Russia and France, 2018
BW/Color, 126 minutes
In Russian with English subtitles
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenplay: Mikhail Idova, Lili Idova, Kirill Serebrennikov
Camera: Vladislav Opel’ants
Art Director: Andrei Pankratov
Music: Il’ia Demutskii, Roman Biliuk
Editing: Kirill Serebrennikov
Cast: Teo Yoo, Roma Zver’, Irina Starshenbaum
Producers: Il’ia Stewart, Mikhail Finogenov, Murad Osmann, Charles-Evrard Tchekhoff, Il’ia Dzhincharadze, Elizaveta Chalenko
Production: Hype Film; KinoVista
Summer begins with a scene in a back alley where three women use a makeshift ladder to climb into an open window, setting up the element of ascent from a drab exterior into an equally drab but youthful, cautiously-irreverent, and circumscribed interior of Leningrad in the 1980s. Inside, Mike Naumenko and his band Zoopark perform to firmly seated audiences and a retinue of culture-inspectors stationed in the aisles. A woman sways a little too keenly in her chair and one agent gasps while another taps her on the shoulder to quell the unscripted enthusiasm. The space of the performance is intensely surveilled and the bodies within it are constrained to blissful gazes and minor bobs and twists of the limbs in response to the music. Based on the enigmatic Soviet rock scene, the film revolves around the curious and intimate relationships between Mike, his wife Natasha, and Viktor Tsoi, and their tactful negotiations with the Soviet culture ministry in order to be granted permissions to perform. The film destabilises notions of masculinity, family, and a rigid Soviet cultural identity by characterizing Mike as a monogamous rock star—“something Mick Jagger wouldn’t approve”— who takes Tsoi under his tutelage, freely sharing his records, artwork, and lyrics profoundly inspired by a series of western performers like The Beatles, The Sex Pistols, and The Doors. Natasha is infatuated with Tsoi but unable to act on her desires without the explicit consent of her husband, yielding layers of instability and fluidity across the public and personal narratives within the text. Composed in black and white, the film erupts into color at moments of cultural exchange, mediation, and translation: when songs of western artists are rendered into Russian, as inserts of footage from a cameraman documenting Mike’s life, and at moments of unbridled ecstasy enveloping audience and artists.
Summer exhorts us to consider the vitality of illicit creative trades across even the most impregnable borders; it undermines imaginations of a secure national identity and formulaic patterns of artistic inspiration, producing an aura around the inscrutable, mobilizable, and enduring stardom that Mike and Tsoi enjoy. During a practice session, the character of the “Sceptic” agitatedly asks Mike about issues “he gives a shit about? Like Dylan singing about Vietnam.” A band member responds that Mike and the musicians are “lyrical artists,” neither government agents nor blatantly radical in their opposition. When Mike, Tsoi, and the band attempt to get a set of lyrics passed for a performance, they enter into heated arguments with a government official, but quickly concede that their songs are comical takes on pertinent issues faced by the youth, like promiscuity and alcoholism. The artists and their music seek to function in an alternate zone of signification; in Mike’s words, “Not the cardboard England or the Baltic swamp but a third space.” The texts produce music and acts that elude capture in nominal frames of politics and activism.
The only reference to the colonial ambitions of the Soviet Union is a scene where mothers cry out to their sons who are inside an army recruitment center, naked and undergoing rectal examinations. The men appear clueless about their cause and destiny. Similarly, sexless, and yet starkly contrasting, is the nakedness in the panoramic scene at the nameless beach where Tsoi auditions for Mike and his friends—the source and inspirations for the music and evolving relationships just as elusive as the functionings of the state. The eccentric and inventive lyrics of the new wave (like “Aluminium cucumbers in a tarpaulin field”) or renditions of popular tunes like Psycho Killer invoke subjective imaginations and cause an infectious state of transference with spectators and fellow travellers joining in the dreamlike performances that contest the repressive everyday controls and regimented existence. It is in opposing the notion of a unique set of Soviet events, politics, and inspirations that drive the music and propel the main characters that the film offers its most radical reading, contrasting exactly with those tendencies that constitute totalitarian ideologies. From Mike attempting to design his album cover with a copy of a David Bowie album for inspiration, to notebooks filled with meticulous lyrics from Lou Reed, and Tsoi mimicking the costume and pose aside a painting of Marc Bolan, the film pays homage to the creative labors involved in acts of reproduction and makes overt references to strong currents of intercultural dialog that shape the youth culture of Leningrad. The art and lives of the bandmates are depicted in stages of incompleteness, never attaining unity, symbolizing the mutability and indeterminacy of these new cultural icons in an environment that strove to impose contrary values.
The most violent act in the film takes place when a passenger on a train accuses Mike and the musicians of “worshipping western idols and ideological enemies.” A government agent punches a band member in the nose, followed by an impulsive communal music performance that takes place in a fantastical realm and ends with the Sceptic signalling, “This did not happen.” Summer garnered immense press for the parallels between the world of the musicians and the director Kirill Serebrennikov, who edited the film at home with no access to the internet while under house arrest for alleged embezzlement of state funds. Prominent newspapers across the world have reported that Serebrennikov claims to have conducted the events funded by the government and has documentary proof of this, but in a twisted reference to the interconnected nature of art and life, the Russian government maintains that the events did not happen.
Summer complicates the perceived nature of freedom and censorship, with artists in the West unhindered in their creative expression, inspiring performers and spectators in seemingly less privileged circumstances, like the Soviet Union, to produce movingly derivative and imaginative tones. Yet, as simultaneous and unlike as a shadow from its being, many western states and former Soviet nations experience eerily interlinked and astonishing situations that are repressive of non-traditional voices and democratic capacities. The film provokes us to consider what might have been: if Tsoi had not died in a car crash in 1990; if Mike had lived through the brain haemorrhage in 1991; if the change that was to come was slightly different; if Kirill Serebrennikov wasn’t under house arrest and had completed the film on his terms; if there was just that little bit more free in our freedoms. But we know only too well, and the film doesn’t let us forget, that none of this really happened.
Nikhil Thomas Titus
Kirill Serebrennikov is a leading theatre director in Russia and has also directed several films. He was the artistic director of the Gogol Center in Moscow from 2012 onward. Serebrennikov’s 2016 film, The Student, based on the play Märtyrer by Marius von Mayenburg, garnered critical international acclaim and won the François Chalais Prize at Cannes. In 2017, the Russian authorities put Serebrennikov under house arrest for allegedly embezzling funds from the government between 2011-2014.
2016 The Student
2009 Crush: 5 Love Stories (one episode)
2008 Iurii’s Day
2006 Playing the Victim
2003 Bed Stories (TV)
2002 The Murderer’s Diary (TV)
2001 Rostov Papa (TV)