It’s been a disappointing year for Russian film. Only a handful made it into any major international festivals. Although one, A Long and Happy Life by established festival favourite Boris Khlebnikov, participated in the Berlin Film Festival in February there were no Russian films in the main competitions at Cannes, Venice or Rome. Moscow-based film critic Anton Sazonov picks five new productions from both established and new directors that he predicts will fare better next year.
The Hope Factory
Director: Natalia Meshchaninova
Potential festivals: Sundance, Berlinale
Director's bio: Natalia Meshchaninova first achieved acclaim with School, a thought-provoking television series about a Russian high school that sparked widespread public debate about education in the country. Meshchaninova, who was trained in documentary film, went on to make Dick Dick, a live recording of a concert by legendary Russian rock group Leningrad that focused not on the musicians but the band’s fans.
Plot: The Hope Factory is reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni, only instead of the Adriatic Coast, the story takes place in the harsh climes of Arctic Russia. The main character, Sveta, is a teenager from the grim industrial city of Norilsk who dreams of escaping her hometown.
What you need to know: The film, in the words of the director, is somewhat “anti-patriotic” and was therefore refused funding from the Ministry of Culture.
What the director says: “I find it difficult to judge whether or not this is my own life story, but in a sense it is. It was very hard to get out of my own hometown, the languid southern city of Krasnodar. And, in some way I crushed many other people’s feelings by leaving, just like the protagonist Sveta.”
Director: Ilya Naishuller
Potential festivals: Unknown but international distribution is likely in the spring or summer of 2014
Director’s bio: Although he is just shy of 30, Ilya Naishuller is already making waves in Hollywood. Naishuller, who doubles up as the frontman for Moscow punk band Biting Elbows, was compared to Quentin Tarantino following the release of a music video for Bad Motherfucker this year. Director Darren Aronofsky took to Twitter to praise Naishuller for a video “well done”. The video, which boasts 17.6 million views on YouTube, caught the eye of producer Timur Bekmambetov and quickly led to an invitation to direct a full-length feature in the same style. A second music video, The Stampede, also did well with four million views on YouTube.
Plot: The full plot of Naishuller’s debut, Hardcore, is yet to be revealed. What’s known is that South African actor Sharlto Copley, star of Oscar-nominated sci-fi flick District 9, will take the lead role in the film, which will be set in Moscow in 2014. Copley will play a mute and murderous cyborg called Henry while his nemesis, Akan, will have telepathic powers.
What the director says: “I still don’t know whether it will be released internationally first or in Russia. It all depends on how the film turns out I suppose, which we’ll know soon. But I can already say, this kind of thing has never been done in cinema before. Everyday on the set we came up with very radical and innovative ideas. I’m making this film for my 15-year-old self.”
What you need to know: Timur Bekmambetov is credited with galvanising the Russian blockbuster genre with his smash hit fantasy epic Night Watch (2004), a film about humans with supernatural powers. You might known him for taking liberties with history in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter released last year.
Director: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Potential festivals: Cannes
Director’s bio: Andrei Zvyagintsev is perhaps Russia’s best known director abroad. His debut film, The Return, toured the film festival circuit and was awarded Venice’s Golden Lion in 2003. His second film, The Banishment (2007), competed in the main competition at Cannes while his last, Elena, picked up the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes in 2011. Greater festival success with only three films is hard to imagine.
Plot: Little is known about Leviathan apart from that it’s based on the Old Testament story about the mythological sea monster, Leviathan, who is killed by God and given as food to the Hebrews in the wilderness. In the Middle Ages, the Leviathan was equated with Satan, a theme that crops up in the film.
What the director says: Nothing. Zvyaginstsev refuses to comment or reveal any details about the film prior to its release, making this his most secretive film. It’s possible that this is just a PR move by the film’s producer Alexander Rodyansky who has in the past used various stunts to promote his projects.
What you need to know: Filming started in August in the Murmansk region of Northern Russia, in the town of Kirovsk, a particularly desolate part of Russia above the Arctic Circle. However, the area is irrelevant to the plot, which according to Zvyaginstsev will be “a universal portrait of a town in the mountains”.
Dear Hans, Dear Pyotr
Director: Aleksander Mindadze
Potential festivals: Berlin or Cannes
Director’s bio: Alexander Mindadze is best known for his work as a scriptwriter working with director Vadim Abdrashitov. Their films have picked up numerous prizes at local and international festivals, including Berlin and Venice. A few years ago, Mindadze decided to go it alone with glittering results. Soaring (2007) follows the survivors of a plane crash while Innocent Saturday (2011), tells the story of a group of friends in the hours following the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl.
Plot: Based on real life events, Dear Hans, Dear Pyotr is a story of two friends who are torn apart by love and war. Both Pyotr, a Soviet engineer, and his German colleague Hans fall for the same woman. But it is ultimately the invasion of the Nazis in 1941 that puts their friendship to the test.
What the director says: “The issue with the Ministry of Culture has been resolved, all the details have been sorted and we’ve managed to reach an agreement so the production schedule of the film will not change. There’s no point thinking about a film in terms of festivals and the red carpet when shooting. I never think about this as it is something my producers deal with closers to the time. I don’t have the strength or the time.”
What you need to know: After pledging financial support for the film, the Ministry of Culture unexpectedly pulled out, citing falsifications of history in the script as the reason. It wasn’t long before the ministry did a U-turn following uproar from industry figures and the press. The film will be available in both Russian and German.
Angels and Revolution
Director: Aleksey Fedorchenko
Potential festivals: Rome or Venice
Director’s bio: Aleksey Fedorchenko is another of the few Russian directors known abroad. His third film, Silent Souls (2010), won a Golden Osella for cinematography at Venice and had a limited art house release worldwide. Fedorchenko has also participated in two foreign anthologies, including The Fourth Dimension (2012) with US filmmakers Harmony Korine and Polish director Jan Kwiecinski. The second, Venice 70: Future Reloaded, was made for the 70th anniversary of the Venice International Film Festival last year.
Plot: The film is an adaptation of Denis Osokin’s novel of the same name. The main characters are four young friends: a poet, an actor, a writer and a filmmaker. The ambitious quartert see their plans come into fruition during the 1917 revolution. The group’s dreams soon turn sour, however, when the country is plunged into civil war.
What the director says: “It’s a film that I’ve really wanted to make for a long time. Angels and Revolutions is a historical costume drama, big in its geographical coverage — from Moldova to the Kazym tundra in Siberia. And the time frame is also rather large: 1910 to 1935.”
What you need to know: Judging by the director’s previous appearances, the film is likely to turn up at one of the main European festivals. Which one is hard to judge, but Rome is a possibility given it is now overseen by Marco Muller, the former head of the Venice Film Festival and a huge fan of Fedorchenko’s work.