One of many comic moments in a new Russian film called Short Stories is an exchange that speaks volumes about Russia’s fixation with consumerism. A man in his fifties cannot believe that his lover, a woman in her twenties, is utterly unaware of Soviet history. Has she even heard, he asks, of the Nazis’ advance on Moscow in 1941? “Oh, yes,” she replies, “Hitler got nearly all the way to Ikea.”
Ignorance and materialism are not the only targets of director Mikhail Segal’s satirical four-parter – he takes a swipe at corruption too. In another story, a bundle of roubles falls down a blocked loo during a shady deal conducted in a toilet cubicle. Although the banknotes are duly washed and left to dry (not technically money laundering, but you get the picture), they still stink to high heaven.
Short Stories is among the offerings at London’s sixth Russian Film Festival (which also has screenings this year in Cambridge and Edinburgh). As you would expect, these are films that shine a light on life in modern Russia and are infused, to varying degrees, with what is called spetsifika – concerns peculiar to Russia.
The most explicitly topical is Winter, Go Away! Shot entirely by students with handheld cameras, this low-budget documentary chronicles last winter’s street protests against Vladimir Putin’s all-too-predictable return to the presidency. As it gets increasingly risky to criticise Putin, those handheld cameras are attacked by police or pro-Putin thugs. There is also footage of punk band Pussy Riot’s brief but fateful protest at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Unlike the jokey polemical style of Michael Moore, however, there is no voiceover directing you how to think, no narrator convinced of his own rightness; there is nothing but seat-of-your pants footage plunging you into the thick of heated, hate-filled altercations.
Andrei Plakhov, a leading Russian film critic and a programming director for the festival, told viewers in London that under the Putin administration film censorship is “becoming more aggressive”. But the challenge for Russia’s film-makers also comes from what Plakhov calls “self-censorship” – a fear of making anything too provocative – and from “economic censorship” in the absence of the generous state funding that kept the industry afloat in Soviet times.
Russia has long been able to boast of a predominantly art-house cinema tradition. Contemporary directors such as Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, 2003, and Elena, currently in UK cinemas), Aleksandr Sokurov (Russian Ark, 2002, and Faust, Golden Lion winner at last year’s Venice Film Festival), and Aleksey Popogrebsky (How I Ended This Summer, 2010) have been hailed by critics and on the festival circuit as the heirs to Andrey Tarkovsky.
But the art-house production is at risk of becoming an endangered species as Russians flock to big-budget US blockbusters. No matter how high their quality, funding and distribution difficulties mean that the festival’s films will struggle to get a wider audience – even in Russia. Plakhov said an audience of 5m is today considered respectable in Russia: compare that with nearly 100m for Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (the 1980 Oscar-winner for best foreign-language film).
Russian cinema, Plakhov warned, is becoming polarised between art-house production and home-grown attempts at aping Hollywood. He cited what was probably the first Russian film to compete commercially with US blockbusters – Timur Bekmanbetov’s effects-laden Night Watch (2004), a saga of dark supernatural forces taking over the world in modern-day Moscow.
Although even Night Watch could be seen as a metaphor for the darker side of Russian life, it would be sad if this were the only face of Russian cinema to succeed in the west. It would be a loss, to give one more example from the festival, if filmgoers missed out on the chance to see an exemplary study in human storytelling such as Pavel Ruminov’s I Will Be Around. Apart from its backstory of a feckless father and marital breakdown, there is not much spetsifika in this heart-breaking tale. As a young mother with a terminal illness seeking adoptive parents for her six-year-old son, Maria Shalayeva is simply astonishing. Her performance weaves anger, love and humour into her character’s slide towards death. Home-movie style camerawork reinforces a feeling that this cannot be mere acting.
Svetlana Adjoubei, festival director and founder of Academia Rossica, the cultural charity behind the festival, said the event is enjoying an “expanding audience”. That might reflect the fact that an estimated 300,000 Russian-speakers now live in London, but the films it is showcasing are rich, brave, inventive and a offer a glimpse of life in a still misunderstood country. Let’s hope that film distributors can net a wider audience for them.
Runs until November 11, www.russianfilms.org