kronstadt, of course, was the setting of the major insurrection against the Bolsheviks in 1921, brutally crushed by Lenin and Trotsky, a major sign that the 1917 Revolution was not intended to improve the lot of the ordinary Russian, but a seizure of power by an ideologically motivated gang.

At the end of the film I thought - if this is the way that a contemporary Russian film director portrays his country - then the only rational thing that Poles can say to Russians by way of dialogue is "thank the Lord God that we are out of your clutches; that Poland's in NATO and the EU".

It is not a happy film to watch. It has not come from a happy nation. After watching it I felt I understood the 64 anonymous film directors and their criticism of this type of movie. Yet what is cinema but a reflection of the state of the nation? Look at how the dark, introspective, self-questioning American films of the 1970s gave way to the gung-ho brashness of the Reagan era. Society changed, and with it, its movies.

This time last year:
In praise of Marmite XO

This time two years ago:
Second round of the presidential election - on a knife edge

This time three years ago:
Summer dusk, Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
Classic cars, London and Warsaw

This time five years ago:
Lublin and the Road


DC said...

Great post. I did a brief search but did not find anything about this petition. Any chance you have a link or search suggestions?

I don't think I see the value in comparing film-making like this one with the ever-increasing artistic irrelevance of Hollywood. As far as reflecting the nation, independent film in the US is where it's at. Even HBO is far more meaningful at times - "The Wire", and "Treme" as examples.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ DC

The petition - I'm quoting Ms Rubanova (via simultaneous translation), but I've checked my notebook and that's what she apparently said.

Every country's cinematography includes mindless mainstream and high art; the best movies overlap (think Tarantino and the Coens). In Russia, since Tarkovsky - who?

Second-rate art-house stuff can be too dark - why spend 90 minutes of your life getting depressed?