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

Confession/ Povinnost (Russia, Aleksandr Sokurov, 1998): A homoerotic film of cult potential

November 27, 2008 at 1:15 am

Among the films I watched over recent days, Sokurov’s Confession/ Povinnost (1998) impressed me the most. Not so much the film itself, as I admit to not be particularly fond of films that run over 200 minutes at a slow pace. My fascination came more from the two realizations which I made while seeing it, and immediately thereafter. First, Confession (more accurately translated as Service of Duty) is one of the most intensely homoerotc films I have ever seen, yet it does not seem to be a film that is recognized in the context of gay cinema. Secondly, the few reviews of the film downplay the intense homoeroticism or interpret it as a minor feature while foregrounding other aspects, thus raising questions about the underlying reasons of such critical myopia.

The first dimension: Homoerotic motives, have been present in Sokurov’s work from early on, at least since the feature Dni zatmeniya/ Days of Eclipse (1988, pictured) and the five-hour long documentary Spiritual Voices/Dukhovnie golosa (1995), both films evolving around Caucasian and Asian men cast away in some remote Asian locations, Turkmenistan in the first case and Afghanistan in the second. In Confession, which is set on a military ship in Russia’s far north, nothing much happens by way of action. There is a voice-over which reads excerpts from the ship captain’s diary, passages that are not directly linked to what one sees on screen, mostly evolving around matters of commitment, dedication, or endurance. In contrast to the voice-over, the visuals of this meditative film mostly consist of gentle and yet unrelentless scrutiny of the semi-naked bodies of the sailors. The camera endlessly dances around their daily routines on board in Murmansk. In most instances the young men are shown sleeping, scrubbing floors, sorting out their clothes or beds. Usually, they are naked from the waste up, but they occasionally wear horizontally striped T-shirts, as if having come out from a gay comic strip. Their bodies are lean rather than muscular, and nothing explicitly sexual is taking place. Yet, the innuendo is so intense that the constant mutual avoidance of bodies makes the attraction much more convincing than one could have achieved though the display of actual sexual acts.

What is more curious to me is the second aspect, which concerns the critical reviews of the film. In the overall, the reviews that I was able to find, generally evade discussing the homoeroticism of Confession (while I believe this to be the uniquely defining feature of the film). True, reviewers cannot help it but mentioning this aspect, but they usually do it only in passing. The reviewer at PopMatters, for example, talks about ‘suppressed desires’ and is quick to veer away from discussing this aspect of the film by warning that ‘Sokurov has repeatedly warned against any homoerotic interpretation of his films, but speculation remains as to whether such conviction is a necessary concession to a homophobic Russian public.’ He opts to honor the warning of the director and interprets the film in the categories of despair, monotony and oppression (all these supposedly being inherent features of military life — something I would tend to agree with). The reviewer at The Village Voice describes the film as a ‘fictionalized meditation on life aboard an Arctic naval ship, pensively decked out with some of the oddest visions of edge-of-the-map industrialization ever captured’. The reviewer in The Chicago Reader sees it as an exploration of ‘the way human consciousness can become a prison, walling off the self from visual, emotional, or physical contact’. Most reviews declare the film profoundly Russian in its concerns and representation, some mention the references to Chekhov made during a conversation between the Commander and his friend. Yes, all these aspects could be found in the film if one watches it carefully. Yet if one engages in such careful and patient viewing, it would be impossible to not be overwhelmed by the intense homo-eroticism which dominates nearly every shot. There is a deep gap between the voice-over commentary in this film and the imagery. The pensive voice-over commentary based on the Commander’s philosophical diary is in such a drastic contrast with the image on the screen that one could not possibly overlook it.

Had this film been made in Soviet times, I am sure it would have been interpreted along the lines of censorship and the director would have been praised for using smart smokescreen techniques that attach a benign text to a radically subversive imagery. Well, we are now well beyond the times of Soviet censorship, and critics have had to abandon the interpretative tools that the regime’s censorship practices was supplying them with. But then, why would one avoid naming the things one sees on screen, and acknowledging the divergence between commentary and visual representation? Isn’t it more a matter of which one of our (apparently split) critical abilities we would choose to follow — one’s instinct, linked more to what is on display to see and experience through the eyes, or one’s mind trusting mostly what one hears in the commentary, in the spoken or written word. The second, verbal dimension of the film, is rational and meditative, and invited for a Brechtian distant-type reception (and this was the way critics have apparently felt they would or should interpret the film). But then, the first aspect is so overwhelmingly present and yet so unrelated to the verbal commentary (clearly an intentional effect), that the disparity becomes drastic at moments. If I trusted my eyes, this was a film that was speaking of desire and physical attraction, and doing it so powerfully through the use of visuals that everything else just came across as a mockery. The series of images of the film were erotic art of high order, with skinny Russian sailors putting their precious bodies on display — snuggling in their bunk beds, fidgeting with gadgets, looking at books, discussing if they should sleep naked or on their clothes. The monotony was just another opportunity to revisit the view of someone’s torso. The despair, the repetitiveness of military life — an excuse to linger around and gaze more at these amazingly beautiful male species. Why is it that the critics had rejected it to pick up on the discrepancy between the two possible aspects of interpreting the film, when, I believe, it was simply shouting out at the viewer? Not that they would not have seen it. I wonder if this is not more about the way in which one canonizes the interpretation of certain auteurs. Bergman, Tarkovsky, Sokurov…

I see a short piece on the matter of the gay dimension in Sokurov’s work at CinePassion, but the writer only mentions other films and mostly focuses on Father and Son (2003) (pictured). If he were to see Confession, much of his uncertainty would be dispelled.

The two DVD-set containing all five parts of the film has been released by Facets in the US, but it is in fact an import from France, and it is therefore produced to much higher standards than the usual Facets fare. The film is subtitled in all major European languages. The second DVD contains an interesting digital booklet which one can read through the computer and which provides background to the director and the film, once again avoiding the gay theme altogether.

© Dina Iordanova
25 November 2008

Buy from Amazon

Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (1999, Russia) Aleksandr Sokurov

August 12, 2008 at 11:09 pm

I had purchased this DVD in Paris earlier in the year, but only watched it now, probably prompted by the news of the death of the author who, even spending years in the Gulag, lived to be 89.

This is yet another one of Sokurov’s pensive and masterful documentaries that manage to come really close to the person that is being interviewed. At moments one really wonders how does Sokurov manage to make his subjects behave in a way as if there is no camera nearby. The silent observation of the writer working in his study, the close ups of his hands while editing, the quiet light of his home, it all looks as lived, not filmed. The most remarkable part of the film, however, is the one shot outdoors, during a walk Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn take outside of the writer’s datcha near Moscow, through the woods, visiting the site where a lighting recently stroke, split and burned a giant old tree.

The film, commissioned by a Russian TV channel and shot in 1999 consists of two parts of about 90 minutes each, thus the total comes to slightly over three hours. The first part s called The Knot (Uzel) while the second is entitled simply Dialogues. At the time of these interviews Solzhenitsyn is about eighty years of age, but his mind is remarkably agile and his judgement is swift; he has strong opinions on many issues. He talks a lot about writing and literature, about aspects of the Russian language, and about many of the most important Russian writers, from Gogol and Dostoyevski through Plekhanov and Karamzin, to present-day Valentin Rasputin or emigre Nabokov. Themes of politics are touched only in passing, but there is lots of convesation about religion, historical fate, national identity, guided by the director’s subtle questioning. Sokurov pays exquisite attention to the writer’s working environment, his need of quiet and light, his love of nature. The writer’s wife is also interviewed about their three sons, life in America and the activities of the foundation they run to help victims of the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn talks about his own origins, his parents and grandparents and his early life and beliefs, war time experience, surviving the Gulag, the exile in Kazakhstan.

It is all placed in a framework of a voiceover narrative that the director provides himself, on the background of various photographs related to stages in Solzhenitsyn’s life. The film is richly textured also because the director interweaves references to his own work, like his breakthrough The Lonely Human Voice (1987), clearly revealing to what significant extent Solzhenitsyn’s work has influenced his own formation. Even though there is no footage from his remarkable Days of Eclipse (1988), a film about existential displacement that, accidentally, is shot in Kazakhstan (the place of Solzhenitsyn’s internment), things that were said in reference to the writer’s time in the Kazakh steppe fully resonated with the haunting imagery found in this most memorable work of Sourov.

Dina Iordanova
13 August 2008