Pavel Bardin's film Russia 88 has yet to reach the big screen, but myths and legends have already grown up around it. This film had been eagerly awaited by numerous critics, rights activists, and anyone concerned about the rise of xenophobia in the country. However, it turns out that the authorities are not ready for the release of Russia's first film to portray Russian Nazis. Secretive Kremlin ideologues are putting all sorts of obstacles in the way of this film, and have advised cinemas not to show Russia 88.
Scandal began to brew around the film at the end of February, at the Spirit of Fire film festival in Khanty-Mansiysk. This I found out on opening my e-mail. A guest at the festival, the well-known Moscow critic Viktoria Belopolskaya, wrote to me saying that a strange commotion was stirring around Bardin's film - lots of rumours and speculation, but not many facts. She asked me: "I don't suppose you've got any reliable sources at the festival who could look into the situation?" I found it surprising that there at the film festival, Viktoria was somehow sure that, sitting here in Moscow, I would know more than she would, out there in the thick of events.
I had to get up to speed quickly. I called Pavel Bardin's father, the famous cartoonist Garri Bardin. The master of Russian animation confirmed that the conflict over his son's film was no joke. The international panel of judges at the festival, which included the British Oscar-winning director Hugh Hudson and the critic Moritz de Hadeln, former director of the Venice and Berlin film festivals, wanted to give the top prize to Russia 88. But mysterious forces in the form of local bureaucrats and the festival's administration were adamantly against.
It is worth bearing in mind that the Spirit of Fire festival was taking place in western Siberia, in Russia's oil capital, Khanty-Mansiysk. So the focus of this festival of debuts was not on new cinematic discoveries and names, but on generous cash prizes for the winners, lavish dinners, and a glamorous nightlife of concerts featuring international stars. A single word from the oil barons and would be enough to wipe the festival from Russia's cultural map. And nobody there in the permafrost zone dares argue with the local authorities.
Garri Bardin asked if I could help raise the film's profile in Moscow, as his son's film had yet to get a distribution certificate. Without this, the producers would have no means of earning back the money spent on making the film.
Bardin senior also lifted the curtain a little to shed some light on this mystery. According to his sources, Russia 88's opponent at the festival was none other than a certain high-ranking Kremlin bureaucrat responsible for ideology in the country. It wasn't hard to guess that the name of this individual was Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, founder of the pro-Kremlin movement Nashi, and one of the supervisors of the United Russia party. In a word, a "great and terrible" functionary, who knows how to "talk" to the creative elite. He was said to have called the president of the festival, the cult Russian director Sergei Solovyov, and threatened unpleasant consequences. This version of events didn't even need the bloggers to get it out there on the Web. The mystery became clear.
But what was it, persistent critics and fans of Russia 88 were asking, that Surkov didn't like? The young director Pavel Bardin seems to have approached his theme with seriousness, and filmed an intelligent, aggressive, very real film in a jolting documentary style. For the first time we can see real skinheads on screen, armed and very dangerous young men, raising hell in markets, attacking passengers on the metro, killing people from Asia and the Caucasus on the streets of Moscow, and boasting about their achievements by uploading the evidence on YouTube. Everything Bardin shows is terrifying. But at the same time it is something we've all got used to in Putin's modern Russia.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Critics learned that the ideological bigwigs were particularly displeased with two scenes in the film. In one of them, a police officer descends into the skinheads' basement, and before he walks in, they shrewdly flip Hitler's portrait. On the other side we see the portrait of our own "national leader", Vladimir Putin.
As the director Bardin explained: "We didn't put any subtext into the shots with Putin's portrait - no direct juxtaposition, and no hints - this would be too obvious, head-on, and stupid. The only meaning that I am prepared to give to this scene is that it is under this national leader that these things are happening. And I would really like him to see this - if only with the eyes of his portrait". In another scene, a high-ranking bureaucrat comes to the same basement to take the boys under his wing. The implication is that such strong, energetic young men should be working for the authorities, not be left to their own devices.
The authorities have offered no objections to the film's creator, publicly. Everything has been on the level of behind the scenes talks and strong hints dropped. In the end, the festival's top award - the Golden Taiga - went to another film, leaving Russia 88 with the Special Prize, second in terms of importance but equal in terms of the cash prize. Such was the compromise reached by the jury members and the festival administration.
But the intrigues didn't end there. On their return to Moscow, some jury members became a bit braver and started telling people how they had been subjected to pressure in Khanty-Mansiysk. Various journalists from major publications who had been planning to write about Russia 88 also got the treatment.
A writer for the pro-Kremlin magazine Expert, Svetlana Reyter, publicly accused her editor-in-chief, Valery Fadeyev, of censorship for refusing to publish an interview with Pavel Bardin. Fadeyev's arguments were less than convincing - the film, he said, was mediocre and the interview simply boring and banal. As a sign of protest, Reyter stopped working with Expert and slammed the door loudly behind her. This story swiftly spilled onto the Web. Very similar conflicts broke out with several other journalists in the capital who were trying to support Russia 88, but coming up against resistance from their editors.
It is strange to think that before all this Bardin's film had already been shown at the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival), and had featured in the festival's Panorama section. The film did not cause a sensation at the festival, but it did get its share of positive feedback.
As the prominent Russian critic Andrei Plakhov wrote in one review: "The Berlinale organisers, wary of marginalities, felt the taste of provocation. The emotional energy invested in the film's main character could prove infectious for the unprepared viewer. And in Germany they are scared of anything linked to shameful historical events (it is no coincidence that the main films depicting Nazism have been filmed in Italy or America, but not in its homeland)."
Meanwhile, interest in Bardin's film rose sharply among film lovers, rights activists, and critics. The public was eagerly awaiting the Moscow premiere. It took place in early April at the Spring Euphoria mini-festival at the Moscow cinema Rolan, with viewer discussions afterwards. People stayed for a long time, arguing themselves hoarse. Some thought the film provoked xenophobia, being too convincing in its depiction of its Russian Nazi protagonists point of view. But these were a minority.
What more reflective voices saw above all were the film's anti-fascist motifs. In the final scene, the main character, whose nickname is ‘bayonet', commits suicide. His war for racial purity collapses - his sister falls in love with a man from the Caucasus, and his brothers in arms are ready to sell themselves to the authorities for money.
There were several other discussions after that- in VGIK (the state cinematography institute), in Moscow clubs, and in the provinces. To many people's surprise, at the end of April the film received a distribution license from the state. It seemed that the film's problems were over, that its future was going to have roses as well as thorns, that it would recoup its money, and the director's name would be made.
(Then another scandal erupted. When the film was showed again at the Rolan cinema at the Kinoteatr.doc festival the 19.00 screening was interrupted. According to eyewitnesses, a team of OMON riot police showed up before the film began. The audience who had arrived for the screening of Russia 88 were invited by the cinema's owners to see a different film - "I always wanted to be a gangster". But the audience objected. People wanted to know why. Someone started a rumour that the reason why the film could not be shown was that the producers had failed to bring a high-quality copy. This was obviously a lie.
According to the director, the police justified their appearance at the cinema by saying they were there to prevent possible acts of provocation from neo-Nazis. However, as Bardin notes, the OMON bus left the scene before the scheduled end of the screening.
Later it became clear that Rolan's owners had not wanted to get on the wrong side of those secret authorities who, to put it mildly, were not best pleased that Russia 88 was raising such an unhealthy interest among film lovers.
The conflict took a new turn. Pavel Bardin got a lot of attention, gave lots of interviews to internet publications, and articulated his position very forcefully. "I have always said that I wanted to work with the authorities in the fight against Nazism, and I will continue to do so" is a phrase he often repeats at meetings with journalists. But the state authorities have made no attempt to contact him, and have made it clear that they do not see it as in their interest to use films like Bardin's for propaganda purposes.
This stance has shocked many fans of the film. In Russia, shaven-headed thugs kill people of non-Slavic appearance on the streets of large cities and small towns every day. Independent journalists write about this, rights activists shout about it, not to mention the victims themselves.
It would seem that this is the kind of quality film which should force the authorities and the public as a whole to start talking more seriously about the rise in xenophobia and racial intolerance. But that is just not happening.
Kremlin ideologists keep on slickly promoting the same tired old idea of siege mentality in people's minds: the enemy surrounds us, and the motherland is in peril. And Pavel Bardin's Russia 88, with its anti-fascist message, has no place in this campaign of cynical brainwashing. "Skinheads fulfill a useful role, redirecting the flow of national anger onto outsiders and foreigners with a different skin colour and different-shaped eyes", as the rights activists say. Against the background of the ongoing economic crisis, the slogan "Russia for Russians" appeals to many people in the country, according to the latest surveys.
The fate of Russia 88 remains uncertain. Bardin still hopes that his film will get a wide release, but the question is - when? No answers have been forthcoming. This is despite the fact that the film's producers are the prominent broadcasting magnate Alexandr Rodnyansky and the popular actress Anna Mikhalkova, no small names in the Russian film industry. Anna is the daughter of Nikita Mikhalkov, the top functionary of Russian cinema, and a film director of global renown.
In the meantime, Pavel Bardin is not taking this lying down. He keeps on travelling round Russia with his film, talking to the public about it.