Russia celebrates return to competition lineup


After a four-year absence from the Croisette, Russian films are back in vogue with two in the Cannes competition line up alone.

St. Petersburg-based Alexander Sokurov -- a perennial Cannes favorite -- is in competition with "Alexandra," where he will vie with young director Andrei Zvyagintsev's second film "The Banishment." Elsewhere, 21-years old Moscow VGIK film school student Alexander Kugel's 15 minute short "Imprudence" (Neostorozhnost) will screen in the Cinefondation short film sidebar .

While key industry players say that although the limelight shone on competition films is a big -- and welcome -- story, the wealth of quality movies on sale in the festival's market this year is the really big news within the Russian film sector.

"Russian film is back in vogue because we have experienced quite phenomenal growth in the Russian film industry," said Yelena Kudrina, head of the international department at St. Petersburg's Nikola-Film International. "More films are being made and therefore more and better films are being presented at the market. Russian filmmakers have more and more experience and there is now a new generation of professionals that know how to make films of international quality."

European expectations of Russian film have also changed in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Western audiences no longer expecting films about exotic characters from behind the Iron Curtain.

"Russian films are being sold at Berlin, Cannes, AFM and viewers no longer necessarily expect something specifically Russian," added Kudrina, a regular at top European festival markets. "Now that it is clear that Russians live lives not so different from other Europeans there are more and more films that are understandable by European audiences. Content and genres of Russian film are now appealing to wider audiences."

Nikola-International's Cannes market lineup reflects the new reality, with a range of commercial and art house projects that have international appeal without sacrificing Russian spirit: Dmitri Meskhiyev's "Seven Stalls," a comedy set in a ladies' toilet in Moscow is a Russian hit that has already taken more than $1 million at the domestic boxoffice.

In more traditional Russian art house vein, Sergei Karandashov's directorial debut, "Wanderer," about a man on a spiritual quest driven to the point of suicide, has already picked up top awards at Vladivostok's Pacific Meridian film festival and Moscow's Stalker showcase.

Karandashov has come to the attention of other leading art house directors, including Sokurov, who described his film as "a brilliant work."

Among the new projects still in production, Alexei Karelin's "Alexander: The Neva Battle," a period costume drama due for completion early 2008, is part of a trend of epic historic dramas and, according to Kudrina, is being made with a firm nod in the direction of legendary Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein.

Raisa Fomina, one of Russia's most prominent art house distributors and longtime Cannes attendee, is characteristically more sanguine about the notion of Russian films being firmly back in the international spotlight.

"This year's Russian competition films are an exception and it does not mean that Russian films are starting to gain a lot more attention," said Fomina, founder and head of Intercinema XX1 Century. "Cannes is usually very hard on Russian films, but Sokurov is already a name here and Zvyaginstev happened to finish his second film just before Cannes rather than just before Venice, although he is also an exception as everybody has been waiting for his second film -- 'The Banishment' -- ever since he won two golden lions at Venice for his first, 'The Return.'"

Festival exposure for Russian films does, however, give a big push for sales of all films from the territory whether in competition or not, she added.

Fomina, who sold Zvyaginstev's first film to 73 territories worldwide following his Venice success, has already sold 'The Banishment' to France and the Benelux countries even before its Cannes screening.

"As soon as Cannes announced it I had hundreds of people wanting to see the film and others offering to buy it without having seen a single frame," Fomina said, adding that although Zvyagintsev is Russian she considers "The Banishment" a "European film by a Russian director."

Fomina is also selling the Chechen-war themed "Russian Triangle," which stars Konstantin Khabensky ("Night Watch," "Day Watch") and will be in competition at the Moscow International Film Festival in June; Alexei Balabanov's new film, "Cargo 200" and Pavel Lungine's award-winning "The Island."