Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New Russian Short Films

Think of the qualities we often associate with Russian literature: fatalism, naturalism, absurdity, an obsession with paperwork. They are all on display in the New Russian Short Films program sponsored by CEC ArtsLink in conjunction with the Telluride Film Festival, which screened in Tribeca last night.

Aleksey Andrianov’s The Last Day of I.S. Bulkin, the first and most accessible short, cleverly builds to its ironic conclusion. A mysterious stranger arrives to deliver some bad news to the title character. His time is almost up, but first he has some forms that need to be checked off. Very much in the spirit of great Russian short stories, it is essentially a darkly comedic sketch that does not overstay its welcome.

Regrettably, contemporary urban Russia is now associated with crime, drugs, and even separatist terrorism. Petr Zabelin explores this seamy underworld in Resurrection, the grittiest selection of the program. While it involves redemption of a sort, it is hardly edifying in its depiction of humanity, but a grimly naturalistic portrayal of the ultimate costs of addiction.

Inspired by the writings of Venedict Erofeev and Sasha Sokolov, Natalya Govorina’s Sanitorium (trailer here) is probably the most literate and fantastical selected film, however it is still comfortably linear in its storytelling. A young man with a bucket of beer and a middle aged man wearing pajamas meet like Beckett’s tramps, waiting on the platform of a remote provincial station for a train that never comes. While it is always pretty clear why the two men have been summoned to the Sanitorium station, the strong lead performances (particularly that of the older man) and Govorina’s striking visual sense make it an absorbing journey anyway.

Eschewing narrative form, Shota Gamisoniya’s Fields, Clowns, Apples was the surprising high point of the quartet. Following in the tradition of Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark, Gamisoniya’s film consists of one long tracking shot, encompassing a host of eccentric people and surreal sites. It is an impressive feat of direction and cinematography, marshaling a wide array of figures in and out of the field of vision, as the camera sweeps through the open meadow. Gamisoniya also makes effective use of the ambient noises, grounding the audience in the natural location, despite the weird events happening in the background. It is a relative rarity: a cool piece of abstract filmmaking.

Though largely conventional in terms of narrative structure and almost entirely non-political, New Russian Short Films is still a challenging lineup of shorts. Those steeped in the tradition of Russian cinema as well as adventurous cineastes would definitely appreciate the work of these rising young (average age of 30) filmmakers.