Rimgaila Salys (ed.): The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader: 2005–2016

Rimgaila Salys (ed.): The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader: 2005–2016

Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019, ISBN: 9781618119636, 404 p.

Author
Åsne Ø. Høgetveit
Keywords
contemporary Russian film; national cinema; Russian studies; globalism; globalisation; cinema market; film distribution; cultural memory; memory politics; film genre; gender.

The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader 20052016 is the third volume of Russian cinema readers edited by Rimgaila Salys, the two previous titles being: The Russian Cinema Reader: Volume I, 1908 to the Stalin Era (2013a) and The Russian Cinema Reader: Volume II, The Thaw to the Present (2013b). They are all aimed at undergraduate, English-speaking students studying Russian cinema and culture. The volume discussed in this review begins with an introductory essay by Vlad Strukov which is then followed by 21 essays by other specialists in the field that analyse and discuss seventeen Russian films released during the period indicated in the title, and that are available with English subtitles: Salys includes information on where to find subtitled versions of these films in her preface. This is quite helpful, as it is often much easier to find Soviet classics with quality English subtitles online or on DVD than it is to find contemporary Russian films. Salys emphasises that it is too early to say which films of the last two decades will be considered classics, but that her reader presents films considered, by her and the other authors of the book, to be significant in the period. However, it is precisely publications such as this one that write the films into the canon.

The introductory essay provides an overview of several important trends in and features of both the content and production of contemporary Russian cinema. Here, key developments, issues and contributors are discussed and placed in both the national and global context, creating a framework for the following 21 essays. Thus, I will focus a large part of this review on the introduction.

Vlad Strukov begins his piece with a critique of western “obsession” with Putin and what he describes as a “top-down historiographic approach” that essentially leaves the Russian people stripped of any agency (Salys 2019: 9). When it comes to culture, the author argues that this approach sustains Cold War discourses by defining individual artists based solely on their attitude and ties to the Russian government. We should rather, as Strukov suggests, “examine Russian culture and its cinematic components using a different system of referents and cognitive procedures”, namely “a polycentric, multilayered reading, which is characteristic of the era of globalization” (ibid.: 9–10). This approach stresses the development and further implementation of theory and methodology that consider cinema and culture as a global phenomenon, rather than seeing Russian cinema as a phenomenon primarily in dialogue with the national structures of political power. As a result, Russian artists should gain agency, and their works – emerge as more complex and interesting, when considered outside the “Putin obsession”.

Further, in order to expand on and support his argument that Russian filmmakers have been shaped by the key events in the recent Russian history, Strukov identifies four generations of filmmaking in contemporary Russian cinema: the “Soviet generation” (e.g. Aleksandr Sokurov and Kira Muratova), the “post-Soviet generation” (e.g. Aleksei Balabanov and Valerii Todorovsky), the “new Russian generation” (e.g. Andrei Zviagintsev and Anna Melikian) and the “Russian millennials” (e.g. Oksana Karas’ and Ivan Tverdovskii). These generations are defined not by the age of the directors, but relate to when they first started making films as well as their attitude to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the financial crisis of 1998. The author then expands on the stylistic trends that gained prominence over the last two decades by discussing individual directors and films. A distinction is drawn between cinema in the “symbolic mode” on the one hand, and “new cinema” on the other hand: the latter is marked by the stronger wish to engage in a dialogue with the audience, rather than attending to the creative vision of an ‘auteur’. Strukov pays particular attention to directors who successfully employ popular aesthetics in complex and intriguing films, providing us with examples such as Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviafan / Leviathan (2014, Russia) and several of Vasilii Sigarev’s works.

In the introductory essay, the reader will also get acquainted with the specificities of funding and distribution methods within the context of contemporary Russian cinema, which are in turn compared to the funding and distribution practices in other national cinematic contexts. Extra attention is paid to the competition posed by Hollywood productions in the Russian cinema market, as Russian cinema is less protected in terms of financial grants, distribution and marketing than are national cinemas in many other countries. Strukov argues that this competition pushes Russian cinema to seek more innovative distribution platforms via the Internet. As examples, Strukov mentions Mosfilm alongside other production and distribution companies that make their content available online for free as well as independent directors hosting online premieres of their films.

More evidence of the process of globalisation is the ongoing transformation of cinematic genres. Strukov argues that a major development in the 21st century has been the consolidation of various cinematic genres. He continues this discussion by taking a closer look at Russian biopics and paraphrases Stephen Norris’s observation on Hollywood’s influence on current Russian cinema: “these ideological hybrids, or films combining Hollywood aesthetics and ideology with local political and social concerns, invite a polemic about the global circulation of cultural products and their impact on local politics” (ibid.: 24). The introductory essay provides a solid context for the remaining essays of the volume. Somewhat surprisingly, the dynamics between contemporary Russian cinema and television series is not mentioned. Many Russian filmmakers – like filmmakers elsewhere – effectively engage both with film and television productions (consider Karen Shakhnazarov and Anna Parmas), while television series in general have gained popularity among the audiences as well as film scholars over the last decade. Thus, a short discussion of the relationship between cinema and television and why the Russian Cinema Reader continues to focus solely on cinema would have been welcome.

The seventeen films presented in the remaining 21 essays are in themselves an introduction to key scholars and critics within the field and different analytic approaches to cinema – in line with Strukov’s approach to Russian cinema suggested in the introduction. Short biographies of the contributors are included at the end of the book. Several of the pieces have been previously published, most of which are reworked and expanded film reviews originally published in the online journal KinoKultura. A few of the essays are written by Russian critics and translated into English, including the editor in chief of Isskustvo kino Anton Dolin’s delightfully written guide to Aleksei German’s Trudno byt’ Bogom / Hard to Be a God (2013, Russia, Czech Republic). Most of the essays focus not only on specific films but also include a few paragraphs on the directors themselves providing information about their careers and development as filmmakers, and in some cases, attention is paid to cinematographers and screenwriters. This provides a solid foundation of knowledge about current Russian cinema for undergraduate students, beyond discussions of singular significant films.

The directors presented in the essays represent all four generations of directors outlined by Strukov in the introduction. However, it is unfortunate that only one female director, Anna Melikian, is included. One reason why the works of women filmmakers continue to be undervalued (get less funding, fewer awards, smaller audiences), is because they are overlooked in the arenas that define the value and importance of a film – such as film readers for undergraduate students. There are a plethora of interesting contemporary female Russian filmmakers, like Natal’ia Novik, Valeriia Gai Germanika and Aksin’ia Gog (in addition to other female filmmakers mentioned in this review). Although they are able to secure funding for their productions in Russia and receive national cinematic awards quite regularly, they struggle to gain access to the international festival circuit – and, as a consequence, their films do not receive wide distribution with quality (English) subtitles.

Still, gender aspects do not remain ignored in the volume. They are explicitly addressed in, for example, Anthony Anemone’s essay on Gruz 200 / Cargo 200 (Aleksei Balabanov, 2007, Russia), Helena Goscilo’s essay on Rusalka / Mermaid (Anna Melikian, 2007, Russia), Tatiana Mikhailova’s essay on Ovsianki / Silent Souls (Aleksei Fedorchenko, 2010, Russia) and Mark Lipovetsky’s essay on Rasskazy / Short Stories (Mikhail Segal, 2012, Russia). The gender relations in these films primarily explore male-female relations. To be sure, there are some female-female relations in Mermaid, but they do not become the focal point and they are very much overshadowed by the male presence. None of the films presented in the volume deal primarily with any sort of female-female relations (such as friendship, mother/daughter relations, etc.), and, true, there are not that many films made either in Russia or elsewhere with this focus. However, I can think of at least one film that fits the somewhat vague selection criteria of the volume (available with English subtitles and significant in the eyes of film critics and academics) that revolves around a female-female relationship, namely Avdot’ia (Dunia) Smirnova’s film Kokoko (2012, Russia). Kokoko is a clever take on the buddy-film genre. As Lena Duobivko argues in her review of the film for Kinokultura, “this seemingly indissoluble female friendship masks the film’s two foremost themes: the crisis of the intelligentsia […], and the ever problematic relationship between the intelligentsia and the people (narod)” (Duobivko 2013). An extended version of this review, in my opinion, would have been an excellent contribution to The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader. It would have broadened the understanding of gender relations in contemporary Russian film while addressing other aspects of Russian culture and society at the same time. I think this is particularly valuable in a book aimed at undergraduate students, with presumably limited knowledge about female Russian filmmakers and discussions surrounding gender that are happening in Russia. Still, the essays of the volume and the films that do address gender, reveal interesting and important discussions going on in today’s Russian society – for undergraduate students and academics alike.

Most of the essays explore issues related to globalism and, to some degree, post-colonialism, and include discussions of how Russian filmmakers and their films can be seen and understood as a part of global cinema. In Jeremy Hicks’s essay on Rai / Paradise (Andrei Konchalovskii, 2016, Russia & Germany), he relates the film to the tradition of European and US Holocaust films as well as the problematic place of the history of the Holocaust within the Second World War narrative that is perpetuated in Russia, namely, marginalising the Jewish experience. Where Hicks largely focuses on the politics of memory, Denise Youngblood in her essay on Solntse / The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2005, Russia, Italy, Switzerland & France) and Tom Roberts’s essay on Orda / The Horde (Andrei Proshkin, 2012, Russia) are more concerned with post-modernist history, historiography, and “historiophoty” – to borrow Hayden White’s term. Thus, these essays serve as examples of different approaches to historical films. Discourses on post-colonialism and memory politics are evident both in the films themselves and the essays on Silent Souls, The Horde and Justin Wilmes’s essay on Schast’e moё / My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, 2010, Ukraine, Germany & Netherlands). Issues concerning hegemony, us/them binary, identity, space and memory are raised in connection to these films. The question of what makes a film Russian emerges in relation to the film My Joy, a German-Dutch-Ukranian co-production directed by the Ukranian director Sergei Loznitsa. The language of the film is Russian, and the story is set somewhere in the Smolensk region, but it was shot in Ukraine. The film was shown at various Russian film festivals and even received their awards. Although Wilmes points at this ambiguity, there is no discussion of the potentially problematic aspect of including this film into the Reader under the premise that it is another example of a contemporary Russian film. In Julian Graffy’s essay on Leviathan, the film is discussed in relation to both Russian society, Russian culture, and other works considered a part of world literature, emphasising the interest of Andrei Zviagintsev’s in universal questions spanning both time and space, yet translated into a contemporary Russian setting. All in all, the essays provide a rich material for discussing various aspects of globalism in a Russian cultural and cinematic context.

Films such as Zhmurki / Dead Man’s Bluff (Aleksei Balabanov, 2005, Russia), Stiliagi / Hipsters (Valerii Todorovskii, 2008, Russia), The Horde, and Legenda No. 17 / Legend No. 17 (Nikolai Lebedev, 2013, Russia) presented in the volume exemplify Stephen Norris’s statement paraphrased in the introduction: in their deployment of familiar Hollywood aesthetics, the stories they tell come across as more accessible, both for a Russian and foreign audiences while still having both the complexity and the depth to intrigue critics and academics.

The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader makes a solid argument for the study of Russian cinema beyond the context of Russian politics, described as an obsession with Putin in the introduction. Instead, cinema is treated as an integral and important part of Russian culture and society, as a medium for multi-layered and complex narratives, and mediating the contemporary experience of globalism. Lecturers in Slavic/Russian studies of film and/or culture, as well as in courses of global film and/or culture, will find material for their curriculum and class discussions in the volume, while students will get a comprehensive and insightful introduction to various aspects of contemporary Russian cinema. Naturally, any reader interested in contemporary Russian cinema and culture will no doubt find The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader enjoyable.

Åsne Ø. Høgetveit
UiT – The Arctic University of Norway
Asne.o.hogetveit@uit.no

Bio

Åsne Ø. Høgetveit has a PhD in Russian cultural studies and works currently as a Senior Academic Librarian at the Cultural and Social Sciences Library at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway. Her dissertation, The Moral Vertical in Russian Cinema: Female Pilots, Flight Attendants, Cosmonauts and Aliens explored verticality as a metaphor for hierarchies, and female agency in certain roles and spaces.

Bibliography

Doubivko, Lena. 2013. “Avdot'ia Smirnova: Kokoko (2012).” KinoKultura (40). http://www.kinokultura.com/2013/40r-kokoko.shtml

Salys, Rimgaila (ed.). 2013a. The Russian Cinema Reader. Vol. 1: 1908 to the Stalin Era. Brighton, Mass.

Salys, Rimgaila (ed.). 2013b. The Russian Cinema Reader. Vol. 2: The Thaw to the Present. Brighton, Mass.

Salys, Rimgaila (ed.). 2019. The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader: 2005-2016. Boston.

Filmography

Smirnova, Avdot’ia. 2012. Kokoko. Kinokompania STB.

Suggested Citation

Høgetveit, Åsne Ø. 2020. Review: “Rimgaila Salys (ed.): The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader: 2005–2016. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 11. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00011.244.

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.



 

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