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The salvation of Russian cinema is in the hands of some of Russia's most homegrown filmmakers
That, at least, is the conclusion one draws from the 12th Russian Film Festival, 'Long Live Russian Film,' which ran from May 5-9 in St. Petersburg. Twenty-eight pictures took part in the competition, all made by domestic filmmakers between April 2003 and February 2004, some of which have already been released in theaters, and some of which are just now making their debuts. Of course, the festival's main event was not so much the screening of new Russian films in St. Petersburg's theaters, and not even the awarding of prizes, but rather the roundtable discussion dedicated to the problems of distributing domestically produced films and finding a formula for their success. Unfortunately, discussion of this topic did not generate much enthusiasm among renowned Russian filmmakers, who were represented only by Svetlana Druzhinina, and the opinions expressed by the panelists gave the impression that among the leading figures in this 'noblest of arts' there was no desire to unite their efforts in order to create competitive masterpieces. It should be noted that during the past few years the Russian film industry has been experiencing a rebirth, and if at the beginning of the 1990s a mere two or three pictures were being made, that number has now grown to at least 70. Which is why the question of how to persuade the public to watch so many films has become unavoidable, since of those 70 films a mere two or three recoup the money spent on their production at the box office -- and sometimes even make a small profit. Even remaining a true patriot and fan of 'Diamond Hand,' it is understood that the law (fortunately not official) regarding a quota on foreign films in Russian distribution is not an effective way of stimulating domestic directors to create spectacular and creative films. And now that the Ministry of Culture has begun actively supporting the making of this or that film, it cannot be said that the public has begun showing greater interest in domestic productions. Russian filmmakers face many problems. First and foremost, of course, is money. Budgets for Russian films don't compare with the money spent on even the most mediocre Hollywood productions. Whereas 'over there,' USD 10 million is considered to be low budget, here pictures are made for as little as USD 100,000. Here there are too many studio shots, which rob a picture of any 'natural beauty,' too many close-ups, and an almost complete absence of multilayered scenes. All of which leads to a loss of dynamism and a sense of 'incompleteness,' as when an actor doesn't pull a scene off but the director can't shoot it over for lack of film. But even worse than financial constraints is the conflict between the interests of the filmmakers and the audience, which leads to a situation where the director shoots a film that isn't interesting to the viewing public - what appeals to the critics has long been disliked by audiences. Russian filmmakers can organize film festivals and prizes all they like, and recognize this or that film, but it is the audience that makes the final decision. As was noted during the roundtable, the film 'Old Ladies' by Gennadii Sidorov 'is covered in awards, like a purebred at a dog show.' Nevertheless, it remains unseen by the public which 'votes with its rubles' and prefers to watch the far from excellent 'Boomer,' with its four bandit heroes. Basically, all filmmakers agree that the style of 'contemporary idiocy' finds resonance in the hearts of the global movie audience. And in Russia, the hero bandit enjoys a particular popularity. Directors, at the demand of the public, shoot one film after another featuring such protagonists - like that very same 'Boomer,' the much talked about 'Brigade,' both 'Anti-Killers,' and 'Don't Even Think About It' - a film which was characterized by the roundtable participants as nothing less than 'post-Tarantino dregs.' According to the critics, the explanation for this is the following: those prepared today to pay up to USD 10 for a movie ticket were in the 1990s associated somehow with the criminal underworld - either buddies who became successful gentlemen, or themselves carried guns, or were tied up in one way or another with bandits. Therefore, the audience goes to see films 'about itself.' Those who remember that the cinema is after all art, and that therefore it should reflect the 'intelligent, good and eternal,' consider that the romanticized bandit nevertheless remains an anti-hero, and does not have the moral right to be an example for imitation. But there is no one whom Russian filmmakers can contrast to the anti-hero, except Daniel Bagrov, or the general played by Aleksei Buldakov -- there are basically no heroes left in Russia. There is one other possible way to engage the public according to filmmakers - to orient oneself on Soviet film, for which there is still a certain nostalgia left in society. True, only a few of the most recent examples of that genre come to mind, maybe only 'Bless Women' by Stanislav Govoruhin, and even that is ruined by the needless cruelty of the main hero, played by Alexander Baluev. So what we have is a crisis of the genre that modest budgets are basically not responsible for. Filmmakers themselves agree that neither the quality of the film nor the star qualities of the actors have anything to do with the box office success of a film. Audiences who drank in 'Brigade' and Sergei Bezrukov completely ignored the latest film by the legendary Eldar Riazanov, 'Bedroom Key,' which featured the very same Sergei Bezrukov, as well as Nikolai Fomenko and Sergei Makovetski. And we are also reminded here of 'Cops,' which at first was merely a knock off series, but which became popular with audiences and brought its actors fame. When the Ministry of Culture turns down a request for financing, it makes clear that the Russian hero in a film sponsored by the government cannot be amoral - the government has to put forward a good example. Someone then despairingly rewrites the scenario, making the hero a better person, another looks for outside investors. In the end, what is really popular now are war films, such as 'I Have the Honor,' '72 Meters,' and 'War.' A misunderstanding of society's tastes, and a conflict between the 'national bandit hero' and a positive example for imitation from the point of view of the 'censorship of good taste,' as well as outdated forms of cooperation with distributors, leads to a situation in which Russian filmmakers adapt themselves to the circumstances and produce a filmmaking boom that no one needs. No one remembers the audience, and that is a dead end. Quietly, Russian filmmakers are beginning to understand that film has ceased to be 'the noblest of arts' and has become an ordinary form of entertainment and profit-making, whose style depends more on the demands of the audience, and whether during the movie it prefers popcorn, Pepsi or tequila. And that is why market mechanisms are indispensable here, which make it possible to interest viewers and sell them a more expensive product. Those who have an advertising budget depend of advertising to the full, not shrinking from outright scandals surrounding the production. Others travel throughout Russia's regions, not sparing themselves in an effort to bring their pictures to the viewing audience. Nearly all directors agree that multiplexes are being called on to revive an interest in filmmaking, Russian included. Especially when some of the more enlightened distributors begin sending two or three domestic films out along with the standard Hollywood blockbusters. It might be that Russian filmmaking will be saved by the thought expressed during the roundtable by the young director Vitalii Vorobiov: 'We are all on territory occupied by Hollywood. And everything we do is merely a partisan war on foreign soil.' And war is war. And in the fight for one's audience, there has to be a unified ideology, clear-thinking leadership and an unshakable belief in victory.
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