Thursday, 24 November 2011

Andrei Smirnov: Once Upon a Time There Lived a Woman - Жила-была одна баба (2010)

Director: Andrei Smirnov
Starring Darya Yekamasova, Vladislav Abashin, Nina Ruslanova

Russia, Tambov Province, 1909-1921. The Russian Village is experiencing the most difficult of times: World War I, the Russian Revolution, civil war, and famine. Peasants who refuse to obey the new authorities find themselves dispossessed of their land or property or even murdered. “Once Upon a Time There Lived a Simple Woman” tells the story of Russia’s destiny during the darkest pages of its history through the life, loves and tragic fate of Varvara, a simple Russian woman. ...

The film is the latest work of the legendary Russian director Andrei Smirnov. He made this film after almost a 30-year-long hiatus.




For almost a quarter of a century, I have been immersed in our recent history. The tragedy of the Tambov uprising, which is the subject of my film “Once Upon a Time There Lived a Woman”, portrays people as anything but servile and submissive, which is the widespread cliché. On the contrary, it shows them as staunchly resisting violence. And it shows deliberate extermination of peasants and the treacherous imposition of the destructive ideas of class struggle on the rural mentality. It also shows our tendency to ignore the woes of those close to us… Today I am “taking the plunge”, as it were, because a film begins its life when it is shown to the audience. No matter whether the film does well or badly at the box office, I feel incredibly happy because I have made at least one film that is entirely my own. By the age of forty, I realised that I had to quit directing because I was facing a blank wall. I had made three films in tandem with Boris Yashin and four films on my own. But none of them had been released in the shape in which they had been conceived. Everything had been distorted. Thirty years have passed during which I have changed my profession. I thought I would never succeed. But, as soon as the prospect loomed of censorship being lifted, I conceived of this film. It was the challenge of my life. I was already over sixty and there I was, given a chance to create a film that would make a serious statement, send a message. Will the audience hear me? I remember going to the Tambov region in early 2008 to choose a location, together with the art director and the cinematographer. It is a land of extraordinary beauty. The famous long ravines in Tambov where Antonov’s partisans hid. The mounted Red Army patrols stood on the hills looking for signs of smoke. The hills, the rivers, vast fields of black earth, the best soil in the world. And the haunting thought: why do people lead such a miserable life on this wonderful land? I think that, until we solve that riddle of our history, we will never understand why we are what we are. It is enough to spend two hours driving in Moscow to become aware of the road rage that consumes motorists. This brings to mind the words of the remarkable Russian thinker Konstantin Leontyev: “Christianity has yet to be embraced by Russia.” And yet, after 74 years of a criminal terrorist regime, the degree of Christianisation of Russia diminished catastrophically. Not since the reign of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi has there been a government in world history that made terror the sole instrument of its policy. Such eras etch themselves on history. This was the subject of my reflections in this film. We are the children and grandchildren, the flesh and blood of that terror. Today, when churches have been reopened, monasteries are being filled with monks and the Church is speaking in a loud voice, pretending to provide spiritual guidance to society… But are we a Christian society? Does society remember the main commandment, “love thy neighbour as thyself”? We have reduced that commandment to “thyself”. And what about your neighbour? There is no individual and no society without a circle of close ones. How do we talk to one another? As Thomas Hobbs said, this is “a war of everyone against everyone else”. This attitude seeps into our souls from the street, from public transport and from offices. But the “war” has to stop some day. I am trying to find an answer to the question: “Why do we hate one another so much?” And I can see clearly that society “does not know what it is doing” and is guided by false values. I can’t help mentioning the monstrous role of television. I understand that, for a young peasant girl who lives in a village 300 km from the nearest railway, television is the only means of communicating with the world. And what does she see? Show-biz and wacky crime stories. You realise that, in a world where it is hard to tell a criminal from a cop, everything is for sale. False ideals and a mentality of evil are being inculcated into people: success means money, cars, mistresses, country villas and this is the coveted goal. If this attitude takes root in the nation’s consciousness, we will perish. Man differs from beast in that he is aware of God and has spiritual values. Without that awareness, man becomes like an animal. The people I see on television are, for the most part, such animals. When something like the works of Norstein, the demographer Vishnevsky or Liliana Lungina appears on the screen, you can’t help thinking: how did they manage to preserve a human face in this beastly world?” On the one hand, the authorities seem to allow greater freedom than the Soviets did, monitoring only political news. But what spiritual life can be gleaned from a news programme that is drowned out by a flood of crime and cheap talk shows? Nobody remembers that the task of television is not only to summon people to the polling stations, but tofoster national awareness. ...

Reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2012 in KinoKultura If the dominant version of history recounts the triumphant march of capitalist modernity, its critique from below takes the form of diverse people’s histories, told from the perspectives of those exploited, marginalized, and forgotten in the process. But if official history has already been claimed in the name of the dispossessed, how does one rewrite it from the perspective of the margins? This is what Andrei Smirnov’s film attempts to do by presenting what may be called an ordinary woman’s history of the Russian twentieth century – a woman who, at least in the title, does not even get a name. An ordinary woman’s history of the first three decades of the 1900s is a laudable but difficult project for several reasons. Not only does it have to be etched against an incredibly violent period of transition in an inherently patriarchal society, but also has to push against the masculinist appropriation of the October Revolution. This is not a trivial act of resistance. As Eliot Borenstein argued in his illuminating book about the sexual politics of revolutionary fiction, foundational narratives of the New Soviet Man are not merely stories of immaculate conception – they involve the literal dematerialization of women from both the public sphere and the domain of private, everyday life (Borenstein 2000). Through the figure of one destitute survivor of a million physical and psychological indignities, Smirnov’s film tries to rematerialize the millions of women who were reduced to first pure bodies and then pure ideas in the rhetoric of the revolution. These were the baby, whose fleshly, grueling, and often disgusting material lives constituted the hidden third dimension of the ubiquitous peasant woman idealized in pre-revolutionary nationalist dreams as well as the surreal idiom of Soviet iconography. ...

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