Archive for the ‘RUSSIAN FILM WEEK’ Category

Masha (2020)

Dir.: Anastasiya Palchikova; Cast: Polina Gukhman, Anna Chipovskaya; Maksim Sukhanov, Alexander Mizev, Iris Lebedeva; Russia 2020, 86 min.

This first feature from Russian writer/director Anastasiya Palchikova is a thinly veiled critique of the nation post Stalinism, wrapped up as a crime/revenge story. The director takes the forces to task in creating a society riddled with violence where Putin and his oligarchy cronies rule with impunity given the lack of a legitimate opposition.

We meet Masha (Gukhman) just before her thirteenth birthday; she lives in a small Russian town and is the darling of her uncle (Sukhanov), who is a crime lord, involving his sons and other relatives in all his schemes from robbery to murder. Masha, a gifted singer, has the family in thrall – and when school friend Sergey ignores her approaches, she asks Uncle’s sons to beat him up until he relents and offers her the attention she craves. But Sergey has also got mixed up in the family business and will later pay with his life for getting out of his depth.

Uncle is very critical of Masha’s mother Nadya (Lebedeva), who has married outside the clan, and has left her husband while remaining a close friend. Nadya wants to take Masha to a relative in far away Samara, but Uncle does not want to give up control, and asks his son Andrei (Mizev) to burn Nadya’s flat down, killing Nadya’s husband in the process. And he’s not the only one sleeping there.

The end is set in Moscow where a grown-up Masha (Chipovskaya) gets ready for a performance with Uncle, Andrei and other family members are in attendance, getting rich on the spoils of the now legitimate music business. But Masha has not forgotten.

Polina Gukhman carries the feature as Masha the 13 year old whose uncle and sons fulfil her every wish, the big family cushioning her from the big wide world. Violence is the norm for her – but the victims are always the ones fighting Uncle and his clan. Only once is the order disturbed, when one of Uncle’s relatives is killed by a rival gang, having raped an under aged girl. Told from the POV of Masha, for whom Uncle is a sort of God granting her every wish, this is a study of a regressive dog eat dog world, where violence holds sway. In Masha’s infantile understanding of the situation, brutality is just part of getting what you want – just ask Uncle whose soft spot for her (rather like the Kray twins for their mother) contrasts with his harsh treatment of all others, including his wider family. DoP Gleb Filatov’s harsh realism is sometimes hard to bear, but never gratuitous in showing how casually normal this hostile environment is for an adolescent like Masha. But Uncle’s little Princess would grow up one day. AS

MASHA is showing as part of the London Russian Film Festival, currently being held for the first time in the UK – from November 12 to December 10, 2021. New customers can enjoy the festival films as part of an extended Subscription free trial on BFI player using the voucher code RFF21.


Sorokin Trip (2019) *** Russian Film Week 2019

Dir: Ilya Belov | Doc with Vladimir Sorokin, Russia, 90’

Director Ilya Belov (Brodsky is Not a Poet) and writer Anton Zhelnov have painted a lively portrait of prolific Russian underground artist Vladimir Sorokin (*1955), who has markedly calmed down since setting fire to Soviet literary tradition and building his own world on its ashes. He now lives in Moscow and Berlin, hugging trees and believing in God.

Sorokin who grew up outside Moscow, had the misfortune to be the only student in his class whose parents had a higher education. He was physically bullied, but refrained from retribution. His emotionally cold father had mental health issues,, his mother trained as an engineer but retired at 35 due to ill health. Sorokin first published in a newspaper: ‘For the Workers in the Petroleum Industry’. But he went on to make his living illustrating books, and was one of the leading figures of Soviet Underground culture. Like many students all over the world, he skipped lectures and enjoyed provoking the authoritarian Soviet establishment, which fell for his stunts, which were nowhere near as radical as the Underground scene of New York. 

Sorokin draws most of his inspiration from Fine Art, and is an accomplished painter. His first publicised book was Ochered (The Que) in 1983; his most famous novel Den Oprichnika (Day of the Oprichnik) in 2006. It describes a dystopian Russia in 2027, when a Tsar rules in the Kremlin. The ruler has a “Great Russian Wall” built, separating the country from its neighbours; with Sorokin positing that he wrote this all before Brexit. His plays include “Dostoevsky Trip” (1997), whilst his libretto for the Opera “The Children of Rosenthal”  caused uproar at the Bolshoi Theatre, watched by the author and his twin daughters.  Sorokin’s novella ‘Blue Bacon Fat’ (2002) drew the ire of not only the authorities, Putin’s men inflamed the affair by in a massive book-ripping event that carried the slogan ‘down with pornography’. The courts got involved, but the matter was dropped due to lack of evidence.

It is a shame that Belov concentrates so much on the confrontational nature of Sorokin’s output, his juvenile posturing is hardly worth the time. After all, Sorokin has written eighteen books, ten plays and four film scripts, among the Rotterdam Winner Four (2004), which was directed by Ilya Khrzhovsky. DoP Mikhail Krichman does a much better job, keeping the audience interested with his free flowing images, somehow capturing the soul of the writer much more than Belov’s overly verbose outpourings. Overall Sorokin Trip does Sorokin a disservice. Thi is an underwhelming biopic, not because of its main subject, but because Belov tries too hard to match the antics of the young author and creative genius. AS

Screening as part of RUSSIAN FILM WEEK Saturday 30 November 3.00pm | Curzon Mayfair

Women’s Day (2018) **** Russian Film Week 2019

Dir.: Dolya Gavanski; Documentary with Svetlana Alexievich, Maria Rokhlina, Natalya Vasilyevna, Natalya Tomacheva; UK/Germany/Russia/Bulgaria 2019, 84 min.

International Women’s Day is a significant date all over Eastern European celebrated on the 8th of March with men offering their partners flowers.

Bulgarian born, London-based filmmaker Dolya Gavanski (Golos: Ukranian Voices) explores the experiences of a number women who have grown up in the USSR – from the early years of the 20th century until quite recently. The result is revealing. The Soviet past still resonates today in Putin’s Russia, But it has left the female population with an undeniably sense of resolve: “What do I do with flowers, when my husband is totally drunk in the evening? posits one feisty female. Clearly floral tributes are not cutting the mustard anymore.

Internet celebrity Elena Krygina, a woman in her early thirties, agrees with the sentiment. “It’s more a question of make-up. Everybody looked the same in the USSR.” But there are others, who feel very different, like Natalya Kalantarova, director of the Krasnogorsk Archive. She points with pride at an emblem of the Soviet State on top of a building. “Everything about the USSR is worthy. We have very little about Yeltsin and Gorbatchev”. She makes sure the filmmaker gets the meaning of the last sentence.

Meanwhile forty something Estate Agent Natalya Tomacheva, has more disturbing memories from her days at Secondary School: “We had an Arabesque music cover from a western record, showing women lying down, with their legs up. So we decided to take pictures too, in our hideous Soviet knickers. The school brought us out on stage, in front of all pupils, year one to ten, telling us that we had succumbed to the influence of the corrupt West. Larissa Denisova’s mother stood up and shouted ‘What, my Larissa a prostitute?’ She sided with her daughter, but my Mum did not, she was a fanatical believer. Later we were re-integrated, but were always known as the ‘Pornographers’.”

Another example of Soviet ideology on the taboo subject of sexuality is told by Marin Gribanova, Dean of Classical Ballet: “Communist censorship interfered for example in Carmen, when we were asked to change some sequences. When the famous ballerina Plisetskaya danced ‘Bolero’, a very sexual piece, we got away with it but only because the women were dressed in black, and the men in white. The white ones would win in the end, making the women all look evil. Sex was turned into a fight between light and darkness.” This negativity seems to be reflected in the past that saw the Church dominating family life. At the end of the 1920s a “Childless Tax” was created, for couples who had less than three children. Even before the Second World War, in 1937, special camps were sent up for women whose husbands have been proclaimed enemies of the people and had been shot.

But some women’s lives were transformed for the good during the early part of the 20th century. One example is Maria Rokhlina, who proudly shows off her jacket with six kilos worth of medals. “Red is the colour of life; blue makes me think of cold, freezing.” As a 16-year-old she was sent to Stalingrad, surviving the battle as a medical instructor in the sanitary platoon on the front line. “I had to bandage the wounded, stop the bleeding, fix a fracture with an improvised splint, then evacuate them from the frontline”. Leningrad siege survivor Natalya Vasilyevna, remembers her grandmother saying very clearly at the beginning of the combat “’Forget about me. I won’t make it. I will not eat. I do not want to see you die one by one’. Men died first, they were actually the weaker sex. Used to eating more meat than women. There were lot of dead bodies in the street. War is a male culture, all war images are male.”

Finally, Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, reminisces  about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl: “It was total chaos. The workers told us the fire had not been extinguished. It still glowed. People came from everywhere to see it. They took the children out onto the balconies and told them to remember this day, it because it looked so beautiful. People could not comprehend the modern reality”.

With DoPs Marina Kroutlin’s and Dmitry Loktionov’s impressive images, and informative archive material, Women’s Day  looks back into an era where reality and ideology collided. But it also pays tribute to those who were at the ‘coal face’ and bore the brunt of it. And it is proof that flowers alone are never good enough. AS

RUSSIAN FILM WEEK | LONDON 24 November – 1 December – 2019      

Kamchatka Bears: Life Begins (2018) ****

Dir: Irina Zhuravleva, Vladislav Grishin | Writers: Dmitry and Igor Shpilenok | 52′ Doc, USSR

South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary is often called bear paradise. This magnificent wild countryside lies on a peninsular to the far east of Russia on the Northern Pacific seabord. And this is where Irina Zhuravleva and Vladislav Grishin took their cameras to film the early years of life for a brown bear family.

Only the ambient sounds of the wild can be heard in this desolate but spectacular northern region where the newborn cubs’ early months play out. In this instance, the mother stayed with her cubs for three years, but often they have a much shorter time together. The directors seek out innovative camera angles, aerial shots and time lapse photography in their attempt to reveal the lives of their impressive animals and their exotic habitat . From flighting for territory and foraging for wild salmon in the lakes, to hunkering down in the closeness of their pack while foxes, and rabbits watch respectfully from a distance.

This is a far cry from Werner Herzog’s 2005 bear chronicle Grizzly Man that followed the tragic life of bear activist Timothy Treadwell and Arnie Huguenard who were killed by bears they had ‘befriended’ on the other side of the ocean in Alaska. Here the directors make no contact with the furry mammals, although their intimate close-ups certainly offer us a feeling of being apart of the wild bear pack through the spring, summer and the first snows of autumn.

Seven months in the making the extraordinary story unfolds as a meditative experience free of any commentary, bookended only by a brief introduction and epilogue accompanied by delicately drawn animations and an informative inter-titles outlining the tragic facts about bear survival. Pavel Doreuli studio’s sombre sound design accompanies this final act explaining that the main threat to Kamchatka’s wildlife is the change of habitat due to mining, construction of hydroelectric stations near the spawning streams and gas pipelines, a hazard of modern life and growing populations. The film very much connects with the narrative of disappearing animal communities all over the world. MT


Russian Film Week 2019

The fourth annual Russian Film Week is back at various major venues in London from November 24 to December 1, 2019 

The eight-day festival brings the latest Russian films to London with the aim of providing a varied picture of Russian culture across this enormous nation. This year’s programme showcases a glittering array of thirty seven features and 18 shorts including several documentaries. The celebration culminates in the Golden Unicorn Awards.

The newly refurbished Odeon Luxe Leicester Square will host the world premiere of Klim Shipenko’s comedy The Peasant. It sees a modern young Moscovite being sent to a ‘boot camp’ of sorts, where he is forced to live according to the peasant traditions of the 19th century.  

Woman’s Day is one of several female-directed features in this year’s line-up. Dolya Gavanski’s feature debut shares experiences from women in the USSR who reveal their lives from the 1917 revolution to the present day. Intimate, surprising, funny, eccentric, painful and contradictory – this is the unknown history of Russian feminism. Based on the filmmaker’s own extensive research, the film focuses on rare archive footage of women experiencing at first hand the siege of Leningrad in subzero temperatures, living in communal flats, smuggling forbidden literature, flying into Space, performing the perfect Soviet ballet pirouette or even giving a new name to a husband, not to mention the political and cultural complexities. These women were brought up in a culture that had officially proclaimed women equal to men. They were told they could achieve it all. So what was their reality?

Russian filmmaker Eva Bass makes her feature debut with an impressive drama Kettle that contemplates freewill in the face of desperate circumstances. In Moscow, twenty five year old Savva is a misfit and intellectual, bored with his life running a computer club called ‘The Kettle’.  Savva’s existential crisis deepens after his old friend Roman commits suicide. Bass directs with confidence in this inquiring drama written by Nikita Kasimtsev.

Irina Zhuravleva and Vladislav Grishin have developed a meditative approach to studying the lives of bears in the South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary. In Kamchatka Bears: Life Begins, music, ambient sounds and the absence of a human voices makes this a chance to experience nature at its purest form.

Meanwhile, war is experienced at first hand in Andrey Volgin’s gripping action drama The Balkan Line. Set in Yugoslavia, 1999, a young commander is tasked to take control of the Slatina airport in Kosovo and hold it until the arrival of the reinforcements discovers his girlfriend is among the hostages at the airport.

Critically acclaimed Uzbek filmmaker Yusup Razykov won the FIPRESCI award at Karlovy Vary several years ago for Shame his claustrophobic drama about an isolated community of women. This year the Russian Critics’ Circle awarded his a gong for his drama Kerosin. His second film this year is Sabre Dance a wartime drama set in the city of Molotov in 1942 where the Leningrad Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet (after Kirov) has been evacuated during the stressful preparations for the premiere of the Gayane ballet. The world of a theatre in evacuation is mysterious and rather cold. The privations of war give rise to half-starved ballerinas, corps de ballet members, who turn into “Pink Ladies” on stage along with performances in hospitals, defence factories and endless rehearsals. Final efforts to create Gayane coincide with the creation of the first tact of the 2nd symphony, often overlapping. Meanwhile, in 8 hours, Khachaturian dashes off his most performed creation.

Great Poetry is a portrait of loneliness, friendship and betrayal that sees two  men clinging together for survival as cash collectors in the outskirts of Moscow where their time is spent moving money for other people and gaming on cockfights at a dorm of migrant workers. Dreaming of a better future, they enrol on a poetry class but sadly find it easier to make a living as petty criminals in this wistful reflection on 19th ideals. Aleksandr Kutznetsov was awarded Best Actor or his performance in the film that also won Lungin Best Director at this year’s Sochi Russian Open Film Festival 

Although Yury Bykov’s The Factory is firmly set in the world of Russian capitalism, it harks back to the glory of the revolution. Many of the workers in a remote industrial factory have been employed there before the change from state regulation to capitalist privatisation. So when owner Kalugin, a well-connected local oligarch, announces the redundancy, a group of workers who haven’t been paid for months kidnap him for a ransom. Led by the mysterious Alexei whose motives are far from clear, the heist doesn’t end well. Kalugin’s private security guards and a police SWAT team quickly have the building surrounded and the comrades are forced to experience the coal face of their so-called camaraderie.

Alexander Zolotukhin’s elegiac portrait of a young Russian soldier pieces together the early days of the The First World War when tragedy strikes even before glory is allowed to show its face. Three decades later, at the beginning of the Second World War, Rachmaninoff will create “Symphonic dances” op.45, an even more grand and vigorous work which was also his swansong. A tender tragedy suffused with courage and melancholy.

Russian Film Week and The Golden Unicorn Awards was founded in 2016 by Filip Perkon (Perkon Productions Ltd.). The festival is supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture.


Vmayakovsky (2018) ****Russian Film Week 2018

Dir: Alexander Shein | 115’      

“For you, cinema is just a spectacle, for me – almost a world view.” declared the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1993 – 1930) who as well as being a socialist ‘rock-star’ performer was also an actor of the silent cinema era (The 1918 The Ladyand the Hooligan, his only surviving film, can be watched on YouTube.) Mayakovsky was part of the Russian Futurist movement believing that art and society would reject the past and strive for a new consciousness. His multi-faceted and contradictory personality was clearly the result of a troubled beginning, and his life went on to be accordingly unorthodox. Yet director Alexander Shein has managed brilliantly to employ a non-linear and iconoclastic style for VMayakovsy that captures (though often it can barely contain) this incendiary poetic talent now mythologized, alongside of Pushkin, in modern Russia.

VMayakovsky opens with a group of actors in a studio rehearsing a film script about Mayakovsky. Gradually they assume the appropriate characterisation of the poet and the people who knew him: body language, manners and revolutionary language start to emerge. This is intercut with fictionalised documentary footage of Lilya Brik (The poet’s muse and lover played by Chillopan Khamatova) as an elderly invalid reflecting on her past. One amusing moment has a gift arriving from perhaps Mayakovsky’s daughter. Lilya’s carer says it’s a package form someone called Saint Saens but it’s not the French composer, but Yves Saint Laurent. Real documentary footage of protesters in modern Moscow; recitals of Mayakovsky’s verse, social gatherings, meetings and a recreation of a Mayakovsky play keep bursting into the film. This becomes a dazzling, energetic collage of impressions and incidents that doesn’t sidestep things into an obvious drama-doc. There’s no excessive use of 1930s documentary footage or any Shostakovich ‘theme related’ music. Shein maintains a restless pace for VMayakovsky – for it’s an experimental film intent on destroying the bio-pic.

VMayakovsky is two hours long: after an hour of arresting cinematic effects its biographical data is realised as a kind of ‘theatrical tableaux’ with occasional filmed exteriors. This shift of tone deepens the film and the superb performance of Yuri Kolokolnikow (As Mayakovsy) reveals him to be a tragic character. Mayakovsky was admired by Lenin yet viewed with suspicion by Stalin and The Russian Association of Proletarian Writers: eventually falling completely out of favour with his audience and the authorities who began to detest experimentation in the arts.

There’s a marvellously satirical scene where the workers are collecting the autumn crop of apples performed against a backcloth of Stalinist Palace of Culture architecture. A close friend informs Mayakovsky that he’s been awarded a state apartment to live in. But cautions him that his writings need to conform to the new social order. This army companion (Who is also being pressured) has a fellow writer colleague of Mayakovsky released from jail and then agonises over Mayakovsky’s unwillingness to change his art. Stalin’s totalitarian world is soon conveyed as a theatre audience of complaining hats, without heads, wittily grouped in a surreal space.

VMayakovsky isn’t an easy film to watch and not everything works. Why is real footage of Communist North Korea shown? What are the crowd, in present day Moscow, actually protesting about?  And why leave out Mayakovsky’s film acting? Yet in spite of some excluded and not properly thought-through ideas, VMayakovsky provokes, stimulates and entertains: rather than an audience beginning to fully understand Mayakovsky, they experience a poetic force called Vladimir Mayakovsky who was a very vulnerable man.

VMayakovsky is a terrific achievement that reminded me of some of the film experimentation that we took for granted from the early sixties to the mideighties (Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, Jacques Rivette and the better side of Ken Russell are an obvious influence on Shein.) Sadly Shein’s feature isn’t on any form of limited release. It’s had a few University screenings in London and you can now only catch it if you take a train to Glasgow, Cambridge or Oxford this winter.

I saw VMayakovsky at a cinema inside a large London bank. The director introduced the screening, telling us that it was a joke that his film was being screened in a bank as he himself had just become bankrupt. Buying a ticket may not help to keep Alexander Shein financially afloat: yet your support could just spur him on to produce more work like the remarkably assured VMayakovsky. Alan Price © 2018       



The Forest | Les (2018) **** Russian Film Week 2018

Dir.: Roman Zhigalov; Cast: Oleg Shibayew, Natalia Rychkova, Oleg Feokzistov, Maria Avramjova, Vladimir Malyugin; Russia 2018, 97 min.

Roman Zhigalov’s feature debut is a glum, violent and dramatic passion play. In a village surrounded by dense forest, murder, rape and arson seem to dominate the troubled community, in a microcosm of Putin’s Russia. This an important portrait of Russian society, despite its over-accentuated sombre realism. 

Sixteen-year old Danila (Shibayew) lives with oppressive mother Galina (Avramkova) and brutal father Pasha (Feokzistov). Cut off from society he has a problem adjusting to school life and is bullied for his sullen manners and total lack of interest in girls. 

Meanwhile, Pasha lusts after Katya (Rychkova), even promising her to leave his family if she gives in. Katya’s husband Kolka (Malyugin) is an alcoholic with physical and emotional impairments. Little does Pasha know that Danila shares his taste for women and is much more successful than his father in finding favour with Katya. While Pasha are his mates in a battle to prevent the local Mafia buying his sawmill for a knock-down price, one of Danila’s female classmates is gang raped by boys from the district capital, and after Galina surprises her son and Katya in flagrante, she asks her husband to take action. Events eventually spiral out of control in scenes of unrelenting and sometimes graphic, but never gratuitous violence. 

Somehow here, society has taken a step backwards, with greed and lust coming to the fore at every opportunity. The local Mafia seems to represent the regime’s semi-criminal mode of government, and their power is much greater than that of the local administration. Pasha is warned – in vain – by the local mayor to sell his sawmill to the mafia: “You remember what happened in 1989 with the land of the kolkhozes”. Violence against women seems to be the norm, men of all ages still see them predominantly as sex objects, to be conquered and discarded at will.

DoP Yury Sergeyev captures the rural violence with intense close-ups and panoramic shots of the landscape. The human presence seem to offend nature, spoiling its beauty in every possible way. Rychkova is the only positive figure, and her humble humanity is constantly abused by the rest of the protagonists. Zhigalov might have sometimes overdone his orgy of violence, but in the end he succeeds in his message, showing a Russia falling back into the senseless savagery of the eighteenth century.AS



Witnesses (2017) Svideteli **** Russian Film Week 2018

Dir.: Konstantin Fam; Cast: Oksana Fandera, Filipp Yankousky, Mariya King, Lenn Kudrjawski, Uliana Elina, Vyacheslav Chepurchenko; Russia/Belarus/Czech Republic/France/Poland/Israel 2017, 100 min.

Konstantin Fam’s drama debut is a trilogy of short films, shot between 2012 and 2017, its intertwined structure featuring human protagonists and mute witnesses of the Holocaust. This is probably the first major Russian feature concerning itself with Russian Jewish victims of the Shoah, since the topic was one of the taboos during Stalinism. Impassioned and powerful, it manages to avoid dramatics, concentrating on the details of the tragic events. 

Shoes (Tufelki) is set in a small Russian town, featuring its characters from the knees downwards. The titular female shoes, optimistically coloured red, belong to a woman who will end up in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Her shoes are now in the Museum of the former Camp, picked from a mountain of abandoned footwear. The camera traces her life through the other shoes she encounters: the happy shop owner who gives her the shoes for free; the little shoes of her daughter; and then the military boots of the German invaders, forcing her into an overloaded cattle truck. And then the military shoes of the German guard, who, we are left to surmise, closes the gas chamber hermetically. Devoid of dialogue, just background noise, and symphonic music, creating an eerie ballet. 

Brut (Brutus) features the young shop owner of the first episode, Rozanna (Fandera), who is given a German Shepherd dog by her husband. The cute puppy develops into a loveable pet, but after the German army arrives, Jews are not allowed to have pets any more. Horst (Yankousky) an outwardly harmless looking SS man, with a model family, takes Brutus away, and Rozanna is forced to surrender “her only friend”. Horst trains the friendly Brutus to be a ‘killer dog’, but when the soldier is transferred to a Concentration Camp, he meets Rozanna, again but strangely fails to recognise her. In a bid to escape, Rozanna is then shot by Horst, but Brutus recognises Rozanna. This is in many ways the most cruel of the episodes, because Horst tries to transfer his murderous instincts to a defenceless animal, whose true nature survives, in spite of everything.  

Violin (Skrypka) chronicles the instrument’s history. First given to a Jewish boy by his father in early 1930s Nuremberg, the violin ends up in contemporary New York. We discover why a Swastika is stamped inside the instrument, in a concentration camp where an officer is asked by his superior “to gather the best musicians for the Camp Orchestra”. Finally through a bizarre series of events, the violin is played at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, perhaps a rather conciliatory ending, but an inventive Holocaust story that plays a thoughtful and plangent tune.

Kam’s (unplanned) structure works very well throughout, showing the various ways in which silent witnesses can bring a message from the past for all of us. Fam avoids any didactic lectures, and concentrates on the small details, which can make such a difference. The DoPs (too many to name), create a convincing  atmosphere; Shoes in particular is highly innovative and hauntingly captures our imagination. Witnesses never tries to be sentimental – but makes an extraordinary emotional impact: demonstrating the wilful distraction of the world of ordinary people.


Genesis 2 (2018) *** Russian Film Week 2018

Dirs: Christian Frei, Maxim Arbugaev | Switzerland | 2018 | 113 mins

GENESIS 2 follows the yearly search for mammoth tusks in the frozen wastes of the New Siberian Islands, discovered in 1723. The task of extracting frozen genetic material from the permafrost is a tough but a worthy one intended to enable some pioneering scientists to reconstruct the long-extinct mammoth that once roamed the icy region.

Oscar-nominated documentarian Christian Frei (War Photographer) has quite literally taken on a mammoth task in exploring this hostile Arctic hinterland. Genesis 2 scratches at the edges of both horror and science, in an endeavour that occasionally feels like he has taken off more that he can chew.

As in Book of the Sea, also screening during Russian Film Week, Friel adds elements of myth to his icebound study. The film opens with narrated verses from a Yakutian epic tale, accompanied by Max Richter’s morose music, and the characters who embark on this intrepid research are all courageous – even foolhardy – enough to risk their lives for what may amount to very little: the resonance with Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, The Wild Blue Yonder, Grizzly Man and even Aguirre Wrath of God, are clearly felt. At times Frei even sounds like the great master himself.

Many of these eco-warriors are dicing with death and several will actually meet their maker in the vain hope of returning home with a slither of genetic material that they can trade for upwards of $45,00. And while this may feed their families for some time, they must endure the downside: perishing cold and even death.

Back in the comparative comfort of a smug Boston scientific seminar we hear how “synthetic biology” is going to change everything by “taking control of evolution” by creating hybrid creatures out of horses, sheep and zebras. But that seems rather glib to the anxious tusk hunters struggling to dig up the ground in the bleak terrain of the Northern hemisphere. Peter Grigoriev (Frie terms him an intellectual because ‘he likes reading a lot”) and his brother Semyon Grigoriev, the Head of the Mammoth Museum, in Yakutsk, Siberia are the main characters in this rather sombre eco-doc, are seen wading through mud in the dripping interior of a cave where “cavemen lived for hundreds of years”. It emerges that anyone who tries to dissenter a mammoth will visited by a curse but they are also deemed “lucky” to come across three polar bears. When Semyon eventually comes across the ancient flesh of tusk specimen, he can’t help tasting it, but seems rather unimpressed. Back in the lab, the aim is to create a new animal, a chimera – just the like the woolly mammoth was back in the day. `

There is a sense of wonder and awe, but also a sense of foreboding in the sober search for animal remains. The spectacular visuals create an amazing sense of the remote emptiness of the locations and the quiet desperation of Siberians who travel here in the hope of improving their lives. The bright Boston buildings and the massive shiny headquarters of China’s National Gene bank make this ‘new life’ seem rather devoid of reality when compared to the gruelling coal face search. MT


Book of the Sea (2018) **** Russian Film Week 2018

Dir: Aleksei Vakhrushev | Doc | Russia, 2018 | 88′

Seasoned filmmaker Aleksei Vakhrushev has made some of the best-known Russian documentaries of the past few years. His previous film The Tundra Book (2011) explores the traditions of deer-hunting in Russia’s Northern Chukotka region. His latest – THE BOOK OF THE SEA – is an intense visual experience that follows the daily struggle for survival of the traditional sea hunters of the Bering Strait whose Inuit faith in ancient myths and legends guides their hunting ethos in their ancient Arctic culture.

Although this sounds quite surreal and otherworldly, it’s actually a very sensible way to live sustainably. Respect for nature and the animal kingdom allows them to avoid unnecessary  slaughter while hunting to feed their families – rather than for pleasure.

Their regular hunting expeditions will see them catching sperm whales, seals and walruses and these sections of the film are roughly divided into chapters entitled: The Whale, The Old man and the Sea, and The Walruses. They also rely on auks eggs and reindeer. Along with his skilled cameramen, Vakhrushev follows the hunters and close-quarters as they track their prey. But as soon as a catch is about to happen, the filmmaker cuts away from the slaughter to Edvard Belyaev’s effective animated sequences that illustrate Inuit hunting legends. In this way, the film transcends the blood and gore of the killing experience, enriching the narrative while also adding a historical parable to the stark reality of the eco-documentary.

Hunting with their trusty husky dogs, Inuit and Chukchi hunters still rely for protein and nourishment on large sea mammals that have sustained their people since time immemorial. But today, these hunters are elegantly kitted out in high-performance padded jackets made of down or seal-skin and their precision equipment is specialised and decidedly high-tech.

The contemporary story of elders Alexander and Alexei blends seamlessly with that of “the woman who gave birth to a whale” and other ancient myths, told here in vivid animation, in this ongoing struggle for survival and preservation of a traditional lifestyle in one of the most remote places on earth. A magnificent and visually striking story about the vitality of these Arctic people whose struggle very much connects to a global narrative of survival for small communities all over the World. Judging by the richness of the Bering Strait – which runs from the through to the Arctic ocean’s Chukchi Sea – and the Inuit people’s respect for nature, it looks like they will survive for a good many years to come. MT


The director is an Inuk, who was born on the Chukchi Peninsula in the Far East of the Russian in 1969. Upon graduating from the Director’s Department of the Russian State Film School (VGIK) in 1996, he launched his career with a documentary entitled The Time When Dreams Are Melting. The film tells the true story of his native Yupik Inuit people of northeastern Russia. His unique insider’s perspective group offered a fresh new look at the lives, challenges, and aspirations of the indigenous peoples living on the Russian side of the Bering Strait. It was the first time their story was ever captured on film.

Asino (2017) ****Russian Film Week 2018

Dir: Anatoly Vasilyev | Doc | Russia | 167′

“I am alone like a tree that grows inside another tree”. 

Celebrated theatre director Anatoly Vasilyev’s sensitive but unsettling documentary really sums up the silent plight of man’s most vital but often unappreciated beast of burden. Dogs are loved as our working companions and pets, and even cuddled by the fireside. Yet at the end of their day of duty the humble donkey is tied up and left alone. This gentle often stubborn creature is surely the unsung hero of man’s rural existence, toiling tirelessly from the time of Greek mythology and Jesus Christ to the modern day, tolerating the grimmest conditions and finally even lending its name to a derogatory adjective: asinine.

Shot in Italy and featuring fifteen named donkeys, ASINO is a melancholy but unsentimental celebration of this subjugated helper’s gruelling existence. Told in 8 chapters, entitled novellas, – each 20 minutes long, it melds documentary form with lowkey allegory and is scored by Giovanni Sollima’s evocative occasional music that often signals sadness or doom.

The first novella is a quiet monochrome observation of the animals at rest in their individual stables in an Italian farm. The second takes on a Bacchus-like twist moving to the glorious summer vineyards of Italy, as a young boy crowned in flowers adds a poetic feel to proceedings, with inter titles from literary sources. In a stunning black and white third novella, a donkey shows his stubbornness and reticence about going to work in a chalk mine. The fourth regales us with the donkey ‘Palio’ a race that’s far more eventful than its Florentine equivalent, due to the donkeys’ mischievousness at competing often refusing to reach the finishing line, unlike their obedient cousin the horse. The fifth focuses on a garlanded donkey seemingly left to its own devices to wander freely grazing in a deserted part of the town. The penultimate chapter sees a reluctant donkey acknowledging its fate with dignity after initially putting up a fight. The camera focuses on the deep well of pitiful acceptance in the beast’s defeated eye as it looks out dejectedly from its concrete pen. This is a simply drawn sequence that speaks volumes and will  move you to tears if you care about animal welfare. Worthwhile but painfully slow-burning at times, this thoughtful exploration of the donkey’s role in Western culture is a meditative and meaningful addition to the animal film archive. MT

SCREENING DURING RUSSIAN FILM WEEK | 25 November – 2 December 2018

Anna’s War | Voyna Anny ****. | Russian Film Week 2018

Dir.: Aleksey Fedorchenko; Cast: Marta Kozlava; Russia 2018, 74 min.

Marta Kozlava makes a stunning debut as a six-year old Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in Silent Souls director Aleksey Fedorchenko’s minimalist feature that follows a six-year old Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis.  Despite a limited script, ANNA’S WAR is full of harrowing images and the austere story-telling avoids the emblematic overload of many Holocaust features.

Anna (Kozlava) has to drag herself from under the body of her mother in a mass grave in the Soviet Union in 1941. The German soldiers have installed themselves in village school and this is where Anna eventually fetches but her ordeal is not over. To avoid recapture she has to disappear up the chimney of a disused fireplace in the building. And this is where the story unfolds as the little girl fights for survival amongst the debris, using the Nazi’s recently installed two-way mirror to keep an eye on them even though she is too young to understand their activities. She drinks water from a glass of paint brushes, makes a coat for herself from the fur of a stuffed wolf, and eats the rats she catches in a trap, sharing her food with a friendly cat and watching as the Nazis put pins to identify their newly captured territories on a map.

Anna wanders the whole house at night, stumbling into a Christmas party where the soldiers are celebrating at a table full of food. A German soldier is too drunk to question her appearance, and gives Anna a gingerbread Swastika she takes to her hiding place, but eventually spurns. This is the only tokenistic faux-pas in Fedoschneko’s otherwise realistic treatment. But Anna also finds a revolver, which comes in handy later, when one of Russian clerks is coming up the ladder over the fireplace, to destroy a pigeon nest. Anna points the revolver at him, and he does not give her away. Much later, the murky darkness lightens and Anna takes out the pins on the military map, whilst we listen to the first sounds of music.

ANNA’s WAR will bring to mind The Diary of Anne Frank and Tarkovsky’s war child Ivan. Apart from Kozlava’s remarkable performance, credit should go to DoP Alisher Khamidkhodjaev who creates a hauntingly macabre setting full of frightening images and worthy of German impressionist cinema. Anna is a heroine with a small ‘h’ but her ingenuity and survival instinct in overcoming her tragic predicament is an inspiration to children everywhere. MT


Jumpman (2018) Podbrosy **** Russian Film Week 2018

Dir.: Ivan I. Tverdovsky; Cast: Denis Vlasenko, Anne Slyu, Daniil Steklov; Russia/ROI/France/ Lithuania 2018, 87 min.

Ivan I. Tverdovsky follows up his zany Zoology with a darker feature, another harsh critique of Putin’s Russia. Very much in the mould of Loveless, Jumpman is a portrait of callous exploitation, the young victim literally sold by his mother to perform life-threatening stunts, just to fill her pockets and those of her cronies.

Sixteen years ago Oksana posted her newborn Denis through the baby-hatch of an orphanage where he has lived ever since, handicapped by a rare disease, congenital analgesia, which affects his ability to feel physical pain, and needs to be medically controlled. Now, forbidden from taking care of her son, Oksana (Slyu) tricks the orphanage staff, literally kidnapping little Denis (Vlasenko) and taking him home. It soon emerges that Oksana’s motive is anything but motherly. Denis does not fee pain when injured (his mates in the orphanage played some cruel games with him), and is trained to jump on cars so his mother’s friends can extort cash from the driver. First in line is Denis’ ‘instructor’ policeman Kusnetzov (Steklov), who drives a police vehicle alongside the one earmarked for the ‘accident’, and is first on the scene when Denis lays motionless on the ground. Kusnetzovs’s mother is a doctor at the hospital where Denis is taken by an ambulance crew (also on the make). But the most profitable jobs go to Judge Olga and the bribed defence lawyer. The driver is forced to pay up a huge sum of money – and Denis gets hardly a penny, after everyone else has taken their share. At home his mother treats him more like a lover, running around half naked in a drunken state, even trying to seduce him. That all changes after Denis puts his foot down –  and this leaves only one solution.

Jumpman is a portrait of a society corrupt on every level, a society where the most vulnerable victims are treated like commodities – whether they are rich, poor or just disenfranchised.. When Denis finally quits, Kusnetzov spits in his face: “We’ll find another one, the city is full of trash like you.” AS



Core of the World (2018) **** Russian Film Week 2018

Dir: Natalia Meshchaninova | Drama | Russia, Lithuania | 123′

Best known for her debut The Hope Factory, Natalia Meshchaninova’s award-winning sophomore feature is an acutely observed and thoughtfully performed story of emotional disorder that unfolds in a remote dog-breeding facility in Russia.

Writing again with Boris Khlebnikov (they co-scripted Arrhythmia) and her real life partner Stepan Devonin, who also plays Egor, this latest drama combines tenderness, regret and yearning in a troubled vet who finds his animals easier to live with than his co-workers. Egor breeds special hunting dogs (Alabais, also known as Central Asian Shepherd dogs) using domesticated foxes in their training. He is empathetic rather than sentimental towards the animals in his care.

Devonin’s training as a vet informs his role as Egor and he brings a tenderness but clear focus as Egor. When he learns that his mother has died of heart problems related to alcohol abuse, it becomes abundantly clear that there are issues with his childhood relationship. And when his aunt arrives uninvited with a bunch of his mother’s photography, Egor brazenly tells her to “fuck off” a stance that flies in the face of his previously rather quiet and thoughtful behaviour. His troubled personality issues will soon surface in abundance, although rather late in the story. Clearly Egor has escaped into his work in this peaceful forest location, where he tends a dog who has just been brutally mauled with extreme dedication. He is also keen to ingratiate himself with his tough and overbearing boss Nikolai (Dmitriy Podnozov) who has been running the family training facility for several generations.
The dog-training involves the dogs chasing down small wooden tunnels – representing real burrows – where the dogs come into contact with the foxes and a tussle takes place, confirming the canine’s suitability for hunting. Although neither animal appears to come off any the worse for their order, the practice has attracted negative attention from the animal rights brigade who arrive at the gates to protest. Nikolai tells them: “go away children”.
Meanwhile, Egor starts to have feelings for Nikolai’s daughter Dasha (Yana Sekste) who shares the family house with  her son Ivan (a strong debut from Vitya Ovodkov), There are humorous exchanges and they all seem to rub along very well, and Egor continues to tend his injured dog Belka, patiently teaching her how to swim in the nearby far-flowing river. Alhtough he’s clearly able to communicate affectionately with his dogs, Egor has real problems handling his relationship with Dasha but his feelings are palpable and he is clearly drawn to her physically. And although Nikolai seems to rule the roost, Egor’s latent anger eventually rears up again when he’s  pushed to the limits. And it’s the animal activist who finally set the cat amongst the pigeons in a very well-thought out and imaginative plotline that has tragic consequences. MT
CORE OF THE WORLD won the Grand Prix and Best actor awards at the Kinotavr festival in Sochi, and is now screening during RUSSIAN FILM WEEK 2018


The Bottomless Bag (2017) Yakhonty Ubystvo **** Russian Film Week 2018

Dir: Rustam Khamdamov | Fantasy Drama | Russia, 2017 | 104′

Akira Kurosawa was not the only auteur to be entranced by the Japanese classic story on which he based Rashomon. Filmmaker turned artist Rustam Khamdamov reimagines ‘In a Grove’ 1922) in a different light, as a truly weird and wonderful folklore fantasy, transported the 19th century Russia of Zsar Nicholas II, and enhanced by its evocative monochrome aesthetic.

This film within a film, stars Svetlana Nemolyaeva as a female courtier who regales the monarch and his empress with stories, the deadlier the better. One day the a fairytale about his son’s mysterious murder, and we experience three different versions of the event, told from , played by iconic Russian film star ​Svetlana Nemolyaeva, tells the czar a fairy tale about his son’s murder, and we see three different versions of this event.

With echoes of the silent era and references to Russian and European folklore, Khamdamov creates a poetically spellbinding atmosphere of wonder, set in this regal castle deep in the woods near St. Petersburg. But mysterious events are also unfolding in the castle itself. The courtier is looking for a bag of precious jewels (which we see in the hand of a soldier, as the film opens), the palace ghost has concealed the gems in the Christmas tree but is trying to thwart her efforts to relinquish the bag. The courtier is also accused of conspiring with the royal’s assassin. In order to solve the mystery she lies down on a polar bearskin rug and tries to commune with the house spirit, who is hiding in a chandelier. Meanwhile in the forest, a witch (Demidova), drinks her grandson’s urine from a golden bowl, and walks off into the darkness to solve the case. In the end, the courtier discovers the jewels, and leaves the wintry palace on skis, after the servants have stuffed her bag full of everything they can lay their hands on.

The Bottomless Bag actually takes its title from A Thousand and One Nights, Baba Yaga – a witch from Russian legends – is played by Alla Demidova. Sumptious and vaguely ironic, this treasure trove of dreamlike set pieces in a filmic foray into the uncovered depths of Russian culture. The only chagrin is that after his Cannes success with Anna Karamazov (1991) Khamdamov has decided to work exclusively as a visual artist: imagine what Russian cinema is missing without his remarkable talents. AS/MT


Suleiman Mountain (2017) *** Russian Film Week 2018

Dir: Elizaveta Stishova | Cast:Daniel Daiybekov, Turgunai Erkinbekova, Perizat Ermanbaeva | Drama | Kyrgyzstan | 101′

Enlivened by offbeat humour and vibrant widescreen images reflecting the rugged beauty of this wild Central Asian nation, SULEIMAN MOUNTAIN is the debut feature of Russian filmmaker Elizaveta Stishova. Largely funded by European finance this appealing arthouse drama explores an unconventional journey of discovery – both literal and metaphorical – for its passionate central characters: a woman, her long-lost son and husband, and his other younger wife. In a drama fraught with tense uncertainty and often brutal rituals involving folklore and shamanism – a scene involving an unconscious woman is particularly alarming – Kyrgyzstan emerges as a region caught between the modern world and one of ancient traditions where women (predictably) get a rough deal as they compete vehemently for the attention of self-seeking macho men. Their hope is that somehow, by smothering them with love and attention, they can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Sadly, twas ever thus.

Kazakhstani actor Asset Imangaliev plays the maverick male at the centre of the story, who cleverly plays his two wives off against one another. Karabas is an opportunistic adventurer who cons his way through life veering from violent outbursts to twinkling smiles as he tries to charm the pants off everyone he meets. Recently reunited with the couple’s thoughtfully endearing son Uluk, his older wife is a healing soul, desperately trying to hold the family together, while her coltish younger rival is also pregnant with Karabas’ child.

Although Kyrgyzstan initially feels exotic and remote, the human story at its core is as old and evergreen as the hills. Stishova has certainly made a watchable and lively debut. MT


Russian Film Week 2018

Russian Film Week is back for the third year running. From 25 November to 2 December the event will take place in London at BFI Southbank, Regent Street Cinema, Curzon Mayfair and Empire Leicester Square before heading to Edinburgh, Cambridge and Oxford.

The eight-day festival celebrates a selection of award-winning new dramas, documentaries and shorts, bridging the gap between Russian cinematography and the West with the aim of building bridges rather than enforcing tensions. The festival will culminate in the Golden Unicorn Awards. This year’s selection has certainly upped its game and comes thoroughly recommended. Particularly worth seeing is Rashomon re-make THE BOTTOMLESS BAG, a magical mystery drama, in black and white.

Russian Film Week opens with Avdotya Smirnova’s prize-winning historical drama THE STORY OF AN APPOINTMENT (prize for Best Script at Russia’s main national film festival Kinotavr). Based on real life events, it follows an episode from Leo Tolstoy’s life. The opening night will be held at the largest screen in the UK – Empire IMAX Leicester Square.

Other seasonal highlights include Kirill Serebrennikovэ’s Cannes awarded biographical film LETO (Summer) and SOBIBOR, Russia’s foreign-language film Oscar submission 2018. The film is the debut feature for actor-turned-director Konstantin Khabensky, and focuses on events in the titular Nazi extermination camp during 1943. The film also stars Christopher Lambert and Karl Frenzel. Danila Kozlovsky, known for his role in BBC series McMafia (2018) and numerous Russian blockbusters, will present his debut project, sports drama TRENER (‘Coach’).

The festival c Golden Unicorn Awards ceremony, including the Best Foreign Film About Russia. British actor Brian Cox will head up the jury. The awards ceremony is in aid of Natalia Vodianova’s Naked Heart Foundation.

Russian Film Week and the Golden Unicorn was founded in 2016 by Filip Perkon with a group of volunteers on a non-profit basis. From 2017 the festival supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture, Synergy University, and the BFI.


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