Dissenting blockbusters

Mumin Shakirov
15 January 2009


Dancing boogie-woogie in "Stilyagi", new Russian film by Valeri Todorovski


Until a few months ago, the authorities did not concern themselves with cinema in Russia.

Every year, the state regularly allocated budget funds to produce films, and was not very interested in the politics of the films made. There was no censorship or financial control. Filmmakers and officials received grants and distributed them among themselves, sometimes honestly and sometimes taking cuts. Corruption is something that you can't escape in Russia. Cinema has developed rapidly in recent years, thanks to the state and private investors. Bankers and oilmen spared no money until the international crisis began.

Then in October 2008, the authorities seemed to wake up: the press and television are under strict control, but cinema is allowed to walk by itself! How can that be? It's disgraceful! Who will "correctly" bring up the young? Who will tell the people who the enemies of Russia are? And an unprecedented event took place. In December, a Cinematography Committee was created which was headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself. From now on, the entire Russian film industry is dependent on this committee. The "patriot" Nikita Mikhalkov, Putin's friend, (who was recently called the most influential figure in Russian cinematography by "Empire" magazine), a famous director and outstanding artist, has every chance of becoming the Prime Minister's right-hand man.

Cinema in the new Russia has never directly touched on the interests of government and has almost always been an apolitical art. None of the filmmakers openly criticized the Kremlin or the Putin regime. Russia does not have an Oliver Stone, let alone a Michael Moore. But there are successful professionals who can expect multi-million budgets, make films of Hollywood standard and even earn money. In Russia people have learned to make blockbusters and taught Russian viewers to go to the cinema in droves during the Christmas holidays.

The main cultural event of the New Year in Russia was the premiere of two long-awaited films, "Inhabited Island" by Fyodor Bondarchuk and "Stilyagi" ("Teddy Boys") by Valery Todorovsky. Both directors are over 40, both grew up in the perestroika years, both come from famous cinema dynasties, and both spent tens of millions of US dollars on their projects. The sums are very respectable, taking into account the fact that feature films in Russia barely break even. Out of 100 films a year, only 5 make a real profit, 5 break even, and the rest make a loss.

Before the films were released, critics predicted a real clash of the titans. Experts tried to guess which film would capture the New Year box-office: "Stilyagi" or "Inhabited Island"? The films were released almost simultaneously all over Russia in thousands of movie theatres. Even for a cinema country like France, this is a huge number. But after the first viewings, it became clear that the talented Bondarchuk and Todorovsky had not just made blockbusters with musical, mystical and fantastic elements, but had also made their own defiant gestures.


For example, let's take "Stilyagi", where the anti-Soviet pathos of the film is quite obvious. It looks relevant, although the film is set in 1955. Stalin has already been in the grave for two years, and young people, feeling the spirit freedom, are mad about jazz, boogie-woogie and new fashions: they wear colored socks and ties, play the prohibited saxophone and study the Kama Sutra.

They are pursued by the uncompromising Komsomol, who with Bolshevist persistence see the Stilyagi as the enemies of the Motherland and the agents of the licentious West, above all America. Who do the Komsomol and their commissars resemble? That's right, the members of the pro-Kremlin youth organization "Nashi". The association is clear. The key phrase in the film delivered to the Stilyaga Mels is: "You're worse than an enemy! You're a traitor!" Those of you who keep close track of Putin's movements will remember his phrase: "You know, Alexei, you're not a traitor. You're an enemy!" He addressed these words to the editor of the opposition radio station "Echo Moskvy" Alexei Venediktov in the Kremlin during a personal meeting.

The accent is placed very clearly in Valery Todorovsky's film. At the same time, it cannot be said that this is a film of open protest. Valery is not a dissident, but also not an apologist for the regime. He is mainly an artist with his own style and subtle taste. Todorovsky believes that "Stilyagi" is about the eternal desire of the free person not to be part of the grey crowd. "It has nothing to do with the 1950's, it is true for any time," the director believes. The film essentially warns us that in Russia it is never possible to be too different.

"Inhabited Island"

Things are different with "Inhabited Island". Director Fyodor Bondarchuk is known to be not just loyal to the regime, he is the ideological leader of the pro-Putin movement "Young Guard" and a member of "United Russia", the party of power. He is not just a supporter of Putin, but an active conductor of his politics to the masses.

Then suddenly "Inhabited Island" comes out. It not only sounds dissident notes and veiled allusions. It demonstratively seeks to make parallels with the present day. However, in the film based on the famous novel by the Soviet writers the Arkady and Boris Strugatsky brothers, it is not Russia in 2008 that is shown, but the obscure planet Saraksh in 2157. And on this planet, an Earthling appears, a young man by the name of Maxim Kammerer. Sarakh strikes him as a gloomy place, with an impoverished population, stern guards in SS-like uniforms, and "degenerates" - local dissidents who blow up the propaganda transmitter towers. Here people walk in lines and sing anthems, those who disagree are executed, and there are enemies all around. In the course of the film, Kammerer joins the guards, and makes friends with a zombified corporal, to whom he tries to explain that the fathers of Sarakh are not patriots, but bloodthirsty tyrants who stupefy the people and destroy the opposition in the form of "degenerates". And the freedom-loving Max must make a choice - to save this world or leave it as it is.

The authors of the film certainly did not aim to make a movie relevant to the present day. After all, the Strugatsky brothers had the Soviet dictatorship in mind. But recent events in Russia have firmly placed the dots on the is, against the will of director Bondarchuk. The characters of the film talk about enemies who were previously colonies of the Saraksh empire and are now doing harm to it. Events in Georgia are recreated in the film almost precisely - the fathers of Saraksh plan a deep invasion into the enemy's territory, preparing public opinion, as they explain the "degenerates" are sponsored by enemies from abroad. The phrases and catchwords are almost exact repetitions of comments heard from the leadership of Russia and the majority of the population. Of course, the filmmakers try to draw wider generalizations in numerous interviews. Bondarchuk believes that his film shows what life is like in any large state with global problems. Not only Russia, but America and even England with its 2,000 cameras in the center of London. The world of constant military operations and total control... End of quotation.

But these phrases only seem to be a diversionary tactic. The truth lies deeper. You would have to be blind not to see parallels with Russia in the 2000s. And this is being openly discussed by Russian intellectuals, including the celebrated publicist and musical critic Artemy Troitsky: "Both ‘Stilyagi' and ‘Inhabited Island' are profoundly anti-state films, and this is what actually makes them good. Freedom, reason and honesty - these things are in my opinion absolutely incompatible with the Russian state, at least in the way that I know it from the times of Ivan the Terrible to the times of Vladimir Putin."

Perhaps this is an attempt by the thinking people of Russia to see more in these films than they contain... If this is the case, the authors of both films have hit the nail on the head. But how could it happen that Bondarchuk, who openly sympathizes with the regime, made an almost dissident film? What is happening in the soul of this talented person, who on the one hand admires Putin, and on the other hand harshly criticizes authoritarian methods of running the country?

The Ukrainian connection

Here it is interesting to look at the way that the film of "Inhabited Island" came into being. The idea of making a film based on the novel by the Strugatskys came from no one other than Bondarchuk's partner and friend, Alexander Rodnyansky, the president of the STS-media company and a producer from Kiev. He is a unique personality who stands out in the Russian mass-media.

In the distant past Rodnyansky was a successful director who made a film about the Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg. In the early 1990s, Alexander founded the independent television channel 1+1 in Ukraine, and then was invited to Moscow and created an entire entertainment empire, uniting in one holding such channels as STS, Domashny and DTV. Rodnyansky also took part in financing and promoting the first successful film by Bondarchuk, "9th Squadron", about Russian soldiers in Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

Now thanks to Alexander, "Inhabited Island" has been made. He found investors to provide extensive advertising on television, organized filming on the territory of "hostile" Ukraine, and literally stayed by the director's side until the film was finished. Rodnyansky's role is clear, and at the moment he is giving endless interviews as one of the real co-authors of the project. However, as a cautious person, the head of STS-media sensibly protects himself: "Four years ago, when we started work, many phrases in the script did not sound as cutting and relevant as they do now. I would ask you to regard all the resemblances to reality as mere coincidence". If one lives in Russia and is an influential figure in the mass-media, one must carefully establish one's relations with the Kremlin.

Rodnyansky has almost always demonstratively kept away from politics, understanding that if he makes one false move he will fall out of favor: "suitcase, train station, Ukraine". But however carefully he built his relations with the regime, the Kremlin for some reason suspected him of sympathizing with the "orange" revolution in Ukraine, and kept its distance.

One incident is telling. Vladimir Putin, while still the president of Russia, invited Fyodor Bondarchuk and his film crew to his residence after the dazzling success of "9th Squadron". But for some reason, Rodnyansky was taken off the guest list at the last moment, as according to witnesses of the event he did not pass the "face control". When he heard this, Rodnyansky fell into a deep depression. He felt profoundly humiliated and disappointed.

Could "Inhabited Island" be seen as Rodnyansky's act of revenge against the regime, using Bondarchuk as his instrument? It's unlikely. It would be rather an expensive way of settling scores. The film cost the producer almost $40 million, and this money needs to be returned.

But despite the aggressive advertising and wide discussion in the media, "Inhabited Island" will not disturb the peace in Putin's authoritarian and corrupt Russia. The time has passed when people went to the cinema to find out the truth, as was the case in the perestroika years. For those who have forgotten, I would remind you that in 1984 the Georgian film "Repentance" by Tengiz Abuladze about a tyrant and the Stalinist repressions drastically changed the ideas of millions of intellectuals in the USSR. People wanted changes and supported Gorbachev and his perestroika. But Russia today is a different country, not as impoverished as the Soviet Union. There is no "iron curtain", the shops are filled with goods. There is no Communist Party to invade people's personal life.

Still, it is interesting to see whether Vladimir Putin will invite Bondarchuk and his film crew to his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo this time to congratulate him on his successful project. Or will he demonstratively ignore a film which openly discusses the morals and conditions of today's Russia. A Russia where Prime Minister Putin has clearly laid claim to the role of father of the nation.


Mumin Shakirov is journalist of the Moscow Bureau of Radio Svoboda (Liberty) and film director.

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