The University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Filmmakers present the sixth annual Russian Film Symposium, "Prophets and Gains: New Russian Cinema," Mon., May 3, through Sat., May 8, with films and discussions scheduled on the Oakland campus and at the Melwood Screening Room. While previous sessions have examined themes within cinema such as imperial fatigue and anti-Americanism, this year's symposium highlights a contemporary external situation.
In the wake of the troubles that hindered Russian cinema since the break-up of Soviet Union -- the collapse of state-sponsored national cinema, the increase in foreign films, the rise of home entertainment, and various financial crises -- a new generation of young Russian filmmakers has emerged, supported by independent producers and privately owned film companies.
One of the festival's organizers, Vladimir Padunov, an associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures and associate director of the film studies program at Pitt, says this recent development represents "a rediscovery of what it means to have a film industry when you are not 100 percent paid for by the state. No film ever had to make a profit, and in fact most films didn't. So now they have to discover how to make profits with films -- and what they've done is create private-production film studios, and it's these studios that have released most of the Russian films from the last five years."
In particular, the symposium will focus on the output of the three largest companies: STW Film Company, NTV-Profit Film Company and Pygmalion Productions. Additionally, the films scheduled to screen at Melwood highlight another facet of the current Russian film industry -- the emergence of young 20-something directors, a situation unheard of in the Soviet era, Padunov explains, when one had to be over 40 to make a movie.
The evening screenings will be four debut 2003 features from young Russian directors. "Many of these new directors worked making television commercials which are micro-narratives, and run counter to the Soviet notion of what a film narrative is: The average running time was between 140-180 minutes, and they were very slow-paced and plodding. And now suddenly the rhythm of film is changing, the length is changing -- these directors are redefining how images are consumed and made."
And so as the Russian economy adjusts, the Russian film industry finds itself juggling freedoms and constraints long familiar to free-market filmmakers. "Every one of these films has been made by a production studio that has to pay its rent and its staff," says Padunov, "and therefore they were calculated not to be elitist films but to be films that could be enjoyed by a mass audience but would still have a real directorial signature."
Tickets for the Debut Film Series are $6. The films screen at 8 p.m. at the Melwood Screening Room in Oakland. For more information, call 412-682-4111 or see www.rusfilm.pitt.edu.
BIMMER. Four buddies-in-crime escape Moscow in a stolen deluxe black BMW sedan, colloquially known as a "bimmer." Their thuggishness and trendy vulgarity -- it's all cell phones, rap music, sunglasses and harsh profanity -- seem at odds with the luxurious vehicle and yet perfectly matched, as Western cars are a desirable outlaw symbol. Petr Buslov's feature is a road movie that owes allegiance to other fleeing-gangs-as-family travelogues, where the urban warriors are ill-equipped to navigate the interior lands, though in Buslov's matter-of-factly cynical film, it's not that the provincial folks are any less morally bankrupt. Ironically, what the lads perceive as their source of power and protection -- the BMW -- proves otherwise: It is worthless on the weather-ravaged country roads; it too easily marks them for the undesirables they are; and its black opulence is reminiscent of a hearse, easily foreshadowing their doomed journey. The film will be introduced by Sergei Chylants, general producer at Pygmalion Films. In Russian with subtitles. Wed., May 5, only.
THE LAST TRAIN. Set in the Ukraine during the harsh winter midpoint of World War II, Aleksei German Jr.'s 2003 black-and-white film revisits a history much examined in Soviet cinema. Here the story is told from the point-of-view of a German military doctor cast from a train who finds himself adrift in the war's confusion, unable to tell friend from foe, or safety from sanctuary. The film will be introduced by Vladimir Padunov. In German and Russian, with subtitles. Thu., May 6, only.
LITTLE OLD LADIES. Deep in the hinterlands is a tiny village, populated only by a half-dozen old ladies, and a retarded man. Incapable of generating new life, they lead a subsistence existence, bartering moonshine for favors with a nearby army camp. The enclave is disrupted by the arrival of an extended family from Uzbekistan. They are immediately suspect for their difference, but a series of small events allow the family to meld with the old women. Gennadii Sidorov's film employs an episodic style that mixes monologue with dramatic events and verité sequences, much of it improvised by non-professional actors. His general themes are easily read -- he frames his film with a death and a birth -- and he uses obvious techniques like choosing not to subtitle any of the Uzbek family's dialogue. Also present is notable inversion where Sidorov depicts the future of Russia coming from the ethnic East and not, as previously mythologized, from Moscow. In fact, the film's one visiting Moscovite is a bloated, self-deluded middle-aged character who privately admits his life is not on any discernible forward track. The film will be introduced by Mikhail Iampol'skii, an associate professor of comparative literature and Russian studies at New York University. In Russian with subtitles. Fri., May 7.
THE RETURN. Andrei Zviagintsev makes his feature film debut with this austere psychological drama reminiscent of the films of Andrei Tarkovskii. One summer, two teen-age brothers are surprised and confused by the return of their long-absent and mysterious father. The three take a fishing trip, with a troubling outcome. The Return won the prestigious Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year. The film will be introduced by Vlad Strukov, a visiting assistant professor in Slavic languages and literatures at Pitt. In Russian with subtitles. Sat., May 8.
The rest of the Russian Film Symposium takes place at Lawrence Hall, Room 106, 3942 Forbes Ave. on the University of Pittsburgh campus in Oakland. All films at David Lawrence will be shown by video projection, in Russian with English subtitles, and will be presented by representatives from Russian film production companies and local and visiting scholars. A full schedule is available at www.rusfilm.pitt.edu. The symposium is open to the public.