2014 was a strong year for Russian cinema on the international festival circuit, with victories for Andrei’s Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan at Cannes and The Postman’s White Nights by Andrei Konchalovsky at Venice, among others. Yet, as culture minister Vladimir Medinsky attempts to ensure that only the films he likes receive state finance, troubling times are ahead. Andrei Plakhov, one’s of Russia’s leading film critics, suggested in his Kommersant column last month that 2014 could be the last prosperous year in modern Russian cinema. Can quality independent film survive in 2015? Critic Anton Sazonov selects five films tipped to do well this year.
Under Electric Clouds
Director: Alexei German Jr
Alexei German Jr is the son of the filmmaker Alexei German and the grandson of the famous Soviet writer Yuri German. Like his father, German Jr has always focussed on the past. His debut film, The Last Train (Special Mention, Venice Film Festival), was set at the end of the Second World War; Garpastum (In Competition, Venice Film Festival) just before the First World War; and Paper Soldier (two prizes at the Venice Film Festival) on the eve of Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space. Under Electric Clouds is German Jr’s first film to be set entirely in the present day.
Plot: The plot consists of six stories about very different people living in Russia. The film is about both the generation which grew up on Solzhenitsyn and the Apple generation; about the rich and the ordinary. It raises questions such as whether to emigrate or to stay in Russia.
What you need to know: Filming began in 2011 but was put on hold due to the death of Alexei German Sr. Before returning to his own film, German Jr first completed his father’s long-term project Hard to be a god, which premiered last year at Rome Film Festival.
What the director says: “Of course, it would be silly to compare our work with that of a great like Fellini. But if I had to name a reference point, it would be La Dolce Vita, a film that shows a wide panorama of the Italy of its time. That was a film about life, about the sheer size of the universe in which we exist. Each of us is completely different; we each have our own truth, our own pain, and our own joy.”
Director: Anna Melikian
Anna Melikian learnt her trade from Sergei Solovyov (who wrote and directed the cult film Assa). Her work – whose genre might be described as ‘magical realism’ – has won prizes at the most prestigious festivals in the world: including Clermont-Ferrand, Sundance and Berlin. Melikian has three feature films under her belt (the third, Star, came out last year); About Love will be the fourth.
Plot: About Love is a large anthology film featuring famous Russian actors (from the likes of Vladimir Mashkov to stars of a younger generation), consisting of five separate stories with separate protagonists, held together by a single long lecture about love, read by Renata Litvinova’s character.
What you need to know: The film grew out of two shorts of the same name (About Love and About Love 2), which were filmed for Svetlana Bondarchuk’s Action charity auction. The leading role in the second part was played by the director Pavel Ruminov and the film won a prize in this year’s Shorts Competition at the Kinotavr Film Festival.
What the director says: “At the moment I’m still working on the film, so it’s hard for me to judge what we’ve filmed; but this will be something new for me – I’m tackling some interesting challenges for the first time. On the whole, I never re-watch my films; the last time I watch a film is usually the moment the sound and the video are merged and the first copy is printed. You have to go and watch it all on a big screen and check everything. But after that I never watch a film again, either at the premiere or at festivals – I simply can’t bring myself to sit and watch them, although I’m very interested in how the viewers see my films and I ask people later about the audience’s reaction. But I can’t be in the room myself.”
Director: Ivan Vyrypaev
Ivan Vyrypaev is an outstanding playwright first and foremost, and a theatre and film director second. That is why he makes such unusual, script-centric films. If Vyrypaev’s debut film Euphoria (Little Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) was more reminiscent of film in the usual sense and its principal device was at least depiction, his next two films, Oxygen and Delhi Dance, had more experimental structures built around the text (written, of course, by Vyrypaev himself).
Plot: The film is based on the true story of a Catholic nun who travels to Tibet to preach the Christian faith.
What you need to know: The lead role will be played by Ivan Vyrypaev’s wife, the Polish actress Karolina Grushka, with whom Vyrypaev conceived the film many years ago. The project was supposed to go ahead in 2011 and work even got under way when the pair went to Tibet to cast the Tibetan actors. In light of the current system of funding in Russia, Vypyraev, who is currently head of Moscow’s Praktika Theatre, is not ruling out the possibility that Salvation will be his last film.
What the director says: “I found out on the internet about a place in Tibet where there is a Catholic Cathedral. It is the only Catholic Cathedral [in Tibet] and it was built over a century ago by a French Catholic mission. The Mass is in Tibetan, they sing Tibetan songs and the Catholic priest is also a Tibetan. I was fascinated by the whole thing; at first I even thought about making a documentary. Because it’s happening in a country which is totally immersed in Buddhism, it’s a complete mystery what Christianity is doing there. And then I found the story of this girl.”
Director: Vassily Sigarev
Vassily Sigarev is another Russian director who came to film from the world of theatre. His plays have been staged throughout Russia, but also elsewhere – including London, where he won the prize for most promising playwright in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. In 2009 Sigarev made his feature film debut with the brutal fairytale Wolfy, which won the main prize at the Kinotavr Film Festival. His next film, Living, was even more brutal and no less successful (Best Director at Kinotavr). Sigarev promised to make his next film a comedy. He has kept his word.
Plot: 2015 seems set to be a year of anthology films, because Recreational Ethology also consists of a series of short stories. The film is set on New Year’s Eve. Although a comedy, Sigarev retains his trademark gloominess. The main character (played by the director’s wife, Yana Troyanova, who stars in all her husband’s films) arrives in a big city in the run up to New Year. She is hoping to find her destiny, but ends up finding a job in a kiosk. The greatest tribulations and adventures await the film’s protagonist on New Year’s Eve, when the full force of the Russian character is unleashed.
What you need to know: Perhaps it is just a publicity stunt, but many famous Russian actors refused to star in the film due to the copious bad language and extremely black, Movie 43-style humour.
What the director says: “It’s more Dead Souls than Leonid Gaidai. It’s going to be very different from the comedies that Russian audiences get fed year after year. It’s all based on real events. It’s a collection of stories which either happened to me or to people I know. Some people are playing themselves. Nothing’s funnier than real life.”
Director: Pyotr Buslov
Pyotr Buslov was the director of Bumer, which achieved cult status while it was still in the cinemas. The film told the story of four gangsters on the run who, as they travel through Russia, get themselves into more and more sticky situations. According to the legend, Buslov himself trained as a filmmaker at VGIK to hide from problems not dissimilar to those of his characters. Bumer was followed by Bumer 2 and a biopic about Vladimir Vysotsky, Vysotsky. Thank god I’m alive. Buslov has been working on his new film for almost four years.
Plot: The film is set in Goa in India, where the daughter of a rich Russian ends up against her will after her father forces her to disembark from his private jet after an argument en route to Jakarta. In Goa she soon finds herself in the whirl of local life, where the main protagonists are downshifters from Russia. Meanwhile, the father has second thoughts and organises a search for his daughter via the local police.
What you need to know: The film will not compete in any film festivals and will be released immediately in Russia, provisionally in March 2015. Motherland is the third joint project by the director and his producer Sergei Selyanov.
What the director says: Buslov is not a director who gives much away — he is generally tight-lipped and laconic, especially before his films are released. Even at private showings of Motherland he spent more time listening to the reactions of the first viewers than he did talking himself.