- In 2008, Russian cinema celebrated its centenary, and in recent years, the post-Soviet film industry has blossomed. In 2003, Andrey Zviagintsev’s The Return won the Golden Lion at the Venice festival. Russian films have received extensive international distribution and press coverage, especially Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (2003) and its sequel Day Watch (2004). Russian directors have also been involved in international productions: Bekmambetov produced Wanted (2008) for Universal Pictures, a film nominated for two Academy Awards, as well as the computer-generated film 9 (2009). Russia also now hosts 28 international and nationwide film festivals. Today, there are 47 distribution companies in the country, and Russiamade films are now outselling Hollywood productions among Russian filmgoers.The recent success, however, follows a near death of the film industry in the 1990s. During perestroika, domestic Soviet feature films accounted for about 70 percent of ticket sales in the country’s 5,257 permanent cinemas. By 1994, the figure had dropped to less than 10 percent, with a 73 percent share held by American-made films. Such a dramatic oscillation is rooted in a number of factors. First of all, the end of censorship and greater openness of Russian society induced a greater interest in foreign films—as well as in other art forms, including literature and television—that had been unavailable to the average Soviet citizen. On the other hand, because Soviet filmmakers had previously worked in conditions of central regulation and distribution, they were unprepared for the challenges of working under market conditions and often failed to understand domestic needs.The processes of deregulation and decentralization resulted in the slowdown of the film industry, and the situation was exacerbated by the 1988 financial crisis and the diminishing role of the state as the provider of funds for the ailing film industry (in the 1990s on average only 6 percent of films received state subsidies). Furthermore, the deregulation of the market and fluctuating currency exchange rates, as well as decreasing supervision of production projects, created an ideal environment for currency speculation by some filmmakers and also for criminal activity by groups having nothing to do with the film industry. In 1990, per capita attendance was eight visits per year, a result of diminishing purchasing power of Soviet citizens and their interest in other activities such as the newly opened casinos and sex shops. The decrease in cinema attendance also reflected the growing video piracy market.Video piracy had already been established as the dominant form of spectatorship in the early 1980s in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); it continued to dominate the post-Soviet distribution market until 2005, when the state launched a series of special measures fighting illegal video and DVD production. (It appears that while the state has managed to crack down on the sale of pirated DVDs on Russia’s streets, illegal downloading of video materials from the Internet is thriving.) At the outset, numerous video salons appeared in Russia’s largest cities, as well in the country’s lesserpopulated regions, showing the latest international productions as well as film classics. These video salons—often quite small and tastefully decorated—became a serious competitor to Soviet cinemas that in most cases had a capacity to sit over 500 people in cold, shabby auditoriums. As opposed to Soviet cinemas, video salons were managed by independent entrepreneurs, and to the Soviet mind they symbolized a new private, capitalist entertainment industry. When video recorders became an affordable commodity (the USSR began producing its own video players in 1984), Soviet citizens began to enjoy their favorite films in the comfort of their homes, acquiring new releases and exchanging copies at specialized high street outlets. This process signaled a further privatization of the public sphere in the Russian Federation; it also induced an understanding of a film—or any other form of cultural activity—as a commodity that had its own value, something that had never occurred to Soviet citizens, who were raised in an atmosphere that art had no commercial value and belonged to everyone (the famous Stalinist slogan proclaimed that “art belongs to the people”). Despite its paradoxical emancipating value, video piracy drained the film industry from much-needed cash. In addition, government production subsidies decreased disproportionately, and the money that was available would be squandered by corrupt administrators. As a result, in 1996, only 34 films reached completion, compared with an average annual output of 150 films in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the early 1990s, even the most successful film barely drew 300,000 viewers.The government intervened in 1996 when the Law on Cinema, initiated back in 1992, was finally signed by then-President Boris Yeltsin. The law addressed tax incentives and defined the responsibilities of Goskino, the state body regulating film production in the Russian Federation. The optimism of filmmakers and the industry in general soon evaporated with the 1998 ruble crisis. Most film projects under production were put on hold and major cinema construction projects came to a halt as state support plummeted to a meager 30 million rubles, which would be the budget of an average Hollywood production. Major film production companies were forced into subletting their property to create revenue to pay their bills. In order to save on costs, cinemas reduced their distribution capacity and used their premises as exhibition halls, casinos, and office space; many cinemas specializing in arthouse film or showing film retrospectives had to change their distribution policies to include at times Western semipornographic productions to fill the house with crowds.These financial, legal, production, and distribution crises masked an artistic crisis. The artistic quality of screenplays in the 1990s was questionable. The scripts failed to engage with Russian contemporary society and constantly recycled plots and tropes borrowed from Hollywood. The production crisis also sparked a creative crisis as specialists—camera men, costume designers, makeup artists, and others—who had worked in the industry began to leave for better jobs in other sectors of the economy. The tradition of Russian-Soviet filmmaking began to deteriorate as film educational institutes found themselves in trouble as well. Finally, filmmakers struggled to come up with a new visual language that would represent a new Russia, which now seems to be an understandable difficulty since Russia itself was in transition, with its national identity trapped in a gestation period.The cultural shift occurred around the start of the new millennium. Russia found itself awash with oil money; it was also a country with a better developed financial structure, an economy with a growing technological and cultural sector, and a population that was tired of perpetual changes and in need of a stable regime and a diverse leisure industry. As a result, Russians discovered the pleasures of consumerism. By 2000, urbanites had exhausted their interest in new home appliances, cars, and clothes, and turned their eye to more conspicuous consumption that would occur in public spaces. By this time, the first Russian multiplexes had been constructed, and over the next five years a number of new cinemas, furnished to the highest world standards and equipped with the latest visual and sound technology, opened in cities all over the country. These new cinemas, also known as leisure complexes, included shopping areas, restaurants, casinos, nightclubs, bowling alleys, and other forms of entertainment. Indeed, they projected the irresistible lure of an expensive and stylish night out, primarily targeting the new post-Soviet generation of Russian citizens who were quite keen to spend their rubles.Efficient management of cinemas led to a diversification of prices that now vary from about a dollar to 10 dollars for the same film depending on the time of the show. This means that a cinema experience is now affordable not only to Moscow’s successful executives, but also to poorly paid teachers and other public sector workers. As different crowds were drawn to cinemas in the late 2000s, the programming changed with more emphasis on family recreation, genre screenings, and domestic productions.In 2002, Russian films sold more tickets than their Americanmade competition, and this trend has continued ever since. Another indicator that the crisis in the film industry was over was the fact that Sony Pictures and Disney productions began building film factories outside Moscow and St. Petersburg with the specific purpose of making films for the Russian market. Finally, a new cohort of film directors and film stars emerged, and filmmakers were able to create a set of new national narratives that have been well received by various sectors of the Russian viewing audience.The main cinematic style of perestroika and the early 1990s is known as chernukha, translated as “black wave” or “black cinema.” As a form of de-Sovietization, chernukha presented marginalized characters in disturbing settings, including filthy, overcrowded apartments, dirty streets populated by feral dogs, police stations and prisons, and hospitals. Dark imagery was meant to reveal the atmosphere of cruelty, violence, rape, alcoholism, and drug use that pervaded Soviet society at the time of its political demise. Film examples of chernukha include Vasily Pichul’s Little Vera (1988), Yury Kara’s Kings of Crime (1988), and Kira Muratova’s The Aesthenic Syndrome (1990). These films display a few common features, including their focus on physicality and moral degradation; questioning the foundations of human existence; undermining the myths of the Soviet Union; and naturalism, decay, and fatalism.In the 1990s, Russian cinema found itself at the crossroads of film genres. This was not only the effect of the postmodernist disavowal of the distinction between high and low culture—also noticeable in Russian literature and theater of the time—but also as a result of experimentation with genres that had not been allowed or often practiced in the Soviet Union, such as the thriller. Aleskey Balabanov created a synthesis of the intellectual genre with that of the thriller in his Happy Days (1991) and The Castle (1994). He also developed a new genre of kriminal’ nyi boevik (crime action), including his internationally renowned films Brother (1997), Brother 2 (2000), and War (2002), which tackled contemporary issues and expressed the social and psychological anxieties of the period. His films also presented a new type of national hero, a character, Danila, who—as the rest of Russia—was caught between the underworld of crime and the world of normalcy. Balabanov’s films—like many other films of the period—represented the collapse of the socialist moral system in the new capitalist society, with an emphasis on the existential and philosophical foundations of the contemporary Russian society. A number of films during this period also addressed the issue of national identity, imperial legacy, and Russia’s relationship with the near abroad, including The Muslim (1995), Peculiarities of the National Hunt (1995), The Prisoner of the Caucasus (1996), and The Barber of Siberia (1998). These works explored the foundations of Russian culture in relation to its occidental and oriental, as well as internal other, in either a contemporary or a historical setting, by creating a new narrative, or producing a film adaptation of Russian classical works of literature.Whereas the films produced in the 1990s presented a search for national identity from the perspective—or with constant awareness—of the Russian capital, many films made in the new millennium eschew Moscow to explore Russian life outside the core. This is, in fact, simultaneously a return to Russia’s cultural roots, as well as an exploration of a cultural space that had remained largely unrecognized and unmapped throughout perestroika and the 1990s. This cinematic voyage is performed both by Russia’s established directors as well as the new wave of film artists, namely, Andrey Zviagintsev’s The Return (2003), Pyotr Buslov’s Bummer (2003), Marina Razbezhkina’s Harvest Time (2004), and Katya Shagalova’s Once Upon a Time in the Provinces (2008). This cohort of new filmmakers enriches Russian cinema with new themes and conflicts and, most important, with an innovative cinematic language that on the one hand continues the Russian-Soviet tradition of filmmaking and, on the other, speaks to the cinematic experience of the whole world.Since independence, many Russian films have focused on the figure of the absent father, whose disappearance signified the fact that the state had abandoned the Russian people in times of crisis. Abandoned and in despair, the characters either engaged in marginal or criminal activities, or sought a strong maternal figure, the recurrent symbol of the nation. The absent father, personified through the figure of a morally or physically impaired man, was a symbol of the national crisis, as well as the crisis of masculinity, which manifested itself in high mortality rates, alcoholism, and depression. In the new millennium, the father returns and attempts to reestablish relationships with his abandoned child, typically a son. Presented in a realistic, mythological, fantastic, or symbolic manner, this filial conflict may be resolved through the father’s anguish and repentance. This motif of troubled father-son relationships demonstrates Russia’s ongoing struggle to reconcile its own troubled past.
Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. Robert A. Saunders and Vlad Strukov. 2010.
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