In late 1999, Vladimir Putin became acting president of Russia. Earlier that same year, on the other side of the world, academics in Pittsburgh held the first Russian Film Symposium. While Putin has recently stepped down, the symposium continues apace, and marks its 10th year and the former president's legacy with "The Ideological Occult: Russian Cinema Under Putin."
The six-day symposium, co-presented by the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Filmmakers, begins Tue., May 5, and will offer 13 films, to be shown on the Oakland campus and at the Melwood Screening Room, in North Oakland. As always the symposium will offer plenty of discussion from scholars and critics. Introducing the evening films at Melwood this year will be four notable guests, all currently active in shaping and critiquing Russian cinema.
The films chosen for screening and discussion are from the last three years, yet reflect in varying degrees what the organizers term "ideological occult -- a nostalgic desire to resurrect a belief system known to have failed."
Additionally, explains symposium organizer Vladimir Padunov, an associate professor of Slavic language and literature and an associate director of the film studies program at the University of Pittsburgh, such backward glances are occurring as Russia struggles to define itself in the 21st century, both domestically and as a global power.
"What they can't get back," Padunov says, "is what never existed, [what] we would simply assume is national identity -- what does it mean to be Russian. To think of yourself as Russian is already to think of yourself imperially. Whether that imperial way of thinking is tsarist or Soviet, it's nonetheless not really national thinking of what it means to be Russian.
"They're looking for something," he adds. "They haven't a clue what they're looking for.
"The situation that exists right now [in Russia] is so terrible," Padunov explains, that it gives rise to selective nostalgia: "Let's forget all kinds of wonderful things about [the past] like repression, the terror, the arrests, censorship, cultural control, totalitarian structure. Let's think with nostalgia about the Brezhnev era, or let's revive some of the dead signs of the Soviet era like the red star or old tsarist imperial emblems like the two-headed eagle -- all empty signs of a dead imperial power."
Asked how Russian cinema has evolved over the decade of the symposium, Padunov cites the slow return of a social conscience to the medium. "I'm not saying that that is something that has happened apart from state interest," he adds, "but I definitely think that the idea of cinema as a vehicle for instruction as opposed to mere entertainment, as a form of social commentary, is returning," albeit in cautious ways.
During the symposium, scholars and experts will parse out these thorny issues from a variety of recent Russian films, but even the casual viewer can't mistake the critique of pining for the good old days in Cargo 200, a pitch-black drama, set in 1984 during the Afghan war.
Directed by Aleksei Balabanov, whom Padunov calls "the Russian bad boy of cinema," it presents an unresolved grotesquerie of corruption, madness and disorder, and generated plenty of controversy in its homeland. It had limited distribution, and even then, screenings were age-restricted and shown at 2 a.m.
You'll have no such trouble here: Cargo 200 screens Wed., May 7, at a civilized 7:30 p.m. It riled up some Russian critics, but won an admirer in Padunov. "It's magnificent," he enthuses, adding, "It makes me giggle when I watch it."
The following films screen at the Melwood Screening Room. (See below for complete schedule.)
Cargo 200. Aleksei Balabanov's darkly comic, brutal feature, set in 1984 outside Leningrad, takes its title from the ongoing Afghan war; "cargo 200" is the military euphemism for returning dead Soviet soldiers. Chance encounters between a professor of scientific atheism, an ex-con bootlegger, a dodgy youth, the daughter of an highly placed official, a serenely psychotic policeman -- and yes, a cargo 200 -- depict the rotting collapse of the system, its people and even the landscape.
Hard-Hearted. A young discharged soldier journeys from the provinces to his "dream city," Moscow, only to find it a roiling, seedy pit of corruption and deception, where individual gain trumps any system of order or honor. (The repeated refrain "this is Moscow, not a civvy street" echoes the 1970s admonition "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatrown.") While initially caught off guard, the naïve young man quickly adapts and achieves power, by any means available. Aleksei Mizgirev directs.
Cruelty. We meet two generations of Moscow women in Marina Liubakova's debut feature film. There's the late-thirtysomething Zoia, a successful legal assistant, who nonetheless leads an empty life. Across the road from Zoia's modern apartment building lives Vika, a scrappy teen who uses a stolen professional camera to both observe and facilitate the moneyed life she desires. The pair hook up, initially sharing outrage over Zoia's lover's shabby behavior, but their Thelma and Louise-ish escapades ultimately reward not loyalty, but self-interest.
Simple Things. A middle-aged anesthesiologist muddles through his working-class life – trouble with the family, a stagnant career, lack of funds and too many nights at the Lower Depths bar. A side job doping up an elderly actor may provide a catalyst. Aleksei Popogrebskii shoots his film with studied deliberation, making idiosyncratic choices to create a catalog of both naturalistic and offbeat moments in the life of today's questioning everyman.
The films scheduled for the morning and afternoon will screen via video projection in David Lawrence Room 106 on the University of Pittsburgh campus, in Oakland, and will be followed by discussions. The films are in Russian with English subtitles. There is no charge and the public is welcome.
Additional screenings will take place at the Melwood Screening Room (477 Melwood Ave., Oakland), and will be presented in 35 mm. All films are in Russian, with English subtitles; admission is $5. For more information see www.rusfilmpitt.edu or www.pghfilmmakers.org.
Mon., May 5
10 a.m. Soar (Aleksandr Mindadze, 2007, 85 min.)
2 p.m. Mermaid (Anna Melikian, 2007, 113 min.)
Tue., May 6
10 a.m. Traveling With Pets (Vera Storozheva, 2007, 97 min.)
2 p.m. The Island (Pavel Lungin, 2006, 112 min.)
Wed., May 7
10 a.m. 1612 (Vladimir Khotinenko, 2007, 140 min.)
7:30 p.m. Cargo 200 (Aleksei Balabanov, 2007, 89 min.) To be introduced by Russian film critic Aleksandr Kiselev. Melwood
Thu., May 8
10 a.m. Nothing Personal (Larisa Sadilova, 2007, 94 min.)
2 p.m. A Kiss -- Not for the Press (Ol'ga Zhulina, 2008, 100 min.)
7:30 p.m. Hard-Hearted (Aleksei Mizgirev, 2007, 90 min.) To be introduced by Russian film critic Victor Matizen. Melwood
Fri., May 9
10 a.m. Alexandra (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2007, 92 min.)
2 p.m. Day Watch (Timur Bekmambetov, 2006, 140 min.)
7:30 p.m. Cruelty (Marina Liubakova, 2007, 90 min.) To be introduced by Aleksandr Kolbovskiy, editor of a Russian cinema television program. Melwood
Sat., May 10
7:30 p.m. Simple Things (Aleksei Popogrebskii, 2007, 108 min.) To be introduced by Russian film critic Marina Drozdova, Melwood