Deirdre Molumby takes a look at Directory of World Cinema: Russia 2, a companion to the filmic legacy of one of the world’s most storied countries.
With their far greater budgets, clever marketing strategies, and major advertising campaigns, Hollywood cinema often forces other world cinemas to take a back seat in terms of international reach and viewership. The Directory of World Cinema series reminds us of the great films that have been brought to us from outside of the Hollywood canon, and analyses films that are of cultural, national and historical significance both within the countries in which they are produced and on a globally influential scale. The tone of the books is academic but its layout and language are accessible for all readers.
The first book on Russia provided an analysis of directors – including Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovskii, Nikita Mikhalkov, and Alexsandr Sokurov – and movie titles which most familiar with Eastern European cinema would be familiar with. Films that are listed among the greatest of all time, including Battleship Potemkin (1925), Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Andrei Rublev (1938), Oscar-winning titles Moscow does not believe in Tears (1979), War and Peace (1967) and Burnt by the Sun (1995), and national treasures such as The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), The Irony of Fate (1975), and My friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), as well as more recent hits like Brother (1997), Brother 2 (2000), Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2005) are all included in this collection.
Directory of World Cinema: Russia 2 is one of the most recent outputs by the series. The reader may feel initially reproached with the material due to the unfamiliarity of the films it includes. Due to the nature of it being a follow-up to the first Russia book (and in what is almost a slightly ironic and self-reflexive move, the book actually includes a section on ‘Sequels and Remakes’), Russia 2 explores titles less well-known to a western audience, although followers of Russian cinema should have heard of most of them. However, one should not be too discouraged as whether you have an interest in Russian history, culture, or in world cinema generally – be it the fresh, new stories offered or innovative industrial developments of interest – Russia 2 is a thoughtful and enjoyable read.
The book covers genres that would not be overly utilised by Russian cinema, including blockbusters, science fiction, and horror. Interestingly, the collection also explores genres that are relatively unique to Russia, including cold war spy films (which saw the state take an active role in production through censorship and propaganda), chernukha (a sort of neorealism, with bleak films that reflect on the political and social turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet system), and auteur animation. Similar to other books in the Directory series, Russia 2 includes an essay on its ‘Film of the Year’ (Rasskazy/Short Stories, and an interview with the director, Mikhail Segal, is also included), profiles of a number of famous Russian directors, and lastly, its analyses of Russian films, which are organised by genre and take up the majority of the book. An essay on the first Moscow international film festival is also included and provides a contemplative historical and political perspective on this particular aspect of the industry.
Within the director biographies, there is an underlying integrated story of the development of Russian theatre and the film industry (the latter owes much to the former, while the book also reflects the industry’s strong roots in national literature, particularly that of Nickolai Gogol), adding great interest to what would otherwise be simple profiles. There are reflections on artistic and aesthetic developments from early cinema right up to the modern day. Regarding the Soviet epoch, the book reflects how in spite of the hindrance of censorship arising from Stalinism, there was also great creativity in the period. The socio-cultural reasons for the emergence or lack of popularity of genres are also explored within each section, for example, science fiction was until recently unpopular as ‘to open up a discussion of what constituted the universal mission of humankind could easily be considered sacrilegious from a dogmatic point of view’, while horror has been read as exhibiting ‘a brutal, traumatic history through a graphically realistic depiction of violence and vicious destruction of human life.’ The descriptions of each film are engaging and show that there are imaginative and unique stories to be found in Russian cinema (with the animated and horror selections providing particularly innovative narratives). The section on ‘chernukha’ films is another stand-out, as it reflects how cinema can allow for a mirror to be held up to reality, whereby directors can present the truth even in defiance of state power.
Each movie description includes production credits, a synopsis and a critique which provides further contexts to the film and food for thought. The contributions come from mostly scholars, professors and lecturers. The more praising reviews, for example, for Tarkovskii’s Solaris (1972), entice the reader to find and view the film post-haste, although unfortunately, one sad fact that is left out of the book is that many of the more unusual titles are extremely difficult to find with English subtitles. The book’s inclusion of television series, though also an interesting read, gives the impression that the material needed to make a second book on Russian cinema requires a degree of leniency.
The reader will find themselves alternatively bewildered, laughing, and touched by the narratives of films about Russia and its people. At the same time, Russia 2 calls for concern regarding the ‘Hollywoodization’ of domestic cinema, for example, with the recent increase of blockbusters being produced and with local director Timur Bekmambetov recently leaving to make films such as Wanted (2008) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) (which are also included in the collection, though it is debatable how ‘Russian’ these films are) in the US. If this means the loss of innovative themes and moving stories, as can be found in this book, in favour of popcorn entertainment, it is cause for concern indeed. At the same time, the popularity of Russian cinema within its own country demands celebration as it hardily competes with American features. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two about supporting our own film industry.
- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Intellect (5 Jun. 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1783200103
- ISBN-13: 978-1783200108
- Product Dimensions: 17.8 x 2 x 25.4 cm