Vol 1, No 1, 28 June 1999
K I N O E Y E:|
The Russian Soul Fights Back:
Peter Lutsik's Okraina
By Andrew J Horton
As a sneak preview to the upcoming 1999 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (see this week's other Kinoeye article), Kinoeye brings you a revised version of an article which appeared in this section some months ago: a look at a contemporary take on some early Russian classics.
Many Soviet films of the twenties and thirties, despite the best efforts of the Party, are powerfully revealing windows on the nature of the Russian soul. With his controversial graduation film Okraina (Outskirts, 1998), Peter Lutsik transplants the heroes of these early classics into the contemporary setting of ruthless capitalism to see if they can survive.
Things are not looking good for the collective. Its leader has sold its land to an oil prospecting company and the dogs are to be set on the collective's members if they dare step foot on it. Kolya, therefore, decides to rally a small band of men to fight for their land back so they can plough it once again. They are not concerned with the little men who guard the land - they are just acting on orders - they want to find the man at the top. As they make their way through the harsh Russian winter, they become ever more violent in their means, torturing and killing all who stand in their path. Their toughness is admirable, enduring an icy night in the open country with nothing more for shelter than their coats pulled up into a tent; but they show amazing compassion too. They are deeply moved by poetry, memories of the war and the death of one of their numbers. Above all, they have a simple but honest sense of justice, which allows no room for duplicity or subterfuge. Those who cross this code are dealt with harshly.
Eventually, their long journey leads them to Moscow, where they confront the man who has their land and implore him to give it back. He pays lip service to the nobility of their request and refuses it. Consequently, he, and indeed the whole of Moscow, pays the ultimate price for this New Russian morality.
Okraina, a title shared with a film by the Soviet director Boris Barnet, pays more than a passing homage to Russian classics. Its atmosphere is steeped in their spirit. The film was shot in black and white on specially made film-stock designed to recreate the 1930s look in every frame and even the characters belong to another age. At a post-screening discussion at the film's UK premiere in London (not long after its European premiere in Berlin), Lutsik described his love for the cinema of the 20s and 30s, saying that in them horses even seem to gallop in a different way than they do in later films, and that black and white is in fact "more colourful" than colour.
In particular, Lutsik conjures up the world of Chapayev (1934) by the Vasilyev "brothers" Georgi and Sergei (who in fact were not related at all) and the 1930s films on the theme of collectivisation. Lutsik even had Chapeyev's original score, written by composer Gavriil Popov [more on Popov and the Russian avant garde in this week's Music section], transcribed from the film (the original manuscript was lost) and re-recorded for use in Okraina.
Chapayev succeeded as a film because its hero, the Civil War commander Vasily Ivanovich Chapayev, was a distinctly Russian character rather than the "Soviet New Man," which was at the time irritatingly omnipresent as a role model for good citizens. Indeed Chapayev, the man, the legend and the film still hold a heroic status in Russia and you can even find a page on the web devoted to Chapayev jokes.
The film is, therefore, a battle between old and new Russia, between country and city and between capitalism and simple peasant life. Such is the film's criticism of contemporary Russian morality that the film was almost banned, after a leading Russian newspaper denounced it. Ironically, Okraina, along with Artur Aristakisyan's equally controversial film Ladoni (Hands, 1994), offers an attack on capitalism which even Soviet cinema in its heyday could not rise to. Lutsik laughed off this attention though, noting merely that the attack was a good advertisement for the film and denying that the film was anything but poetic in nature.
Lutsik's sense of pastiche is perfect. Okraina leans heavily on its source material and yet manages to maintain its own stature completely. Pastiche may not be to everyone's taste, and Lutsik seemed quite embarrassed that he had fathered a film of this sort which had gone on to be so successful. Almost apologising, he explained that it was a student film and had never been intended for show at international film festivals - like Chicago and Berlin, both of which it won awards at. Yet Okraina's rehashing of old themes has a remarkably fresh flavour to it and has an uplifting sense of humour throughout, which defies the bleakness and violence of the story. Ultimately, its final message is that whilst life may be grim and unbearably tough, the Russian soul will survive it all.
Andrew J Horton, 28 June 1999
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