The Hope Factory (Kombinat "Nadezhda"): Rotterdam Review

International Film Festival Rotterdam
Enervating example of backwater miserablism showcases the bleakly industrial exoticism of icy Siberian locales.

Daria Savalieva and Polina Shanina lead the cast in Natalia Meschaninova's debut feature, set in a northern Russian city and world-premiering in competition at the Dutch festival.

A studiously grim chronicle of urban Arctic youth, Russia's The Hope Factory (Kombinat "Nadezhda") is about as subtle as its thuddingly ironic title suggests. Contrasting the plights of two young women keen to get away from their hazardously industrial home city of Norilsk as quickly as possible, it's an intermittently engaging feature-debut from documentarian Natalia Meschaninova. World-premiering in competition at Rotterdam, this solid if essentially conventional slice of sub-Dardennes gloominess played at Gothenburg a few days later and can presumably expect further bookings from festivals looking to fill up their programs with socially-conscious, downbeat fare.

Early stretches raise hopes in terms of directorial ambition: Meschaninova kicks off proceedings with an audaciously protracted and unwelcoming ten-minute sequence that plunges us directly and claustrophobically into her chosen milieu. We're up close and personal with a group of oldish, oafish teenagers as they hang out, frenziedly drinking, smoking and flirting on a windswept ridge. Eventually a protagonist emerges from this unappealing ensemble, the mature-for-her-years 17-year-old Sveta (Daria Savelieva), who works in the small clinic attached to one of Norilsk's fume-belching industrial plants--work-place of middle-aged Yuri (Sergei Ovchinikov), a regular customer of sex-worker Nadya (Polina Shanina). Sveta and Nadya both dream of escaping to greener pastures than the bleakly treeless tundra-fringed vistas of Norilsk could ever offer, but getting away from what's described in jaunty song at one point as a "polar town of love and friendship... a magical town of snow-white plains" isn't a straightforward matter.

With her unfussily direct style aided by Eugeny Tsvetkov and Ivan Mamonov's inquisitive, usually hand-held camerawork, Meschaninova manages to conjure the atmosphere of an extremely remote spot that's nearer to the North Pole (1,500 miles) than it is to Moscow (1,760 miles). The world's most northerly city of significant size, which has been ranked among the ten most polluted places on Earth, Norilsk is snowswept for about a third of the year. Formerly the site of a notorious GULAG camp in the Soviet times, this Siberian outpost retains an open-air prison feel, despite the presence of large, uninvitingly gray bodies of water. There's still work to be had here, but also the sense that the clock is ticking in economic terms--and prospects for the younger generations, especially the women, provide scant reason to remain.

But while it's possible to evoke stultification in a lively and even provocative way on film, Meschaninova's study of frustrated stasis flounders amid a succession of overlong, repetitive scenes. The fates of Sveta and Nadya ultimately proved to be intertwined, but in a manner that's more melodramatic than satisfyingly organic, and the decision by the three scriptwriters to gradually split The Hope Factory's narrative focus between the two main characters results in neither emerging as particularly involving or sympathetic. Even Nadya's name--it's short for Nadezhda, meaning "hope"-- is yet another example of Meschaninova's tendency towards easy ironies, though it may also be a nod to Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a real-life daughter of Norilsk who did manage to achieve full escape velocity, with spectacular consequences.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (section), January, 24 2014
Production companies: First Creative Union, Look Film
Cast: Daria Savelieva, Polina Shanina, Maxim Stoyanov, Stepan Devonin, Daniil Steklov
Director: Natalia Meschaninova
Screenwriters: Natalia Meschaninova, Lubov Mulmenko, Ivan Ugarov
Producers: Elena Stepanischeva, Zaur Bolotaev, Alexander Plotnikov
Directors of photography: Eugeny Tsvetkov, Ivan Mamonov
Production designer: Olga Ura
Editor: Daria Danilova, Dmitry Kubasov
Sales: First Creative Union, Moscow
No MPAA rating, 104 minutes