The New Positive Hero: Masculinity and Genre in Recent Russian Cinema
Symposium 2009

Russia 88
[Россия 88]

Russia, 2009
Color, 104 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Pavel Bardin
Screenplay: Pavel Bardin
Cinematography: Sergei Dandurian
Cast: Petr Fedorov, Archibal'd Archibal'dovich, Mikhail Poliakov, Vera Strokova, Andrei Merzlikin
Producers: Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Anna Mikhalkova, Aleksandr Shein, Giia Lordkipanidze
Production: 2Plan2

Russia 88 is a Russian “mockumentary” that analyzes the phenomenon of skinhead gangs in today’s Russia. The genre is not well developed in Russian cinema; the most recent example is Aleksei Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon (2005). With the exception of the final text, Bardin’s film consists entirely of footage shot by Edik, a member of the skinhead gang “Russia 88” (the gang’s name references the 8th letter of the English and German alphabets). The footage is presented to the viewer “raw”: there is neither plot nor narrative coherence until well into the film’s 104-minute running time. Once a storyline begins to develop, the action moves quickly to a climax that gives the film emotional impact without really contributing to the ideological message of the work.

The film purports to be a documentary on the life and ideas of young nationalist patriots, the footage of which is to be uploaded to the internet as a recruiting and propaganda tool. Although the material seems shot at random, several organizational principles are followed: we see the gang during physical training, indoctrination meetings, and parties at which aggressively racist songs are performed. Interviews of two types are conducted: the cameraman periodically asks individual gang members how and why they “became fascists,” and in on-the-street interviews ordinary Russians respond to whether they subscribe to the nationalist motto “Russia for the Russians.”

These on-the-street interviews are indeed documentary footage, performed by Fedorov in street clothes that did not betray the fictional identity of the questioner. Bardin insists that the people interviewed were not prompted to answer in any particular way and that their views can thus be taken at face value. It is not clear from the footage, however, that all of the interview subjects took the questions completely seriously, and Bardin himself admits that the interviews do not have the character of a sociological poll. Beyond these few unscripted scenes, the film is a fictional one, but according to the film’s official website (http://russia88.ru), the authors went to great lengths to insure the factual quality of the film. Entire monologues were taken verbatim from video clips and internet sites produced by actual neo-Nazi groups and widely available on the web. All fascist garb worn in the film was purchased at Moscow clothing stores. Thus the film, while telling a fictional story, creates the atmosphere in which the real inhabitants of Russia’s cities and towns live and work.

The camera’s attention is directed most of all to “Blade,” one of the toughest and most charismatic members of the gang. Only late in the course of the film does the significance of the relationship between cameraman and protagonist become evident. Blade calls the cameraman “Abraham,” constantly reminding the young man of his part-Jewish ethnic background. A Jew’s membership in a fascist organization, by no means an unknown phenomenon, nevertheless becomes a leitmotif that runs through the film, but its importance becomes clear only toward the end. The peculiar masochistic relationship between chronicler and subject matter is a significant aspect of the film, one that has received very little attention in the initial critical reaction to the film.

There is ample evidence that Russia’s political establishment has gone to some lengths to suppress the film. Festival organizers and journalists have taken pains to avoid the film and its director, and official approval for its domestic distribution was slow in coming. As of this writing the film has still not been widely screened in Russia. But as so often happens, efforts to suppress the film’s distribution have raised its prestige and its visibility in public discourse. Its reception has been mixed, however. Some who have managed to see it suggest that the film does not take a sufficiently clear position against the skinhead movement and could be misused as a glorification of violence. Bardin objects to such suggestions, but the very fragmentariness of the film makes it useful raw material in the age of YouTube, and the Shakespearian gesture at the film’s conclusion risks elevating Blade to the level of a tragic hero whose deed transcends the terms of conventional morality. The film is more complex than either its director or its detractors would like to admit.

Pavel Bardin

Pavel Bardin (b. 1975) works in television, cinema, and radio. After graduating from Moscow State University with a degree in broadcast journalism (1998), he completed a program in film and television directing. (2000). During his student years he worked as journalist for nearly all of Russia’s prominent TV channels (ORT, RTR, TV-6, NTV). More recently he has focused on directing. His 1999 student film Hero won first prize at a festival dedicated to debut and student films. That same year the Kinoshok festival presented Bardin an award for his screenplay Grizzly. In 2004 he directed the television series Bachelors; and since 2005 he has been directing and serving as creative producer for the Russian MTV show Club. He also hosts a radio program on the Echo of Moscow station. Garri Bardin, the prolific animator, is Pavel’s father.

Filmography:

2009 Russia 88
2007 Three and a Snowflake (co-directed with Mger Mkrtchian)
2007 History of the Black Cow
2007 Club
2004 Bachelors (TV Series)
1999 Hero (short)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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