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Russian Cinema Takes On Hollywood

By Nick Paton Walsh

15 April, 2005
The Guardian

Once 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.

Yuri Gladilshikov, 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 Russian films."

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 Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

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, his daughter.

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 "Allahu Akhbar".

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











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