Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dispatches from Sundance 2012: 1

Ray Taras is professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans where he also directed its World Literature Program until Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. Comparative literature and world cinema have been teaching and research interests of his for many years.

He regularly reviews world literature for the Campaign for the American Reader and has represented the site at the Sundance Film Festival since 2008.

Taras's first report from Sundance 2012:

On cue, it began snowing over the Wasatch Mountains days before the 2012 Sundance Film Festival opened. Snow is not essential to Sundance’s success, but it is a different matter for the U.S. national ski team, also making Park City its base. The old silver mining town is just 30 miles up the steep interstate from Salt Lake City, where the total precipitation for December was 0.03 inches. There are many reasons why Sundance is magical, and snow-covered slopes around the town is one of them.

One of the film categories of the Festival is called Spotlight, which is intended as a tribute to “impressive films that have played throughout the world.” One of the chosen films which I went to see late at night on the last Friday of the Festival was Elena, a 2011 Russian production directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev. It had premiered earlier that year at Cannes where it was awarded the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard category. The night I saw it in Park City, Zvyagintsev was in Moscow collecting Golden Eagle Awards given out by the Russian Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Elena was chosen as best film of the year and Zvyagintsev was named best director. The film’s Sundance connection comes full circle when we recall that the Russian’s director had been awarded a highly-competitive Sundance Institute grant for the film project that ended up with Elena.

The original idea, we were told at Q & A by one of the film’s production members, was to be one of four regions of the world which would make an English-language film on the theme of apocalypse. This grandiose idea did not materialize but maybe for the better, as Elena is a rooted Russian film examining the pathologies of wealth making in a country still in transition. Vladimir, a prosperous elderly man who married the nurse who had looked after him during one of his hospitalizations, is pressured to provide for his wife’s dysfunctional son and his family. When it is time to make a will, he tells Elena, his late-in-life wife, that most of his wealth will be left to his prodigal daughter, coquettishly played by Elena Lyadova. We cannot tell whether Elena is truly the subtle schemer that her step-daughter accuses her of being. But the transfer of wealth from a cultivated Russian gentleman to a family of low-lifes has apocalyptic dimensions that would make Chekhov shake in his grave. Philip Glass’s music resonates perfectly within these atmospherics.

Danish directorial debutante Lise Birk Pedersen received considerable attention at this year’s Sundance Festival for her documentary Putin’s Kiss. It may not have been her intention to attract so much interest, but inserting Vladimir Putin’s name in a book or film title will do that – helped by the series of oppositionist rallies in Russia in December. Pedersen provides an illuminating, even plodding study of the pro-Putin nationalist youth movement called Nashi (‘Ours’). It focuses on one of its leaders, a young girl named Masha Drokova, and it becomes a political coming-of-age story as we observe how her enthusiasm for the movement wanes, largely the result of personal intrigues.

It is easy to lose sight of the smaller picture here – how organizational politics, career ambitions, and the role of gender play out. While interviews with several major oppositionist figures, most noteworthy of these blogger Oleg Kashin, suggest that Nashi have developed into a brown-shirts movement, Pedersen might be uneasy with such an inference based on her account. The film is about Masha, a young Moscow woman with above-average leadership skills and circumspection (who now works in public relations for a multinational firm, the director informed us). It is not about Putin, who seemed blindsided by a hug he received from her when she was still in her teens.--Ray Taras

--Marshal Zeringue