What is the Russian soul? That is the questions great novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky spent his life trying to answer, an elusive question that never left me during my trip to Russia a couple of months ago.
My memories of Russia have been largely blissful. I did not take a liking to Moscow; a humongous, unkind metropolis that can swallow you whole. I was exceptionally fond of St. Petersburg though, an incredibly beautiful city with countless eye-popping vistas and a singular, exciting art scene. “It’s an unfinished country,” I explained to an American friend, “A country in transition with boundless potential.”
Make no mistake though, Russia remains a police state, a reality I nearly succeeded in suppressing until the fourth or fifth day of my stay when our bus driver was stopped by the law enforcement for no apparent reason. For more than 30 minutes, the hapless driver was interrogated by the bullish cops in front of our very eyes, blocking the already jammed road.
My Russian friends were not surprised, informing me that this is a common practice before uttering the one phrase I kept hearing whenever something went bizarrely wrong: “This is Russia.”
This occurrence instantly took me back to Sergei Loznitsa’s nightmarish fairytale “My Joy” where the main character is stopped by the police also for no tangible reason at the beginning of the film. “Russia is not Moscow or St. Petersburg,” a Russian anthropologist told me. “Russia is the vast swaths of countryside; the poor, conservative and uneducated part of the country the outside world knows little about.”
“My Joy,” the debut narrative feature of documentary filmmaker Loznitsa was one of the surprise additions to Cannes’s official competition last year, proving to be the most decisive entry in the 63rd edition.
At home, the Ukrainian/German/Dutch ignited controversy. The nationalistic press called the film “anti-Russian,” a disgraceful assault organized by “the Rotten West.” It didn’t help that part of the budget came from Ukraine, or that Loznitsa, a Ukraine-born previously based in St. Petersburg, has been living in Germany for the past 10 years.
Nikita Mikhalkov, the “Burnt by the Sun” director and one of Russia’s most powerful culture figures, was no supporter of Loznitsa either, describing the film as a “planned provocation” at the Moscow Film Festival last year.
Although the Russian market has witnessed substantial growth over the past decade in terms of ticket sales and increasing number of new screens (the Russian market is now the sixth largest in the world), Russian films took only 15 percent of the total market share last year, down by half from the year before. Thus a wide-release for a specialty film like “My Joy” was impossible, and like Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Venice sensation “Silent Souls,” it slipped under the public radar (the film was showing only in one theater in St. Petersburg during my visit). Internationally, “My Joy” still awaits release — the film is yet to be made available in North America and Europe; only Germany has an August 11 DVD release date.
Like most critics, I was baffled and shocked upon seeing “My Joy” for the first time. Cruel, deeply nihilistic and unremittingly bleak, the film was challenging on more than one level: the fragmented narrative, deliberate pacing, sketchy characterization and discomforting ambiance. When I revisited the film after I returned from Russia, my initial perplexity was replaced with intrigue and admiration for Loznitsa’s imagination and craft. As austere as “My Joy” may be, it offers something few modern Russian films have dared to show: a direct portal into the dark forests of the Russian soul.
Loznitsa’s film, as in many recent art-house Russian films such as Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Yuri’s Day,” Yuri Bykov’s “Zhit” and Svetlana Proskurina’s “Truce,” is set in the baleful, lawless countryside. Viktor Nemets is Georgy, a truck driver transporting a flour cargo to an unidentified destination. “My Joy” begins as a road movie, following Georgy as he encounters a variety of archetypal Russian characters: the aforementioned police officers, an underage prostitute, a World War II veteran and a company of bandits.
In each case, he naively attempts to do the right thing: protest the unlawful arrest by the police, help the immodest prostitute and befriend the robbers. His uprightness in the end becomes a liability the others cannot accept, warranting a ruthless punishment that takes away his individuality.
Ignorant to the nature of the cargo, the three bandits knock Georgy down. He wakes up with no memory and no ability to speak. From that point onward, the film changes course from a distinct well-delineated road movie into something more ambiguous, more sinister.
Mini-narratives unrelated to the main plot are introduced and quickly discarded. Georgy becomes a marginalized character in his own story, reemerging at the bloodbath of the finale. Flashbacks from World War II accentuate the despairing present, reopening a wound that is yet to heal.
They also suggest an upsetting conjuncture. The war may have had a numbing impact on Russia, ripping its humanity apart, but this brutality, this unfathomable evil Loznitsa looks straight in the eye may be inherent in the Russian soul, an evil that has been transferred from one generation to another. In that sense, “My Joy” shares the same perspective of Aleksey Balabanov’s equally bleak “Cargo 200.”
Hope doesn’t stand a chance in a place ruled by chaos. In the course of this hell-ride, Georgy is used, abused and subjugated in various deplorable forms. But he’s not the only character to face such monstrosities. In one episode, a young soldier shoots his superior for blackmailing him and like Georgy, ends up with no identity. In another, two military officers murder a pacifist war veteran in front of his little child. This is a man-eat-man world lying outside the realms of civilization; an inferno with no prospect of redemption.
Loznitsa’s previous acclaimed documentaries “Blockade” (2006), “Factory” (2004), “Artel” (2006) and “The Settlement” (2002) explored many of the themes found in “My Joy,” the most obvious of which is the futile search of order in the anarchic post-Soviet age.
A conversation with Loznitsa
In an interview I conducted with Loznitsa last year at the Dubai Film Festival, he explained that his venture in narrative filmmaking was natural.
“There was no transition between documentaries and fiction,” Loznitsa said. “Filmmaking is a representation of reality, a reconstruction of reality. My documentaries are all almost wordless; they rely on picture first and sound second. Sound, as a matter of fact, is more important than the picture. It can have a bigger impact on the spectator when used the right way.
“I studied fiction filmmaking. I started out making documentaries though because, financially, it was not possible to make fiction. I don’t differentiate between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. The only difference between the two is the type of material. The rest is the same. It’s also a question of our perceptions and expectations of each medium.
“Art has little to do with our perceptions of the two as much as our life experiences and our ethical standpoints. For example, it’s acceptable to show an act of suicide in fiction, because it’s a trick…it’s fake, but not in documentaries. In documentaries, you position changes. You become a witness; you become more active and more involved in the process. Many people cannot handle that.”
I asked him why he chose to set his film in the outskirts of the city. “I know the territory from St. Petersburg and Moscow, and the area around it, very well,” he said. “I travelled there a lot and I’ve witnessed many of the stories depicted in the film. Naturally, these stories didn’t happen in the same exact way seen in the film; I changed some things but the ideas behind those stories, the feelings that defined them and the way people reacted within the context of these stories weren’t far from real life. People living in this area can easily recognize those situations.
“There was little improvisation in the film, despite the fact that several parts look otherwise. Ninety-five percent of the film was scripted.”
“My Joy” begins with a corpse of a faceless man dumped into a ditch and hastily buried, an indication of the absurdity of the world Loznitsa plunges us into. This sense of irrationality is one of the key motifs; thus, the film is regarded more as an inquisitive impressionistic portrait of Russia rather than a straightforward dramatization of reality.
“Life is absurd,” Loznitsa asserted. “You can find this absurdity everywhere. Every war is absurd. Iraq is absurd. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is absurd. Wikileaks is absurd.”
“Life in Russia, according to your film, is exceedingly absurd,” I told him.
“Yes, but compared to which country?” he replied. “Like in Kafka, secondary, bureaucratic things are very important in Russia. We perceive reality through a questionable set of laws that could be wrong. By using the logic we accepted to understand life, we forgot that everything we see and know can be false.”
“Were you upset by the hostile reaction at home and abroad to your film?” I finally asked him.
“People said that I didn’t portray Russia in a positive light,” he responded. “Truth is, I didn’t come close in representing Russia. The accusation in itself is absurd. America produces 10-15 films every year that are similar to mine and people don’t mind them. No one for example came up and said that the America of Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ is the real America. But when a critical Russian film does the same thing, everyone assumes that Russia is exactly like that. Why? The answer is maybe because people don’t see many Russian films.”
Director Sergei Loznitsa.