Recent Russian cinema has seen a plethora of acclaimed film directors — including Andrey Zvyagintsev for his latest film, Leviathan — travel away from Moscow to make sense of a Russia outside the capital. But what about the homegrown filmmakers from the regions themselves? Can a new generation of directorial talent make their careers away from the burgeoning film scene and bright lights of the Russian capital?
Stalingrad – Arseny Syukhin
Arseny Syukhin lives and works in Murmansk, the largest city in the world north of the Arctic Circle. After graduating from music school, he served for six years in the frontier forces. Like the English director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), Syukhin also began his career shooting brawls and shootouts on a handheld camera, and his films teem with quotations from his favourite genre films. When Syukhin isn’t making his own shorts, he works as a film and video-game trailer editor. His first feature, once shot, is likely to make a splash at least as big as Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore.
The opening titles of Stalingrad suggest that you’re about to be plunged into a parody of a Fedor Bondarchuk war film, but that’s just thin self-irony; the film itself is a love letter to the art of John Woo and Robert Rodriguez. The plot is relatively simple: a hostage watched over by a dozen masked and heavily armed guards somewhere on the outskirts of an industrial city disposes with his captors single-handedly. The carnage is shot in a sophisticated fashion — the shootouts are far from trivial, the killings “cruel and unusual” (worthy of special notice is a scene where the protagonist uses a PC monitor to squash his enemies’ skulls). Another plus point is the characters’ Tarantino-esque comic exchanges.
Fireworks – Anton Timofeyev
Come autumn, Anton Timofeyev will begin studying at the Moscow State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) under the tutelage of Vladimir Khotinenko, which, according to Timofeyev, will spell the end of his home-spun, no-budget, independent flicks. Shot in and around his hometown of Barnaul in southern Siberia, these films exhibited a very strong sense of place. “Altai fills me with creative energy,” Timofeyev says of his genius loci. “I was born here, I know every tree, every shrub. When I’m devising a plot, I already know roughly whereabouts it could be shot – the particular locale. It’s cool here – but cool for me in particular. Everyone has a place like this.”
Which makes it all the more interesting to see how Timofeyev will fare in Moscow. Up till now, he’s had no formal film education (training instead as an engineer), but this hasn’t stopped him from making around ten features under the aegis of “Kozerog 2”, his own studio. He writes the screenplays, does the filming and editing, composes the scores, and on occasion even plays the lead character.
Fireworks is Timofeyev’s most mature work. A regular theme in his films is the “return to nowhere”—and it is particularly prominent here. The film’s protagonist returns to the city of his birth and childhood but fails to recognise it — the place has metamorphosed. The characters in the film hardly utter a single word. Also noteworthy is the fact that the main female role in the film is played by another director, Yekaterina Telegina, Timofeev’s editing tutor at Kultburo.
The Outcome – Kirill Sokolov
A physicist by training, Kirill Sokolov studied nanotechnology before graduating from St Petersburg State Polytechnic University. He is currently finishing his studies under Khotinenko and Fenchenko at the Advanced School for Screenwriters and Directors.
As a counterweight, perhaps, to his previous scientific life, what Sokolov particularly enjoys in cinema is an unrestrained absurdity. He’d already wearied of science back in his student days, which is why he dabbled in claymation films, invariably featuring seas of sticky blood, ketchup and chicken offal. “I carried this on until summer 2011,” admits the director, “when it first occurred to me that I could try and make a regular film and even write the screenplay for it.” Transitioning from animation into live action, he made several shorts, all characterised by off-kilter trains of thought and ironic Pythonesque intonation while featuring largely the same cast of Petersburg theatre actors.
In The Outcome, a chair (yes, literally) is admitted into hospital for treatment and vies for attention with a human patient who also requires medical help; the latter ends up getting even with the former. The germ of the film came about while Sokolov was living in the town of Joensuu in Eastern Finland, where the complete isolation he endured over the course a two-month laboratory stint served, together with exposure to the work of Boris Vian, to fuel his imagination. Worthy of particular note in The Outcome is the human patient’s dream, simultaneously comic and terrifying, and the fact that it was shot on film – a rarity in the world of student cinema today.
Milestone – Mila Fakhurdinova
Mila Fakhurdinova trained as a pediatric surgeon, but Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind enticed her into making her own films. Based in the southern city of Krasnodar, she is currently working on her first full-length feature, A Portrait of a Cannibal, which she devised in order to get to grips with her departure from medicine: “I’m often asked why I left medicine, but it’s like explaining a plane crash — there’s a plethora of reasons behind it, and we’re going to explain all of them in our new movie. This film is based on a true story from my own life, and from the life of a cannibal I used know. It’s set in the context of our social realities and draws on case studies from our education and healthcare systems.”
Mila considers herself a Russian director making Russian-language films, and yet Milestone was shot in Kazakhstan with Kazakhstani actors. This was because Mila really wanted to shoot in locations inhabited by her grandfather, the real-life prototype for the film’s protagonist. The film’s subjects are collective memory, forged by cinema as much as history; patriotism — both genuine and bogus; and, ultimately, honour. Another catalyst for the making of the film was cinema itself: “My friends and I were chatting about cinema. Names like Griffith and Huston slipped so easily, so familiarly off our tongues, but it turned out that, when it comes to Soviet movies, the only ones we remembered well were Gaidai’s and Ryazanov’s. And that got us down. And that’s when the idea for this film was born.”
Karamcheniye [Bride Theft] – Anton and Andrei Litvinenko
Anton Litvinenko’s 15-odd films have all been made on an amateur basis, but they possess their own energy and a kind of “local” humour that is perhaps more easily understood by “insiders” than general audiences. The director himself describes his style as a mix of Yeralash and Fitil — two well-known Soviet/Russian comedy TV shows (the first of these, first broadcast in 1974 and going strong to this day, is aimed at children; the second, more adult-oriented, came to an end in 2008).
Litvinenko regards his shorts as an indispensable step on the way to feature-length ventures. He’s currently working on a screenplay in collaboration with local theatre actor Aleksei Sagatayev, and is optimistic about the possibility of shooting the film in his hometown: even in Abakan, located on the border with Mongolia, this sort of thing is feasible, and there are plenty of opportunities around for filmmaking. “It all depends on having ideas,” he concludes, “and it’s ideas that are lacking at the moment—lacking everywhere, including the world of ‘big cinema.’”
Litvinenko explains the crux of the film and its title as follows: “Like many other peoples, the Khakassians had a custom of bride-stealing. This often happened without consent and prior agreement. The Khakassian term for bride-stealing was karamcheniye.” The initial plan was to make a short entitled Shaman, with what is now Karamcheniye comprising one of the protagonist’s reminiscences, but so far Litvinenko and his crew have shot only that one part. The wordless film tells the story of a nocturnal bride theft. A mystical thriller with folk motifs, Karamcheniye is Litvinenko’s most mature and visionary work to date.