“Russian cinema is better than Soviet, 70% of the latter was a terrible waste of paper”

Film critic Aleksandr Shpagin on what Russian cinematography has achieved in the year of its 100th anniversary

“Russian cinema is better than Soviet, 70% of the latter was a terrible waste of paper” Photo: talento.ru

The 100th anniversary of Soviet cinematography is celebrated this year— its rich history began in 1919 on the day of nationalisation of the country’s cinematography. Over this time (except for maybe the first post-Soviet decade), Russian cinema has really interested spectators and, as film critic Aleksandr Shpagin claims, is even not the most important but the only art for them. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, he talks about producers who suck money, the state’s indifference, the recent achievements and failures of Russian cinema and many other things.

“Money sucking producers know how to give the state something that won’t irritate it”

Mr Shpagin, is cinema still the most important art for our people?

Cinema has actually the first, second and third places in this pecking order because most of other arts seem to me is simply dying out. Poetry has almost disappeared, the people has little interest in narrative literature, contemporary music, in my opinion, doesn’t exist now at all, either symphony or original, while pop culture is on its last legs, there are no hits. Yes, theatre is alive, but a theatre viewer is a chosen, separate audience. So only cinematography has remained. For instance, when I sit in restaurants, I often hear that what people discuss is cinema or, more precisely, Russian cinema, which was even wild in the 90s. For instance, in the 90s few knew about Sergey Makovetsky, though he shot in every film.

Photo: Festival de Cannes / meduza.io
I also think there won’t be any problems in festival and auteur cinema. We have strong films every year: this year it is Nigina Sayfullayeva’s Loyalty and Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole

I think all this began with Legend No. 17. The people simply waited for a moment when our films would be in line with those in Hollywood. And as you see in audience, the films Going Vertical and Last Knight outperformed the Soviet hit Pirates of the 20th Century. Our cinema often used to copy Hollywood, aped it, and now we can create our Hollywood-quality product. Yes, 2019 is a calm year from a perspective of blockbusters, but spectators are already interested in our cinema.

I also think there won’t be any problems in festival and auteur cinema. We have powerful films every year: this year it is Nigina Sayfullayeva’s Loyalty and Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole.

Can we say that the state is the main factor in the development of Russian cinema?

No, we can’t. Yes, the liberal part of the audience thinks that the state impedes cinema from developing and releases just terrible patriotic films. But it seems to me that the state doesn’t care about what’s happening in cinematography, it doesn’t monitor it at all. As for patriotic cinema, here there is just a social, not state, demand, this is why producers released T-34, Panfilov's 28 Men and the like. And they will release, as still there is demand.

Our cinema doesn’t have state, and there is Vladimir Putin who said in general that Konchalovsky’s Sin was the best film in the recent time, the film that hasn’t been released but was gifted to the Pope. Putin as well as many FSB officers have other film preferences, not glamorous and patriotic, they like smart cinema. And the ongoing flow of patriotic films now is works of money sucking producers that know how to give the state something that won’t irritate it. Of course, these producers could get money for something different, but they think that the state shouldn’t be burdened and bothered. Yes, many films are about nothing, but people accept it, and it like takes time to wait for something like neo-glamour to explode, while they don’t want to wait. This is why I am afraid that there will be by far more stupid patriotic films because of such producers. Though God willing I will be mistaken. For instance, I used to think that the film To Paris would be rubbish, but it turned out very good.

Photo: film.ru
As for patriotic cinema, here there is just a social, not state, demand, this is why producers released T-34, Panfilov's 28 Men and the like. And they will release, as still there is demand

“Yes, there are recommended lists of topics, especially for patriotic films, but it is only a guide, no more

But the Ministry of Culture anyway announced the topics it would like to see on the screen for public money. And objectively speaking, it doesn’t insist on the priority of patriotic cinema.

There are topics, but they are so conditional that they aren’t controlled at the top as it used to be in the USSR where the State Committee for Cinematography ordered studios it needed so-and-so films about the working class, revolution or the Great Patriotic War. Yes, there are recommended lists of topics, especially for patriotic films, but it is only a guide, no more.

The most interesting thing is that there is a question: “Who issues them?”. I have a feeling that topics are born in producers’ offices, which are close to the Fund of Cinematography.

So doesn’t cinema matter to the state as driver of ideology, the same patriotism? Does business matter more?

As ideology cinema in Russia is relative. The same liberals often wait for every new patriotic film to be in the style of Northern Korea, but there is nothing like that. Most films this year, to put to roughly, are anti-state and unpatriotic like it was last year and the year before last.

At the recent festival Window to Europe in Vyborg, there was even a round-table talk if we should create a backstop from stupid military films and produce something taking us back to the depth and tragedy of Soviet films about war. Many already are displeased with the Great Patriotic War is turning into a silly computer war on the screen. The youth still knows nothing about the war, and with today's films they will think that the Great Patriotic War is a military sports Zarnitsa game where ours did nothing but won.

A scene from Going Vertical
Sports cinema ranks second in Russians’ preferences, I am sure that films in this genre will continue be shot after the success of Going Vertical

“Comedy is Russians’ favourite genre, the most unpopular is thriller”

What films does the Russian viewer prefer?

The favourite genre is obvious, it is comedies or films with jokes or even with elements of humour. As it is obvious and unpopular, our viewer doesn’t go to watch a thriller because it seems that it doesn’t fit in with our mental origins. Sports cinema ranks second in Russians’ preferences, I am sure that films in this genre will continue to be shot after the success of Going Vertical.

Will sports cinema be based on triumphs of the past in the next years?

On today’s successes too, I think. Dream Team about now living sports commentator is now prepared to be released. Though I am not sure it will be a good film.

Why are people so interested in sports cinema?

When the people have an “enemy”, it wakes up, its consciousness rises. Same authorities are aware that the people feel good only at war, and before it, everything irritates the people, which means, it is potentially dangerous. This is why tsars before the 20th century often declared wars to get rid of the threat to the throne, they also needed to get rid of extra eaters.

Yes, they didn’t want to fight in the 20th century, but an “enemy” was anyway needed. And now we have it, for somebody, it is “Yanks”, for somebody it is Ukrainians. While sports cinema is a kind of substitute of war like football. But football can bring to mass riots and turbulence, while cinematography can’t.

What is the last third genre Russians like?

Action, like military cinema.

If the USSR had still existed, we would have celebrated the 100th anniversary of Soviet cinematography now. If we compare Russian and Soviet cinema, are there a lot of disadvantages against the first?

I think our current cinema is better than Soviet because 70% of Soviet cinema was a terrible waste of paper, but everyone forgot it. Cinema, especially in the 70-80s, was a waste of paper. The 60s stand out well — it was the times of Soviet arthouse cinema or excessive closeness to reality, which, unfortunately, started to irritate the viewer — there were few films for spectators then.

Russian cinema is shot professionally, it has drive, energy, it is more watchable than Soviet films in the 70-80s. Yes, there were hits in the 70-80s, but the number of breakthrough films during those years was the same as now, Russian cinema. Russian cinema was indigestible only in the 90s, this is why people began to watch Hollywood films on video players. Of course, today’s cinema lacks a lot of topics Soviet cinema had, but the general level of films is better. The thing is that our people always think that now it is worse than it is used to be, the people doesn’t know how to compare.

By Sergey Kochnev