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Women in uniform: can a new Russian film about female soldiers live up to its feminist hype?

Women in uniform: can a new Russian film about female soldiers live up to its feminist hype?

In a patriarchal society like Russia's, how have women soldiers been portrayed in cinema? And can Battalion, released last week on Defender of the Fatherland Day, measure up to its Soviet predecessors?

5 March 2015

Bar a few exceptions, war films in Russia tend to come out around 9 May — Victory Day, or 23 February — Defender of the Fatherland Day, a national holiday when the role of men in society is traditionally celebrated. The war film Battalion was released on that date last week. But instead of a conventional focus on male bravery, the movie tells the true story of a female battalion during the First World War.

Dubbed “the Russian GI Jane” by some reviewers, Battalion was produced and heavily promoted by Fedor Bondarchuk, the director of the CGI-heavy war epic, Stalingrad. The movie was attacked before its release, with Indiewire calling it “propaganda”. The merits of the film aside, the date of its release remains striking.

From kindergarten onwards, girls prepare gifts for boys for 23 February, in return receiving flowers two weeks later on International Women’s Day, 8 March. Similar traditions exist in schools, workplaces and homes. Defender of the Fatherland Day is a commercialised holiday that gets shop owners to hastily change the Valentine’s hearts and roses in their windows for tanks, pictures of (mostly male) veterans and the St George ribbons that have become the main symbol of contemporary patriotism and support for the Kremlin.

Because of these traditions, it’s very rare that women are mentioned in mainstream discussions around the holiday. In conservative Russian society, a “Defender of the Fatherland” is a war hero, and a war hero is a man, brave and strong, tragic and macho.

This is a trend that has held sway for many years, and the fact that Russia has always been a patriarchal country has never helped. Early Bolshevist attempts at equality (as well as the need for patriotic propaganda) still had their results, and some Soviet posters from the Second World War featured women alongside men as defenders of the country. But they were outweighed by the posters showing women as needing protection, standing behind men or being handcuffed by the Nazis.

While everything female has been construed as the antithesis of war and “men’s business”, Soviet female soldiers demolished the concept in various ways. Lydia Litvyak, a celebrated fighter pilot, did not hide her love of flowers and had a lily drawn on the side of her plane. Yekaterina Budanova was a close friend of Litvyak, and the pair are still the world’s only female fighter aces. Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who studied history in a Kiev University before volunteering to go to war, was the most successful female sniper in history, who, after being injured in battle, was sent on a publicity visit to Canada and the US, where she was dumbfounded about the kind of questions the journalists asked her. She later said: “One reporter even criticised the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform made me look fat.”

But while some of the more famous and successful female soldiers enjoyed awards if they survived the Second World War, the rest of the women endured a tougher fate. Many returned home to be ostracised and shamed for going to war, doing an unwomanly job, and spending too much time too close to men. They couldn’t find jobs and some were rejected by their own families. Some were told that their experiences were “emotional” and therefore didn’t belong in mainstream history. Others were condemned for rejecting the romantic advances of soldiers who were later killed. There were also accounts of senior officers prohibiting women in their command to smoke or carry out certain tasks because they still had to “give birth and be a good wife to someone”.

Battalion, as rare an occurrence as it is, is not the first film about women veterans. The most popular and praised is The Dawns Here Are Quiet, a 1972 Oscar-nominated film based on Boris Vasilyev’s novel of the same name. It tells a tragic story of five young female anti-aircraft gunners and their senior sergeant. The film doesn’t shy away from telling the personal stories of the women but also doesn’t turn into a typical romantic war film where women only exist as a love interest for male soldiers. The film was remade into a TV show in 2005 and was generally welcomed by critics.

Another Soviet film, Night Witches In the Sky (1981), commemorated the famous all-female regiment of dive-bombers who flew on night-time bombing raids behind German lines. Commissar, from 1967, focusses on Klavdia, a female commissar of the Red Army cavalry, who finds herself pregnant. The film was shelved by the KGB for 20 years and was only released in 1988. Another film, Rainbow, was made during the war in 1944, and tells the story of a Ukrainian Soviet partisan, Olena Kostyuk. These Soviet pictures, however flawed and ideological, managed to tell the stories of these women soldiers relatively fairly, without turning to unnecessary romantic plots or emphasising the gender of the characters as something negative.

Most recent war films in Russia don’t hold up to the standards set by Soviet cinema. They have no chance of passing the Bechdel test, and women are usually featured as love interests. Some TV series, like Night Swallows, or Sniper 2: Tunguss attempted to make more gender-balanced films but eventually failed because of low budgets and bad casting. A film about Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Battle for Sevastopol, set for release later this year, focusses on a romantic plot and features a description of the renowned sniper as a “fragile woman”.

Battalion, however, had a large budget and a previously unexplored topic — favourable conditions for a good film. It doesn’t, however, stand up to expectations. The crumbling plot barely holds together in a two-hour film, and hints that the script might have initially been written for a TV series. Battle scenes look like they were filmed with a GoPro camera, which adds an unintentionally comic effect. But the biggest disappointment awaits those who were expecting feminism and justice from the film. The women soldiers, however brave, are constantly proven to be incompetent and useless, unless helped out by men. A scene in which the battalion commander is brutally beaten by her husband is filmed in an almost sadistic manner, drawn out and graphic. Moreover, Marat Basharov, the actor who plays Alexander Kerensky, a minister of the Provisional Government, was accused of domestic violence in 2014 and has since become a symbol of Russian anti-feminism and patriarchy.

Do a film’s flaws get in the way of delivering its message? Not necessarily, as long as they don’t contradict that message — the way the ideological propaganda in Soviet films didn’t necessarily overshadow the message of historical justice, equality, and bravery in The Dawns Here Are Quiet and other pictures. In Battalion, however, the message is barely there at all.

Maybe the failure of Battalion is not really that surprising. Patriarchy and sexism are now stronger than ever before in recent Russian history, and coupled with an aggressive need for patriotic films, this results in movies that have neither cinematographic quality nor a story. And if we have to keep showing war films on certain public holidays, we had better stick to a few old Soviet ones, which despite their flaws, manage to do what Battalion, shot in the 21st century, failed to — to remember and celebrate war heroes of all genders.

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