«Of all the art forms, film is the most important to us, » stated Lenin after the Revolution. Russian film maker Alexander Medvedkin were of the same opinion when he founded the legendary cinema train in 1932, the subject of Chris Marker’s 30 minute-film Le train en marche some 40 years later. The first five-year plan had just been put into practise, agriculture coerced into collectivism, and production levels had fallen dramatically. Medvedkin saw film as a tool to complete the five-year plan and lay the foundations for the socialist state. In January, three compartments left Moscow consisting of a lab, a cutting room and a projection space, in addition to sleeping areas for the 32 film works taking part in the project. Over the next 294 days, travelling across the enormous Soviet continent, the film team documented well-adjusted as well as inoperative production collectives, developed the footage, edited them, and instantly screened them to the participants for them to discuss their labour methods and understand any glitches. To Medvedkin, this cinema train was the train of the revolution, and the film medium a weapon, bearing the signature of not only the director and photographer, but also of the participating people.
A better world. This is the basis for the large project Cinetrain: Russian Winter. In January 2013, 21 film workers from 14 different countries undertook a 15,500-kilometer train journey. Due to last one month, it was to take them from Moscow to Murmansk, St. Petersburg, Kotlas, Tomsk and Olknon, an island in the middle of Lake Baikal. From there, they travelled back to Moscow where their films were to premier on the day of arrival.
This was the third such project, with the participants chosen from an open advertisement. The first Cinetrain in 2008 concentrated on the imaginary borders between Russia and Europe, whilst the project two years later focused on the actual borders of the South and East. The task this time round was to shed light on the most common Russian stereotypes, and to find out how Russians see themselves. The result was eight short films, of which six form part of Cinetrain: Russian Winter; the winter, the woman, the vodka, the Lada, the bear…..and the Russian soul.
Although the framework for all the projects remain the same, specifically the train journey, there are also some obvious differences. Whereas Medvedkin had clear politically aspirations and viewed the film as a tool in developing society, the film makers behind Cinetrain: Russian Winter inhabit, to a greater extent, the role of observers. And where Medvedkin wanted to get people to see themselves and use this newly acquired insight to create a better world, the perception of self is at the core of the 2013 films. There is no political input from the directors, nor do they attempt to change anything – this is instead an arena for the cultural tourist. What these projects have in common, is that they enable people who often have no public voice to be heard. Another common denominator is the lack of finances: whilst the 1930s film makers had to develop the footage on the spot, some 80 years later the directors are editing on the train, or are struggling with getting equipment to work in the extreme cold.
The film is about the woman, the vodka, the Lada, the bear…..and the Russian soul.
Russian notions of grandeur. Few countries are shrouded in as many myths as Russia. «Russia cannot be captured by sanity nor evaluated by usual measurements. No, her status is unique –in Russia you must only believe, » wrote Russian poet Fjodor Tjuttsjev in 1866. Religious philosopher Nikolai Berdjajev stated that already from ancient times there has existed a premonition that Russia is destined to greatness – an eminence indelibly linked to a belief in the nation’s sanctification through the orthodoxy. In addition, Berdjajev described his fellow countrymen as apocalyptic or nihilistic, who either longed for a new revelation, a higher spiritual reality, or who went the other way and became fanatical atheists. And though these thoughts were first formulated more than 100 years ago, it is reminiscent today in the rhetoric of Putin and his power apparatus.
The contribution Just the way it is by Hungarian Bernadett Tuza-Ritter examines the Russian soul, but does not encompass collectivism, belief in God nor the idea of a sacred mission. Instead, it is about the earthy observations of a train hostess on the Moscow to Tomsk line. The somewhat older woman once dreamt of becoming a dancer, but ended instead up as a crane driver. When her employer decided to downsize, she gave up her job to a younger colleague who was more in need then her. On the Cinetrain website, Tuza-Ritter states that this portrait of a fragile and strong Russian woman who «acts like Dostojevskij’s lonesome hero» provides an insight into the mysterious Russian soul. The similarities between the train hostess and Sonja, Alosja or Prince Myshkin, or the whereabouts of this mystic, is, however, obscure. Conversely, it seems to be about being a decent person, doing the right thing, and facing the challenges life gives you head on – even though you might only have half of what makes for a good life. One sequence of the film is particularly captivating; as the train hostess looks out of the window we see stills from a Super8-film where private photos are interspersed with moments from Soviet glory days – among these is a portrait of Medvedkin. The images are shown erratically, and a little too fast, giving the sequence a sense of a mirage – as if it represents fragmented memories. This is really beautiful.
Vodka and visions. Three of the short films in Cinetrain: Russian Winter have won several festival awards, for instance in Locarno and Sundance. One of these is The Green Serpent by Swiss director Benny Jaberg, which focuses on that undeniable of Russian stereotypes – vodka drinking. Norwegians drink on average five litres of pure spirits annually, per person, whilst Russians beat us easily with their 16 litres a head. The average life expectancy for a Russian male is 64 years, one in four dies before 55, and every fifth death is assumed to be alcohol-related. But these tragic statistics are not the theme of Jaberg’s film, instead it focuses on the consciousness-expanding properties of vodka, and the fragile transition from lucidity to nightmarish darkness. In the film, a scientist, poet and director talk – a constellation reminiscent of the author and scientist found in Andrej Tarkovskij’s 1979 film Stalker, who together with the guide move into the forbidden zone, searching for the room where their innermost desires come true.
The scientist, who works at an institute by Lake Baikal, explains that their most important area of research is astroparticle physics, where they study neutrinos in alien objects. Accompanied by fantastic images of blocks of ice, wind whirling snow across the ice, Norther Lights and lightning bolts, he continues by explaining how vodka stimulates imagination and evokes visions – although none of these visions can be attributed to neutrinos moving through the vodka glass.
The director states that to drink vodka is to enter a magic consciousness where you develop telepathic abilities and a wordless understanding of others. The next stage is even more magical as teleporting becomes possible: You start to drink in one location, but end up somewhere else. He is adamant that «all Russians are capable of this. » As affirming is the poet who explains how vodka creates a sensibility for the world, for every living thing, as if breathing in humankind. «You feel sorry for every puppy, every freezing bird. (…) At the same time, you want to exterminate all humans using a flame thrower, or throw a nuclear bomb at them, » he says, and adds that it is in this retracted and contradictory state that he is able to write his «anti-fairy tales». Following this, he embarks on ever more elaborate speculations, where he puts the human in relation to the same cosmos the scientist researches. Through the vodka intoxication, he experiences another world, and is unified with the dark powers which are everywhere, also inside us.
As affirming is the poet who explains how vodka creates sensibility for the world, for every living thing, as if breathing in humankind.
Speculative science. This somewhat divided connection between science and metaphysics has strong roots in Russian culture. At the end of the 1800s, Nikolai Fedorov combined Russian Orthodox Christianity with a radical, futuristic vision, and an almost Marxist view on practical, applicable scientific research. In it he suggested using knowledge about radiation and molecular vibrations to awaken the dead, give them eternal life, and transport them to other planets. Contemporary film director Yevgeny Yufit has, in his necro-realistic films, imagined the scientific desire to realise idealistic yet absurd dreams, such as implanting trees in humans to give them indestructible strength.
Simultaneously, The Green Serpent points to another aspect which could be a characteristic of Russian culture; the acceptance of imperfection, of the contradictory, that which both destroys and builds up. This is emphasised by a quivering, crackling, unsteady soundscape, and almost translucent images in black and a vivid green.
Getting used to reality. Of the six films, only one, Fairytale of the Three Bears by Englishman Tristan Daws, focuses on the dramatic changes that have happened in Russia. In 1927, Orthodox religion and the Tsardom were thrown out to realise the envisaged classless society. And, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, opened up to an illicit capitalism never before seen. During just a few years, two percent of the population stole 90 percent of the national riches, whilst another quarter ended up poverty-stricken. In Daws’ film, the characters look back, understandably, nostalgically at the Soviet era, a time when life was in place, and «words such as mum, dad, and national heroes» still had meaning. «We used to be other people. It’s only now we have developed a capitalist attitude to possessions», explains an older man, who thinks they have fallen into an abyss. «We used to work from morning to night, and after a day off, the holiday feeling lasted a whole year. This feeling is now gone. »
But, it is not just a change of work ethics. Many have lost their livelihoods. A younger man who lives with his mother in a small cottage, states that some people have started stealing metal to sell on. As a result, their electrical wires disappeared. «But life changes, », he says laconic. «I am an optimist. »
To describe the others is a risk, as aforementioned, especially when faced with an unfamiliar culture. Although the Cinetrain: Russian Winter directors do not use the film in the way Alexander Medvedkin once did, they succeed in steering away from clichés, and provide a beautiful and worthy portrayal of people who are far removed from Putin’s centre of power, or the night clubs and bars of Moscow and St. Petersburg. These are people who have endured whatever reality they have been given, and who poetically and softly explain about their lives and history. One example is one of the workers in the Fairytale of the Three Bears: «My life passed as if it were a fairy tale. It happened so fast. I blinked, and it was over. » Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to word themselves as eloquently.