Artistic Freedom Brings Difficult Choices For the New Guard of Russian Filmmakers
With state support gone, directors must seek their own funding and distribution
Moscow — The bride -- the great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln -- is about to give her consent to the groom -- a famous Russian conductor -- when a man rushes in, trips over her veil and announces the imminent arrest of the couple and their guests.
The scene is played over and over again on a giant screen, until voices and sound effects are given the right balance.
Sitting in a state-of-the-art post-production studio in Moscow, Vladimir Menshov is putting the final touches to his latest film ''What a Mess!'' -- a light comedy aimed at a broad Russian audience.
This film does not pretend to be Oscar material, unlike ''Burned by the Sun,'' Nikita Mikhalkov's film that won the Academy Award for best foreign film in March. But like Mikhalkov, Menshov has an Oscar on his mantlepiece, won 15 years ago for ''Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.''
''Since then, a lot of tragic events have happened in Russia, and now the right thing to do is to make people laugh, to prove to us and to the world that we are still alive,'' he says over the crashing noises coming from the soundtrack.
Menshov believes in the catharsis of farce. Mikhalkov prefers historical introspection. Different directors attempt different answers to what they all consider as a difficult transition period in Russian cinema.
The Mosfilm studio, once the largest film studio in Europe, where Menshov works, still displays on the lobby wall a quotation of Lenin which had been the sustaining slogan of the Soviet film industry: ''Of all the arts, cinema is the most important.''
But today, the ideological framework and financial comfort in which cinema operated in the Soviet Union for decades are gone.
Mosfilm rents some of its vast real estate to a bank and to companies like Kodak, still uses a few buildings, and ''cannot afford to maintain the rest,'' admits Abdurakhman Mamilov, the studio's deputy director. Only 27 films came out of Mosfilm in 1994, half of what production used to be before perestroika (restructuring.)
In cinema, as in many other sectors of Russian life, perestroika has been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, all the bans were lifted, on the other, the infrastructure of the movies' state-subsidized and centrally planned industry has collapsed.
At first, the effects were devastating for Russian cinema. Censored for so long, foreign films flooded the market. ''People rushed to see US thrillers and Italian soft-porn,'' remembers Vera Ivanova, chief entertainment editor for NTV, a private Moscow television channel.
''But much worse,'' she adds, ''was that many of our directors jumped onto this boat and started to make even cheaper trash.''
Now the dust is settling, and what looked like an unquenchable thirst for foreign films has been sated. A reverse trend is emerging, Ms. Ivanova notes. Flipping through a catalog of last year's films, she points to the increasing number of movie titles that carry the word ''Russia'': ''To Love in Russian,'' ''Russian Symphony,'' and ''Russian Soup'' among others.
In this trend, cinema certainly echoes the surge of political nationalism, which is gaining ground in the country; but it also reveals a return to more traditional Russian themes of inspiration. ''Rather than cheap copies of Western movies, we are now doing more of what we are best at, human stories or literary adaptations,'' Ivanova says.
The Russian public is ready for this change and is letting it be known. ''We are in a reverse situation from 10 years ago,'' says Vitali Voulf, a popular cinema and theater critic. ''Back then you could not get tickets when a Western film was shown. Now, if you want to fill up a movie theater you have to show a Russian film.''
Paradoxically, today it is difficult to get contemporary Russian films shown in Russian movie theaters. In the Soviet days, directors were guaranteed that their films would be shown from Minsk to Vladivostok.
Last year, Mikhalkov had to sign individual contracts with local movie theaters around Russia to ensure that his Oscar-winning film would be distributed.
The collapse of the once monolithic but efficient state distribution system has undermined the newly acquired creative freedom. More than half of the 500 films that were produced in 1991 -- a peak year -- were never seen in public, and today, Russia has no national film-distribution company, state-owned or private.
Film production offers an even more complex landscape. The state still partially subsidizes the local movie industry, although co-productions with foreign investors are more frequent.
Local investors are also contributing their share. ''But too often they want to launder dirty money,'' warns Valery Pendrakovski, a director who is still struggling to finance a half-million dollar budget for his next film. The government has agreed to subsidize more than half of it, NTV will chip in, and he hopes to convince a Canadian TV company to put up the rest of the money.
Whatever the hurdles, he still doesn't want to go back to the old days. ''Now I am free, I don't belong to anyone, and I am responsible to myself only. I have no one to blame for my success or my failure,'' he says.
As if to propel matters along, Pendrakovski is already looking for a town in the Southern Volga region where he wants to set a film full of nostalgia for the '60s.
''That period is seen here, rightly or not, as the happiest time in our history, when people had a sense of why and where they lived. They don't want to see today's life, and they've had enough of socio-political introspection in the perestroika years,'' he says.
The directors who work today in Russia are those who have adapted to the new rules of the game. The generation of Soviet directors has either retired or given up. Among the younger people, many have emigrated to Europe or America.
Vladimir Khotinenko is one of those who has stuck it out. He is a rising star in contemporary Russian cinema. Unafraid of ambitious financial projects or once-sacred historical themes, he is now planning a $10-million film set in the 1920s.
The plot is based on the fictional story that Lenin died in India as he led the Red Army in exporting the communist revolution. ''Russian history is tragic, bloody, and contradictory. It is up to us to bring to it an artistic approach and humor,'' Khotinenko says.
His talent has already been recognized abroad. He has been selected alongside four other Russian directors to make his own film to commemorate the birth of cinema 100 years ago.
The film, to be presented in France at the end of the year, will be another step towards what Khotinenko believes is Russian cinema's future: ''to be a leading force in European cinema.''