Watching films at work is a great way to make a living. I did for five years, laughing and crying through movies, writing reviews for K-12 teachers on our department website, and showing the films in schools. I made my own copy of the reviews before leaving for a new city. (Good thing, too: when I left, the reviews were taken off the website.) Here are just a few old favorites, with more to come.
And the Past Seems But a Dream: Children of Igarka
Мы из Игарки, “We are from Igarka,” 1988?
This is Volume 6 of the Glasnost Film Festival series available at The Video Project.
In 1987, some extraordinary senior citizens meet in Igarka for their 50th grade-school reunion. The celebration starts on their boat journey, as they gather as an impromptu choir. Later they reassemble in their old classroom for a high spirited lesson with their original teacher, to receive grades and banter for their old compositions! In 1937, the children had written a collection of stories about their adventures in Igarka. Their story book found readers as far away as New York. (Today their book is gathering a wider readership and increasing interest, in several new editions with historical notes.) In the film, the surviving authors begin to explore their childhood as it really was. They saw their fathers marched off to the camps. Then mothers and children were taken and left in a region 163 kilometers north of the edge of the Arctic circle; of those who survived childhood, many served and died in the war. (Contemporary footage from the 1930s onward includes starved haggard children determined to dance and play with their remaining strength. Another clip shows soldiers pulling a little cart with the torso of a comrade fallen in battle; his friends have propped him up with care in his uniform with clean handkerchiefs to cover one empty sleeve and his empty collar.) Now with the safety of decades passed, new political openness, and peer support, the classmates begin to share their feelings about the past. One man is moved to tears remembering his opportunity of a lifetime: an invitation to interview for Moscow University; but a harsh Arctic storm ruined his travel plan, and the Program selected another student instead. One cheerful woman mentions her family’s forced march away from their land, and is suddenly seized with anguish remembering how first the soldiers took from her even the skirt she was standing in. But in the end, the old friends make time to celebrate; at the farewell party, one even starts break dancing! “Igarka” is a beautiful story of childhood suffering and the power of safety and affirmation.
Frank Capra’s The Battle of Russia
Fifth in the series Why We Fight, 1943
This was filmed to rally American support for the Soviet Union’s status as an ally in the War. (Apparently the film’s cordial tone toward the Soviet war effort raised some questions later under McCarthy.) Russians are described as being “very similar to the people of London,” as they mourn the destruction of “important military objectives, like the Russian Dumbo from the Leningrad Zoo.” The film juxtaposes actual footage with some recreated scenes, like an upbeat travelogue of nationalities waving and smiling in colorful costumes; or Leningraders after their 900 day siege, donning their own festive costumes to show us those clever folk dances. Toward the end, we are shown Moscow children celebrating Soviet “Christmas,” then holiday greetings from charming factory girls and exultant soldiers pausing at New Year’s midnight to wave and smile their “С Новым Годом. Огонь! — Happy New Year. Fire!” But the centerpiece here is extensive historic newsreel footage, effectively chosen and edited. As Government material in the public domain, the series is available for free download on line, and viewable here on YouTube. Could be useful in classroom discussions about the use of persuasive film in public service messages.
Beshkempir: The Adopted Son.
In Kyrgyz, with English subtitles. 1998, Aktan Abdykalykov.
This is a gentle understated film about a young man coming of age in Kyrgyzstan. At first, Beshkempir is just another peer-pressured shy boy confronting adolescence with his friends. They steal a few eggs, tease the beehive, spy on Grandma’s leech cure in the bath-house, construct a woman out of clay to brainstorm how this whole honeymoon concept might work, then coax taciturn hardworking Dad to fork over the coin admission when the outdoor picture show comes to town. One day, Beshkempir catches the fancy of a neighbor girl. An envious boy retaliates by blurting out the news that Beshkempir is adopted. At the harsh revelation that he is not a literal descendant of his family’s ancestral lineage, struggling to find his own place in village life, he sets out on a lonely journey away from home and finds work as a fisherman. But the death of Grandma unites the village with her last wish: that they respect Beshkempir as her rightful grandson. In the community’s outpouring of grief over their matriarch, they give Beshkempir a homecoming and a place as chief mourner. Even stolid Dad breaks down and confides his past heartbreak at being unable to father a child: “We lost hope, but we found you.” The women’s keening funeral lament is a moving climax to the film. In the closing scene our hero rides off into the sunset with his hard-won dignity, riding his hard-won sweetheart on his bicycle.
The film is black and white, with occasional accents of color; the soundtrack is ambient sound with local birds and insects, with some folk instruments and vocals.
Circus (Цирк), 1936, with Liubov Orlova.
Sis, who knows her cinema, was pleased to point out the innovative camera angles, cuts, and lighting which charm the eye even today.
This rollicking musical opens in Sunnyville, U.S.A., where a racist mob drives out a young mother and her adorable dark-skinned baby. (The child is played by three-year-old James Patterson, whose American father emigrated to Moscow for better job opportunities. After a distinguished career, Mr. Patterson eventually emigrated to the U.S.) Mom becomes a circus star, touring the Soviet Union as a singer shot from a cannon. But her promising career there is dominated by her jealous American producer, who holds her “race crime” as a blackmail threat. He reveals his villainous nature by swishing about in a black cape, pencil mustache, lacquered hair, and artificial inflatable muscles; he also spies on personal conversations and letters, and blusters in terrible Russian sprinkled with Germanesque English. In wholesome contrast, the blond white-clad Soviet hero is muscular, modest, and chivalrous. Among other comedy hijinks, the pratfall guy shows his simple-mindedness by attempting to lighten the baby’s complexion with a clean handkerchief. Otherwise, the child is joyfully welcomed by the circus audience of Red Army soldiers, sailors, factory workers, peasants, and representatives of many nationalities. They all laugh to scorn the American and his malicious gossip. Then, while bathing-beauty paratroopers form flower patterns with their tap shoes, the audience passes the delighted child from hand to hand, singing him promises of lifelong love, tender care, and racial equality in the USSR, all in their own native languages. Meanwhile, parading under banners of Lenin and Stalin, our hero and Mom march away singing the blockbuster hit, “Song about the Motherland (Широка страна моя родная, Wide is My Native Land).” Mom is overjoyed with her new life as a Soviet citizen. And why not? The Red Army and a dozen nationalities are back at her job, minding the kid.
For all of her 72 years, Liubov Orlova maintained her highest standards of health, beauty, and fashion. My late Russian godmother, born in 1929, loved to tell about Orlova’s very last public appearance. The fans raved about her ravishing charisma, unaware that the star of stage and screen had rallied all her energy for the greatest performance of her life: a lavish personal encore in her last days with pancreatic cancer.
Revolt of the Daughters-in-Law, 1984. Director Melis Abzalov
Kelinlar qo’zg’oloni Uzbek title (Wikipedia link)
Бунт невесток, Uprising of the Brides
In Uzbek with perky synthesized pop soundtrack.
Grandma Farmonbibi is the loving reigning matriarch of the seven sons and 50-odd relatives in her courtyard household. Not all the dialogue makes it in to the English subtitles, and a lot of what did was adorably garbled in translation, but appealing moments do trickle through. The plot begins when Youngest Son brings home his bride, Nigora. Nigora wins the admiration of all the women with her “perfect manners” — three days of face-veiled hand-folded silence. Then comes the shock: the courtyard relatives catch her at morning calistenics, still fully veiled but in a leotard outfit. Next, “Sportwife Gymnast Girl” rocks everybody’s world by suggesting that Youngest Son pitch in with the dishes and shopping! To cap it all, Nigora reveals that she feels affection for her bridegroom: “If you want family to be unified, a wife should greet her husband like a HOLIDAY.” Grandma, nicknamed “State Calculation” for her keen eye and logical mind, is scandalized: “At her age, I hardly dared look at my husband.” But in time, ripples of this new attitude fan out to the other six couples. One older brother secretly turns himself in to the local police, begging for a night in jail: it’s his only chance at privacy from the family, to apply a hair-restoring creme turban in keeping with the mid-life renewal of mutual romance in his marriage. Another brother astounds his wife by inviting her to sit in his arms to enjoy the moonlight: “Dear, the frogs are croaking so delicate; thank God, you still love me!” Next, when the men are out of the house, Nigora teaches slimming calisthenics to a happy courtyard of trousered sisters-in-law. In this world gone mad, the shaken “State Calculation” confers with another local elder for guidance. He kindly advises her that times have changed since their own young days. At last, Matriarch Farmonbibi grants the two youngest lovebirds their wish, letting the two move to their own rooms to live happily ever after.
This romping generational period piece could strike some sympathetic chimes in quite a few cultures.
Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
Москва слёзам не верит, 1979
Three girls come to Moscow in 1958 looking for husbands, then compare notes 20 years later. The central character unexpectedly becomes a single mom, determined to keep and raise her own daughter. After years of hard work and loneliness, she carves a place as a professional woman to be reckoned with. Then on the commuter train she finds a special guy who can cook and clean and fight off young hooligans. In 1978 the film was a runaway hit. Single viewers even started taking the commuter rail in hopes of finding their own soulmate. Today its endearingly colorful characters and smart snappy dialogue are still popular with young Russians and their parents alike. Moscow may not stop for tears, but a girl’s best friend is still — other girls who stick together.
Dans, Grozny dans (Dutch title)
The Damned and the Sacred (English title. Why? Why? There is nothing damned about the people in this film!)
Director: Jos de Putter, Netherlands, 2003.
Copenhagen Film Festival prize winner in 2003.
No mention in Wikipedia or movie sites. Maybe someone can explain that to me.
In Russian and Chechen with subtitles.
A splendid documentary showing the dance and vocal youth ensemble Daymokhk (= Fatherland) of Chechnya, and the mentorship of coach Ramzan Akhmadov and his wife. The heartbreak comes through in the sensitive choice of everyday detail and lyrical beauty: as the film begins, Coach and Mrs. Akhmadov look out the window at their war-torn city, hoping that the water truck can get through to them today; a girl returns to her ruined home and marvels at a tree blooming in the courtyard. The film builds the viewer’s awareness of just how much adversity is endured by this talented ensemble. The film is refreshingly free of intrusive voiceover commentary. Young people and adults communicate in respectful perceptive ways in sincerity, courage, and even self-deprecating humor. Highlights of the concert take on a transcendent loveliness as a pure affirmation of life; viewers of all ages can enjoy the choreography of the stately ethereal Lezginka, and the knife throw flourishes galore. In the wings before the show, Coach strokes the brow of each boy in blessing, then with a smile lets the girls pound his fist with theirs for good luck as they soar past him to the stage. These flashes of spontaneous rapport are the secret of Daymokhk, as one remarkable husband and wife sacrifice much of their own safety and wellbeing to keep these children. their spirits, and their culture alive.
Prisoner of the Mountains (Кавказский пленник, Prisoner of the Caucasus), 1996
Director, Sergei Bodrov, Sr.; lead actors Sergei Bodrov, Jr. and Oleg Men’shikov.
Russian Army soldiers Vania and Sasha are captured and chained together in a Chechen home prison cell. The father of the house has seized them out of desperation, as hostages for the release of his own son captured by Russians. The two soldiers have antagonistically opposed perspectives on their options for survival. But their desperate circumstances compel them to join forces. Story-telling is essential for the development of all the characters and their relationships — the young Russians, the grim father, his young daughter Dina, and Hassan their silent armed guard. In a turning point scene, kind-hearted young Vania and cynical Sasha exchange childhood stories. Vania tells of falling down a deep well, and his parents’ adamant search to save him. (The actor died six years later, at age 30; Sergei was directing a film of his own when he and the cast were lost in a landslide in North Ossetia. His parents kept up their own relentless search for the body of their son.)
This is a rare film about ethical choices and outcomes. Time after time the characters approach dilemmas where the Hollywood audience could expect violence, sex, or both. In every case, Director Bodrov sets up the circumstances — then lets the characters create their own higher ground. The film is remarkable for its respectful view of the Chechen people and their suffering in the war, especially the father’s silent grief when his own son is killed and his hostages are no longer his last hope. Dina’s own hopes for a kindly marriage arrangement rest on her only wealth, a dowry of two Russian slaves and one necklace. But she renounces both, tossing the shackle key and her necklace to Vania in the basement dungeon. Vania refuses to unlock the chains and flee, knowing that if he escapes Dina will be punished. Her father arrives home, picks up a rifle, and orders his remaining prisoner to the edge of a nearby cliff….
More films to come!