In a previous post, I touched on the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s rich history of producing ingenious science fiction films, in both the technical and conceptual sense. That legacy lives on to this day, and not just in Russia or within this one genre. Here are ten award-winning films from across the former Soviet Union, ranging from tiny Estonia to expansive Kazakhstan.
Winner of the best screenplay award in Cannes this year, this immaculately crafted drama works on multiple levels. Superficially, it centres on a stubborn man’s refusal to sell his family home, located on a prime real estate spot near the Barents Sea. But it’s also a coolly devastating indictment of corruption that permeates every level of Russian society, from local government to the Orthodox church. Lush cinematography, top-notch acting and a propulsive pace are added bonuses.
Sergei Loznitsa, a director born in Belarus but raised in the Ukraine (who now mostly lives in Germany), raced back to Kiev last December to record the extraordinary events unfolding in Independence Square, ground zero for the so-called Euromaidan wave of civil unrest that became a revolution. The result is an extraordinary, courageous work of documentary-making, austere yet emotive, which records soup distribution and riots alike with the same steady, unblinking gaze.
A bit of a cheat this one, because the director is American, but then again, they don’t make a lot of films these days in Belarus – arguably the most oppressive regime of all the former Soviet republics. Documenting the valiant efforts of an underground Minsk-based theatre company to continue making dissident plays despite arrests and police brutality, the film was made from footage smuggled out of the country at great personal risk to all involved.
Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan, 2013)
Kazakhstan may be the butt of jokes in Borat, but the relatively wealthy republic has one of the strongest film industries among the ex-Soviet states, and this is one of its best films of recent years. Made with formalist precision in every way, this story about a lone wolf of a boy being bullied at school evolves into a devastating dissection of crime and punishment, alienation, power and our complex relationship with animals.
Georgia has long been a breeding ground for cinematic talent, from auteurs such as Sergei Parajanov and Otar Isseliani but there’s a new generation coming through now who show immense talent, including Nana Ekvtimishvili. Her film In Bloom, co-directed by Simon Gross, revolves around the charged relationship between two 13-year-old girls who come from very different but equally unhappy homes. The intimate drama intersects satisfyingly with its early 1990s setting.
Aktan Arym Kubat writes, directs and stars in this poignant, frequently humorous story about an electrician who illegally siphons off power from a local wind farm to keep everything going in his rural small town. Meanwhile, the corrupt mayor is plotting to sell the town’s land off to the Chinese. The political message is palpable but not overstated, leaving room for charming slice-of-life interludes, such as a cracking scene depicting the local horseback sport of goat-grabbing.
The Hostage (Laila Pakalnina, Latvia, 2006)
Prolific Latvian director Laila Pakalnina is an original – a natural surrealist whose quirky, humorous, highly stylised docs, shorts and features couldn’t be mistaken for the work of anyone else. Hostage is one of her more accessible, but no less peculiar efforts. It is the tale of a plane hijacker who lands in Riga, takes a young boy hostage and demands $30m (£17.9m), a CD-Rom to help them learn about Latvia and local chocolate. In its own weird way, the film is a love letter to Pakalnina’s homeland.
Inspired by the fortitude and kindness he saw when his own child fell ill with leukaemia, director Arūnas Matelis returned to the oncology ward at the top paediatric hospital in Vilnius to record the experiences of patients and staff who confront death there every day. On paper this might sound mawkish and offputting, but it’s a remarkably unsentimental film told with a vérité matter-of-factness and an endearing lightness of touch.
Revolution of Pigs (Jaak Kilmi, Estonia, 2004)
This ebullient, youthful comedy-drama tracks a bunch of Estonian teenagers in the 1980s who plot a mini revolution at their yearly socialist summer camp, described by Variety as Meatballs meets Lindsay Anderson’s If…., with a big dollop of Soviet kitsch. It’s cracking, bawdy fun that grows progressively darker as we get to know the various characters – standard-issue teen-movie types who just want to get laid and who fear getting shipped out to the war in Afghanistan when they grow up. Plus ça change.
This was the first feature for both its two co-directors. They’ve both gone on to have interesting careers that built on the promise of this luminous work, which was somewhat overshadowed the year it premiered by Andrei Zvyagintsev’s similarly themed The Return. A road movie about a homeless father and son travelling on foot from Moscow to the Crimea, it’s a beautiful study of parent-child dynamics that recalls Terrence Malick in its painterly elegance.
Source: The Guardian