Film Festival Runs Heavy
Text by Yuri Pushkin
Photos courtesy of Moscow International Film Festival
The mood at the 31st Annual Moscow International Film Festival, which took place between June 19 and 28, can best be summed up in one word: melancholy. The festival featured highly anticipated films such as Michael Haneke’s Das Weisse Band (A White Ribbon), The Missing Person directed by Noah Buschel, Antichrist by Dutch director Lars von Trier, and others, all of which left the viewer in a less cheerful and more philosophical mood about life, love and human nature.
The Russian directors were not to be outdone by their international counterparts when it came to the complexities and overwhelming darkness of people’s emotions. Opening the festival, the movie Tsar, directed by Pavel Lungin, was a sign of what was to come over the next ten days. Opening to the general public in November, the movie and Mamonov will be a cover story feature in our September issue.
Chudo (The Miracle), a jury prize winner of the “Silver George” statue, is a film based on true life events that took place in Samara in 1956. A young woman, attending a local celebration begins to dance with an icon of Nikolas the Wonderworker. Almost immediately she falls into a stone-like frozen stance resembling a coma. Unable to explain the phenomenon, the town’s people react in fear as the woman proceeds to stand in place for months. The director, Aleksander Proshkin, focuses on Samara as speculations of what happened spread around the country and media takes notice of what has since been dubbed as the “Standing of Zoya”.
One of the strongest films, and a prefestival favorite to win, was Melodiya Dlya Sharmanki (Melody for the Barrel- Organ) directed by the famed Russian film director, Kira Muratova. Nikita and Alenushka, half-brother and half-sister, are searching for their fathers upon the passing of their mother. The movie exposes the dark and bizarre behavior of people, as seen by an outsider, while the children venture through a big city. Lena Kostyuk earned the Best Actress award for her role of Alenushka.
An adaptation of an A.P. Chekhov story, Palata No. 6 (Ward No. 6), is a paradox of life film, again, based on real life events. Once a chief doctor of an asylum, Dr. Andrey Ragin, played by Vladimir Ilyin, is now one of its patients. Left in loneliness, the doctor reflects on life as the film provokes the viewer to reconsider the stabilities of their own existence. ‘The world offers no guarantees’ is the message that the director, Karen Shakhnazarov, and most probably Chekhov are passing on to the viewer in what is most likely the most depressing and pessimistic work of the author, and of all movies shown at the festival. It is no surprise that such a psychologically difficult role won Ilyin the Best Actor award at this year’s festival.
The overall winner of the festival was Pete on the Way to Heaven, directed by Nikolay Dostal. Set in 1953 Russia at the time of Stalin’s death, the story depicts a town’s fool who pretends to be a legitimate militia officer of the law. Everyone plays into his harmless game, even the actual militia. Pete’s big break comes when a con escapes prison and the pretend officer is given a chance to join the guards in the chase for the fugitive.
Even the ‘free thought’ program at MIFF, lined with great documentaries about writers, athletes, researchers, world changing people and events, gave way to the darker side of humans. Released in 2008, Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson told of the “father” of gonzo journalism while Thompson researched and wrote his three most famous works: Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972. The film also included pieces of the journalist’s life prior to and after these writings, shining the light on a man living a boisterous life which eventually leads to his demise.
Two documentaries, which particularly focused on human suffering at the hands of others, were Pizza in Auschwitz and Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Danny Hanoch is an Israeli Holocaust survivor. “Auschwitz” tells the story of Danny as he takes his children to a place where his childhood was lost. To them, it is a world learned about through history books and teachers, but to Danny, it is a life-long memory that keeps playing through his head. Over a six-day journey through Poland and Germany, he tells stories of the land on which he slaved under the watchful eye, and machineguns, of the Nazis.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a documentary about a different war but with no less human suffering. Tired of watching their husbands, brothers and sons dying in endless numbers during the civil war that gripped Liberia in 2003, the country’s women decide to take matters into their own hands. Crossing religious and racial prejudices, they form human chains between opposing sides and lead to eventual success in peace talks between enemy combatants. The events captured in this documentary later resulted in the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female African head of state.
The festival, seemingly, left no stone unturned when it came to showing how isolated humans really are, internally. The two big Hollywood productions featured at MIFF, Rachel Getting Married and Public Enemies cumulated the festivals trends. Rachel, or more importantly her sister, Kim, returns home from a stint at a rehab clinic to a family on the verge of celebrating a marriage and self-destructing. Divorced parents, two sisters constantly fighting over their father’s attention, death, addiction and depression; welcome to the family.
Even the latest project of the notorious Hollywood action film director, Michael Mann, was dark and filled with enough inner suffering to close out MIFF in style. Public Enemies depicts the story of a Chicago bank robber, John Dillinger, who famously became public enemy number one for J. Edgar Hoover as he tried to organize what eventually became the FBI. Dillinger was bold and daring, capturing the hearts of women and admiration from men, who were in disgust with the banking system during the Great Depression.
While great in selections, the Moscow International Film Festival was monotonous in its style. Each film seemed to be heavier on the mind than the previous, where even the short features seemed to drag on at times. Usually, in the period of a financial crisis, people turn to movies and theater to entertain them away from the harsh realities.