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13 Sept

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Aleksei Balabanov's Reka (The River, 2002)RUSSIA
or not?

An attempt to contextualise Aleksei Balabanov's
Reka (The River, 2002)

Balabanov's most recent hits have led to him being branded a nationalist. But with Reka, as Lars Kristensen explains, he seeks to give a voice to the indigenous people of the remote Russian region of Yakutia.[*]

The year 2002 saw the release of two films by Balabanov: Voina (War) and Reka (The River), a tragic tale of love and jealousy which is set (unusually for Russian cinema) in the remote Yakutia region of northern Russia and has Yakut-language dialogue.

Balabanov began working on Reka after Brat 2 (Brother II, 2000), but while driving home after a day's filming the leading actress, Tuiara Svinoboeva, was tragically killed in a road accident (Balabanov was also injured) and work on the film was halted. After finishing his next project, Voina, Balabanov returned to Reka, editing the what footage had been shot and voiceing-over the parts that were missing. The finished product—a 50-minute film—was shown at the Archival Film Festival "White Columns" near Moscow in 2002 to the delight of critics. Reka was later released on video in Russia in a limited edition (in which form I have seen the film).

The film's other notable festival outing was at Venice, yet even with this prestigious international platform it failed to attract international attention from either Western critics or festival programmers, even those representing events with a history of tracking Balabanov's career (perhaps as they filled their Balabanov scheduling quota for that year with the full-length Voina, with its newsy topic of the war in Chechnya). Thus, while Voina was reviewed and discussed extensively both domestically and in the West, Reka was only covered in the Russian press.

This is a pity, as Reka has the ability to revert the general perception in the Western media of Balabanov as a mere chauvinistic nationalist. Here, I will try to contextualise Reka and Balabanov's other films within a postcolonial discourse and to ask whether we can view Reka as Balabanov's (colonising Russia's) attempt to give a voice to the Yakut minority. Particularly, I will compare Reka to a Danish film, Qaamarngup uummataa (Heart of Light / Lysets hjerte in Danish, 1998), which also deals with indigenous people from the Arctic, looking at what the differences are in the approach to narrating a minority, and how these approaches are seen through the prism of postcolonialism.

Since Reka is a film that Kinoeye readers are unlikely to have the opportunity to view, an extended synopsis of this worthwhile film is presented first to aid understanding of the discussion.

Shakespeare goes east

Reka tells the story of a lepers' hut where the villagers in a remote community send infected inhabitants. Residing there is an old couple, Salban (Spartak Fedotov) and Kutuyakhsyt (Mariya Kanaeva); two men, the younger Kirgelei (Vasilii Borisov) and Dzhanga (Mikhail Skryabin); and finally a woman Mergen (Tuiara Svinoboeva) with her eight-year-old daughter Buterkhai (Masha Kytskina).

Aleksei Balabanov's Reka (The River, 2002)Mergen has been expelled from the community because of thieving. In fact, she was left bound to a tree by her husband to be eaten by mosquitoes, but is found by the old Salban and has since lived with the lepers. Mergen's story illustrates well the harsh world of the film, where people fight for survival, where lack of harvest (in terms of fishing, hunting) can mean life or death for the people in the hut. Having said this, it is not struggle for survival that is at the core of the film, but the Shakespearean tragedy of love, hate and jealousy.

Anchik (Anna Flegontova) visits the hut, where her leper husband Kirgelei lives with his brother, Petrojan. Petrojan runs away and leaves Anchik at the hut, which she cannot leave as the village community would see her as being contaminated by the disease.

Mergen is pregnant with Kirgelei's child and does not take kindly to the arrival of Anchik, which means re-establishing the wife-husband relationship. This starts the love triangle between the two non-leprous women, Anchik and Mergen, and Kirgelei. Throughout the film Kirgelei is the weaker part of the triangle, and not having much to offer he continues to stand in the shadow of the two women, who due to their healthiness and strength assertively sit at the top of the hierarchy.

Due to the celebration of Maslenitsa, the old Slavic pagan tradition celebrating of the end of winter, the hut runs out of food and old Salban and Mergen's newborn boy dies. Mergen blames Anchik for the death of her son.

One day Mergen suddenly disappears with the boat and nets, the knife and the pot, which in reality means death for the others. Again, it is Mergen's motivations—her jealousy and hatred towards Anchik—that takes centre-stage. Furthermore, this action marks the threat posed by a possible departure from the leper hut. Can the community survive a partial dissolution?

Anchik goes back to the village to ask for a cow, but is instead given a boat and net and a bow and arrows. Mergen comes back, steals the bow and arrows and then suddenly Dzhanga disappears with the boat and nets. The remaining inhabitants of the hut are again left to die and Anchik makes her second visit to the village, and this time gets a cow and a calf. Later they find the boat and nets, and presume that Dzhanga is dead, but Dzhanga returns and tells everyone that Mergen, whom he now lives with, has been wounded while stealing from the village. The two eventually return to the hut.

As soon as Mergen and Dzhanga are back at the hut, the power struggle between Mergen and Anchik starts. Mergen complains that there are too many people (plus the cow and the calf) in the hut, so in the end they decide to build a stall for the cattle, which Kirgelei decides that he and Anchik will live in.

Aleksei Balabanov's Reka (The River, 2002)Winter comes, and Dzhanga and Buterkhai are on a visit at Anchik's and Kirgelei's new place, where there is song and laughter, but Mergen is in the old hut dressing up in a large silver necklace and a hat full of feathers (stolen maybe?). Jealous of the newly found happiness in the neighbouring hut, Mergen goes over and orders Dzhanga and Buterkhai to come home. Back in the old hut Mergen orders Dzhanga to tell them to move back, but he refuses and Mergen threatens to burn the hut down if they do not return.

At night while the others are asleep, Mergen sets fire to Anchik and Kirgelei's hut, and locks the door with a stick from the outside, then goes back to bed. Dzhanga is the first to wake up from the noise the cow is making, and he tries to rescue the cow but the hut collapses, burying him and the cow underneath. Mergen and Buterkhai arrive just in time to see Dzhanga disappearing into the fire. Mergen finally sees her wrongdoing and while shouting Kirgelei's name, she also runs into the burning hut. Through the voice-over we are told that in the morning Byterkhai finds Anchik, whose upper-body is under a fire log, but between her legs there is something alive—a baby. Buterkhai bites off the umbilical cord, takes the baby boy into the old hut and after an unsuccessful attempt at breast-feeding him stops his crying with cow's milk.

Buterkhai is woken up by the sound of a bear, she quickly wraps up the boy and runs out. With the child in her hands, she is hit by the bear, but she manages to reach the boat and puts the child in it. However, the ice under her breaks and with her last efforts, she pushes the boat out into the river. The final image is the boat, with only the baby boy in it sucking milk from the bottle, floating on the river—out into the mouth of the river and into the sea.

Unfinished masterpiece?

The fact that Reka is a fragmented film made it even more complete for some critics; Elena Stichova says, "at times a fragment of a work of art weighs not less but in fact more than the whole."[1] Several critics made comparisons with other unfinished "masterpieces" and their directors, such as Sergei Eisenstein's ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932) and Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow, 1935) and the Polish director Andrzej Munk, who died in 1961 in a car crash while shooting Pasazerka (The Passenger).[2] These examples underline the effect an unfinished work of art can have in spinning myths.

The film is a literary adaptation from Predel skorbi (The Limit of Grief, 1899)[3] by the Polish writer Wac³aw Sieroszewski (1858-1945). Sieroszewski was repeatedly sent to Siberia for revolutionary activities and during his captivity in Siberia he wrote both scientific and fictional accounts of the Yakuts, Chukchis and other indigenous people. About Sieroszewski it has been written that his "favourite idea was the belief in a single humanity"[4] and that "he looked [on ethnic minorities] not only as an ethnologist but also—and above all—as a champion of freedom and a humanist."[5]

Aleksei Balabanov's Reka (The River, 2002)There is no immediate evidence, however, that it is Sieroszewski's humanism that Balabanov was interested in. As he has stated in interviews, for him "it is a tragic story of jealousy and love."[6] This is also clear from the film, which is concerned not with the plight of the indigenous people as a whole, but with the drama of Sierozewski's story. It is the drama of the film and the performance of Tuiara Svinoboeva—"her protruding talent and unique Shakespearean temperament"[7]—that makes the film a story of unequalled proportions.

There are but a few references to Russianness; a celebration of Maslenitsa (Shrovetide) and Anchik saying to Kirgelei, "you look like a real [nastoyachii] Russian". This makes Reka's position within a postcolonial discourse problematic as it does not address the problems of ethnic minorities directly, but tells the story of an almost pre-colonial time.

According to postcolonial theory, the postcolonial subject seeks to create hybrid identity out of the pre-colonial and the colonial/postcolonial past. This identity is not a stable, "pure" identity, but an identity which is in constant battle with itself. In cinematic terms, films like Bhaji on the Beach (dir Gurinda Chadha, 1993) or East is East (dir Damien O'Donnell, 1999) are representative of this postcolonial discourse, where the characters discursively negotiate their identities without any loss of the self.

This ties in with Homi Bhabha's notion that modern identities exist in two or more forms—that the self can exist unproblematically in two places. This position leads Bhabha to view modern identities as ambivalent entities or like the statue of Janus, with two faces looking in opposite directions.[8]

This is not what we see in Reka. There are no Janus-like identities, no battles of ambivalent poles that constitute a modern postcolonial identity. Instead, there is purity—the very notion postcolonialism tries to move away from, because purity is narrated by the coloniser.

Aleksei Balabanov's Reka (The River, 2002)Since the days of Brat (Brother, 1997) Balabanov has always maintained an opposition to what is popularly know as "political correctness," sometimes with unfavourable consequences (as in Brat 2). This, I will argue, is a position that he maintains in Reka.

What would have been the clear-cut postcolonial version of Reka? The story would have been set in a contemporary context and the community would have been marred with unemployment, alcoholism and clashes of the old (indigenous) with the new (colonial/postcolonial) (the stereotyping is deliberate).

To my knowledge, such a film has not been made about the Yakut minority in Russia, so to find an example of such postcolonial discourse in the same indigenous arctic sphere we have to look elsewhere.

In 1998, the "first feature film shot totally in Greenland" premiered in Denmark: Qaamarngup uummataa, directed by Dane Jacob Grønlykke and co-scripted by Greenlander Hans Anthon Lynge.[9] The film portrays the struggle of a middle-aged man—an unemployed alcoholic—to find his identity in a modern Greenlandic society. Estranged from his family roots and from his own sons, who would rather listen to Danish music than to their drunken father, he goes on a hunting trip in search for his identity as a Greenlander—and finds it.[10] When highlighting Qaamarngup uummataa in the context of Reka, it becomes clear what different approaches the two directors (both representing the coloniser) take in narrating "the nation" of indigenous people.

In Reka Balabanov glosses over the "problem" of postcolonialism by narrating a story from the end of the 19th century, but this does not, in my opinion, mean that Balabanov is not interested in narrating the minority. In particular the closing images of the film, where the infant boy floats out on the river, giving a mythological sense of the (re)birth of a Volk or nation, suggests that Balabanov is narrating a Yakut "nation." Contrary to Jacob Grønlykke, who feels that there "exists a sort of shared destiny [skæbnefællesskab] between Greenland and Denmark,"[11] Balabanov seems to be saying, "we are different and should be recognised as such."

This approach is similar to the philosophy of Charles Taylor and his notion of "the politics of recognition." Taylor, contrary to Bhabha, sees the self as specific: "being true to myself means being true to my own originality, which is something I can articulate and discover" and "like individuals, a Volk should be true to itself, that is, its own culture."[12] Therefore, minorities need to be true to their cultural roots and seek recognition for this, and if they are recognised then affirmative political action will follow.

Aleksei Balabanov's Reka (The River, 2002)Balabanov tells the story of people at the periphery and thereby bringing a part that needs to be recognised attention to the attention of the centre of the federation. Viewed in this light, Reka can be seen as adding the picture of the people Balabanov thinks is important to narrate. Hence, Reka can be seen as postcolonial, as it gives a minority a voice, which, therefore, has to be recognised by the political centre.

This said, there are other problems with Reka being postcolonial, including the voice-over and the translation. As mentioned, Balabanov voiced over the missing parts of the film in order to tell a coherent story, but in doing so he seriously diminishes the Yakut voice and gives way to the fact that it becomes more of Balabanov's story/film than a story/film from Yakutia.

But this is, obviously, no fault of Balabanov. Firstly, he cannot be blamed for the tragic accident which prevented his original intention of completing the film with only Yakut being spoken. Secondly, Balabanov's voice-over was made just hours before the film's first screening at the festival (a strong linkage to Eisenstein and his completion of Oktyabr' / October, 1927, just hours before its first screening).

The video edition is, perhaps, more problematic. Balabanov can be blamed for not insisting on a Yakut voice-over, because, although both expensive and time-consuming, it would have erased the presence of the voice of the coloniser.

It might be argued that the tradition in Russia that films in other languages than Russian tend to be dubbed by Russian voices, thus rendering pointless the idea of a non-Russian narration. Reka certainly shares this fate of having the original language removed, which makes it Russianised, as it is not the native tongue that narrates, but again the coloniser with its powers of hierarchy and classification. As Robert Stam and Louise Spence formulate it, "the absence of the language of the colonised is [...] symptomatic of colonialist attitude."[13] Moreover, the Russification of foreign-language films is not complete and in large cities art house cinemas frequently show foreign films with subtitles: if Takeshi Kitano's Japanese films can be subtitled in Russia, why not Reka with its Yakut voice?

To sum up the reviews on Reka, the focus is on the truthfulness Balabanov brings to the film—"documentary," "closeness to reality" and "authenticity" are words frequently encountered in the description of both the mise-en-scène and the feeling of the characters. This ethnographic depiction of indigenous people echoes early documentary filmmakers like Robert Flaherty, and his classical Nanook of the North (1920). Ivor Montagu has argued that "each of [Flaherty's] masterpieces is a lie—an evasion of the truth about present-day society" and essentially constructed.[14] Flaherty, as Balabanov does in Reka, "turned back the clock, altering such things as the way his subjects lived, [...] and paying [the subjects of his film] for playing this charade with him."[15]

Reka also evades speaking about present-day society by turning the clock back as far as to late 19th century, but Balabanov is making an ethnographic drama, which is a long-standing tradition in both Soviet and Russian cinema, eg Nikita Mikhalkov's Urga. Territoriya lyubvi (Urga. Territory of Love, 1991), and not a documentary about how Yakuts were living at the turn of the century.

Aleksei Balabanov's Reka (The River, 2002)Nonetheless, according to Alison Griffith, the ethnographic film should be seen as "a way of using the cinematic medium to express ideas about racial and cultural difference, rather than as an autonomous and institutionalised film genre."[16] Whether it is Flaherty, Grønlykke or Balabanov, their (the colonisers') fascination with the indigenous Arctic people (the colonised) is the same, and the fascination is about the Other and cultural difference.

While there are clearly problems in calling Reka a postcolonial film, these problems largely arrive in postproduction and therefore the colonial attitudes of dealing with voice-over and translation should not be considered part of the desire to narrate a minority. It is this desire of Balabanov that I see as a clear sign that Russia is moving towards dealing with issues of colonialism and postcolonialism.

Even Russian academia is starting to address issues of postcolonialism.[17] This sign of a change in attitude is visible towards the Siberian northeast and its less problematic colonisation, where in the south we still encounter neo-colonial attitudes towards the Caucasus and, in particular, towards Chechnya, "whose grim coloniality is hardly ‘post'".[18]

This difference in attitudes is also reflected in Balabanov's two films from 2002, Voina and Reka; where the former is rooted in a colonial discourse with the barbaric other, the latter is an attempt to narrate through the eyes of the colonised. In my opinion, it is the desire of Balabanov to narrate people from the periphery of the Russian federation that makes him the best offer of a postcolonial Russian film director.

Nonetheless Voina and Reka have some common ground. A recurring theme in all Balabanov's films is narrating people on the periphery. The heroes from Balabanov's more popular films, for example Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) from the two Brat films, and Ivan Yermakov (Aleksei Chadov) from Voina, were from the provinces, which is often seen as an authorial trait of Balabanov's own provincial background.

In fact all Balabanov's films have the main character coming from the "outside" into the unfamiliar: the anti-hero (Viktor Sukhorukov) who has lost his memory in Schastlivye dni (Happy Days, 1991) searches the city for a room to live; the land surveyor (Nikolai Stotsky) in Zamok (The Castle, 1994), Balabanov's literary adaptation of Kafka's unfinished novel of the same name, enters literally on foot into the town at the foot of the castle; and, of course, there is Iogann (Sergei Makovetsky) in Pro urodov i liudei (Of Freaks and Men, 1998), who arrives from the West and steps out onto the embankment of the Neva in St Petersburg. What is different in the case of Reka is that it is heroines, and not heroes, who come from the "outside," both Mergen and Anchik enter the lepers' community—the unfamiliar.

That Reka has two female protagonists is important, as Balabanov has been accused of misogyny, in particular with Brat 2. Not only are the two women the leading characters, but also their male counterparts are weak and reduced to mere bystanders in this world ruled by their healthy women. In particular Kirgelei, the object of Mergen's and Anchik's affection, is utterly passive throughout the film—food for thought for those critics who have seen in Balabanov the rise of chauvinistic attitudes.

Another important point in comparing Balabanov's 2002 releases is that while Voina is in line with the genre of the Western, as has been suggested by Sergei Lavrentiev,[19] and set in the present time and indeed in a present war, then the universal/contemporary drama of Reka is set in the period of the epic. The epic Western becomes contemporary while the contemporary becomes epic drama. This subversion, in this case of the genres, is another recurrent theme of Balabanov.

When Balabanov subverts social structures, healthy people become sick and sick people become healthy. This is a theme Balabanov as a director started out with in Schastlivye dni and continued in Pro urodov i liudei. In both these films the only source of clarity, or discourse of the sensible, comes from the "sick", ie from the protagonist with no name in Schastlivye dni and from one of the Siamese twins in Pro urodov i liudei.

Likewise, in Reka, the sensible and rational comes from the leprous and in particular from Dzhanga, who tries in vain to mend the course of destruction that the community is heading towards. This subversion of social structures is a repeated metaphor of Balabanov, which reminds us that the normal, or the healthy, is just as destructive as the exploitive forces that we encountered in Pro urodov i liudei, and a metaphor used chiefly in Balabanov's non-mainstream films.

Reclaiming the non-mainstream

With Voina there were concerns that Balabanov had gone mainstream for good. As expressed, for example by Andrew James Horton in Kinoeye, there is some anxiety that Russia's cult film director has "sold out." In a review of Balabanov's Voina (War, 2002) on 18 November 2002, Horton says "one more film in this style [nationalistic action film] and his non-mainstream films [...] will seem distinctly out of character in his repertoire."[20] Yet by including Reka (along with Schastlivye dni , Zamok and Pro urodov i liudei), the non-mainstream films have the upper hand over his mainstream ones (Brat, Brat 2 and Voina).

In my opinion, Balabanov is unique in the field of contemporary Russian cinema production in the way that he has maintained the duality of Russian Cinema (including Soviet cinema), locked in the controversy of its two main manifestations—the art and the popular. Balabanov's ability to cater for both the artistic and the popular is why Russian critics has hailed him as a one-off in contemporary Russian cinema; "in him there is a piercing feeling of reality and eternity [which many other directors lack],"[21] as Yekaterina Sal'nikova points out. Aleksei Mokrousov calls Balabanov a genius of the people who "has the ability to saturate the image, which few of his generation can."[22]

A popular film by Balabanov tends to divide the critics with Western and liberal Russian critics on one side and more reactionary critics on the other, but Reka has forced even the more liberal critics (and should force Western critics) to re-examine their stance toward Balabanov as a director. In the words of the Russian critic Mikhail Trofimenkov, "Reka forces us to revalue the scale of Mr Balabanov the director."[23]

As for those who rejected Balabanov for ideological reasons resulting from his two Brat films while "not dismissing that he is a good or a very good director, Reka gives them the foundation to talk about him as a director of world class."

Lars Kristensen

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Also of interest
About the author

Lars Kristensen is a PhD candidate at the Slavonic Studies department of the University of Glasgow.

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* I am grateful in particular to Emily Munro and Andrei Rogatchevski for their generous and helpful comments on earlier drafts. Any errors of fact or judgement are, of course, my own.return to text

1. Yelena Stichova, "Tchasti retchi", Iskusstvo Kino, No 6, 2002.return to text

2. ¡Que viva Mexico! was shot in 1931, after which Eisenstein was forced by Stalin to return to Russia. Although attempts were made by producer Upton Sinclair to ship the negatives to the director for editing, they were blocked by the Russian authorities who by then regarded Eisenstein as a bête noire. (Work is still ongoing to try and restore the footage according to Eisenstein's intentions). Bezhin lug was completed, but was banned and the only remaining print destroyed during the Second World War (possibly the result of bombing, possibly not). A 30-minute reconstruction was made in 1968, using still photos from outtakes and music by Prokofiev. The narration was completed with intertitles. Munk's Pasa¿erka was completed by assistant director Witold Lesiewicz, partially using footage and partially using stills. A voice-over narration was also added. It premiered two years after Munk's death in 1963.return to text

3. The Polish title is Na dnie nedzy (At the Bottom of Poverty), Literaturnaya entsiklopediya, vol 10, Verlag Otto Sagner, München, 1991, p 698.return to text

4. Ibid, p 698.return to text

5. Krzyzanowski Julian, History of Polish Literature, PWN, Warszawa, 1978, p 550.return to text

6. Aleksei Balabanov, "Ya snimayu ne dlya vetchnosti", Kul'tura, No 13, 28 Marts-3 April, 2002.return to text

7. Yelena Stichova, "Tchasti retchi", Iskusstvo Kino, No 6, 2002.return to text

8. Homi Bhabha (ed.), Nation and Narration, Routledge, London & New York, 1990, p 4.return to text

9. Greenlander Hans Anthon Lynge had the final say in decisions about the film. Jette Rygaard & Birgit Kleist Pedersen, "Lysets hjerte - en rejse til fortiden: eller uddrivelsen af historien", in Kosmorama, vol 47, no 232 (2003), p 153.return to text

10. A synopsis in English is provided by the Danish Film Institute.return to text

11. "Instruktøren Jacob Grønlykke - om Lysets hjerte". Danish Film Institute .return to text

12. Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and "The Politics of Recognition", Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992, p 31.return to text

13. Robert Stam and Louise Spence, Colonialism, Racism, and Representation, in Movies and Methods, 2 vols, Bill Nochols (ed), University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985, p 638.return to text

14. Ivor Montagu, Film World: A Guide to Cinema, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1964, p 283.return to text

15. Richard Barsam, The Vision of Robert Flaherty: The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, p 118.return to text

16. Alison Griffiths, Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology and turn-of-the-century visual culture, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, p xxvii.return to text

17. See Jon Kyst, "Russia and the Problem of Internal Colonization", in Ulbandus (the Slavic Review of Columbia University), vol 7, 2003, pp 26-32.return to text

18. David Chioni Moore, "Is the Post- in Postcolonialism the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique", in The Modern Language Association of America, 116. I, 2001, p 115.return to text

19. Lavrentiev compares Balabanov to John Ford, who was also accused of reactionism. Sergei Lavrentiev, "Alexei Balabanov: War (2002)", KinoKultura, 2002.return to text

20. Andrew James Horton, "War, what is it good for? Aleksei Balabanov's Voina (War, 2002)", Kinoeye, vol 2, no 18, 18 November 2002.return to text

21. Yekaterina Sal'nikova, "Mirovaya prem'era v arkhive", Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 31 January 2002.return to text

22. Aleksei Mokrousov, "Dao i Mao, goluboe i krasnoe", Novoe Vremya, 17 Febuary 2002.return to text

23. Mihail Trofimenkov, "V Reke broda net", Kommersant', 1 July 2002.return to text

  Copyright © Kinoeye 2001-2018


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