16th Sochi Open Russian Film Festival — Kinotavr

»We want to make Sochi an indispensable showcase of Russian cinema,« said Igor Tolstunov, General Producer (read General Director) of the reorganized 16th Sochi Open Russian Film Festival — Kinotavr (2-12 June 2005) and Deputy Director General of the STS-TV Channel. Then he added on a personal note: »By that, I mean internationally as well as nationally.« In the past, under founder-director Mark Rudinstein, Kinotavr sponsored two parallel festivals at the same time at this Black Sea resort: the Open Russian Film Festival, programmed in the elegant Winter Theater, and the International Competition, slated as a kind of afterthought in the venue at the Hotel Zhemchuzhina. This year, with the departure of Mark Rudinstein and with another sponsoring committee in place, the International Competition has been canceled completely and a new concept introduced. From now on, both the Winter Theater and the Zhemchuzhina will be programming annually circa 100 new and recent Russian productions — features, documentaries, shorts — accompanied by roundtables on the current status of Russian cinema.

Besides the daytime Russian Competition screenings inside the Winter Theater, a nightly program of outdoor screenings before the theater tagged »Cinema on the Square« drew heavy local attendance. Pop concerts and children’s shows were also scheduled for the benefit of the home crowd. A red carpet graced the entrance to the Winter Theater for the grand march of VIPs and popular movie stars attending the galas of Sochi premieres, with a loudspeaker proclaiming their presence at the festival. And thanks to Alexander Rodnyansky, President of CTC Media and Board Member of the Sochi Open Russian Festival, extra coverage of festival events and press conferences, peppered with interviews, were aired on national television to add flair and importance to the Kinotavr meet.

So how does Sochi compare with the international festivals in Moscow and St. Petersburg? And do the three festivals, all scheduled during the month of June, compete with each other for the best Russian films? Apparently not, although one film — Alexei Uchitel’s Kosmos kak predchuvstvie (Dreaming of Space), a St. Petersburg production, was withheld from the Sochi Competition at the last minute to accommodate the wishes of the Moscow festival. As for Nikita Mikhalkov, President of the FIAPF-recognized Moscow International Film Festival and President of the Union of Russian Filmmakers, he was on hand in Sochi to welcome guests on opening night in the company of Russian Cultural Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi, who also happens to be the Head of the Federal Agency for Russian Cinematography. Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a greeting to the organizers and guests: »Now a prestigious and popular event, the Sochi festival has become an integral part of Russian cultural life.« Given that upwards of 400 film professionals vacation each summer on the Black Sea, Putin’s tip-of-the-hat drew hefty applause on opening night.

Sochi, its picturesque avenues lined with palm trees and garden bowers, has experienced a face-lifting over the past five years that is exemplary of the new Russia. Under an energetic, newly elected mayor its streets are paved with asphalt. New hotels and spacious villas line the skyline to verify the status of the country’s nouveau riche. A two-story media market, with hundreds of DVDs going for three Euros a throw, recently opened near the train station. Nature lovers can hike in the Botanical Garden, dating from the time of the tsars and one of the finest in Europe. A trip to a tea plantation in the mountains is also well worth the time. Excursions are sometimes possible too to a nearby national reserve, where Stalin’s summer residence is known to be booked by honeymooners. Further down the road are the still existing dachas used by Molotov and Voroshilov. And the medicinal powers of the local sulfur springs confirm Sochi as a spa with tradition.

When I asked Igor Tolstunov about the budget for the 16th Kinotavr, he set it at $1.7 million. Asked again for a breakdown of government subsidies, he confirmed that »only 30% came from the Russian State, the Krasnodar Territorial Government, and the City of Sochi. By far, the major portion — 70 % of the festival budget — came from private sources.« Queried then as to how he was able to organize a festival from ground up within the short space of two months, he credited primarily the Kinotavr staff headed by Sitora Alieva, Artistic Director of the Open Russian Film Festival, who together with Festival Coordinator Nina Govorova unraveled all the logistical knots in regard to prints and guests. As for the foreign guests — festival directors, critics, sales agents — a list of key partners was presented by Raisa Fomina of the Intercinema Agency based in Moscow. They were housed in the restored deluxe Park Hotel, formerly a seaside abode for Party guests.

Asked how to was able to win the support of the country’s scattered and sometimes cantankerous associations of film directors, Tolstunov replied: »Without a sound working relationship with the filmmakers you cannot even hope to run an Open Russian Film Festival. I gave them three good reasons to jump on the bandwagon. First of all, we want to make Sochi a vehicle of the industry. Secondly, we want to promote quality Russian cinema worldwide. And thirdly, we want to open the doors wide for an exchange of ideas with international film festivals and organizations.« Asked where his acumen for the inside maneuvers on the international festival scene came from, he countered that as a producer he had made the rounds of Venice and Berlin, Cannes and Locarno, in addition to being quite familiar with the American Film Market in Los Angeles. Moreover, his record as a film producer is quite impressive — among his credits is Pavel Chukhrai’s Driving Vera, slated for a screening at the upcoming Karlovy Vary film festival.

Sochi was particularly kind to visiting journalists. The press room, equipped with a dozen high-powered computers, was day and night at the beck and call of the working press. An ace translation team handled with ease the morning roundtables on »The Image of Russian Cinema in World Festivals« and »The Image of Russian Cinema in World Distribution« — both moderated by Russian critic Andrei Plakhov (recently elected FIPRESCI President). The daily diet of four films programmed at the Hotel Zhemchuzhina were either subtitled in English or translated on earphones. A video room allowed access to 50 videos and DVDs of new and recent Russian film productions. According to one well informed source, the current annual production of circa 100 quality Russian films could easily double by the next Sochi festival, particularly filming with a digital camera is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Furthermore, since Russia is currently experiencing an explosion of a thousand multiplexes across the country, the Sochi Open Russian Film Festival serves Russian producers, distributors, and exhibitors as the primary festival showcase of a rapidly changing national cinematography.

Two juries were assembled to vote on prizes and purses in the Feature Film Competition (16 films) and the Short Film Competition (33 films). In addition, critic Andrei Plakhov curated an out-of-competition section titled »Chance — The Crisis of Criteria« (6 films), thus guaranteeing a platform to auteur and fringe directors whose films missed the competition countdown but were still considered worthy of critical assessment and audience response. In addition, Special Screenings of films by Russian cult directors, Rustam Khamdamov’s Vocal Parallels and Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun (Berlinale entry), were included in the program. Also, a slate of 20 new and recent Russian documentaries made another attractive sidebar. Cineastes were also treated to a retrospective of a dozen »Unknown Films of Well-Known Directors« curated by Kinotavr critic-historian Sergei Lavrentiev. And the icing on the festival cake was a selection of five European features under the rubric National Awards.

Pavel Lungin’s Bedniye Rodstvenniki (Roots) (»Poor Relations« is the direct Russian translation) was awarded a bundle of prizes at Sochi: Best Film, Best Screenplay (Gennady Ostrovsky), Best Actor (Konstantin Khabensky), Purse Award of the Kuban Territory Governor, Audience Award, and a Special Mention to 95-year-old actress Ester Gueten. A tongue-in-cheek Jewish comedy about a conman who barters grave sites of supposed loved ones to unsuspecting relatives from abroad, the film’s reception at Sochi prompted a warm and grateful response from Pavel Lungin at the closing gala. »To date I have not been awarded a prize in my own homeland, so this one moves me to tears,« he said on stage upon receiving the Main Prize. Lungin is best remembered at Cannes for winning Best Screenplay for his directed Taxi Blues (1990). The award for Best Debut Film went to Alexei Fedorchenko’s Perviy na lune (The First on the Moon), a witty and insightful mockumentary, blending archival footage with fictional sequences and fabricated interviews to capitalize on the ploy that the first people to reach the moon were Russians — too bad, however, that the historical rocket-launched mission got lost in space! The First on the Moon should enjoy a healthy run at film festivals.

No one I talked to in the festival press corps took the jury’s acting awards very seriously. First of all, nary an actress performance was deemed worthy of an award, although Marina Zubanova was a standout in the lead role of Larisa Sadlikova’s sparkling Trebuyetsa Nana (Nanny Wanted), a psycho-drama about a hired nanny wheedling her way into a nouveau riche household because the mother doesn’t want to stay home to take care of her precocious four-year-old daughter. The jury showed its true colors by giving Ira Shipova, the four-year-old, a Special Mention for her acting performance. Secondly, the Best Actor Award was split between Konstantin Khabensky, the nutty conman in Pavel Lungin’s Roots, and Nikita Mikhalkov, whose performance in Philipp Yankovsky’s Statsky Sovetnik (State Counsellor) is only a notch above a supporting role. It should be added, too, that an adept performance by Oleg Menshikov in the title role is the primary reason for the current runaway box-office success of State Counsellor, an adaptation of Boris Akumin’s novel about assassinations of Tsarist officials by revolutionaries at the turn-of-the-century.

To be sure, the best film on view at Sochi was Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4. Had it not already received a bundle of prizes since its premiere at Venice last September, the last being the Transilvania Trophy at Cluj just a week before, 4 might have wrestled Pavel Lungin for the top prize at Sochi as well. A remarkable film on aesthetic standards alone — the intertwining of four stories around a quadruple cloning scheme, the collaboration with controversial dramatist-screenwriter Vladimir Sorokin on the idea and plot, and the input by three cameramen (one of whom was Khrzhanovsky himself) to shoot this weird tale simultaneously from different angles and perspectives — 4 should provide the breakthrough in Russia for narrative cinema with a digital camera. The son of a well-known Russian animation director, Andrei Khrzhanovsky, Ilya Khrzhanovsky is a promising talent in New Russian Cinema.

Sochi was a festival of surprises. A pair of thick-headed, trigger-happy hitmen, played by Alexei Panin and Dmitry Dyuzhev (Special Mention by the jury), saved Alexei Balabanov’s Zhmurki (Dead Man’s Bluff) from being a pale imitation of Tarantino gangster trash. Ildar Yagafarov’s Kuktau — Nebesnaya gora (Kuktau — Sky Mountain), a rather naive melodrama about a friendship between an ex-jailbird and a crippled boy in a wheelchair, deserved attention as the first feature film ever shot in the Tartar language. Alexei Sidorov’s Boy s teno (Shadow Boxing), about a boxer blinded by a blow to his eye, took the pulse of the fight scene in Russia.

Another film that effectively took the pulse of the young with aspirations to climb to the top was Elena Nikolaeva’s Popsa (Pop). A debut feature programmed in the out-of-competition Chance section, it takes the viewer on a tour of the contemporary Moscow pop-music scene in the company of a young country-bred singer and a callous producer who discards talent as quickly as she finds it. Directed with a sure hand by a veteran director of advertising spots, Pop stars Elena Velikanova and Tatiana Vasilyeva as the lonely pair thrown together to make the most of a busy day of appointments with has-beens and wanabees. By the same token, Sergei Potyomkin (aka Potemkin) in his in Gorod bez sontsa (Sunless City) takes the viewer on a tour of hippy culture in contemporary St. Petersburg, where AIDS has made fatal inroads in the arts scene. And in Adel Al-Khadad’s Apokrif: Muzika dlya Petra i Pavla (Apocrypha: Music for Peter and Paul), a debut feature, the director chronicles in 1878 the despair of 38-year-old Chaikovsky (Andrei Savostianov) in not being able to compose an oratorio for a religious service in a church on an idyllic country estate.

Last, but not least, there was Konstantin Bronzit’s Alosha, a feature-length animation film with the teasing subtitle A Brand New and Totally True Legend of a Real Russian Bogatir. A cross between Asterix and Shrek so far as the story line is concerned, Alosha is anything but the traditional Russian hero who masters every task set before him. Rather, in this comical version of a medieval legend, Alosha is an overgrown bumbling country boy who, to avenge the destruction of his native Rostov, sets out to defeat the Tartar warlord Tugarin with a couple of companions as inept as he is. Great fun — and not to be missed on the festival circuit!

Ron Holloway


Best Film:
Bedniye Rodstvenniki (Roots), Pavel Lungin

Special Jury Prize:
4, Ilya Khrzhanovsky

Best Debut Film:
Perviy na lune (The First on the Moon), Alexei Fedorchenko

Best Actress:
not awarded

Special Mentions:
Ester Gueten, Bedniye Rodstvenniki (Roots), dir Pavel Lungin
Ira Shipova, Trebuyetsa Nana (Nanny Wanted), dir Larisa Sadilova

Best Actor (ex aequo):
Konstantin Khabensky, Bedniye Rodstvenniki (Roots), dir Pavel Lungin
Nikita Mikhalkov, Statsky Sovetnik (State Counsellor), dir Philipp Yankovsky

Special Mention:
Dmitry Dyuzhev, Zhmurki (Dead Man’s Bluff), dir Alexei Balabanov

Best Screenplay:
Gennady Ostrovsky, Bedniye Rodstvenniki (Roots), dir Pavel Lungin

Best Musical Score:
Andrei Sigle, Udalenny dostup (Remote Access), dir Svetlana Proskurina

Best Short Film:
Dvoe (A Couple), Eduard Parri

15-bis, Alexander Murugov
Podsobnoe khoyeistvo (At the Barn), Egor Anashkin

Producer Award:
Svetlana Bukharaeva, Kazan Documentary Film Studio, Kuktau — Nebesnaya gora (Kuktau - Sky Mountain), dir Ildar Yagafarov

Purse Award of Kuban Territory Governor:
Bedniye Rodstvenniki (Roots), dir Pavel Lungin

Russian Critics Award:
Perviy na lune (The First on the Moon), Alexei Fedorchenko

Audience Award:
Bedniye Rodstvenniki (Roots), Pavel Lungin