Russia and Russian nature are both fascinating and disturbing issues for Poles due to the historic background of the two countries. There are numerous people in Poland interested in our neighbour’s culture, though each year it seems to be increasingly distant and unfamiliar, and the tense geopolitical situation is not favourable to the attempts of reaching beyond the common views and getting into the nuances in greater detail. It is difficult to say that Polish-Russian relations have ever been free from mutual stereotypes, and the in-depth, “more real” image of Russia is still a mystery to most Poles. Organising such events as the “Sputnik over Poland” festival is not bound to substantially improve the situation. However, the possibility of watching not only prize-winning films acknowledged by organisers of film festivals, but also those films which are not likely to become popular outside their home country, provides an opportunity to unravel a bit of the mystery.
The main part of the festival includes a feature film competition, intended to be a versatile overview of the most important productions released in the previous year, which are evaluated by Polish Jury chaired by Joanna Kos-Krauze, director. The jurors shared similar tastes this year, as all the prize-winning films were poetic, and far from current political issues, though they did not avoid social engagement. Apart from one of the films, the action of the majority of the films is set far from the cities, in the surrounding of a rich, but demanding Russian nature, which at times is a challenge to the protagonist, and at other times it serves as a retreat. Each of the films took on the topic of family relations.
The Grand Prix went to the an austere and lyrical film entitled Core of the World by Nataliya Meshchaninova, telling the story of a young boy living in the country who looks after hunting dogs and prefers the company of animals to people. The source of his misanthropy lies in his fear and deeply-hidden emotions, which is expresses by his dramatic attempts to come closer to his superior’s family, as his secret wish is to become part of it. Deep Rivers by Vladimir Bitokov, the winner of the 3rd prize is characterised with a similar, yet more austere and gloomy atmosphere. This grim history of family conflicts is set in the forests of North Caucasus, in the circles of woodcutters, protagonists who are again unable to express their emotions, hiding behind the mask of impertinence, which leads to various tragedies. The second prize went to the poetic film entitled The Lord-Eagle. Set in the middle of Yakutsk taiga, the film is, on the one hand, an intimate, ascetic story of an older married couple trying to make ends meet in difficult conditions. On the other hand, by its references to the traditional Russian story of a magic bird, which is both a blessing and a curse to its owners, and by setting the film’s plot in 1930s, Eduard Novikov creates a fascinating picture immersed in magic realism, and which is at the same time a historical and political allegory.
It is worth noting that Russian can only be heard in one of the above films, as if the Jurors wished to award prizes with a view to emphasising the ethnic and national diversity of Russian Federation. This tendency is also visible in Ayka (dir. Sergei Dvortsevoy), which received a honourable mention for its expressive and naturalistic cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska. The plot of this drama, resembling early works by Dardenne brothers, is set in Moscow (as usual presented as a heartless and atrocious place), but the main protagonist is a Kyrgyz immigrant living in extreme poverty who is forced to abandon her new-born child.
It is worth recommending the most recent work by Aleksey German jr., with cinematography by Łukasz Żal (Ida). This outstanding film, which was not distinguished by the Jury of the Sputnik Festival, was awarded at the Berlin festival. Dovlatov is a biographical story of Sergei Dovlatov, an outstanding writer and a dissident, whom the viewers observe during several crucial days in 1971. It is when Iosif Brodsky, future Nobel Prize winner and Dovlatov’s friend is forced to leave the country. German creates an extraordinary, meditative literary and film essay in the spirit of Tarkowski late works, which is an elegy-style portrait of artistic circles suffering repressions from a totalitarian regime.
Although the remaining films in the competition represented a wide range of genres and styles, there was a clearly noticeable domination of pessimism. Even seemingly cheerful and playful films, in fact took up the topic of loneliness, alienation, disrupted social and family relations, and of the disparate need for closeness with another human being. As stereotypically as it may sound, Russian cinema is still immersed in deep sorrow which cannot be soothed.
The 12th “Sputnik over Poland” Russian Film Festival
8 – 18 November 2018, Warsaw