Organisers of Australia's annual celebration of Russian cinema have crafted a 'less is more' program for film buffs this year.
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16 Aug 2011 - 4:23 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Australia's local community film festivals continue to be impacted by the squeeze on sponsorship dollars, and streamlined festival programs are a natural consequence. The 2011 Russian Resurrection Film Festival is no exception, but festival director Nicholas Maksymow says the decision to refocus his new program was a purely strategic one.

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Maksymow is the first to admit that times have changed since 2004, when he relaunched an event that had languished Soviet Union artistic suppression but would later re-emerge as one of the largest and most respected platforms for Russian cinema in the world. “Five years ago, we had sponsors coming to us,” he reminisces about the pre-GFC days. “Even last year was so much easier than this year.”

Maksymow stresses that this year's program reflects a 'quality-over-quantity' approach that's geared towards audience satisfaction above all else. “We felt last year that we got carried away and that there were way too many films for what we were trying to achieve with our audience,” he says. “So one of our goals this year was to try to select one or two films from each genre to make the program succinct and, I suppose, targeted more to what our audience appreciates.”

This rethink of the festival's aims has resulted in some programming coups. The opening night film will vary from city to city: the Sydney and Adelaide events kick off with Andrei Zviagintsev's Elena, winner of the Un Certain Regard jury prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival; Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra audiences will be awed by Aleksei Uchitel's Golden Globe-nominated The Edge, an intimately-told World War II epic; and Perth crowds will enjoy Ukrainian-born star Milla Jovovich, utilising her native tongue for the first time on film, in Levan Gabriadze's romantic-comedy hit, Lucky Trouble.

“The Russian industry, as a whole, has flourished in the last 10 years,” he states. “There was a period a few years back, when the GFC hit, when I was getting (opinions) out of Russia that the film industry would struggle but I don't think it has. The quality and quantity of films that have emerged from Russia in the past two years is at least on par with where they should be (in world cinema).”

The healthy state of contemporary Russian cinema is reflected in the styles and storytelling techniques on show at this year's festival: underworld drama Stoker; the gripping wilderness thriller To Live; contemporary comedies Loot and Six Degrees of Celebration; and effects-heavy folklore-fantasy Dark World (pictured). Perhaps most indicative of the daring mindset of the Russian industry is Alexander Mindadze's Golden Bear-nominated Innocent Saturday, which examines the existential conundrum faced by a man in the first 24 hours after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

Maksymow is also determined to remain respectful of the greats of Russian cinema, regardless of the critical receptions to their current work. His festival will stage the Australian premiere of the notorious box-office disaster The Nutcracker 3D, filmmaking legend Andrei Konchalovsky's US$90 million reworking of Tchaikovsky's ballet starring Elle Fanning, John Turturro and Nathan Lane. Despite a Rotten Tomatoes 0% rating and a US box office take of US$190,000, Maksymow finds value in the film and backs his decision to book it. “The stature of Andrei Konchalovsky alone is one reason why we chose to screen the film,” he says, “and the film is definitely targeted to 10-year-olds, not the adult critics. I think we have to be careful when we say that the film is 'a dud' or it performed poorly at the box office; we have to fully consider the circumstances of its release.”

One thematic element that binds much of modern Russian cinema is the exploration of social injustice and self-identity. The struggle of everyday Russians manifests itself across several plot and genre structures featured at the festival, including mysteries (Who Am I?), conspiracy thrillers (Pyrammmid) and romantic dramas (Inadequate People). Maksymow is struck by how so many of his festival's films, and the works of Russia's new wave of directors in general, are about “fighting for the individual to ensure social justice for their characters”.

“Life in Russia has always been difficult for the ordinary person on the street, since the collapse of the Soviet Union even moreso, and I believe [the films] are a statement by the filmmakers that there needs to be more social justice for the ordinary person in Russia at present.”

Maksymow is hoping the titles addressing Russia's social concerns will draw members of Australia's large Russian immigrant community to the festival, which already enjoys strong ties to community groups like Brisbane's Russian Club, Victoria's Russian Ethnic Representative Council and the Russian Ethnic Community of NSW. But Maksymow understands his role is to ensure Russian cinema is seen by the greater general population as well. “We definitely try to program films that the Russian community would find appealing but our statistics show that 60 percent of our audience are not part of that community but are probably arthouse filmgoers, so we consciously find films that will appeal to that sector too,” he says, matter-of-factly.

A particularly exciting aspect of this year's festival and one that is sure to have broad appeal will be the retrospective screenings, which includes Vladimir Menshov's Oscar-winning Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980). One strand in particular will highlight significant Russian co-productions from the last five decades: Grigoriy Chukhrai Life is Beautiful (1981), an Italian co-production starring Giancarlo Giannini and Ornella Muti; Karen Shakhnazarov's British-backed Assassin of the Tsar (1991), starring Malcolm McDowell; and the much-anticipated screening of Mikhail Kalatozov's rarely-seen masterpiece The Red Tent (1969), an Italian collaboration featuring the truly international cast of Sean Connery, Peter Finch, Claudia Cardinale and Hardy Kruger that will screen in its full 158-minute form.

“We work closely with (Russia-based studios) MosFilm and Lenfilm, who have always supplied the film prints for our retrospectives,” says Maksymow. The co-production program was created as recently as late last year and has toured extensively; it is a significant feat to have secured it so quickly for this year's event. “Frankly, we would have liked to include a few more films in the component,” he says, citing Nikita Mikhalkov's Dark Eyes (1987) as one that got away. “But the ones we do have are representative of the better co-productions that the Russian industry has been involved in.”

The Russian Resurrection Film Festival launches in Melbourne on August 18, with other capital cities to follow. For more information visit the festival website.