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Shooting stars: five Russian female directors to watch

4 June 2014

Shooting stars: five Russian female directors to watch

On the opening night of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, New Zealand director Jane Campion — the only woman to have ever won the Palme d’Or —lamented the “inherent sexism” in the film industry. By contrast — and rather unexpectedly — women directors in Russia are fast eclipsing their male counterparts, creating films that are garnering critical acclaim both at home and abroad. A case in point is this year’s Kinotavr, one of Russia’s main film festivals, where 8 of the 14 films in the main competition were made by women directors. Nor was this a one off: the victory that comes a little more than six months after all four of the main awards at Moscow’s ArtDocFest Documentary Film Festival went to women. The Calvert Journal brings you five directors and five stand-out shorts that have broken new ground in Russia.

Text: Anton Sazonov

Natalia Novik

Natalia Novik made a splash on the Russian film scene with her full-length feature, Get that Girl (2008), a madcap comedy which follows three orphans left to fend for themselves in a house by the Crimean coast. Despite the critical acclaim afforded to Get that Girl — it was screened at festivals around the world — Novik’s strength lies in her short films. Most notable are The Cart (2012), which won an award at the European Independent Film Festival in Paris in 2013, and her more recent production Fish Day (2014), which premiered at the Movement festival in Omsk in April, both collaborations with scriptwriter Andrey Migachev. After moving to Moscow from Perm to study at the prestigious VGIK film school, 32-year-old Novik worked in a variety of roles in television and documentary film before working on Get that Girl.

The Cart (2012)

Although it’s far from obvious, according to Novik, the inspiration for The Cart came from the series of anti-government protests that swept across Moscow between 2011 and 2013. The film follows a creaking, motorless wagon as it journeys across Russia without a driver passing various people along the way. Each responds in a different way, viewing the cart as a mode of transport, a source of photographic inspiration or a technical wonder. Where the cart is headed or why remains a mystery and Novik is reluctant to give too much away about the film.

Oksana Mikheeva

Oksana Mikheeva, 35, made a splash with her debut film, Defocusin (2013), which skillfully uses computer graphics to tell the story of Pashok, an inventor struggling to create a formula for invisibility. She took her graphics skills to a whole other level in her second short, Second Life (2014), about a family struggling to make ends meet and a father who dreams of a life of luxury. Before studying scriptwriting at Moscow’s VGIK film school under director Alexander Kott, credited with launching the careers of scores of young filmmakers, Mikheeva worked as a theatre actress in her native Nizhny Novogorod in central Russia. For her next project, Mikheeva plans to document the rise of drug abuse in Russia “in a particularly dark period during the 1990s”. Not that it will be easy, she notes: the government clampdown on controversial films may mean the project is hampered by complications.

Defocusin (2013)

The concept behind Defocusin came to Mikheeva during one of her many sleepless nights. The main protagonist, Pashok, is working on a formula to help celebrities escape the paparazzi by blurring them out in photos. In a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids moment however, he ends up accidentally making his wife invisible, which leads to raised suspicions among his neighbours. When the police arrive to follow up on concerns, the film ends with an interesting plot twist.

Anna Sarukhanova

Anna Sarukhanova’s star is rising. The 25-year-old has just finished work as the second director on Yes and Yes (2014) alongside the enfant terrible of Russian film, Valeria Gai Germanika, best known for her controversial coming-of-age films and television series. Before Yes and Yes, which will premiere in the main competition of the Moscow International Film Festival this summer, Sarukhanova directed a music video for Germanika and rapper Kach’s song V nol, which also raised eyebrows for featuring a topless woman running through the Moscow metro.

Working solo, the Tbilisi-born director has shot three shorts of her own, Elephants Playground (2012), Away (2013), and Exam (2014), a mockumentary about a group of teenagers hoping to get into an architectural institute, which is due to premiere this summer. Sarukhanova is hoping to start work on a full-length feature film set in Georgia but is having difficult securing funding. She remains confident nonetheless: “I haven’t managed to get it off the ground yet but I know I will.”

Away (2013)

Set in Tbilisi, the film’s protagonist, an unnamed young man, walks through the city’s streets as he contemplates whether to accept a job abroad or to stay at home with his family and girlfriend. Shot in the lush, cobbled backstreets of the Georgian capital, he takes snaps of the daily scenes he sees unfolding around him: a cat hopping off a bench, seashells dangling on a piece of string, a birdhouse nailed to a wall. “I wanted to convey the mood of the city in summer,” says Sarukhanova. “It just turned out that words were unnecessary for this.”

Yana Skopina

Born in Almaty, Yana Skopina studied theatre and advertising before moving to Moscow to learn filmmaking under the likes of Sergei Solovyov, the director of cult hit Assa (1987). With Solovyov as her mentor, she produced a handful of shorts, including Milky Way Galaxy (2014). Solovyov’s influence on Skopina’s work is evident throughout her films: her melancholy storylines focus on young people in search of love to a soundtrack by emerging Russian musicians, just as Solovyov did decades before. Skopina is certainly not short of film ideas and even has two in the pipeline which she’s currently searching for funding for.

Milky Way Galaxy (2014)

Milky Way Galaxy is based John Updike’s novel The Centaur, which chronicles the complex relationships between a father and son. Shot on 35mm film, a rarity for a short, Skopina made the film as a tribute to Updike. “In choosing the film’s colour scheme, I studied the works of Andrew Wyeth extensively (an American realist painter). Updike and Wyeth were like twin brothers. They even had similar intonations.”

Maria Popritsak

St Petersburg-based documentary filmmaker Maria Popritsak, the youngest of the group at 22 years old, has come to be known for her highly informative and visually rich films. After completing her first major short, I’m Here (2013), last year, Popritsak now hopes to focus on her first full-length feature about the Siege of Leningrad. A highly sensitive topic in Russia, Popritsak fears that she may have problems obtaining funding for such a film, especially from the Minsitry of Culture. “Apparantly I'm too young to take on such a serious topic,” she explains. “But I want to create something that’s a mix of video art and traditional documentary. Cinematic depictions of the siege are often rendered as a kind of dull postcard but I want to breathe life into the subject.”

I’m here (2013)

In I’m here, Popritsak skilfully weaves together a series of portraits of young Russians, who although unknown to each other are united through their age — they are all in their 20s — and their location in St Petersburg. Shot over the course of one day, the film shifts between life’s minutiae and sweeping views across the city. The result is a highly lyrical documentary that blurs the lines between fiction and reality.