Russian films at Chicago International Film Festival

New themes are now appearing in Russian films that expose the extent of government corruption, which ultimately decimates a people subjected to an increasing supply of drugs, crime and violence. Gradually they develop a lack of social concern, even the will to live. Several films selected for this year’s Chicago International Film Festival are beginning to explore the underbelly of this “new capitalism,” a system many fought to install in the former Soviet Union, but whose limitations we over here are very familiar with.

Most Russians, including filmmakers, are not quite ready to lament the tragic loss of a great socialist experiment, despite its inherent problems. However, the sarcastically titled film The Fool gets as close as any by portraying the tragic flaws of newly entrenched, competitive, corrupt and antisocial government officials who are now destroying what’s left of the land. A young field engineer, one of the last socially conscious workers in a vast sea of bureaucrats working only for personal advancement, discovers a housing complex that is structurally flawed, and according to his calculations, will collapse in a very short time. He urgently tries to convince local officials to have the building evacuated immediately to save over 800 people who reside within. But the building is loaded with drug abusers, sick and handicapped seniors and young lost souls, all victims of an uncaring society. So why go to any trouble to save them? The young engineer is told by his father at one point, “During the Soviet days there was corruption, but not like the rampant, out-of-control immoral lack of concern for fellow humans that exists today. People are trampling over each other to cheat and steal whenever possible, whenever it benefits them.” The “fool” is the one young man who has to convince even his own family members who have become hardened with the realities of the new state. He refuses to give up, and essentially becomes the new hero for a new day, although the film doesn’t end in any predictable manner. He futilely acknowledges, “We live and die like rats, because we treat each other as nobodies.” This is a rare film that offers a plea for compassion and collective action, rather than individualism and its destructive consequences.

Winner of a Special Mention Award for Creativity, The Owners offers a weird and stylish mockery of post-Soviet Kazakhstan. With slow, long shots and minimal dialogue, the viewer is given time to think about the absurdities taking over the former Soviet region previously free of rampant crime and corruption. A crazy story with buffoons and idiots crying at TV cartoons, villagers unable to communicate on any significant level, the whole village (including the corrupt police) fighting over an evacuated shack, and many other surrealistic scenes, the film seems to imply that the only option people have left, is to simply – dance. Filled with symbolism and cultural references, this highly creative tragicomedy is beautifully filmed and loaded with thought-provoking scenes.

Examples of the more common anti-communist cinema that comes out of the former Soviet bloc countries are Viktoria and Fair Play. In the supposedly newfound “freedom” to expose the endless failings of the former socialist system, Fair Play bathes in the joy of revealing how scientists in communist Poland utilized new untested drugs to enhance body strength and performance, experimenting on unaware athletes, ultimately enabling their country to win many undeserved Olympic medals. Yes, seriously, we want those medals back! It’s always interesting how screenwriters carefully choose words that have extended political connotations without having any proof or factual documentation to justify exactly what was said or what went on in those closed locker rooms. No one knows exactly what the trainer said to the young high school sprinting star who questioned using a strange new drug, let alone the tone of voice that was used, or if it even happened. Surely the trainer, the scientist, the student, the mother, all would have a different story to tell. But when the character is to be portrayed as a villain, the dialogue is toughened and the direction becomes cynical and over the top. Film becomes propaganda, advancing a point of view, an ideology. Not that this is wrong, as long as the truth is not breached. Facts are facts – but opinions can be bought. No one doubts that in the early stages of enhancers there were abuses, and even attempts to benefit from miraculous scientific achievements. But this has happened for decades in capitalist countries also – it’s still quite often in the headlines. But here in America, there are no cries for the “end of capitalism.” Instead, the athlete is scorned and punished, and quite often the color of their skin is a considerable factor in the condemnation.

Viktoria is a stylish fantasy about a Bulgarian woman who gives birth to a baby born without a belly button. This of course could only happen in a country where a pregnant woman who’s given up on the socialist system, including her oppressive socialist-minded husband, attempts every method to abort the unwanted fetus. The baby, miraculously born unattached to the uncaring mother, becomes a symbol of the wonders of science in Bulgaria. Paraded around as a miraculous child, becoming a close friend to the leader of the country, the child grows into a lovely young lady, the pride of socialism. Unfortunately, the dissolution of the Soviet bloc comes along, and the young lady is thrown aside, becoming a symbol of a failed state, the tragic child of an unaffected mother who, interestingly, never finds satisfaction in anything, her husband, family or the new government she obviously wished for. The film is an interesting allegory of the tragic, complex political history of the region, offering stunning visual images and thought-provoking scenes. There’s much more here to examine.

One of the hits at the Festival and winner of the Audience Choice for Best Documentary Feature, was the homegrown film about the great hockey empire and the undefeated sports champions, the Red Army (previous reviewed here). Chicagoan Abe Polsky crafted an entertaining and thrilling study of a powerhouse that most Americans knew little about, except that they were unbeatable and were our enemies during the Cold War. He grilled one of the greatest athletes in history, Slava Fetisov, to the point of obsession, egging him on to admit that he would have preferred to make millions in the West rather than play for the Soviet Union. After all, everything must have a price. There are fun and revealing interviews with trainers, politicians and numerous hockey players, but one of the most famous interviewees is the former TV star who co-hosted a talk show with Phil Donahue, the charismatic Vladimir Posner. Posner was the Soviet spokesman for many years interpreting glasnost and perestroika to the befuddled West. His father was a prominent Hollywood writer until he was blacklisted and they were forced to emigrate to the Soviet Union.

Although director Polsky’s intent was surely to expose the failings of the socialist system’s sports program, he couldn’t crack Fetisov, who remained much like the young moralist in “The Fool” mentioned earlier. A disciplined committed athlete, much like the great Muhammad Ali, Fetisov became Minister of Sports, leading a campaign to free sports of drug enhancement abuse.

Photo: “The Fool” film


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.