"I expect a great deal from young Russian filmmakers," outstanding Italian director Franco Zeffirelli said at the Golden Eagle awards ceremony in Moscow, which was organised by Russia's National Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences. Zeffirelli predicted the success of "The Return" and was proved right, as Siberian director Andrei Zvyagintsev, 40, went home with the Golden Eagle Best Film-2003.
Debutant Zvyagintsev was a favourite of European film festivals in 2003. "The Return" won the Golden Lion award in Venice and the Fassbinder Discovery Award and was named the best foreign film-2003 by the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). Russian critics conferred several Golden Ram awards on "The Return", while the film was shown in over 60 countries, including Great Britain, Germany, USA, Spain, Japan and Australia. Indeed, a record-breaking 66 copies of "The Return" were released in France and 55 in Italy, whereas only 30 copies were made in Russia. The film about the close spiritual links between a father and his sons develops the traditions of Tarkovsky and Jarmush and is only shown in independent cinemas. Russia's largest cinema networks refused to show "The Return" because they feared it would prove unpopular with the Russian audience. And, to some extent, this was the case.
"A generation of Russians has been brought up on American films," says well-known film director Ivan Dykhovichny, one of the most devout fighters for the rights of Russian cinematography. Cinemagoers are mainly people under 30 whose younger years were dominated by American blockbusters. They are prejudiced against Russian films. Certainly, the recent 'coma' of Russian cinematography and its lack of financing cannot be disregarded; however, cinema networks have made a fatal contribution into the formation of viewers' tastes.
The number of multiplexes in Moscow is continuing to grow. According to film critic Daniil Dondurei, the editor-in-chief of the Cinema Art journal, 250-270 films are shown in Russia a year, including 160-170 American, 30-40 French, 5-7 Japanese, several Latin American and Scandinavian and only 30 Russian films. This features a wide range, but it is not a source of solace. Even the fact that at least 50% of American films' earnings remain in Russia and are used to develop Russian cinema can give little consolation. Unlike foreign movies, VAT is not imposed on all floating funds on the production and promotion of Russian films. Nevertheless, the audience has consistently voted for foreign cinema with its wallet.
About 100 films are produced every year in Russia and serious sociological research is needed to increase the number of screenings, Daniil Dondurei says. Otherwise, audiences will continue to criticise directors, who will go on losing money. Russian cinematography is often attacked for a lack of reality (for instance, in Alexei Uchitel's "The Stroll", three young people experience the entire gamut of human emotions in one day) or excessive exaggerations (for example, Yegor Konchalovsky's "Antikiller" depicts Russia as a criminal country and very little else). Viewers cannot identify with the characters. Cinematography no longer supplies the audience with ideals any more, while shooting quality and dialogue leave much to be desired.
However, Russian cinema is trying to recover. Russian films feature at international festivals. "We took 28 awards at prestigious festivals, although three years ago our cinematography seemed to be dead. We are not going crazy about our self-perfection but have at least escaped the state of 'non-being,'" says Russian Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi.
The country's cinematography is slowly recovering and the audience understands this. To a certain extent, television has led the way. Russians could not take their eyes off TV screens when Vladimir Bortko series "The Idiot" based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's book was shown in mid-2003. "The Idiot" won the Golden Eagle best TV series award and Yevgeny Mironov, who played Prince Myshkin, was named the best actor. Milos Forman, who was awarded for his contribution to cinematography, handed him the Golden Eagle statuette.
With regard to his own picture, Andrei Zvyagintsev said at the awards ceremony, "I am happy the film was welcomed in Russia." Indeed, "The Return" matched the box-office takings as the art-house films "Dancer in the Dark" from Lars von Trier and "8 Women" from Francois Ozon.
Success has also been predicted for Vitaly Melnikov's film "Poor, Poor Pavel", which was nominated in 8 categories and took four Golden Eagle awards, including the best supporting actor (Oleg Yankovsky). This is a kind of a film, which is popular with Russia's intelligentsia, is based on intricate passions and Dostoyevsky-like plots. It makes us think about the humanity of power.
Pavel is the Russian emperor of the end of the 18th century, the unloved son of Catherine the Great, 'a Russian Hamlet' whose way to the throne took 40 hard years, a Romantic who attempted to eliminate all public vices at once. Popular actor Viktor Sukhorukov, who played Pavel, combines comic and dramatic talents. It is strange that the Golden Eagle ignored him. However, Oleg Yankovsky's best supporting actor award caused no surprise. He traditionally plays broken intellectuals. Vadim Abdrashitov rightfully won the best director award for "Magnetic Storms", which depicts a triple conflict between man, society and truth.
"We tried to spotlight the most promising trends in our cinematography," said Vladimir Naumov, the President of the National Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences. The people behind "The Return" and its popularity abroad is a good sign. The state is also paying more attention to the cinema's problems, which is also encouraging. Indeed, it has always sponsored debut and original movies, such as "The Return". According to Deputy Culture Minister Alexander Golutva, it has become the leader in film financing. In 2003, 70 million dollars were allocated for these purposes (the budget of the average Russian film is 2-3 million dollars). The Mosfilm studios, "Russia's Hollywood", are undergoing modernisation and expansion. Moreover, due to the number of project on the go, four shifts currently work there.
Newspapers are still discussing the fact that Russia has two national film academies (the second one is the all-Russia Academy of Cinematographic Arts which is ten years older) and two national film awards. Film critic Kirill Razlogov, a member of both academies, believes that there is no need to make a tragedy out of this. Indeed, both ceremonies offer entertainment, special effects and star performances. Filmmakers indulge in their scandals, while cinematography, fortunately, stands to one side.