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Russian Cinema Under the Gaze of Putin: Truth in the Face of Despair

A new series of screenings in New York tells a bracing account of filmmaking under the Russian leader

The title of a new series of screenings at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, ‘Putin’s Russia: A 21st Century Film Mosaic’, contains a definite (and valid) thesis: the important Russian films of this millennium were made in active opposition to, or at the very least with heightened awareness of, Vladimir Putin. Paradoxically, many of these productions were made with state financing via the Russian Ministry of Culture, although that appears to have changed after 2014. That was when Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) – an unambiguously angry condemnation of state kleptocracy and corruption, complete with villainous city officials sitting under Putin’s portrait – proved an embarrassment to the state, which had provided 35% of its funding.

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Andrei Zvyagintsev, Leviathan, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Andrei Zvyagintsev, Leviathan, 2014, film still. Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Culture Ministry director Vladimir Medinsky – a Putin loyalist who unabashedly leans into public professions that are nationalist, homophobic and otherwise objectionable – condemned the film as ‘anti-Russian’ and suggested that the state shouldn’t finance dissident works in the future: ‘In my personal opinion films that are sharply critical of the current government and, frankly spit on it, filled with hopelessness and existential meaninglessness, should not be funded by taxpayers.’ For Zvyagintsev’s follow-up Loveless (2017), producer Alexander Rodnyansky ‘made a conscious decision to do this without any state involvement.’ At a 2017 press conference at Cannes for that film, Rodnyansky also noted that at the Kinotavr festival in Sochi in the same year, 9 out of 14 films were financed without state funding.

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Sergei Loznitsa, A Gentle Creature, film still. Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Sergei Loznitsa, A Gentle Creature, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Both Leviathan and Loveless are screening as part of ‘Putin’s Russia,’ which accordingly tracks a trajectory of films that, inevitably, arrive at the end of the era when an autonomous state cultural financing body could legitimize internal dissent. Today’s films remain severe and appalled – though Mendinsky would probably explain their entirely foreign financing as proof that they are not truly Russian films. Their thematic continuity undermines that potential rebuttal.

While Zvyagintsev has moved away from state financing, Ukrainian-born, Russian-trained Sergei Loznitsa – arguably the other most prominent director to rise to attention in the 2000s (though he’s been working since the 1990s) – left the country entirely, emigrating to Germany in 2001. Last year’s A Gentle Creature (2017) is set in Russia but shot in Latvia; his other entry in the series, Victory Day (2018), was shot at Berlin’s Treptower Park, where every month a Russian delegation arrives to mourn their dead at the infamously kitschy Soviet War Memorial. The former film is a road-trip nightmare, tracking a woman as she attempts to deliver a package to her imprisoned husband, efforts which lead to an endless hell of queues full of angry people and incredible incivility (or worse) from blatantly indifferent officials. Shot in the ultra-wide 2.66:1 ratio (last seen in, of all things, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, 2015), A Gentle Creature demonstrates Loznitsa’s impeccably rigorous knack for diorama staging and impeccable choreography, keeping his aesthetic verve in the face of atrocity.

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Sergei Loznitsa, Victory Day, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Sergei Loznitsa, Victory Day, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Rudeness, so endemic and unmitigated as to be funny, pervades many of these films: note the moment in A Gentle Creature when a man in a crowded lobby hisses ‘I’ll spit TB on your face’ at the person next to him. Tuberculosis is also a factor in 2013’s Blood, Alina Rudnitskaya’s hour-long documentary look at a travelling blood-harvesting operation relying on underpaid citizens, often malnourished and on the verge of fainting (or actually doing so), for the state. No metaphorical vampires required: the relationship between government and citizen is quite clear. TB and AIDS-tainted donations are an inevitable concern for phlebotomists and nurses who know what they’re doing is wrong, and one nurse’s understandable response is to get routinely blind drunk. ‘Why am I telling you this?’ she asks her one-night companion as they walk back from a trip to get more vodka. ‘Because it hurts you,’ he simply replies. It stings, but Rudnitskaya’s seemingly casual framing, adeptly pulling in background action throughout, emotionally counterbalances by framing the pair against a large moon on the horizon. (Rudnitskaya’s film, paired with two other shorts in one programme, is one of the series’s under-known highlights).

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Dmitri Kalashnikov, The Road Movie, film still. Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Dmitri Kalashnikov, The Road Movie, 2016, film still. Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Blood’s medical crew travels from one town to another on snowy roads that sometimes end abruptly; Dmitri Kalashnikov’s almost unconscionably entertaining The Road Movie (2016), an assemblage of especially grubby motorway havoc (there are an improbable number of wild horses with carts running around the countryside, it would appear), makes the everyday stakes of driving in Russia clear. The film, edited from videos posted on social media, was made possible by the widespread adoption of webcams by citizens ready to encounter police corruption (or worse) at every stop. The terrors of driving also power Portuguese director Salomé Lamas’s impressive Extinction (2018) (one of two North American premieres in this series). The complicated doc narrative takes a while to make itself clear, but it’s structured around a series of drives that cross the borders of Romania, Moldova and the unrecognized territory of Transnistra, captured in unnerving audio recordings of encounters with state police demanding endless paperwork at every stop. Lamas’s broader subject is the Soviet project and the potential disintegration of the Russian Federation as a possibly inevitable sequel; her methods include giganticist shots of state architecture in beautifully graded black-and-white, a bracing dose of modernist music by Andreia Pinto Correia and some killer monologues about what Russia was and is. The opening Thomas Bernhard epigraph sets the tone: ‘After all, there is nothing but failure.’

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Alina Rudnitskaya, Blood, film still. Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Alina Rudnitskaya, Blood, film still. Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Does all this sound like one long atrocity exhibition? There’s much bleakness throughout the series, but the best of these films have an effect similar to J.G. Ballard’s work: there’s something bracing in seeing someone articulate, exactly and dispassionately, a situation that is absolutely unacceptable. With commendable rigour and technical excellence, the films in ‘Putin’s Russia’ form a rich, coherent narrative of despair, losing hope for a moment of national reckoning that may never arrive.

‘Putin’s Russia: A 21st Century Film Mosaic’ runs at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image until 15 July.

Main image: Andrei Zvyagintsev, Loveless, 2017, film still.  Courtesy: Museum of the Moving Image, New York

Vadim Rizov (@vrizov) is the managing editor of Filmmaker Magazine.

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