Cold Snap (Part I): Russian Film after Leviathan


Nancy Condee is Professor of Slavic and Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.  She also directs Pitt’s Global Studies Center, one of seven US federally-funded resource centers.


[Note: This is Part I of a two-part essay.  Part II will be posted tomorrow.]


Each May, Cannes International Film Festival—or Cannes IFF—provides the world’s most ambitious snapshot of contemporary cinema. In addition to global premieres, Cannes is the planet’s largest film market, at least during its ten days of frenzied negotiations.

Russia’s 2014-2015 success had begun last year at Cannes. Andrei Zviagintsev’s award (Best Script) for his 2014 drama Leviathan [Leviafan] was followed by his Golden Globe award (January 2015), and then by growing hopes for the Oscar Best Foreign-Language award in February. On the eve of the Oscars, Leviathan had seemed like a good bet. And for those in need of a big anti-Putin feature film, it could certainly be framed as such, faute de mieux.

For this reason alone, Leviathan’s Oscar loss to Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2013 drama Ida was perhaps a hidden blessing. After February 2015, as in an amicable divorce, international politics went its own way, while Leviathan was free to be judged on its own terms rather than as a widget in the Cold War Reloaded. Among the ironies is this: Leviathan had begun in 2008 as “art-house mainstream”—that is, an honorable film without overweening geopolitical ambitions. Seven years later (by 2015), History had caught up with it. While the Oscar loss was a disappointment, Russian cinema had plenty to be proud of in the 2014-2015 cycle, including four other international film awards.[1]

Such were the new May 2015 expectations brought by the Russian industry to Cannes. As it turned out, Cannes 2015 had little to offer: no Russian film in the Main Competition; none in Cannes’ secondary competition, Un Certain Regard (for innovative work); none for the independent competitions (the auteurist Quinzaine des Réalisateurs or Semaine de la Critique, for first and second feature films).[2] Bad geopolitics or bad cinema? Perhaps too much of each, plus some weaknesses in strategic placement. Regardless of the argument, it was not a good sign.

This two-part essay takes Cannes, Kinotavr, and Moscow IFF as the triangular framework for a discussion of Russian cinema today. With no illusions of being comprehensive, the essay provides context for roughly thirty-five current and upcoming Russian films, loosely clustered around four topics: directors; debuts; economic health; and dominant industry trends.


PART I: Directors, Debuts, Cine-Economy


Directors (…Oz, Molotov, Philosophy, and Dueling)

I choose here on four directors whose work is very different, one from the other. Of the new films mentioned here, two have just premiered at Kinotavr 2015, one at Moscow IFF 2015, and two are in production or pre-production.


Vasilii Sigarev describes his 2015 eccentric comedy The Land of Oz [Strana Oz] as an anti-New Year’s tale.[3] Who would guess—after his two grim, but inspired social dramas (Wolfy [Volchok], 2009, and Living [Zhit’], 2012)—that Sigarev would turn out to have a robust command of comedy? Premiering in June at Kinotavr 2015, Sigarev’s feature, formerly entitled Recreational Ethology [Zanimatel’naia etologiia], comprises two plots in one.[4] The first is a road movie. The film’s heroine Lenka Shabadinova—like Dorothy Gale of L. Frank Baum’s 1900-1920 series—has no car, but nevertheless embarks on a journey that haphazardly discovers the environs of Ekaterinburg (and its symbolic equivalents). Armed with a little dog, Shabadinova (played by Sigarev’s partner Iana Troianova) navigates this Russian Oz—unpredictable, volatile, heedless to social norms.[5] The film’s secondary plot (for which the dog is the “connecting device”) is a comic and claustrophobic Kammerspiel, with two demented characters: the beloved Aleksandr Bashirov (“Duke”) and a talented Ekaterinburg writer Andrei Il’enkov, who had collaborated with Sigarev on the script. The Mayor of Ekaterinburg, Evgenii Roizman, is given a cameo role.




Land of Oz

Vasilii Sigarev, dir. Land of Oz (2015)

One of Sigarev’s contractual conditions had been that the project be shot independent of government funding, in part because the film contains completely appropriate (and now banned) obscenities; its distribution strategy through Antipode will therefore require a second edited version.[6]

Bearing the tagline “antiputinizm,” the film promises to be a new chapter in Sigarev’s colorful portfolio.


Aleksandr Mindadze’s 2015 Russian-German war drama Dear Hans, Lovely Peter [Milyi Gans, dorogoi Petr][7] is set during one of the most difficult moments in Soviet history, the period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (23 August 1939 to 22 June 19421). An entrant in the Main Competition of the June 2015 Moscow International Film Festival, Mindadze’s film had initially encountered ideological barriers that had held up production (an early skirmish in the new campaign by the newly established Military-Historical Society against the “falsification of history”). Set in a Soviet military-industrial town in spring 1941, German engineer Hans and his colleagues are specialists in a scientific exchange project, assigned the task of developing an advanced quality of optical lens that will improve accuracy of microscopes, binoculars, and rifle scopes. Already one can detect Mindadze’s characteristic engagement with concrete physical objects (including the camera lens itself) that stand in for strong metaphorical (and metaphysical) systems.[8] The German specialists—together with their Soviet counterparts (including Petr, whose role is fleeting)—work, argue, and compete for the same women until the June invasion triggers deadly results. Recognizable from Mindadze’s earlier films—including his eleven film scripts with director Vadim Abdrashitov—are such key themes as reckless idealism, the misguided compulsion for podvig (the Great Deed), and male competition that leads to catastrophe.



Dear Hans

Aleksandr Mindadze, dir. Dear Hans, Lovely Peter (2015)


The film has its detractors as well as its advocates,[9] but one thing is certain: in Russia’s current 70th anniversary of total war—and little likelihood of respite, given the approaching October centenary—Mindadze’s war film comes as a welcome deviation from the relentless shelling from Sergei Mokritskii’s 2015 Battle for Sevastopol [Bitva za Sevastopol’]; Sergei Popov’s 2015 Road to Berlin [Doroga na Berlin]; Renat Davlet’iarov’s 2015 The Dawns Here are Quiet [A zori zdes’ tikhie]; and Dmitrii Meskhiev’s 2015 World War One Battalion [Batal’on].[10] We will disagree whether Russia’s bulging portfolio of war films honors its legacy or glorifies its carnage, but Mindadze’s work is a welcome deviation.


Aleksandr Kott is a prolific and varied filmmaker who has just completed the 2015 disability drama Insight [Insait] less than a year after Kinotavr 2014, where he won Grand Prix for his 2014 silent film Test [Ispytanie]. The plot of Insight, a love affair between a blind man and his married caretaker, is one of several films in the past two years on the theme of disability.[11] Kott is moving forward with two additional films scheduled for 2016 release.[12] Of greatest interest to the Slavic studies community, however, is a project presented for international co-production at Cannes IFF and scheduled for tentative release in April 2017. Kott’s historical drama The Philosophy Steamer [Filosofskii parakhod] examines the circumstances surrounding a group of ships collectively known by that singular moniker. The two best-known of these, the German vessels and the Preussen, left Petrograd for Stettin in autumn 1922 with 228 exiled citizens, of which 160 were leading members of the Russian intelligentsia, including Nikolai Berdiaev, Ivan Il’in, and Sergei Bulgakov.

Finally, producer Alexander Rodnyansky has turned his considerable talent and energy to director Aleksei Mizgirev, a former student of filmmaker Vadim Abdrashitov. Mizgirev is currently in pre-production for the 2016 historical drama The Duelist [Duèliant], based on Fedor Tolstoi “the American” (1782-1846).[13] This colorful eccentric had quite properly been abandoned by his shipmates at Kamchatka for a bad combination of habits: cardsharping, drinking, fighting, and gluing a priest’s beard with sealing wax to the shipboards. Mizgirev’s hero—here, named Iakovlev and transplanted to the late nineteenth century—returns to Russia as a proxy duelist to stand in for those who cannot, or do not want, to duel for themselves. Mizgirev’s earlier work (including the 2007 crime drama Hard-Hearted [Kremen’] and the 2012 drama The Convoy [Konvoi]), had been examples of “tough cinema” (similar in some respects to the work of Iurii Bykov). Mizgirev’s 2009 drama Tambourine, Drum [Buben, Baraban], which won Best Director at 2009 Locarno IFF, was a departure from this trend; it will be interesting to see the choices Mizgirev makes in The Duelist.


Debuts (and other youthful follies)

Among the most promising 2015 commercial debuts is Il’ia and Anton Chizhikov’s comedy thriller The Guy from Our Cemetery [Paren’ s nashego kladbishche], scheduled for theatrical premiere on 3 September 2015. Its protagonist, Kolia, a young man deeply in debt, goes to work for his uncle on the night shift at a rundown cemetery; he quickly finds the graveyard job to be more than he had expected, complete with dead gangsters—a mock-homage to Alesei Balabanov’s 2005 comedy crime Dead Man’s Bluff [Zhmurki]. The Chizhikovs’ nod to Balabanov is particularly rich in meaning, since their producer Sergei Sel’ianov (CTB) produced virtually all Balabanov’s films until the director’s death on 18 May 2013.[14]


A second CTB debut worthy of critical attention is Natal’ia Kudriashova’s 2015 drama Pioneer-Heroes [Pionery-geroi], a coming-of-age story set in two time frames (1987 and the present) that depicts the aspirations of the last Soviet generation to become Young Pioneers. A quarter century later, they are now thirty-something professionals—Katia (a public relations agent), Andrei (a political analyst), and Ol’ga (an actress, played by the director herself)—who recall their childhood as a time when they had dreamt of great deeds and unstinting service to the state. As the Soviet Union’s last dreamers, the characters retain in their adult lives an enduring sense of loss. The film’s international debut at Berlinale 2015 (Panorama) was followed in June with a domestic premiere at Kinotavr 2015.


Natal’ia Kudriashova, dir. Pioneer-Heroes (2015)

Finally, Mikhail Mestetskii, a talented filmmaker whose 2015 debut feature Rag Union [Triapichnyi soiuz], which premiered domestically at Kinotavr 2015, tells the story of a creative and anarchic group of visionaries (a kind of Voina Lite), whose art pranks, as disruptive as they are inspirational, bring new life to the rural community where they have appropriated a dacha. Mestetskii offers this first full-length film following his enormously successful 2011 mockumentary short Legs are Atavistic [Nogi—atavizm], which had won three awards at Kinotavr 2012. A participant in the music group Shklovskii, which contributes to the film’s soundtrack, Mestetskii is one of Russia’s most promising debut directors.[15]

Rag Union

Mikhail Mestetskii, dir. Rag Union (2015)


An emerging formula (evident in both Pioneer-Heroes and Rag Union) might be described as the “youth brigade”: three or four characters (occasionally five), bound together by generation, but distinct from each other by personal philosophy, social class, or career aspirations. The formula is not new, but has undergone a marked proliferation in the last two years. [16]

The youth-brigade formula is a lucrative narrative choice because it is suited not only to feature films, but more profitably the so-called almanac film—a segmented film (by a single director) or compilation of shorts (by several directors).[17] In uncertain economic times, the almanac can be completed episodically, over a longer trajectory as funding becomes available; in uncertain ideological times (including production disruptions or censorship restrictions) a single segment can be cut, re-edited, or inserted with less interruption to the shooting schedule and fewer problems with continuity editing. In this regard, the almanac (as a form) and the youth-brigade formula (as content) are mutually sustaining strategies in uncertain times.

Two current youth almanacs, now in post-production, are examples of this trend. First, the 2015 four-segment Closer than They Appear [Blizhe, chem kazhetsia] bears the common theme of “parents and children” (in particular adolescents, slightly younger than the directors themselves). This particular return to “kind cinema” [dobroe kino]—an imperfect equivalent to “feel-good cinema”—has five debut directors (one segment is co-authored) and four debut producers, a kind of three-tiered youth brigade (content, directors, and producers).[18] A second “youth-brigade” almanac is the five-part 2016 film Adolescence ID [Russian title: Kak vzroslye]. The common youth plot is directed by five young filmmakers from Russia, Germany, Georgia, Malta, and France.[19]


The Cine-Economy: Drowning or Waving?

By one set of measures, the Russian film industry is in good shape. Box-office returns have grown in 2014 by 2.5%, although two related signs have emerged that are worthy of tracking. First, with overall cinema admissions slightly down—a decrease of 0.15% from 176.3 million visits (2013) to 176 million visits (2014)—the figures suggest that the 2014 box-office growth may be driven principally by ticket-price increases. In particular, the art-house market share has contracted last year from 2.2% (2013) to 0.5% (2014). Second, the Russian cinema market overall (that is, not just for Russian films) is currently growing faster than the demand for the construction of cinema chains, a fact that suggests a potential glut. Only 36 theatre halls (329 screens) opened in 2014, pushing the total number of screens (3829 in 2014) towards the 4000 mark this year, of which 96% are now digital.   All the same, approximately 40% of the country, largely in sparsely populated regions, remain unserved by theatres altogether. The percentage of Russian films in distribution has risen significantly from 16% (2013) or 77 films to 21% (2014) or 110 films, sustaining an admissions share for Russian films in the domestic market at a steady 18.7%. The number of new domestic releases (as opposed to Russian films in distribution) has grown from 65 films (2013) to 84 films (2014). As for Hollywood’s Russian market share, its percentage of films has risen slightly from 18% (2013) to 19% (2014), whereas its admissions share has increased from 61% (2013) to 64% (2014).[20]

Nevertheless, the current international environment has had a marked impact on the industry. With currency revaluation (and, to a lesser extent, sanctions), the market for international co-productions has shrunk by almost fifty percent. In concrete terms, if the Russian box-office draw of 1.6 billion rubles, for example, for James Wan’s 2015 action thriller Furious 7, would have translated into $ 55 million in early 2014, it brings in only $ 30 million under current conditions. The 2015 Moscow IFF was shortened by two days: its Main Competition has shrunk from a normal sixteen films in competition to twelve in 2015 as a result of a ten per cent budget cut at the ministerial level; total Moscow IFF offerings outside the three competitions (feature, short, and documentary) dropped from 250 films (2014) to approximately 150 films (2015). [21]


[1] In July 2014, Ivan Tverdovskii Jr.’s 2014 drama Corrections Class [Klass korrektsii] won the East of the West Prize at Karlovy Vary IFF; in August 2014, Iurii Bykov’s 2014 social drama Fool [Durak] won the Ecumenical Prize at Locarno IFF; in September 2014, Andrei Konchalovsky’s 2014 The Postman’s White Nights [Russian title: Belye nochi pochtal’ona Alekseia Triapitsyna] won the Silver Lion for Best Director at Venice IFF; and in February 2015, Aleksei German, Jr.’s 2015 sci-fi drama Under Electric Clouds [Pod èlektricheskimi oblakami] was awarded the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution at the Berlinale. Two of these—Corrections Class and Fool—had premiered at Kinotavr 2014 and collected prizes there: Corrections Class won Kinotavr 2014 Best Feature Debut and Producers’ Guild Prize; Fool won Kinotavr 2014 Best Screenplay.

[2] The only bright spot was the inclusion of two Russian shorts in Cinéfondation, the competition for film-school students: Mariia Gus’kova’s 2015 drama The Return of Èrkin [Vosvrashchenie Èrkina] and Maksim Shavkin’s 2015 thriller 14 Steps [14 shagov]. For a discussion of the Russian presence at Cannes IFF 2015, see Condee, “The Russian Pavilion at Cannes 2015,” KinoKultura Issue 49 (July 2015) at For a detailed review of Kinotavr 2015, see Birgit Beumers, “Kinotavr 2015: Fourteen Shades of Gray,” KinoKultura 49 (July 2015)

[3] Alena Sycheva, “Vasilii Sigarev: ‘Nastal moment smeiat’sia nad zooparkom, v kotorom nam sluchilos’ zhit’.” Proficinema (25 May 2015), online at

[4] Recreational Ethology—the leisurely study of animal behavior—had been a funny working title, but posed marketing challenges in commercial exhibition.

[5] The director claims he realized only in retrospect a felicitous coincidence: “Oz” in Cyrillic (“ОЗ”) visually resembles the former Russian emergency ambulance telephone number 03, associating Russia with a land of tactfully unspecified medical emergencies (“Land of 911”).

[6] As of 1 July 2014, obscene language is forbidden in films (and related media), performances, and other public events, with individual fines up to 2500 rubles (about fifty dollars) and organization fines up to 50,000 rubles (roughly $ 1000). In its strictest interpretation, the law forbids four words in particular (“slut,” “cunt,” “fuck,” and “dick”). Distributors and exhibitors who participate in violations risk loss of licenses. Books must include warnings on their covers. See BBC News 5 May 2014 (“Russian law bans swearing in arts and media”) at

[7] Mindadze’s English release title will be My Dear Hans.

[8] One of the greatest strengths of Mindadze’s film is camerawork by Romanian DoP Oleg Mutu. For the best recent analysis of Mindadze’s work—alone or with his former partner, Vadim Abdrashitov—see Andrei Plakhov, Kino na grani nervnogo sryva (Saint Petersburg: Seans, 2014), 352-58.

[9] The most interesting early reviews are these four: Anton Dolin, “MMFK-2015 Milyi Khans, dorogoi Petr Aleksandra Mindadze: skvoz’ tuskloe steklo,” Vozdukh 25 June 2015; Andrei Kartashov, “Mezhdu zapiatymi,” a “pro-contra” review paired with Ol’ga Kas’ianova, “Mir khrupkii, kak steklo,” both in Seans 24 June 2015; Vasilii Koretskii, “Nashi khrustal’nye nochi; Milyi Khans, dorogoi Petr Aleksandra Mindadze: neskol’ko slov o russko-germanskom mire,” Colta, 25 June 2015; and Oleg Zintsov, “Fil’m Aleksandra Mindadze Milyi Khans, dorogoi Petr stal glavnym sobytiem konkursa 37-go MMKF,” Vedomosti 24 June 2015

[10] These four recent war films add to an inventory that marches chronologically from Brest Fortress (22 June-20 July 1941) in Zakhar Agranenko and Èduard Tissè’s 1956 Immortal Garrison [Bessmertnyi garizon] through the Battle for Sevastopol in at least four previous films— chronologically, Iosif Kheifits and Aleksandr Zarkhi’s 1944 The Last Hill [Malakhov kurgan], Vladimir Dovgan’’s 1963 Three Days after the Immortality [Troe sutok posle bessmertiia]; and Leon Saakov’s 1970 Sea in Flames [More v ogne]; and Vadim Lysenko’s 1974 I Follow My Own Course [Sleduiu svoim kursom]—to the Prague offensive (5-12 May 1945) in Stanislav Rostotskii’s 1959 May Stars [Maiskie zvezdy].

[11] Years ago, Valerii Todorovskii’s 1998 drama Land of the Deaf [Strana glukhikh] or Petr Buslov’s 2009 almanac short “Urgent Repair” [“Srochnyj remont”] (part of the 2009 almanac film Crush [Korotkoe zamykanie], produced by Sabina Eremeeva [Slon]), had been unusual examples of film that featured disabled leads; now one may count at least four recent films that center on the drama of disabled protagonists: apart from Kott’s film, they are (in chronological order) Ivan Tverdovskii Jr.’s 2014 debut drama Corrections Class [Klass korrektsii]; Sofiia Geveiler, Sofiia Kucher, and Iuliia Byvsheva’s 2015 television film Spirit in Motion [Dukh v dvizhenii] on the 11th Winter Paralympic Games (Sochi 2014); and Kirill Belevich’s upcoming 2015 war film Woman Alone [Edinichka], set in 1944 Poland, in which a group of deaf children (non-professional, deaf actors) are trapped under siege during the Great Fatherland War. In this context, Miriam Petrosian’s 2009 bestselling novel The House in which… [Dom, v kotorom…], nominated for a 2010 Russian Book Prize, is another example; its narrative recounts the experiences of disabled children in a boarding school.

[12] The first, his coproduction with Aleksandr Tsekalo (Sreda), is the almanac One Day Till… [Den’ do…], a collaboration of six directors each contributing a segment to a common theme: the end of the world. Participating directors are Egor Baranov, Pavel Bardin, Iurii Bykov, Iaroslav Chevazhevskii, and Karen Oganesian. Kott’s second film in production is the 2016 drama Spitak, on the northern Armenian town entirely destroyed in the 7 December 1988 earthquake, causing as many as 50,000 casualties.

[13] Mizgirev’s film should not be confused with Denis Bannikov’s 2014 fantasy drama Duel. Pushkin-Lermontov [Duel’. Pushkin-Lermontov].

[14] The co-directors are brothers; Il’ia had graduated in 2011 from VGIK (Cinema and Television Producing), where his VGIK film was the 2011 cinema spoof Shot Reverse Shot [Vos’merka]. He returned to study feature-film directing with Anna Fenchenko, Aleksandr Kott, and Vladimir Kott at the Higher School of Economics, where his graduation film, the 2014 sci-fi comedy short Excomer [Ushelets] concerns a time-travel switch between a young contemporary writer and a future scholar of his work. Il’ia Chizhikov’s Excomer won the Grand Prix at the 2014 Saint Anna, the annual Russian festival of debut and student films, where it attracted the attention of Sel’ianov. Sel’ianov then brought together three debuts: the Chizhikov co-directors and debut scriptwriter Vladimir Seryshev.

[15] Mestetskii’s 2012 Kinotavr awards include First prize (Short films); Guild of Cinema Scholars and Critics Prize (Short films); and Audience Award (Short films). He also won Special Prize at the International Short and Animation Film Festival Open Cinema in St Petersburg (2012) and Best Student Film at Moscow Premier Screenings (2012).

[16] Three other examples of this strong trend in the contemporary Russian cinema industry will be mentioned only in passing here. Vitalii Suslin’s 2015 debut drama Defile [Defile], the story of three friends who meet up once again in their native village after much time has passed. One is a new father; the second, a small-town guard; the third, newly returned from working in the far North. The “youth brigade” of Aleksandr Boikov’s 2015 comedy Anyone But Them [Tol’ko ne oni] comprises a blighted Noah’s ark of characters—a math whiz, a rocker, a party girl, a loser, and a rich kid—who wake up hung-over in post-apocalyptic Russia and have to become super heroes. Dmitrii Poletaev’s 2014 fantasy adventure Fort Ross [Fort Ross] involves fantasy travel through space and time to US western territories once owned by Russia. Its “youth brigade”—Dmitrii (the smart one), Fimka (the nice, but simple one), and Margo (who gets to be enchanting)—embark on a kind of neo-imperialist Wizard of Oz journey across the “lost lands” of Russia’s past.

[17] On almanac cinema, see Condee, “Fifteen Realities of Russian Cinema (Kinotavr 2012),” KinoKultura, 38 (2012), online at

[18] The project is supervised by Svetlana Kuchmaeva (Valdai) and had been under the guidance of Sergei Lazaruk (First Deputy Director of the Union of Filmmakers), before his March 2015 death; this was one of the last projects in which he had been involved.

[19] Adolescence ID is produced by Ol’ga Zhirova and Iuliia Vorob’eva (Milky Cinema Production). The best known of its directors is Anton Bil’zho, whose whimsical 2012 short Story of Evgeniia and Me had won the Russian 2012 Saint Anna Prize (Best Fiction Film); the 2012 Tarkovsky Prize; and the 2012 Kinotavr Prize for Cinematography.

[20] Xenia Leontieva, The Russian Film Industry in 2014 (Moscow-Saint Petersburg: Roskino and Nevafilm Research, May 2015), np (pp. 2-4).

[21] Nick Holdsworth, “Cannes: Russian Producer In Search of the Next ‘Leviathan’” The Hollywood Reporter 14 May 2015, online at; Martin Blaney, “Moscow Film Festival to Make Major Cuts,” Screen Daily (23 March 2015), online at The Ministry’s quango organization, the Russian Cinema Fund, has not had analogous cut-backs.