Color, 96 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksandr Kott
Screenplay: Aleksandr Kott
Camera: Levan Kapanadze
Cast: Elena An, Danila Rassomakhin, Karim Pakachakov, Nariman Bekbulatov-Areshev
Producers: Igor’ Tolstunov, Sergei Kozlov
Production: Igor’ Tostunov Production Company (PROFIT), Drug Druga
Awards: the Grand Prix, the Prize for best Cinematography, and the Elephant Prize of the Guild of Film
Critics and Film Scholars at Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival; Best Artistic Contribution at the
Tokyo International Film Festival; Best International Feature Film at Antalya Golden Orange Film
A girl (Dina) lived with her father (Tolgat) in an isolated house in the Central Asian steppe. Dina is loved by a sturdy, local boy on horseback (Kaisyn), but she chooses a Russian photographer (Maksim). This simple narrative is not difficult to follow, in spite of the complete lack of dialogue among the characters. The story is legible through facial expressions, glances, and gestures or lack thereof. The contrasting rivals fully express their emotions, such as excitement, jealousy, anger, and despair, accentuating the heroine’s absolutely restricted range of facial expressions. The non-professional actress offers access to her thoughts mainly through the direction of her gaze, while her mise-en-scène supplies a sense of the exoticism around her.
A macro-narrative exists in mere hints and nuances until the concluding part of the film. Trucks, a radio, a copy of a Soviet newspaper, Izvestiia, and the girl’s father featured as a WWII veteran-pilot with the order of the red star imply some period after the Great Patriotic War. The empty steppe lies ahead endlessly without any sign or landmark. This scenery seems to have nothing to do with geopolitics.
Geopolitical references, however, are present from the beginning, alluded to by the heroine’s hidden desire to flee from home, as suggested by a map on the wall and her collage-work of the Kremlin made of dried leaves. This might explain her preference for Maksim, a boy from an outside world, whose behavior seems free and spontaneous. His body looks light as he suddenly performs gymnastics, in contrast to that of Kaisyn, who always wears a black fur vest and heavy boots. Yet a weather vane propeller on the roof top of Dina’s house symbolizes her fate; though it mimics an airplane propeller, its motion ties it to the house, where it can never escape from its fixed place. The horizontal lines that dominate the film’s visual composition imprison her in various ways: the endless horizon of the steppe enhances the impression that she lives on an isolated island; her attempt to leave ends in failure as man-made wires that span the whole screen have encircled the region; a decorative rope hanging across the gate symbolizes a traditional value that would bind her to the destined place through marriage to Kaisyn.
As the film proceeds to the second half, the family’s peaceful life meets with macro-history. The remote steppe turns out to be included in the map of some central governmental plan prompted by Cold War geopolitics. The daily routine in the humble house is disrupted on a dark and rainy night by a group of men in black coats with a Geiger counter. Tolgat is forced to stand naked and eventually dies, leaving Dina alone.
What is happening outside of Dina’s world is left unclear to the viewer as the camera centers round her. The wire fence blocks not only her way out but also the camera’s further gaze. The historical background becomes obvious only when a mushroom-cloud suddenly emerges on the horizon and its blast waves sweep over the lovers and their house: the film is specifically set in the first hydrogen bomb test near Semipalatinsk in August 1953.
Yet this historical frame does not devour the film. The absence of verbal explanation and the slow pace of the editing highlight the film’s visual compositions: repetitions of symmetrical scenes; contrasts of sunlight and shadows, including backlighting—such as the humorous scene where the dark figure of Tolgat swallows the sun; contrasts between the natural color tones of the steppe and the decorative local colors of Dina’s clothes and carpet; tiny human beings in a bird’s-eye view of the wide steppe that fills the whole screen. Visual parallels and close-ups that show rich textures—such as tree barks and the rough, bumpy walls of the house—emphasize the tactility of materials.
In addition, the camera displays a variety of water images: a muddy stream flowing to the tree and dousing its bark; the evaporating splash of water on the surface of a stone; the pouring rain that kills Tolgat; and the sea waves in Maksim’s hallucination. A shot of the dark-blue rainy night sky framed in the window cuts into a shot of Dina sitting in front of the blue ocean of the map with wavering shadows of pouring rain. Water, the most important resource in human’s life, plays roles of both life and death. Similarly, images of the sun, sunlight, and fire are a significant motif in the film. Lightning sets fire to a tree and sends Maksim astray into Dina’s arms; this turns into a shot of a lamp on the window sill. In the last sequence, the two lovers’ faces are suddenly lit aglow by the pseudo-sunrise, the apocalyptic fire of the explosion. A mushroom-cloud appears at the epicenter and a firestorm approaches them with tempestuous wind. After everything is over, the sun, which was about to rise, creeps down in a hurry. Darkness dominates the screen.
People who lived at the site do not have a name or a voice with which to speak. Portraits caught in frames-inside-the-frame, such as windows, mirrors, camera, and a projected image on the wall are left without verbal explanation. The characters’ names are unknown until the closing credits comes up. Their existence remains merely as projected images in a far-away, imagined world. The film, like the opening scene, with a table standing alone in an empty horizon, leaves a mere trace that once upon a time someone lived there, but no more.
Aleksandr Kott is a screenwriter and director, best-known for The Brest Fortress (2010) and TV serials, such as Elki 2. He was born in 1973 in Moscow. He studied under Andrzej Wajda in Kracow, Poland in 1997 and graduated from Vladimir Khotinenko’s workshop in the directors’ faculty of VGIK in 2000. His short film Photographer, attracted critical attention at several European festivals, and his diploma work Scarecrow was the winner of the “Kinterfest” program at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival.
2013 Elki 3 (TV serial)
2012 The Other Side of the Moon (TV serial)
2011 Elki 2 (TV serial)
2011 Diamond Hunters (TV serial)
2010 The Brest Fortress
2006 Hero of Our Time (TV serial)
2001 Went Two Drivers
2000 Scarecrow (short)
1998 Photographer (short)