Black smoke pours from the wreckage of a Porsche, crushed by the impact of a collision in central Moscow. Its driver is slumped against the steering wheel, blood streaming down his face; a young woman screams as she recognises him as her lover. Then the camera pulls back to reveal a film crew, trailers, a director shouting “Cut!”
The movies have always loved movies about movies, and that is true of one of the best offerings at London’s Russian Film Week, which begins on November 30. Oleg Asadulin’s Zelyonaya Kareta (Green Carriage) plunges Vadim, a successful, Oscar-chasing director, into a family crisis that triggers hallucinations of an imagined movie of his own life. He is its director, but now stripped of the power to demand retakes. As his estranged wife tells him, “This isn’t cinema, this is life!”
Taut with angst and driven by a sudden unexplained death, Zelyonaya Kareta would not look out of place in a season of Nordic noir. It is steeped in nostalgia too: not just Vadim’s yearning for his youth (preserved in blurry, flickering home-movies), but also for the simpler aspects of life in the Soviet era. In a scene at Vadim’s former film school, Asadulin sneaks in visual references to Chekhov and Battleship Potemkin, an artistic sensibility at odds with the consumerism and bling of 21st-century Moscow.
Russian Film Week, a successor to London’s Russian Film Festival (whose last edition was in 2013), presents a varied picture of a country that is still little understood in the west. One film that offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives is Moscow Never Sleeps, a virtuoso portrait of a day in the life of the capital. Director Johnny O’Reilly, an Irishman who has lived there for 12 years, uses an all-Russian cast to intertwine the lives of a handful of Muscovites in a style akin to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Paul Haggis’s Crash. He also deploys the gorgeous aerial shots of his cinematographer Fyodor Lyass to imbue intimate human stories with a sense of sweep and scale.
O’Reilly tells me he conceived his film as an antidote to what he sees as the west’s fixation with all things Putin-related. “I wanted international audiences to see what real Russians are like beyond the filter of geopolitics,” he says. “It’s unfair for the Russian people and their collective character to be conflated in the western media with the egregious actions of the Russian government.”
As well as present-day preoccupations, the festival mines Russia’s turbulent history. Its opening gala film Heritage of Love is a stirring saga set during the Russian Revolution and civil war. By giving it the gala slot, the festival may hope to appeal to fans of the BBC’s recent TV adaptation of War and Peace — although Heritage of Love has more grit and authenticity (its Russian title translates simply as Hero).
Also set against the backdrop of the Russian civil war is The Contribution, a fact-based oddity that starts out as a bleak portrayal of wartime barbarity, but veers off to become a Poirot-style whodunnit.
As you’d expect from a nation with a strong art-house pedigree, much of the acting and cinematography is top-notch. However, in a departure from the London Russian Film Festival, the organisers of Russian Film Week have embraced more overtly commercial Hollywood-like productions. Icebreaker, directed by Nikolay Khomeriki, is a gripping disaster movie based on the true story of a Russian vessel stranded in the Antarctic for three months in 1985. Fans of explosions, helicopter crashes and shoot-outs won’t be disappointed.
But if there is one film here aimed squarely at the world’s multiplexes, it is Sheep and Wolves, an animation from Russia’s Wizart studios in the mould of Disney-Pixar. Dubbed into English, it is set not in Russia (despite the country’s sizeable wolf population) but in a candy-coloured fairyland where the sheep are, as director Maksim Volkov cheerfully admits, more like hobbits.
So how anxious are Russian filmmakers to chase international box office takings? Sheep and Wolves makes no bones about parking its tanks on Pixar’s lawn, and the festival does seek to encourage co-production with other countries, says its director Filip Perkon. But, he insists, its wider goal is to “promote co-operation and mutual understanding, to put politics aside and reach out to ordinary people”.
Ah yes, politics. What about censorship? For all the state funding that Russian films receive, signs of moviemakers caving in to political pressure are not immediately apparent. There is no shortage here of warts-and-all commentary on Russian societal woes such as crime, corruption, alcoholism or marital breakdown. Nevertheless, filmmakers have been warned off the kind of overt criticism of Putin seen in 2012’s Winter Go Away, which documented street demos against the president. As O’Reilly points out: “Most film money nowadays goes to fund ‘patriotic’ films — typically, war movies and action blockbusters that promote the idea of a strong Russian state or a glorious Russian history.” Although Russian Film Week is independent and free to accept any film it pleases, work that is controversial or politically motivated is notably absent this year.
The fate of Winter Journey, which won the jury prize at 2013’s festival, is illustrative. Despite that year’s Russian law proscribing “gay propaganda”, Lyubov Lvova and Sergei Taramayev completed and even secured certification and distribution in Russia for their film, which depicted a homosexual relationship in Moscow. Three years on, however, Lvova tells me that many cinemas in Russia simply refused to screen the film, fearing that it might fall foul of the authorities. Since then, she and Taramayev have struggled to secure finance from Russia’s culture ministry or Fond Kino (Cinema Foundation) for their subsequent film.
Screenings at Russian Film Week, however, are selling out, thanks largely to a UK diaspora estimated at 300,000, mostly in London. Yet with the exception of Sheep and Wolves, Perkon concedes that there are obstacles to reaching wider audiences.
Given the tense state of relations between London and Moscow, it has been easy to miss that 2016 is UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature — lamentable for a country with so much cultural “soft power” at its disposal. O’Reilly, however, remains undeterred by the political climate: “Russians have a greater amplitude of humanity than us in the west,” he says. “And that’s what’s so appealing to anyone considering making a film there.”
Russian Film Week runs November 30-December 4, russianfilmweek.org