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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


This Year’s White Elephant and Golden Eagle Awards
Text Vladimir Kozlov

Despite the fact that domestic film production has dramatically slowed due to lack of funds, life in the Russian film industry goes on. Whilst the Russian Union of Filmmakers is trying to figure out who is its legitimate president: newly elected veteran director Marlen Khutsiyev or incumbent Nikita Mikhalkov; major Russian film awards have recently been handed out.

The Bely Slon (White Elephant) award, which is administered by the Russian film critic guild, is considered the most objective domestic film prize. The 2007 contest, when the critics chose to award Alexei Balabanov’s “Gruz 200 (Cargo 200),” a strong yet controversial movie overlooked by the other prizes, is a testimony to that.

This year, however, there was a surprising similarity in the opinions of the White Elephant jury and that of the most “official” prize, Zolotoy Orel (Golden Eagle), as both chose to give the best film awards to the same movie, “Dikoye Pole (Wild Field)” by Mikhail Kalatozishvili – something that has not happened very often.

For years, Russian film awards have been shifting from art house to mainstream cinema and back without any sign of a consistent approach, and this year, it was time for art house movies to collect most prizes.

“Wild Field” by Kalatozishvili, who is incidentally the grandson of the renowned Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov, known for Soviettime classic The Cranes are Flying; a winner of the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1958, is in many ways a typical Russian art house movie. Made from a screenplay by Pyotr Lutsik and Alexei Samoriadov, the 1990s’ most promising screenwriting tandem, and written over 10 years ago, the film could be interpreted as another variation on the theme of the “mysterious Russian soul.” The movie is focused on Mitya (played by Oleg Dolin), a doctor who went into a self-imposed exile to a tiny place in the middle of a huge Russian steppe and has to deal with all sorts of issues, from people’s degrading behavior and squalor, to his own personal drama of being left by his girlfriend.

We will never know if the film is in line with how the writers envisioned it, as both of them have died since the script was written, but Kalatozishvili apparently chose to follow the script quite meticulously, still avoiding giving the audience an idea of when exactly the story took place, although there are some details hinting at the mid-1990s – the time when the screenplay was written.

The movie has been screened in a few international film festivals and earned some recognition, which makes the choice of Wild Field as the year’s best movie seem even more legitimate. Predictably, it picked up both Golden Eagle and White Elephant awards for the best screenplay, and prizes at the country’s main domestic film festival, Kinotavr, six months earlier.

Among other candidates for the best Golden Eagle movie, “Vse Umrut A Ya Ostanus (Everyone Will Die But Me)” by first-time feature director Valeria Gai Germanika, which deserves mentioning as one of the most interesting debut features of 2008.

The awarding of the critics’ best movie prize to “Wild Field” may or may not have been predictable, but when it came to choosing the year’s best director, there was one major factor that nearly made the choice obvious. Last September, 32-year old Alexei German Jr. picked up best director’s prize, the Silver Lion, at the Venice International Film Festival for his most recent movie “Bumazhny soldat (Paper Soldier),” arguably, the biggest achievement by a Russian director throughout the entire year and generally a rare occasion. Only the surprise victory at Venice by Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return five years earlier was a bigger accomplishment by the Russian cinema industry throughout the 2000s.

So, the film critics apparently chose not to be original and gave their best director prize to German Jr., who is a son of one of today’s most internationally recognized Russian directors; Alexei German, and the influence of German the Senior is not that hard to discover in his son’s movies. “Paper Soldier” could also qualify as a rather typical Russian art house film, telling a story of a doctor involved in the preparation of the first human space flight in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The movie apparently stands out among many others released in Russia last year thanks to its sophisticated sets and elaborated visuals.

Meanwhile, the Golden Eagle jury awarded the best director’s prize to Karen Shakhnazarov, who in recent year has been sharing his time between creative work of a film director and the administrative tasks of general director at Mosfilm, the country’s biggest studio complex. Shakhnazarov’s “Ischeznuvshaya Imperiya (An Empire that Disappeared),” a rather average movie, plays on some people’s nostalgia for their youth spent in the 1970s.

In other nominations, the two awards drifted apart. Ukraineborn Yuri Klimenko, one of the best cinematographers currently working in the Russian film industry, picked up the best cinematographer’s White Elephant for his work on Alexei Uchitel’s “Plenny (Captive).” Still, the Golden Eagle jury preferred Alexei Rodionov and Igor Grinyakin, the cinematographers of the year’s arguably biggest domestic blockbuster, Admiral, a biopic on Admiral Alexander Kolchak who fought the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, whose artistic merits are questionable.

The best actor’s White Elephant went to “Wild Field’s” Dolin, while Konstantin Khabensky collected the Golden Eagle in the same nomination for his representation of Admiral Kolchak in “Admiral.”

The Golden Eagle jury awarded “Vizantiyski urok: Gibel imperii (The Byzantine Lesson: A Demise of an Empire)” as the best documentary, while the film critic guild preferred Vitaly Mansky’s “Devstvennost (Virginity),” a much more controversial film that includes, among others, a story about a 19-year old girl who sells her virginity.

Paul Tomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” (which was released in Russia under a rather ambiguous title, Neft (Oil)), was named the best foreign movie by the Golden Eagle jury, winning over the Cohen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” and Peter Berg’s “Hancock.” The world premiere for the latter took place during the Moscow International Film Festival last June. The film critics’ guild also awarded the Cohen brothers’ film. Fay Dunaway collected a Golden Eagle for lifetime achievement.

Pavel Parkhomenko was awarded a White Elephant as the best set designer for his work on the youth drama “Nirvana,” and the Golden Eagle in the same nomination was given to the set designer team that work on the TV series Likvidatsiya (Liquidation).

The Golden Eagle for the best editing went to “My iz budushchego (We Are From The Future),” an action/drama about several young Russians mysteriously transported to the time of World War II, while the White Elephant didn’t have that nomination. The Golden Eagle didn’t have the best debut feature nomination, in which Bakur Bakuradze was awarded a White Elephant.

One instance where the two prizes’ juries proved to think similarly was the best actress nomination. Kseniya Rappoport collected both the Golden Eagle and the White Elephant for here role in “Yuriev Den (Yuriev Day)” by Kirill Serebrennikov. Written by Yuri Arabov, a renowned screenwriter and winner of Cannes festival’s best screenplay prize, the movie tells a controversial and allegorical story about prosperous opera diva Lyubov (played by Rappoport), who comes with her early-twenties son to her hometown Yuriev, some 200 kilometers from Moscow, to say a symbolic goodbye to her birth place before moving to Germany. In this small town, marred by squalor, poverty and degrading, Lyubov faces a major event of her life: her son mysteriously disappears, she stays in the town to look for him and gradually turns from a prosperous Muscovite to a typical local woman: Lyusya.

Remarkably, Alexei Balabanov’s “Morphiy (Morphine),” based on early prose by renowned Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, picked up no prizes from either the White Elephant or the Golden Eagle.

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