Music Features

Film After The Soviets (Part 2)

Post-Soviet Russian society is a hotch-potch of cultural ideas, arguments and discourses - none so troublesome as that of 'Russian-ness', the idea of things belonging inherently to Russia. Whatever aspect of Russian national identity directors are addressing, the majority would say that they are searching for the 'truth'. This concept of truth within Russian cinema itself reverts back to theories developed in the 1920s, most prominently in the works of Dziga Vertov. His seminal efforts, 'Kino-Eye' (Kinoglaz, 1924) and 'The Man with the Movie Camera' (Chelovek s kino-apparatom, 1929) are seen as executed examples of searching for 'kino-truth'. Both films are documentary in nature, worth noting that 'The Man with the Movie Camera' follows the epic journey of a cameraman, Vertov's brother, on an epic filming journey to capture true life in a Soviet city.

This idea of meta-film, (i.e. a film within a film) can be seen in Aleksei Balabanov's'War' (Voyna, 2002). In this film we see a British actor on a journey back to Chechnya, where Chechen rebels are holding his fiancée for ransom. He is paid by a British broadcasting body to film his journey, which sees him negotiating with government officials in Moscow, trying to seek a resolution to the situation, journeying by train to Vladikavkaz, and from there finding his way into the Chechen hills on the back of a military truck. As we follow him on his journey, we see how he gradually becomes removed from his morals, culminating in shooting a Chechen ringleader in the back. Throughout this, he is guided by a Russian ex-soldier, who acts as mentor, translator and military instructor. It is interesting to see the shift in how we perceive the British actor. At first, he is seen as unfortunate, placed in a difficult situation due to Chechen rebels, and we are justified in sympathising with his cause. However, as the journey progresses, the British actor becomes more and more ruthless, to an extent that the audience would deem immoral. The Russian ex-soldier, meanwhile, remains calm and calculated throughout, aware of the fact that when all is done, he will receive a handy payout from his 'employer'.

The role of the actor's video camera is important for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Vertov was sympathetic to the role of the camera. He saw it as an object that could only record the truth and it was in fact only the role of the director that created any bias, through the interference of editing. To this extent, the camera could play the role of the unbiased observer in the events that unfolded in Chechnya. Were we able to see the footage recorded on it, would we be tempted to redefine our views on the individual characters? Using this theory, it is possible to say that it is merely the directorial tendencies and pragmatic ideology used by Balabanov that manipulates the sequence of events into making us feel what we feel. Perhaps the British actor is more sinned against than sinning, and if we were able to view this camera footage, then perhaps we would be able to better understand the decline of morality that takes place.

The end of the film tells us that the British actor has been able to forge a successful career, based on the film footage that was subsequently released to the global media. Meanwhile, his Russian counterpart is convicted for cruelty to a Chechen farmer, based on the released footage. Could this turn of events be an attack on the biased nature of the Western media, to whom it could be inferred that a large level of editing may have attributed to a favourable outcome on the side of the Westerners? It could be fair to interpret it that way. On the other hand, it could be an interesting anthropological reading from Balabanov that all races have the capacity to be both self-centred and altruistic, regardless of their depiction in the media. Nevertheless, by the end of 'War', one is compelled to sympathise with the plight of the Russian or Chechen, rather than the Briton.

Vertov's search for truth, whether intrinsically entertaining or ideological, runs deep within the makeup of post-Soviet cinema. But where truth refers to something that is true, there are many aspects of 'truth' that post-Soviet directors have attempted to address. We have previously seen Mikhailkov's treatment of Stalinism, and Balabanov's view on the biased nature of the Western press, but truth can run much closer to the soul of a being, rather than the social construction that surrounds it.

Indeed, the issue of morality is a theme that runs through a lot of post-Soviet films. Take, for example, Balabanov's 'Brother' (Brat, 1997). The protagonist, Danila, sees himself as a moral enforcer attempting to retain an element of order and moral righteousness in a chaotic, almost lawless environment. We follow Danila's transition from soldier to citizen, from the rural to the urban, where he applies his own belief systems to deal with problems such as a lover's abusive husband, and a brother who betrays him. It could be said that Danila's journey mirrors that of the new Russia. He has left the authoritative and bureaucratic militarist system of the army to the laissez-faire construction of ultra-capitalist St. Petersburg, a similar journey to that of Russia. It is also interesting to note that Danila's transition can be interpreted as one that shifts from an environment dominated by a father, to one dominated by a brother. It is this shift to a fatherless society that runs dominant in post-Soviet Russian society, and is reflected in a number of films.

Andrei Zviagintsev's 'The Return' (Vozvrashcheniye, 2003) sees how two brothers develop a deep attachment in order to compensate for their fatherless childhood. On the return of their father after 12 years (approximately the same time between the production of the film and the collapse of the Soviet Union) the boys and their father head north on a fishing trip. Semantically, the film explores the relationship between father and son. However, on a religious level, this Father makes his first appearance as a risen Christ-like figure. At one point, the boys rush into the attic, where they search for a picture of their father, and this is found in an old edition of the bible. Then they go to dinner, replicating the last supper, where the father shares wine and bread (here chicken) with his disciples, or his family. It is worth noting that the children have the names of two apostles - Andrei and Ivan. The Christ-like interpretation of Zviagintsev's father is somewhat problematic, due to the father's dubious moral conduct. Thus, if we entertain the idea that mankind is to follow a particular Father figure, without challenge or thought, regardless of immoral conduct, then perhaps it would be more accurate to look at political and moral figures, such as Stalin. Such absolute and devout following of someone who neither inspires trust nor respect is an unsuitable concept for religious faith and would therefore be more fitting of a critique of totalitarianism.

Another fatherless Russian society can be found in Balabanov's 'Of Freaks and Men', (Pro urodov i lyudey, 1998) which follows the exploits of the pornographic and freakish vices of 1910s Imperialist Russia. Perhaps this film is especially effective in portraying the shift of societal norms through time as a result of political correctness, and what is deemed socially acceptable. Furthermore, the film could be seen as an apologist for the Revolution (and therefore, the Civil War) in that it graphically states the degradation of society, and therefore how important it was for Russian society to change fundamentally in order to progress.

In this way, it is evident that cinema's role in the formation of national identity is primarily found through its historical representation of events. Aleksandr Sokurov, also an agitator of the new fatherless Russian state in 'Father and Son' (Otets i syn, 2003), paints a very optimistic and sentimental picture of the Russian empire in his 'Russian Ark' (Russkiy kovcheg, 2002). 'Russian Ark' was the first film to be given an international release having been filmed entirely on hi-definition digital equipment, taking place entirely within the grounds of the Hermitage as one 96 minute, grandiose mise-en-scène. We see historical events throughout Russian history (although predominantly in the days of the empire) in 33 different rooms of the Hermitage. Indeed, although Catherine the Great and other notable figures appear in Russian Ark, the Hermitage is the real protagonist of Sokurov's film. The museum is presented as a living being with a memory and a consciousness capable of embracing not only 300 years of Russian history, but lands and centuries far removed from its actual location. This is of course referred to in the title of the film; theologically speaking, the ark is seen as the preserver of species and a mode of mass transportation, and in this film the Hermitage carries out this same role.

Sokurov's Ark underlines the role of history in cinema, and the importance of history when defining a national identity through cinema. Film is a natural way of observing past events; not only historical records, but modern interpretations of those events. Of course, analysing the interpretations is far more problematic than analysing the primary sources, but it is also fruitful. What motives did the directors have when they were working through their final cut? One cannot neglect the financial pressures involved in the film industry, and to this extent directors may have waived their artistic integrity on varying levels in order to get their film made. But on a more personal level, what agendas did these directors have when defining the moral codes and social themes of their works? Mikhailkov, for example, seemed willing to use his influence in modern Russian society to espouse his neo-totalitarian ideology. Sokurov, on the other hand, seems willing to glorify the grandiose nature of the Russian empire in a positive light, perhaps aligning with the growing power of the Orthodox church. Even so, the Russian national legacy is being dealt with in a variety of ways in this post-Soviet era, and thus, on an everyday level, this reflects on cinema-goers' own perception of Russian national legacy, which in turn helps to form the new, post-Soviet, Russian identity.