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Analysis & Opinion
14.04.08 A Split Decision
By Vladimir Kozlov

The awards season for Russia’s domestic cinema came to a close in late March with the Nika awards ceremony. The final prize capped off three months in which the White Elephant, a critics’ prize, and the Golden Eagle, an upstart in the industry, also found their way into the hands of Russian filmmakers.

The first Nika awards were given out in 1987 and, for fifteen years, they remained the country’s main and most respected film awards. But since the Golden Eagle was introduced in 2002, the Russian film community has lived with a “diarchy” of honors. The two prizes now compete for the right to be considered the domestic equivalent of the Oscar. For the first time last year, the winner lists of the two prizes aligned when Pavel Lungin’s “Island” was recognized by both prizes. Normally, they differ quite notably.

This year, as usual, juries for each contest awarded their favorites. And though some overlapping took place, neither slate of winners paints a clear picture of the Russian film industry in the past year.

This year, veteran director Nikita Mikhalkov withdrew his most recent movie from consideration for the Nika awards, stoking more enmity between the competing contests. Mikhalkov’s remake of Sydney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men,” which he titled simply 12, garnered an Oscar nomination in the United States for Best Foreign Language Film. Likewise, it did very well at the Golden Eagle earlier this year, collecting 16 Eagles. The prize committee has been traditionally friendly to Mikhalkov.

Two more directors also withdrew their films from Nika’s main competition. Vladimir Khotinenko, the director of “1612,” who has been treated well by the Golden Eagle jury, withdrew, as did Alexander Sokurov, Russia’s most internationally recognized film director these days. His most recent film, “Alexandra,” was included at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

These withdrawals provoked a heated discussion among the Nika jury members, splitting them into two camps. One camp insists that directors should not have the right to withdraw their movies from the nomination process. Opponents argue that directors should maintain creative control over their works, which also includes nominations for awards. It is not yet clear which camp has the most traction, but if directors continue the practice, it could put the award itself in jeopardy.

This year, the Nika jury had trouble finding a major winner comparable to 12, and the dilution of the nominee pool threatens to weaken the award’s stature. Last year, the pool of potential winners diminished as earlier ceremonies handed out awards. For Nika, the last to present in the season, there was a challenge to demonstrate some originality and, at the same time, maintain prestige.

So, looking for this year’s main winner, the Nika jury eventually chose the Kazakh-German-Mongolian-Russian co-production, Mongol. Directed by Russian Sergei Bodrov Sr., the film was Kazakhstan's official submission in the Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Academy Awards, and, like Mikhalkov’s 12, won a nomination but no statuette. The story recounts the early life of Genghis Khan who was a slave before going on to conquer half the world including Russia in the early 13th century.

“Mongol” won the two most prominent Nikas – Best Feature Film and Best Director. It also brought in a few smaller awards – Best Cinematography, Costume Design and Sound Design. The award count made Mongol the big winner at Nika.

Still, the jury’s decision to make Mongol the absolute winner was not an easy one. Jury members took a rather bold step by giving all major awards to a film that, unlike most other prominent Russian films of last year, has not yet earned any major domestic award.

On the other hand, there are several questions about whether Mongol could undoubtedly qualify as a Russian film. To some people, the fact that the movie was directed by a Russian and co-produced by a Russian company, STV, may not be sufficient. The vast majority of the cast and crew were not Russian. At the same time, the movie did well at the Russian box office, even though it was made without support of a major national TV channel – unlike most other recent domestic box office hits.

The fact that Mongol is a large international project with three other countries on board can be interpreted as both a positive and a negative. The jury apparently saw it as a major achievement in international film cooperation. Projects of this scale with Russian participation are few and far between. The film’s high professional standards in directing, costume design, sound and cinematography also must have influenced the jury.

Though the film itself was withdrawn, 12 won a Nika for Best Original Score for composer Eduard Artemyev and a Best Actor prize for Sergei Garmash, who played in the film. In a way, the latter award may be seen as justified recognition of the actor himself rather than solely for his 12 performance.

The best actress prize went to Maria Shalayeva for her part in Anna Melikyan’s “Mermaid,” a story of a provincial teenage girl who comes to Moscow.

This movie was, arguably, last year’s most successful domestic film on an international level. It picked up a directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Grand Prix at Sophia Film Festival and the FIPRESCI Prize for the Panorama program at the Berlin International Film Festival. Shalayeva, who is among the Russia’s most talented and promising actresses, was also considered the best actress at the main domestic film festival Kinotavr last summer.

“Simple Things” by director Alexei Popogrebsky, another important domestic film, was also recognized by Nika. This film won the main prize at last year’s Kinotavr. The story of a doctor who agrees to perform euthanasia on an aging actor in exchange for money is reminiscent of the best examples of late Soviet, realist cinema. It was not experimental or controversial and, as a result, was praised by critics representing different ideological and aesthetic stands. “Simple Things” was also awarded by the Golden Eagle jury and the critics.

At the recent ceremony, Popogrebsky, the writer and director, picked up a Nika for Best Screenplay, while Leonid Bronevoy was awarded for Best Performance in a Supporting Role. Sergei Puskepalis received the Best Newcomer award.

It appears that only two of last year’s high profile movies ended up with no Nika awards: Alexei Balabanov’s “Cargo 200,” the year’s most controversial film, and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “The Banishment,” the second feature from the surprise winner of the 2003 Venice Film Festival with his debut film “The Return.”

Cargo 200, a gruesome and dark story about the last years of the Soviet Union, was one of those films that met with a polarized reaction. Some observers said that the movie was worth Kinotavr’s main prize and should also have done well at Nika, while others dismissed it as trash. Still, the movie picked up four Nika nominations but no awards. It must have been too radical for the jury. Incidentally, the same film performed very well at this year’s critics’ prize, the White Elephant.

Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment was one of last year’s most anticipated films. Many wanted to see whether the international success of The Return was just a one-off thing, or whether the director could establish himself as a new hope for Russian art-house cinema. At Nika, The Banishment received five nominations, but ended up without an award.

International critics must have liked the movie, in which a trip to the pastoral countryside reveals a dark, sinister reality for a family from the city. Last year, Konstantin Lavronenko, who played the main character, was awarded the Best Actor at Cannes, which could be considered a much higher achievement than any domestic award.

Meanwhile, the prize season is over, showing that neither award, the Eagle or the Nika, provide a true picture of the situation in the domestic film industry. In this way, the critics’ prize, the White Elephant, seems more unbiased. But it is still a critics’ prize, tending to incline more towards high-brow and art-house films.
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