Takes On Hollywood
By Nick Paton
15 April, 2005
upon a time, not so long ago, there were two sides: the warriors of
light, and the warriors of dark. They battled endlessly, until one day
deciding upon a truce lest they wipe each other out. The forces of good
were regulated during the day by the forces of evil's day watch, and
the forces of evil kept in check by their competitor's night watch.
But, despite this deal, good must still fight the forces of evil at
night, who roam our cities sucking the blood from innocent citizens.
The anecdote may
sound like a Soviet relic's take on capitalism triumphing over communism,
but it is in fact the premise for Nochnoi Dozor, or Night Watch, one
of a new wave of homegrown blockbusters sweeping Russian cinemas. Dozor
took £2.8m at Russian box offices in its first week, and grossed
£9m in 2004 - the highest ever for a post-Soviet Russian film.
Its success is being
touted as proof that Russian film can make money domestically and perhaps
abroad. Persistent rumours tip Brad Pitt to star in a Hollywood prequel
or sequel to Nochnoi Dozor, and the film's author, former psychologist
Sergei Lukyanenko, has reportedly been asked to write a script by Fox
Searchlight, who have acquired the film for autumn release in the US.
The film's runaway
success has also fuelled a coup for Russian cinema. As talk of a new
cold war-esque relationship between an interventionist Washington and
non-democratic Moscow grows, Russian films have begun to dent the market
share of its traditional Hollywood foe. In 2001, for example, Russian
cinemas took £34.4m, according to Alexander Semionov, editor of
Russian Cinema Business Today, only 3% of which was from Russian films.
In 2004, however, the box office take had rocketed to £74.5m,
of which Russian films - mostly Nochnoi Dozor - accounted for 12%. The
industry is experiencing a commercial revolution that may outstrip even
its greatest moments as the prime medium for Soviet propaganda. In just
the first three months of this year, Russian films have taken £20.5m
at the box office.
film critic for the Vedomosti newspaper, says: "Five years ago
Russian TV serials ousted the American ones from prime time. Now, little
by little, this has been repeated in the cinema. It is too early to
speak about a 'victory' over the Americans, but this reflects a serious
change in the consciousness and demands of the audience. It's a phenomenon
among the young, the main cinema audience. Clearly they want to see
Yet as with all
Russian revolutions, there is a political architect. In September 2002,
the ministry of culture, since then reformed by the Putin administration
into an agency, declared it wanted to invest in the Russian market.
Russian directors were struggling at the time to release 57 films a
year, and needed state subsidies to put them on the screen. Minister
Mikhail Shvidkoi said he wanted Russia to produce at least 100 films
a year, and offered to finance a third of these, with directors having
to propose a script the ministry would then sanction. Most importantly
these films had to be "patriotic", "historic" or
for children, perhaps a sign that Putin shares Lenin's edict that "among
all the arts, for us cinema is the most important".
Patriotism is a
key thread that unites Nochnoi Dozor, Turetski Gambit (a highly popular
tsarist-era war drama) and another blockbuster, Lichni Nomer (aka Countdown),
along with state sponsorship, and partnership with state-owned First
Channel TV. The opening credits of Lichni Nomer (which boasted a budget
of £3.7m but never quite reached the astronomic profitability
it was aimed at) is surely a prime example of how the Kremlin would
like things run - state TV and the government working with socially
responsible business to feed the population "useful" ideas.
They read: "Presented to you by First Channel, the Federal Agency
of Culture and Cinema, and Sibneft" - one of many oil companies
keen to remain friendly with the Kremlin since the arrest of Yukos CEO
Lichni Nomer itself
is a clumsy action thriller that follows the conspiracy theory blueprint
regularly touted by officials to explain hostage atrocities like Beslan
and the Nord Ost theatre siege. A Russian security service officer is
forced to confess to trying to blow up apartment buildings in Moscow
(a popular theory surrounding the apartment blasts that sparked the
second Chechen war in 1999, which in turn put ex-KGB officer Putin in
power). A rogue Russian billionaire (a loose reference to Boris Berezovsky,
accused of masterminding such schemes by the same theorists), finances
the terrorist seizure of a circus in Moscow. The security officer single-handedly
breaks into the circus to save the hostages, one of whom is, of course,
If this doesn't
already sound familiar enough, the film ends happily with the officer
vindicated and all the bad guys very dead. The evil terrorists, trained
at a camp in the Middle East where their Arab masters appear strangely
Slavic beneath their make-up, mimic the Bin Ladenites in Trey Parker's
Team America: World Police, roaming the world in chequered scarves intoning
The film's makers
were on the defensive from day one. Alex Eksler, film critic for the
pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, wrote a glowing review,
saying its "professionalism" and "class" overcame
the suspicion he felt after hearing it was "ordered by the state"
and the "Russian answer to Hollywood". The state news agency
RIA Novosti praised the film and said: "The film-makers, imitating
Hollywood, strive for political correctness and depict the Chechens
as victims more than villains even though they are involved in the seizure
of a circus. In the film, Americans are the Russians' allies. The leader
of the Americans is a noble black general. Both secret services cooperate
to save the comical, but nice Europeans."
Few doubt that the
film's toadiness helped raise its huge budget. Anton Dolin, film critic
for the Gazeta newspaper, said: "We are living in a society which
slowly but surely is moving towards authoritarianism, so I think a film
[about the suffering of Chechens] is impossible. Today no private producer
would risk giving money to make [such] a film."
Adopting the tone
of a Soviet commandant extolling his battalion's vanquishing of the
Nazis on the battlefield, Minister Shvidkoi last month announced he
expected Russian films to account for a share greater than 25% of the
cinema market in the near future: "The fact is that the national
product has pushed out foreign ones in a process of normal competition,"
he said of Russian cinema's ability to win the cinema war in the same
way it had won the TV serial war.
In the coming months,
a host of new blockbusters promise to let Russia's "forces of good"
in the cinema hold the ground they have taken. A £5.2m budget
fantasy, Volkodav (Wolfhound), is promised, as is a sequel to another
popular gangster flick, Bumer (aka Bummer) - imaginatively known as
Bumer 2 - and, of course, Nochnoi Dozor 2. Proof, if needed, that the
cold war passion for beating the enemy at their own game lives on.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005