11/1: Ark Church at the Movies

The Ark Church film company, “Кинокомпания Ковчег,” is introduced here in the post before this one.

A You Tube browse of the Arketeers shows them performing in a long mix of short films and songs. But for these ready-for-eternal-time players, the main feature is the 2+ hour movie Не убиваете меня, пожалуйста! (Don’t Kill Me, Please!), acted in Russian Sign with Russian voiceover and no subtitles.

What’s to like about this film?

1. For someone interested in faith-based beliefs, ethics portrayed in popular media, Deaf culture, and all things Russian, this offbeat discovery is an absorbing and surprisingly enjoyable little film.

2. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors (women are everywhere, talking constantly — and not about men, but about their own reproductive options and choices, and how they expect the men to support them).

3. It takes place in an exclusively Deaf community with no hearing people around to make waves. Being Deaf is never portrayed as a problem. In fact, it’s not even an issue!

4. Nobody needs a cell phone or computer to get through their lives. When they have a question or problem or just want some company, they just knock on the nearest door and start Signing away.

5. When people pray in this film, they really seem to be praying; prayer appears to be something that they actually do in real life. As with Dinah in Adam Bede, prayer inspires them to say sensible things in a perceptive way that comes across as believable and productive.

6. The personable enthusiastic congregation members and their graceful performance Sign make the film heartfelt, sweet, and linguistically interesting. But first…

Little Disclaimer:
As always, I’ll give away the ending.

Big Disclaimer:
This is a teaching platform of dialogues to warn young people away from participation in abortion, and to turn them toward Church fellowship. The anti-abortion message (perhaps brought to Russia by the American founders of this congregation?) is drummed across with maximum emphasis, repetition, and drama.

Bigger Warning:
The film is abruptly followed by street interviews with random accosted passersby, eliciting their views on abortion as if this would settle the issue once and for all. Then at 2:10:00, with no viewer warning (not even a heads-up for child viewers!), there is a slide show of aborted fetuses. Not only that, but a youtube search for this title in Russian will also call up in the sidebars another Russian film with a similar title and the same message, with even more graphic imagery. This could be so disturbing to any number of people that I did not include the film link here. The viewing audience will be Russian-speaking and Russian-signing internet users, and they probably know how to track down anything anywhere.

DKMP is a view of one apartment building with three young Russian couples (one married, one newlywed, one engaged) over a period of nine months as their decisions on abortion determine the shape and quality of their lives. All three couples are faced with the issue of unexpected pregnancy at the most inauspicious time in their young relationships. The plot is almost all dialogue, with everybody talking all the time. The women tell their stories, air their opinions, and share their deepest hopes and dreams with and among their partners, their families, their neighbors, their local congregation, and self-assured women doctors at the local obstetrics clinic.

The film opens with Couple 1 heading out to church, Couple 2 returning from their wedding for the home reception, and Couple 3 leaving the building for a date. Couple 1 offer Couple 2 a Bible as a wedding gift. But Bridegroom 2 pushes it away with a sneer, saying that he and his bride don’t intend to enter a monastery, boasting that God will play no part in their plans. Couple 2 walk off to their wedding feast. (Here some expressive back & forth film cuts contrast Couple 1 with their sweet congregation signing and singing hymns, while the rowdy wedding party members sing rowdy songs before passing out unconscious face down in their salad.)

At church, the remarkably downcast pastor announces that he was prepared to preach about joy, but that God has alerted him to preach on sorrow instead. He announces that someone in today’s congregation will suffer affliction that very week, and asks everyone to open to the book of Job. Couple 1 return home to pray together and reassure each other and their little girl, that no matter who in their circle has been singled out for affliction, they will keep their faith in God’s help.

Couple 2 begin their married life as the new husband playfully tosses new wife onto their big double bed. Literary foreboding alert: The two of them accidentally overlook and crush the little baby doll decorating the middle of the bed.

Film cut to Couple 1, carefully tucking their very living baby doll into her bed and then retiring to their own bedroom (which appears to have two single beds pushed to opposite walls) to share their sorrow that Husband 2 so brusquely pushed away their prayers and gift.

Next day, Couple 1 wife and little girl are happily waiting for Dad to come home. When the doorbell lights flash, they fling open the door without looking or asking to find out who is there. (This represents a dramatic departure from a whole tradition of Russian cinema, where “Who can that be at the door?” casts a dramatic shadow over the whole plot.) Fortunately, it’s Papa, who for some reason rings the bell before entering his own home. Mom and daughter have big news for him: God is sending the family another baby! The doorbell flashes again; the wife’s parents are here to visit, but Grandma doesn’t take the news very well. She launches into a fine speech of alarm, giving Grandpa no chance to express his own feelings, demanding (in front of the kid) that the couple go for an abortion. She dares them to test their God and find out just how well He is going to take care of them.

And say, how are those newlyweds?
They’re popping open champagne and having a candlelight dinner. Wife 2 asks whether Husband will still love her when she is old. He insists that she, among all women, will remain the most beautiful and will never grow old.
Then Wife 2 asks why he pushed away the gift Bible.
Husband demands that she stop associating with Couple 1. “I want my freedom!” he concludes, and distracts her with a wedding gift: tickets for a one-month cruise, to start tomorrow.

Next day, before departure for the honeymoon trip, Wife 2 explains to Wife 1 that they are going to postpone having children and spend some time living for themselves. As the travelers flit away, Child 1 asks “So does that mean when I came along, I was a burden to you and Papa? And what does it mean to live for yourself?”
Wife 1 explains that no, all children are a gift from God. And people who live for themselves simply have not learned the happiness of living for Christ. Off they go to fix dinner.

Girlfriend 3 is heading home in the park.
Three men attack her.
Husband 1 comes along, sees the situation, and intervenes. Girlfriend 3 escapes, but the men stab Husband 1 in the back.

Back at the 1 House, wife and daughter are waiting dinner for Papa, who is never late and always keeps his promises. Then the doorbell flashes again. Wife 1 flings open the door.
But it’s Girlfriend 3, bloody and hysterical. Instead of calling the police, she reports (right in front of the kid) that she has been raped and that Husband 1 is still lying “in the park.” Since St. Petersburg is full of miles of park, there is no time to lose. Instead of calling the police to help or to start an investigation, Wife 1 runs out to start searching in the dark shrubbery, a place which we already know is not an optimal setting for young women alone. She finds Husband 1 just in time to receive his final blessing.

For the next 10+ minutes, Daughter 1’s wailing will obscure the dialogue while the glum pastor tells Mom to bear up. Then he and everyone else in the church walks off and leaves her and the child standing alone at the grave.

At home, Grandma makes the abortion speech again (in front of the kid), telling the expectant mother to pack two bedsheets and a robe and come with her to the clinic — because, after all, why rely on God? Where was God when Husband was killed in the park?

Wife 1 chooses instead to go for an ultrasound to rejoice at her future baby. In another room at the same clinic, Girlfriend 3 receives an abortion referral with the level of kindness and counseling one expects from a toll booth operator giving change on the Jersey Turnpike.

At Grandma’s house, Wife 1 is talking to Girlfriend 3, asking her to keep the child and give it to her, Wife 1, to raise herself since Husband 1 gave his life for the sake of this child. Grandma walks in with a sweeping speech about money, and how she and Grandpa can’t afford to buy even a baby carriage, even though the hardwood detailing and glass-front cabinets in their kitchen must have cost a packet.

Couple 2 comes home from their trip. Wife 2 has something serious to tell Husband 1. He makes sweeping extravagant promises to listen and give her anything she asks, even the moon. She announces that their “life for themselves” is about to be joined by a new little one. He demands that she get an abortion. Wife 2 pleads with him to let her keep the child, dreaming of a baby and its little smile and happy face. He insists that the child and its noise, unattractive personal habits, and expenses will “destroy our youth” and “send our plans to the devil,” while ruining her attractive figure.

Warning: This is where the movie gets intense, and is likely to be quite disturbing to children and to women affected by abortion.

With a heartbeat soundtrack, Wife 2 has a dream of a little girl saying “Don’t kill me, please!” Husband 2 gets her a sedative and promises to take her to a top-notch clinic, perhaps one which provides bedsheets.

Girlfriend 3 discusses her new plan, to keep the baby.
Boyfriend 3 is upset that Wife 1’s request has come before his own feelings and objections, and departs in great upset.

Meanwhile, a church member is reading in her Bible the phrase “Bear one another’s burdens.” God inspires her to visit Wife 1 to give away her baby carriage and baby clothes. In a nice scene at Grandma’s house, the women embrace in a mutual shower of blessings. The generous visitor leaves, and Wife 1 settles down embracing the new baby clothes for a tender cry.

Wife 2, holding a birthing magazine, is still having dreams about an unborn daughter promising to be a good girl and to love and obey her in everything. By the light of an artificial fish tank full of fake fish, Husband 2 demands that Wife choose between him and the baby, and rips up the birthing magazine. Next day, he takes Wife 2 for the abortion. Afterward, the two walk home through a playground. She is surrounded by happy playing children, and dissolves in tears. Back at home, Husband 2 praises himself for solving her problem. The two argue in front of a backdrop of artificial flowers painted on the wall, to contrast with the nice flowers grown by everybody else.

Wife 1 brings Girlfriend 3 to a surprise church baby shower.
All the women spend their evening treating each other to tea and goodies, gifts, affection, games and excited stories about their pregnancies. They even enact what might be quite an old custom: the women play a spontaneous trick on their imminent guest; they all grab balloons and place them under their shirts so that their expecting mom will see that pregnancy has made the rounds of the whole group. The delighted guest strokes and pets the balloon tummies of her friends, and all adjourn for prayers and tea in a room full of natural light and lavish potted African Violets. In this atmosphere, Girlfriend 3 is welcomed with her pregnancy and feels for the first time that sharing motherhood with these women strikes a responsive chord in her as well. This makes her want to attend their church.

At church a friendly Deacon offers the 2 women handmade baby beds. Two parents bring their infant to be blessed, and their downcast pastor explains the importance of children to Christ, who stressed that theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

At home alone with the fake fish and plastic flowers, Wife 2 is drinking heavily from a bottle with a black label, seeing apparitions of her would-be daughter all the time, and gripping a pregnancy-sized cushion under her shirt for consolation. Husband 2 in apologetic mood comes home with a nice bouquet for her and finds that she has hanged herself in the bathroom, still holding the surrogate baby cushion, with a note “Left to be with my daughter.” (To his credit, the church member in this role does a plausible acting job here. Most movie characters happening upon a disaster will put their knuckles in their mouths and scream. He takes a minute to stand there dumbfounded trying to wrap his mind around what he is seeing, just like a real person would.)

The suicide angle is the concerning aspect of the film. It does not seem to represent or serve the genuine spiritual and emotional needs of women who have had abortions. Nor does it recognize the Soviet women who had abortions and went right on fighting to survive famine and war, struggling to nurse their relatives at home, and carrying the country with their labor and endurance. The approach called to mind the “Scared Straight” program in the States, which took at-risk youth and placed them for several hours in a prison with selected convicts, who would berate the visitors about the realities of prison life. The program was supposed to make prison look so unappealing that youth would simply resolve never to commit a crime. Naturally, the program recruited at-risk teens, those most likely to be raised without role models of self-control, at an age when the decision-making of their brain’s frontal cortex is not even fully developed, in a milieu where they can not even escape their circumstances or companions. Research showed that terrifying these teenagers may in fact have undermined their worldview enough to make them even more vulnerable to risky behaviors. In the same way, the message “After her abortion, this woman succumbed to marital breakdown, addiction, madness, and fatal despair” seems an unlikely way to inspire and galvanize a young girl to take heart and seek other options.

The film wraps up with Wife 1 walking her infant in the new baby carriage to church with Girlfriend 3. Boyfriend 3 joins them with a peacemaking bouquet. He expresses his commitment to marry Girlfriend 3 and raise the child together. Back at Grandma’s, Baby 1 is being a basic all-round bundle of joy. Grandma tells her daughter “Thank goodness you did not listen to my advice.” Grandpa finally gets his first word in edgewise: “Children are a great happiness.” Granddaughter 1, who’s been a radiant expressive little trouper through this whole production, chimes in with the last word: “Yes, we are a gift from God.”

It might have made for nice texture if the film could have shown a bit more that it takes only one to keep a baby, but two to make one to begin with. Where is the outreach for men who carry a sense of guilt for their role in these pregnancies? Maybe the story could have shown Husband 2 coming round and joining the church too. What about accountability and redemption for those three hooligans in the park?

But all in all, this could be a springboard for some interesting discussions. And even at fifth viewing the film left me in tears. It makes me look forward to my morning bus commute tomorrow, when the toddlers will hoist themselves on to adjoining bus seats and promptly park their boots in the lap of my dress.

If God willing I make it back to St. Petersburg, I’ll go check out Ark Church for a visit and say hello.

About maryangelis

Hello Readers! (= Здравствуйте, Читатели!) The writer lives in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths and the English and Russian languages, working in an archive by day and writing at night. Her walk in the world is normally one human being and one small detail after another. Then she goes home and types about it all until the soup is done.
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