Syostry/Sisters (Russia, 2001, Sergei Bodrov Jr.): Invisibility at the Festival Circuit

December 16, 2008 at 12:51 pm

Is it possible that a certain type of circulation through the festival circuit can keep an excellent film away from the eyes of entrepreneurial producers who shop around for re-make material? Evidently yes. Otherwise I cannot imagine how a little gem like this one has not yet been re-made in Hollywood, provided it has everything one takes, and more, for a perfectly shaped tense psychological crime thriller. It seems it is the specific circuit of exposure of this film that pre-determines its relative obscurity: Sisters has been in good international circulation and it has played at the festival circuit, so formally it has been ‘seen’. Yet it has either appeared in those sidebars that remain overlooked at the large festivals, or it has come to the limelight at secondary festivals that are not attended by the players interested in optioning or remakes (and are thus enhancing its ‘invisibility’).

The film premiered in Russia and had a good run domestically in 2001, with awards from the Russian Guild of Film Critics and at the Moscow International Film Festival. It then played at the Venice Film Festival, from where it was picked up for Cottbus Film Festival of Young East European Cinema (October), Vancouver (October), Thessaloniki (mid November), Trieste Film Festival (January), Rotterdam (end of January), Karlovy Vary (July 2002), European Film Week in Hungary (December 2002). It has had a regular run in Russia Estonia, Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, sometimes on television. It received international awards and nominations at Tromsø International Film Festival, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Bratislava International Film Festival. And this is, more or less, the circuit that has granted the film its relative invisibility, one that can be accounted to the timing of festival entry, and other circulation factors.

This excellently scripted film relies on a simple premise: the dynamics in the strained yet supportive relationship between two half-sisters. The older one, Sveta (played by Oksana Akinshina of Lilja 4-Ever fame) is 14; her father has abandoned her as a baby and her mother has remarried. The mother’s current husband is Alik, a charismatic gangster who hails from the Caucasus and is linked to Chechen and other mafias. Dina (excellently played by Katya Gorina), the younger sister, is about eight. She is Alik’s daughter. Even though she knows her father has just been released from jail, Dina enjoys her father’s love and care; she feels superior to Sveta and reminds her on every opportunity how much her father cares for her. Soon enough, however, a group of intelligently-looking gangsters are after the girls, especially after the Dina, whose possible abduction they see as a good opportunity to blackmail Alik into paying back some old debts. Even though Alik thinks he can protect the girls, it so happens that they are soon on the run and on their own. It is a perilous period during which the sisters are close to disaster more than one time, and during which they survive mostly thanks to Sveta’s industriousness and dedication. It is an ordeal which makes these otherwise quite estranged sisters finally bond with each other.

There are many ingredients that make this small film particularly charming. The girl’s fascination with dancing dressed as Indian women, to the music from some Bollywood blockbuster is a feature true to reality (Russian women are known to seek escapism in exotic India). The song performed here on several occasions, and at the end of the film where the sisters dance to its tune dressed in saris, is credited as Dekhar hai pehgi bar (referenced to Nadeem Saravan, Sameer, Alka Tagnik, S.P. Bala). Then, there are the numerous references to Russian-Korean singer Victor Tsoi (1962-1990), a cult figure of the Soviet perestroika period, whose music is featured in the clip that I am embedding here from You Tube, as well as in the film.

When the sisters are in trouble, they are accepted by a large Gypsy family from whom they immediately pick some survival tips. The representation of these supportive pragmatic Romanies subverts the stereotypes that are usually in circulation when it comes to depicting this ethnic group. Sveta’s need for a fatherly figure is partially relieved by a brief encounter with an unnamed young gangster (played by the film’s director himself) who takes a friendly interest in her superior marksmanship skills.

Sisters is the only film that Sergei Bodrov Jr. released as director. Son of well-known transnational filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, he had come to early fame in Russia as an actor of cult standing, mostly for his roles as Danila Bagrov in Aleksei Balabanov’s Brat (1997) and Brat 2 (2000). He was working on his second directorial project in the Caucasus, when his crew became a victim of a massive and unexpected mud slide. His life was cut short at the age of 30.

© Dina Iordanova
16 December 2008

Romani actors and Invisibility: Welcome Images, Unwanted Bodies

December 7, 2008 at 11:02 am

Having seen many films featuring Romani themes and actors over the years, I cannot help observing that there are rarely actors of Romani origin that sustain more than an episodic career in cinema. In most cases, the pattern is one of appearing in a film, making a great impact, and then either coming back for one or two more installments of doing some more of the same like in the earlier film, or vanishing completely. For instance, Gordana Jovanovic, the beautiful young Romni from Aleksandar Petrovic’s classic I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967) only appeared in his next film, It Rains in My Village, and ten years later, in a small role in Goran Paskaljevic’s human trafficking film Guardian Angel (1987). The Gypsy musicians of Slobodan Sijan’s classical Yugoslav saga Who Is Singing Out There? (1980), the brothers Miodrag and Nenad Kostic, have appeared in a handful of other Yugoslav films, always playing the same role of Gypsy musicians, a role which they also happen to play in real life as well. The unforgettable motherly Ljubica Adzovic from Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (1989, pictured) and Black Cat, White Cat (1999), had no roles in cinema in the decade between the two films, before falling out of sight (reportedly, she was determined to only be in this particular director’s films, so much she liked him). There was a brief report somewhere that she was claiming asylum in France around 2002. Then, according to a note on the imdb, she has died in 2006.

Could it be that this is the way these Romani actors are, in line with the widely spread belief of the freewheeling Gypsy soul that cannot bear the straitjacket of commitment and permanence? Or, could it be that there are other factors at play here? I simply do not know what may have affected casting decisions in the Yugoslav films that I just referenced. However, in more recent cases, I have stumbled upon evidence that the approach to transnational casting of Romani actors often comes along with ‘strings attached’ : true to the transnational nature of their community, Roma are allowed to appear in films shot in different countries, but such appearances cannot possibly serve as the basis of immigration claims on their part. In order to secure this rule, strict measures are put in place. On the one hand, one embraces the Gypsy screen presence while, on the other, one acts to keep the actual Roma out of sight. The resulting paradoxical (and ultimately hypocritical) situation is that Roma actors are hailed as images on the screen, but only as long as they do not attempt to show up in flesh and blood.

In one case from the mid 1990s, the French authorities gave permission to Ovidiu Balan, a Romanian Roma boy (born around 1980 in my estimation), to stay in France for the duration of the shooting of Tony Gatlif’s Mondo, a sensitive drama of adolescent bonding where he played the main role. He was promptly deported to Romania as soon as shooting wrapped up. Balan has since appeared in two more films — the Canadian-Swiss tale of human trafficking Clandestins (1997) and Gatlif’s own Gadjo Dilo (1997), where he played a prematurely grown up community leader. Clearly extremely gifted, Balan has had no film appearances for more than a decade now, and, like in most other cases of actors of Romani origin, his most productive years have clearly not been taken up by film roles.

In another instance, Maria Baco, the Hungarian Roma actress who played the lead in Silvio Soldini’s Un’anima divisa in due (1993) was refused an entry visa to Italy and and effectively barred from attending the screening of the film at the Venice International Film Festival’s competition (where her partner won the award for best actor). This remains her only role up to date, and there is no information on her date of birth or place of residence and occupation today. Meanwhile, leading roles of Romani women in Hungarian cinema have been assigned to actresses of the main ethnicity, like Dorka Gryllus, who look the part.

© Dina Iordanova
7 December 2008

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Ceský sen/ Czech Dream (Czech Republic, 2004, dir. Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda)

December 2, 2008 at 11:50 pm

What does the European future hold for people in the ‘new’ Europe? Two film students from Prague’s FAMU, Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, raise this question in their diploma project, the documentary film Czech Dream (2004). A clever renunciation of the overblown media hype over Europe in the run up to EU’s accession, the film chronicles an outrageous hoax that the filmmakers pulled on their fellow-citizens. As the film unravels, Klusák and Remunda put in motion a massive advertising campaign for a non-existent hyper-market which they call Czech Dream and for which they erect a fake façade in the middle of an empty field outside the capital. On the appointed day, thousands of enthusiastic Prague consumers flock to the place, in anticipation of finding great promotional bargains. Their eagerness, however, soon turns into bitter consternation.

The scenes of outrage at the end of Czech Dream come accompanied with the filmmakers’ commentary, which compares their despicable prank to the way in which East Europeans sheepishly bought into unsubstantiated propaganda and flocked toward joining the European Union. Czechs and other ‘new’ Europeans knew well that they were not the most esteemed partners Europe wanted; they also suspected that Europe would not be as generous as it seemed. Yet, they hushed whatever hesitations they had and rushed into the accession. But what if the pledge of prosperity turned out an empty promise? Czech Dream is a documentary with a point.

© Dina Iordanova
3 December 2008

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