Film

Berlinale 2022: The best films from Russia

The 72nd International Berlin Film Festival was held from 10 till 20 February. However, its official part ended four days earlier, due to the pandemic. Among the nominees is a short film by Russian director Anastasia Veber “Trap”. In addition, several other films from Russia were shown in various programs of the film festival.

 If asked what the Berlin Film Festival was like this year, the answer should be: “It was short”. No major studio projects were shown in Berlin this year. The focus was on arthouse European cinema, including Russian.

In 2020, the Berlinale got lucky. Ignorant of the rapid spread of Covid, the organizers held a regular festival with the usual crowded premieres, meetings and parties. A few days after that, the whole world went into quarantine. The following year’s festival was practically canceled, except for the five days held online, without much offered and a minor summer gatherings for viewers, which the film industry has largely ignored. Hosting the Berlin Film Festival in its physical form this year after the Venice Film Festival had already been held twice the Cannes Film Festival had run at full capacity last year; was a matter of principle. Otherwise, the event would have moved to a completely different league, no longer interesting to professionals. But after the announcement of the program at the end of January, a new wave of the epidemic began in the city, this time with the Omicron mutation and a few days before the festival, the number of cases in Berlin rose to 380,000 people a day, and crossed the mark 400,000 on opening day.

 German authorities immediately reacted by tightening rules for entering the country, and mass events were banned or limited. However, the curators of the Berlinale managed to obtain permissions from the authorities to hold the festival albeit with strict security measures. The organizers turned the festival into a “2G plus event”, where each participant had to confirm their full vaccination status as well as take a daily test. Theaters were limited to 50% capacity and the use of masks were made mandatory. The fact that the festival was allowed and did take place at all was a cultural policy gamble that apparently paid off because the film festival didn’t become a corona hotspot. Organizers have confirmed that 128 positive Covid cases had been reported in the test stations around Potsdamer Platz in the first six days. This time, current events influenced the program of the festival. According to Berlinale Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian, the films selected for this year describe the world “in its current state, which has changed during the pandemic, as well as how it used to be or how it could be”.

Although Russian films were not included in the main competition of the festival this year, some of them were shown in other programs. The largest production from Russia was the film directed by Alexander Zolotukhin titled “Brother in Every Inch”. This is the director’s second participation in the Berlin Film Festival – after showing his debut film „Russian Boy” here in 2019. His new film was featured on the Encounters program, which aims to promote the aesthetically and structurally daring work of innovative filmmakers. The legendary Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov was the artistic consultant of the project; in whose studio in Kabardino-Balkaria Zolotukhin studied together with Kantemir Balagov, Kira Kovalenko and Andrei Bitov. The cameraman was Andrey Naydenov, who is known for his work with Andrey Konchalovsky and Ivan Vyrypaev.

“Brother in Every Inch”, Dir. Alexander Zolotukhin, Courtesy Berlinale 2022 / Proline Film

The film essentially talks about the everyday life of military pilots, or rather those who are still being trained. The Filming took place in a real aviation town and many of the film’s characters were professional pilots. The international audience received a rare opportunity to look at the everyday life of the Russian military and this is what they saw: the life of the Russian military is no different from the life of the military anywhere else. Moreover, the film emphasizes the fact that the military are ordinary people, with their weaknesses, problems, and most importantly, with a heart that craves love, not death and destruction. The director himself is the son of a military pilot, whose childhood was spent in the garrisons. He knows well what he is talking about. He wanted to show how these people cope with life’s difficulties, how a beautiful and sublime dream of flying coexists with the risk to life and great responsibility, how dramatic the relationship of twin brothers who are mastering a dangerous military profession can become.

“Produkty 24” by Mikhail Borodin, Courtesy Berlinale 2022 / LLC Metrafilms

 The Panorama program included the full-length debut of the Russian director Mikhail Borodin’s “Convenience Store” (Produkty 24), which is based on real events that took place several years ago in the Moscow district of Golyanovo. In the center of the story is an Uzbek girl named Mukhabbat, who works in a 24-hour store of her compatriot Zhanna, a middle-aged woman. All her employees are migrants living practically in slavery, without passports and rights. They work round the clock and are daily subjected to moral and physical abuse. When one of the employees decides to run away, she is brought back by the corrupt police and is not only severely beaten, but also made cripple by driving nails into her feet.

Borodin moved to Moscow from Uzbekistan and he knows firsthand the difficulty of holding an Uzbek passport. Before becoming a film director, he worked as a laborer and a courier. The topic of migrants was also at the center of his previous work. His short film „Registration” (2020) was about an Uzbek woman who was detained by corrupt police officers for carrying a medicine whose purpose she could not explain. It was intended for her baby who was left alone in the apartment at night, waiting for medical help, while the woman was interrogated.

“Bakyt” (Happiness) by Askar Uzabayev, Courtesy Berlinale 2022 / 567 Production

The Audience Choice Award in the Panorama went to the film “Bakyt” (Happiness) by Kazakh director Askar Uzabayev. One of the producers of the project is Russian Anna Kachko. The film deals with the topic of domestic violence. Sad statistics appear in its credits: According to official UN data, 400 women die from domestic violence every year in Kazakhstan. In addition, 120 rapes, 5232 beatings, 14 murders and 48 suicides among women are reported monthly. 79 percent of women are serving time for the murder of their husbands who had used violence against their wives.

The men in the film speak Kazakh, but swear exclusively in Russian, turning their hatred to their wives. One of the women is a middle-aged beauty who advises other women on how to become happy; but when she herself returns home, she exposes her body to her husband’s blows. One day, his cruelty almost costs her life, but even in the hospital bed, she does not admit who was her rapist. She has a daughter who is pregnant and also suffers beatings from her husband, but does not dare complain, because of her mother’s advice not to dishonor the family. By the way the circumstances unfold, the outcome of the film is almost clear: the victim will either rebel or die. The Kazakh producer of the project, Bayan Maksatkyzy Yessentayeva, had also experienced something similar. She miraculously survived stab wounds inflicted on her by her husband, with whom she lived for more than twenty years. Bayan now is actively fighting domestic violence. After the announcement of the results of the Berlinale, she hopes that the premiere in Berlin, as well as receiving the award will draw the attention of the world community to the problem and open a discussion on the subject.

“The Land of Sasha” by Yulia Trofimova, Courtesy Berlinale 2022 / Vega Films

The program Generation hosted the premiere of the film “The Land of Sasha” directed by Yulia Trofimova, which is based on the book of the same name by Gala Uzryutova. 18-year-old Sasha is raised by a single mother who does not want her son to meet his father. The boy considers himself inadequate: he loves to draw, is interested in fashion and has more girls in his friends’ circle than boys. But most importantly, he can’t decide what to do after school. The mother wants her son to go to university and learn a “reliable profession”. Instead, Sasha decides to paint walls with graffiti. On his very first working day, he meets a girl who is just as unusual and extraordinary as he is. And so, begins their love story, of which neither parent approves, and which, as a result, is more useful in shaping the worldview of adolescents than the moralizing of parents, who, it seems, would also do well to grow up.

“The Land of Sasha” does not contain usual romantic exaggerations that are so often found in Hollywood projects of this topic. There is also no hint of melancholy, which is often expected from Russian cinema. The director creates an atmosphere of youthful spontaneity, lightness and hope. In addition to the love story of two teenagers and their relationship with the parents, the film also shows Russia, not hostile and distant, the image of which is often imposed in Western media, but close and understandable, with heroes who can live in the neighbourhood and who experience similar conflicts and joys.

“The Trap” by Anastasia Veber, Courtesy Berlinale 2022

On the contrary, “The Trap”, which won the prize in the Berlinale Shots, fits well with the clichéd image of Russia in the West, with its gray panel houses and a feeling of constant, omnipresent control. The film shows the life of young people in a big city although the focus is on a brother and a sister. She works as a teacher during the day and dances at a rave at night. He is engaged in the school of the Olympic reserve. The film does not contain a strictly narrative plot.

Spectators will not however see the historical beauties of St. Petersburg, where the film was shot. The outskirts of the city, electric trains, street musicians, yard dogs, shaven-headed guys who sort things out with their fists, flicker on the screen. Most of the actors are non-professionals. Director Anastasia Veber who was looking for her protagonists on the street, approached people who attracted her and also met someone on the Internet. It was her final project at the St. Petersburg School of New Cinema, where she had the task of searching for actors in the city. According to her, the title of the film refers not only to the allegory of the “cell”, but also to “some kind of extreme lifestyle that many young people lead in different parts of Russia.”

Weber arrived at the festival just in time for the award ceremony. Receiving the award, she thanked her parents, friends and remembered a family friend who died from Covid – St. Petersburg restorer Andrey Mikhailenko, to whom she dedicated her film. With her previous project “Syndrome IO”, Anastasia has won two awards at the Oberhausen Film Festival. The Golden Bear can now give her the opportunity to claim an Oscar nomination for The Best Short Film.