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Letter from: the highs and the lows of the Cannes Film Festival

Letter from: the highs and the lows of the Cannes Film Festival
Come and Play (2013) dir. by Daria Belova

Bad PR may be hampering Russian films from succeeding at international festivals, writes film critic Anton Sazonov

30 May 2013

It’s not been a good year for the Cannes Film Festival. Die-hard festivalgoers were united in their opinion that the Côte D’Azur saw more dross washing up on its shores than in previous years. It rained non-stop for the entire week. As a result, anyone who had seen Taisia Igumentseva’s debut Bite the Dust (2013), joked that, just like in the film, the end of the world was coming in the form of a global flood. It was a case of life imitating art.

It was no surprise that Igumentseva’s film made it to Cannes, thanks to its young director’s victory in last year’s Cinéfondation short film category with The Road To. This automatically guarantees the winning director the chance to premier a feature-length film the following year. Despite her success last year, many of the young Russian directors I spoke to were worried about the film’s reception. As far as I know, the reaction from non-Russians was pretty positive.

More surprising was the news, announced after the official festival press conference, that Yuri Bykov’s The Major (2012) would also screen at Cannes. In the film, a police officer accidentally knocks down a child on a deserted highway. His colleagues attempt to exonerate him from the crime but by the end, the perpetrator wants justice to be served.

“Instead of Nicole Kidman or Adrien Brody, the only person I met was Russia’s very own one-time spy, Anna Chapman”

Both The Major and Bite the Dust share broad, universal plots that would appeal to any spectator, be they from Moscow or Paris. But that’s not why these films earned their place at Cannes. To paraphrase Joel Chapron, Cannes’ Russian cinema consultant, “Cannes isn’t interested in plots as such. The main thing is how the story is told, the quality of the directing, the acting and the camerawork.” In my opinion, all these components are evident in both films.

What’s more, both reflect pretty accurately the current state of play in Russian cinema. On the one hand, there are many young directors who, like Igumentseva, have something to say and something to show and who have either launched their debut feature films or are poised to do so shortly. Filmmakers such as Mikhail Mestetsky, whose sports biopic Legend No 17 about Soviet hockey player Valery Kharlamov smashed box office records when it was released in April, may only be taking their first steps in the industry but they know what they want. In contrast is Bykov, no longer a novice filmmaker, whose work addresses tough social questions. It is this breadth of vision that allows Russian films to fit neatly into any festival, all the more so at Cannes this year where debuts and socially engaged films were both in abundance.

If the end-of-the-world theme in Bite the Dust is less relevant now that 2012 has rolled by regardless of Mayan predictions of the apocalypse, Bykov’s The Major overlaps with many of the films in the main selection and outside the competition. In particular, The Major seems to be in dialogue with Jia Zhangke’s competition entry Touch of Sin, which tackles issues in contemporary Chinese society. (When you watch it, the similarities afflicting China and Russia today jump straight out at you.) The theme of revenge, which permeates the work, means the film is comparable to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, a crime thriller starring Ryan Gosling — one of the stars I was hoping to get some face-time with.

Bite the Dust (2013) dir. by Taisia Igumentseva

During the festival, none of the stars stay in Cannes itself; they hole up in the five-star Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat. I was there for one of the festival’s official parties but instead of Nicole Kidman or Adrien Brody, the only person I met was Russia’s very own one-time spy, Anna Chapman, looking somewhat upset.

The organisation of Cannes is also worth mentioning. It was the 66th edition of the festival, but the first time I had attended. I visited the Russian pavilion on a few occasions. As an outsider, the cracks in the pavilion’s PR machine were evident: there was considerably more Russian press milling around than foreign. In fact, the pavilion was full of Russians. This isn’t a problem as such, except that the last thing Russian film experts need is a presentation about their own native cinema. What’s the point in travelling all the way to France to get news from…Moscow?

Without trying to labour the point, nowhere in the city did I see posters for either Igumentseva’s or Bykov’s film. And the press materials were nowhere near as good as those distributed by other countries. Perhaps this explains the absence of prizes for The Major, which went unmentioned by the jury during the summing up at the end of Critics’ Week. Better success was enjoyed by Daria Belova’s short film Come and Play (2013), which was screened on behalf of the Berlin film school where the St Petersburg-born director is currently studying. The film, which won the Discovery Prize as part of the Critics’ Week programme, in competition with The Major, had a poster, a colourful booklet and even its own website. Similarly, Igumentseva failed to pick up any prizes. In my opinion, the more we talk about things like this, the quicker those in the industry can work on these mistakes and make sure that Russian films win more awards.