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Reverse Motion

[Обратное движение]

Russia, 2010
Color, 93 minutes

Director: Andrei Stempkovskii
Screenplay: Anush Vardanian, Andrei Stempkovskii, Givi Shavgulidze
Cinematography: Zaur Bokotaev
Art Direction: Sergei Avstreivskikh
Music: Il'ia Balaban
Sound: Stanislav Mikheev
Cast: Ol'ga Demidova, Vladislav Abashin, Dar'ia Gracheva, Nikita Emshanov, Aleksandr Plaksin,
Georgii Gatsoev
Producer: Andrei Bondarenko, Mikhail Kalatozishvili, Andrei Stempkovskii, Vladislav Rozin
Production: Mikhail Kalatozov Fund

Andrei Stempkovskii’s debut feature length film is a quiet camera drama, ostensibly about the horrors of war. The heroine of the film, Alevtina (Ol'ga Demidova), impatiently awaits news of her son, who is missing in an unspecified combat zone, presented in the brief prologue. In the meantime, Al'ia putters around her apartment, goes to work at her kiosk next to the railroad, and makes weekly visits to the local military functionary to hear no news. Her entrepreneurial friend Lena (Dar'ia Gracheva) opens a kiosk next to Al'ia’s, procuring merchandise from her bandit boyfriend (Nikita Emshanov). To get the kiosk in order, Lena selects a group of non-Russian workers from a large dormitory where they are being exploited and held without papers. While unloading Lena’s truck, a young boy (Georgii Gatsoev), one of those selected, trips, falls, and hurts his hand. Later that evening, Al'ia finds him as she takes out the trash, brings him home with her, and takes him in. Although her motivations are unclear, the boy presumably functions as a surrogate for her missing biological child. Lena immediately misses the boy (having paid for his labor, she wants her money’s worth), accuses Al'ia of harboring him, and warns her not to “get involved.”

Meanwhile, one of Al'ia’s son’s army buddies stops by to tell Al'ia that her son is dead. So: cue the return of the son (Vladislav Abashin). The homecoming is joyless, unsurprising given the lack of emotion in the rest of the film. The “sons” eye one another uneasily, and family dynamics must be renegotiated. For Al'ia, the simplest solution is to restore her biological family unit, and she attempts to abandon the boy in a park. And yet the boy returns home with her, although again, whether this stems from pity, concern, or genuine affection on Al'ia’s part is unclear. The boy’s disappearance means not just an unexpected and unpleasant expense for Lena, but is also a problem for her boyfriend, who pressures her to find him. The boy turns out to be the only witness to a mass-murder perpetrated by the boyfriend and his crew, who are eager to keep him from testifying against them. In one of a number of plot holes, Lena repeatedly declares that she has no idea where the boy is, despite her confrontation with Al'ia and the fact that Al'ia brings the boy to work with her—working in a kiosk twenty feet away, it seems highly implausible that Lena could fail to notice the boy. Her motivation for continuing to conceal the boy’s whereabouts from her boyfriend is similarly inexplicable: given the severity of his legal situation and her callously indifferent attitude toward her “employees,” she has no reason whatsoever to protect the boy. However, Lena’s boyfriend eventually figures out that Al'ia has been hiding the boy and kidnaps him. In a rather contrived dénouement that descends straight into the worst of genre cinema, Al'ia’s son kills the boy’s captors and rescues him before being killed himself for his pains.

Critics often want to position Reverse Motion as a “war” film, one more of so many dealing with the “return of the wounded soldier.” In most cases, the “wound,” whether physical or mental, is made explicit as the soldier comes into conflict with family and friends while attempting to transition back into normal life. But Stempkovskii’s soldiers are less obviously damaged. Although they have clearly been changed by their experiences (Lena’s boyfriend has nightmares and Al'ia’s son is withdrawn and nearly silent), the film is not about their trauma per se, for all of Stempkovskii’s avowed intentions to make a film about the“inner nuts and bolts of the human soul of a person who returns from war and gets involved in the daily course of events.” Similarly, the expected family conflict fails to materialize. Although the son eyes the boy warily and appears slightly jealous of the time Al'ia spends with him, tension is felt only in glances between them rather than erupting into words or actions.

The clearly defined biological or nuclear family is fractured by the war, only to be reconstituted in a strangely nebulous form. The boy, being non-Russian, presumably belongs to one of the ethnic groups the son has been away fighting, making both his adoption by Al'ia and the son’s relative equanimity with the new family arrangement puzzling. If this is supposed to be a plea for ethnic tolerance, as some have suggested, it is a superficial one at best. Tolerance implies a certain level of emotional involvement or engagement, which Stempkovskii eschews in favor of indifference. Although she cares for the boy, taking him to the doctor to have his infected hand treated and buying him new clothes, Al'ia shows very little affection for him, not even embracing him when he perches precariously on the edge of her bed. Even when she discovers the boy’s abduction, Al'ia’s response is muted: although clearly upset when she calls Lena, her voice is quiet and controlled, and she undertakes no physical action toward the boy’s recovery.

Stempkovskii’s deliberately “minimalist” approach downplays dialogue, relying almost exclusively on images to tell the story. In fact, the film is almost silent but the small amount of dialogue is virtually unnecessary due to its strictly enforced banality. When reducing dialogue to such an extent, the images must be particularly compelling. But these are not, being nearly as devoid of meaning as the dialogue and exhibiting a number of the more irritating art-house stylistic clichés. Interminable static camera shots of individual characters doing nothing or of multiple characters sitting in silence (the strange family dinners or the hackneyed shot of mother and son silently sitting in separate rooms, a wall literally dividing them from one another) heavy-handedly underscore the theme of isolation and the fundamental impossibility of meaningful communication.

Despite winning the Gorin prize for best script as well as a special mention at Kinotavr, a Silver Zenith for the First Fiction Feature Film at the Montreal International Film Festival, and a Grand Jury prize at the Angers Festival in France, Reverse Motion is, unsurprisingly, not currently slated for general release in Russia or anywhere else. Stempkovskii’s intention was to make an unconventional film about war, and he has certainly succeeded—as far as his film is actually about war, or actually unconventional. However, the director’s attempt to aim high perhaps somewhat mitigates the fundamental failure of the film both narratively and aesthetically—perhaps his next film will be more successful

Hillary Brevig

Andrei Stempkovskii (1975– )

Andrei Stempkovskii was born in Vilnius, Latvia, but grew up and studied in Moscow, graduating from the Finance Academy of the Government of the Russian Federation in 1999. He subsequently worked as a journalist and photographer for a number of publications, including Kommersant, Afisha, and Playboy, and has participated in a number of photographic exhibitions.

In 2005, Stempkovskii enrolled in Higher Courses for Directors and Screenwriters (Petr Todorovskii’s studio), graduating in 2008. During this time, Stempkovskii directed and produced several short films, entering them in a number of international festivals. The short Liza (2007) did particularly well, winning the international human rights protection film competition organized by the Goethe Institute. Reverse Motion (2010) is Stempkovskii’s first feature film.

Director Filmography

2010 Reverse Motion
2007 Liza (short)
2006 Night on Earth, episode 6 (tv)
2006 Forest Heart (short)
2006 The Composer’s Double (short)
2006 Meeting (short)
2005 Not So Far in the Forest (video)

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