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In the spotlight: Russia at this year’s Cannes Film Festival

In the spotlight: Russia at this year's Cannes Film Festival

Previously represented only by giant yachts and giant hacks, this year Russia was the talk of the croisette at Cannes. Kamila Mamadnazarbekova, reporting from France, gives her take on Russia's mixed success, on screen and off

28 May 2014
Text Kamila Mamadnazarbekova

In the end the Palme d’Or, one of the biggest prizes in cinema, went to Winter Sleep by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, an Anatolian saga that unhurriedly interweaves plot elements drawn from the Russian classics — Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. But this was far from the only film on show with a Russian accent: at this year’s 67th Cannes Film Festival, for artistic as well as political reasons, Russia loomed large.

Russia featured not only as a theme this year, but as the homeland, or at least training ground, of some of the most fancied directors. As well as The Search, Michel Hazanavicius’s Chechnya-set follow-up to The Artist, the main competition featured hotly-tipped Russian auteur Andrei Zvyagintsev with Leviathan and Moscow-trained Abderrahmane Sissako with Timbuktu — a poetic meditation about fundamentalists implementing a totalitarian regime in a little corner of paradise, a film which would not look out of place in the cinematic canon of any post-Soviet nation. Elsewhere in the festival there was Gabe Polsky’s documentary Red Army, about ice hockey and the Cold War, and a new documentary by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa — like Sissako, he studied at Moscow’s elite Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography — about the recent political upheaval in Ukraine — a subject in which the word “Russia” is never far away.

The great white hope for Russian cinema this year was undoubtedly Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which ultimately had to make do with a consolation prize for best screenplay. The simple story — a mechanic’s seaside home comes to be coveted by the town’s bullying mayor — is both startlingly mythological and instantly recognisable in its realistic details. The biblical symbolism does not hinder the social critique, and the satire does not mitigate the sense of tragedy. The state takes everything from Kolya the mechanic: his house, his wife, his freedom and his faith.

Zvyagintsev’s hero is loosely based on Michael Kohlhaas in Henrich von Kleist’s 19th-century German eponymous novella, an ordinary man who seeks justice against a corrupt regime. Like the disgruntled Kohlhaas, Kolya first tries to seek redress in court. His close friend, a big city lawyer, brings him a folder full of compromising material against the mayor, but the attempts founder among bureaucrats in the mayor’s pocket. They’re funny, these venal local grandees, little comic devils. The judge doesn’t judge, but babbles accusations, listing laws in tongue-twisters; the chief of police is only good for “putting pressure on within the law”; the jowly prosecutor just blinks. It’s all got a folkloric vibe, a morality played unfolding in landscapes of extraordinary beauty in northern Russia, imbued with symbolism, and metaphysical and spiritual force by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman imbues nature. For him, water is never just water, a sunset is never just a sunset, and whale is never just a whale.

“If you mix together politics and melodrama you end up with propaganda”

Leviathan — a reference via the Book of Job and Thomas Hobbes to the overweening monstrous power of the state — had financial support from the Russia’s Cinema Fund and the Ministry of Culture. But it still makes no bones about accusing the Orthodox church, now fused with the state, of hypocrisy. There are two churches and two priests in the film: one advises gangsters beneath a portrait of our glorious leader, and the other tells the downtrodden the parable of Job. There are also two church buildings: one is destroyed, a place where teens drink beer at night, illuminating ancient frescos with the light of their bonfires. The other is an officious new-build, where a bureaucrat-bishop sermonises to government suits about the spiritual ruin of destroying icons and dancing in churches.

Political relevance is not, however, necessarily a good thing for art. If you mix together politics and melodrama you end up with propaganda. On one and the same day, festival organisers had scheduled Michel Hazanavicius’s The Search, about the killing of non-combatants in the Second Chechen War, and Maidan, Sergei Loznitsa’s film about the shifting landscape of the Ukrainian revolution. The former turned out to be a paint-by-numbers fake; the latter a subtle cultural insight.

Following his hit black-and-white comedy The Artist, which picked up five Oscars and ten nominations, French director Michel Hazanavicius has now turned his attention to the tragic theme of genocide. Studying up on the humanitarian catastrophe that was Chechnya at the beginning of the 2000s, he read Anna Politkovskaya’s articles and the books by Arkady Babchenko and Åsne Seierstad. But he wanted to express himself in the language of the feature film, to talk about war using the stories of real people.

In order to do so Hazanavicius turned to a Hollywood classic – Fred Zinneman’s The Search, from 1948, in which an American soldier helps a child who’s survived the concentration camp to find his mother. He retold this plot in the setting of the second Chechen war. Instead of an American soldier, here we have a 35-year-old UN human rights worker (Hazanavicius’s wife, Bérénice Bejo, not doing her best work), who could herself easily adopt Hadji, the withdrawn local boy played by 9-year-old Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev.

“No question, Hazanavicius’s political position deserves respect”

Hazanavicius debases his reportage style with a melodramatic plot. The film opens with “amateur footage” of the shooting of a Chechen family, accompanied by commentary from the soldier holding the camera. Over the next two and a half hours we learn about the fate of this family and about the backstory of the soldier (played by Maxim Emelianov). A nice young man from Perm, he gradually becomes a murderer. On screen we see corpses recreated, buildings burning beautifully and Full Metal Jacket-style boot-camp bullying.

No question, Hazanavicius’s political position deserves respect. But his activism compels him to use the language of propaganda. Ultimately, the film doesn’t work: not as melodrama, not as a remake, not as an action film and not even as a pacifist pamphlet. The melodramatic element strips away both the epic and the analytical dimensions, preventing Hanavicius from making sense of the reasons behind the conflict. Evil Russian soldiers are seen shooting the peaceful population, but not a single Chechen is seen so much as holding a gun on screen. The director fails to get the actors to talk naturally. And it’s not a problem of translation. The film was shot in Georgia: there were a lot of Russian and Georgian actors on set who speak excellent Russian. But in their mouths even pretty well-written lines end up sounding fake.

As Hanavicius’s film shows, when treating recent political events, you run the risk of becoming tendentious and didactic; this risk is even greater when you’re making documentaries. It is therefore a great credit that, in his new film about Ukraine’s protests-that-became-a-revolution, Sergei Loznitsa, a master with a great ear for music and sense of rhythm, has managed to strike a good tone. Despite his evident sympathy for the Ukrainian revolution — in Cannes he declined interviews with Russian newspapers, even liberal ones — Loznitsa has above all stayed true to himself as a filmmaker.

His film Maidan captures the real nuts-and-bolts functioning of history in a remarkable way, revealing how a peaceful political meeting can turn to bloodshed. When protests first break out in Maidan, Kiev’s central square, in November it is a festival of disobedience, replete with corny songs and folksy patriotic poems. But this jubilant atmosphere is so replaced by actual funerals. And this petty folkloric culture transforms in front of our eyes into something lofty and heroic.

“Kiev’s central square, in November it is a festival of disobedience, replete with corny songs and folksy patriotic poems”

The film’s huge multi-character scope is reminiscent of Loznitsa’s early films with its static camera, live sound. But whereas previously the director liked to fidget the camera from face to face in the crowd, here the characters themselves enter and leave the frame. Instead of a voice-over, something Loznitsa has always disdained, the film is interrupted by dry descriptions of events in white-on-black intertitles.

In Loznitsa’s Breughelian composition you begin to discern the structure and organisation of Maidan: the stage, the canteen, the work of the medics who force people to wear helmets, the building of barricades, the logistical challenge of getting new batteries for mobile devices.

The people on the square sing a lot: the national anthem is belted out every which way, there are topical rewrites of revolutionary songs and vulgar satirical rhymes. The first victims – we don’t get to the end of events – are buried to the strains of a folk song from western Ukraine’s Carpathian region, “The ducks swim on the Tisza”, which then goes on to become the hymn of the “Heavenly Hundred” killed in the protests. If the footage weren’t there for all to see in worse quality on YouTube then you’d think that this music had been put on in post-production, so clean does it sound and so precisely does it suit this tragic moment. Kudos to the sound director, who makes individual comments, voices and dialogues discernible in the din of the crowd.

The rhetoric of revolution is always touching. And any right-thinking person finds it hard to take it seriously. But in Loznitsa’s film you get to see its mechanics, its symphonic nature – the way a single square in the centre of Kiev could become a common reference point for national identity.

The exact nature of this national identity remains to be seen. The same can be said of Russia’s cinematic identity, “Russia will never be part of Europe,” says one of the characters in Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, another fim in the main competition, accidentally echoing recent policy statements by the Russian Ministry of Culture. “If the Russians become Europeans then they will stop being Russians.” But, as this year’s festival shows, European cinema thrives on Russia, both as a subject and as a breeding ground for great directors. When you look at it from the croissette, Russia is very much part of Russia.

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