Monday, 6 February 2012

Anna Fenchenko: Missing Man - Пропавший без вести (2010)

Director: Anna Fenchenko
Cast: Andrei Filippak, Rasim Dzhafarov, Polina Kamanina, Iuris Lautsinsh, Liudmila Geroeva

Missing Man, Anna Fenchenko’s debut feature-length film, is a diptych of sorts—two nearly autonomous narratives shaped by two different settings, with almost wholly different dramatis personae. In one, there emerge the outlines of a story of the fatal and absurd results of combined state interference and incompetence. The Saint Petersburg municipal authorities and the police insist both that a man (Andrei Filippak) move, in connection with what one assumes are the cutthroat real estate wars in Russian cities, and that he not move, so that the police may find him and demand his testimony in the case of a young man who went missing from his neighborhood. In the other, this man, who remains nameless for the greater part of the film but is given the nickname Pasha, joins a ragtag group of people intent on outrunning their pasts and starting new lives on the periphery of the state—Yakutiia, the Far North, and so forth.

Pasha ties the two stories together, not only with his appearance but with his consistent attitude toward the world. Actually, he shares the distinction of appearing in both halves with the original “missing man,” young Volodia. However, the latter functions as a symbol, a transparent signifier of what Pasha himself has become. Pasha, by contrast, performs as a lens; his apprehension of the world around him defines that of the viewer. Pasha’s almost belligerent passivity toward the world around him has a distorting effect on the narrative, as widely broadcast events or commonsensical plans of action take him, and the viewer, by surprise. The motivations of others are inaccessible to Pasha, who does not pay attention to them or attempt to cultivate empathy.

As a result, the viewer lacks access to a great deal of situational information—much in the cinematography reflects Pasha’s deliberate closedness to his environment and to others. The vast majority of the shots in the film are centered on Pasha. While the distance varies from long shots to close-ups, the persistent framing—by darkness, by doorways or curtains, by the confines of a small room or car—often precludes situating him in a larger context. When he is not present in the shot, Pasha’s point of view predominates, and prevents the viewer from witnessing key shifts in the attitudes of others, as in the case where a policeman begins weeping inexplicably over Pasha’s lost cat. The most notable points where the camera breaks from these two patterns is in wide shots, such as that of a spookily abandoned bus station, by which the complete absence of connection between man and environment is underscored.

The film, as it develops, suggests that Pasha is much more aware of his shortcomings than he seemed. At first, Pasha resists all identity except that which the state gave him in his passport—a point that is cleverly reinforced by his rebuffs of sexual advances from work associates of both genders. Deprived of his state-given definition in the passport, he is motivated to seek his own self-definition and break the avoidant patterns he had established for himself. Learning to interact with people on new terms is difficult, and the film is littered with failed attempts.

In the history of stories, individuals on the social fringe have been finding places for themselves in collectives for a long time, long enough that Fenchenko has a rich genre tradition with which to contend when she chooses such a man as her central focus. For example, one may take the war film—notable for engendering national cohesion through the development of a unified fighting team—and the road movie, where groups of losers often create their own, alternative communities.

The war film clearly resonates when an unidentified entity with dogs pursues Pasha and other residents of a boarding house for transients. While there is no swell of non-diegetic music to give emotional clues, the slightly slowed motion and enhanced sounds of breathing suggest the heightened awareness of combat. One of Pasha’s comrades stumbles, Pasha turns round, the short fat man gestures, “Go on without me.” Were Pasha to recognize his role properly, this would be a moment of heroism for the sake of another. Pasha goes on alone. Rethinking his decision later, he returns to that spot. His comrade is gone, a sack of potatoes in his place; Pasha clings to this remnant for much of the remainder of the film, as if to a surrogate-companion. ...

Missing Man tells the story of a man (Andrei Filippak) inadvertently caught up in bureaucratic nightmares of ever-increasing absurdity and intensifying danger. After a business meeting at a bus station, our protagonist is approached by the son of one of his neighbors. The boy hurriedly hands him an envelope to be passed on to his mother before hopping on a bus taking him out of town. Our protagonist then delivers the envelope to the mother, who becomes agitated and reveals that she reported her son missing a month ago. She seeks more information, but our protagonist knows nothing. Soon he is visited by investigators, as the mother has informed the police that he has seen and interacted with her missing boy. Our protagonist is now a suspect in this ‘missing man’ case, and he is required to write out a formal statement of compliance to the police that he will not leave town. One night soon after, our protagonist returns home from another business meeting, this time at a dance club, only to find his apartment building being destroyed. He is told that all of his possessions have been relocated to his new home in Polezhaevsk, about one and a half hours on the commuter train away from the center of St. Petersburg. He travels to Polezhaevsk to his new building number, #103, but finds that the buildings stop at #89. When he goes to the local police station to find out what is going on, he is told that he has violated his statement of compliance by having left town. His passport is seized and he is placed under arrest. Another man, David (Rasim Dzhafarov), is brought in under arrest, charges unknown, but he forcefully breaks free, allowing our protagonist to escape alongside him. David and the protagonist are then fugitives, and we follow them as they join with a group of three other rag-tag misfits of varying criminal records in a series of exploits and near-captures. He grows ever more despondent as he eventually loses everything, symbolized by the successive loss of the representative accoutrement of his life before and after—first his satchel, then a sack of potatoes. Throughout all these experiences, the protagonist maintains the same expression: a barely emotive face—both soft and hard, gentle and severe—registering in equal parts bewilderment and resignation. The film serves as a fairly scathing critique of Russian governmental policy and institutional bureaucracy. The tribulations presented within the film seem intended to echo the troubling circumstances of everyday real life. To those with even a passive acquaintance with Russia, it is an all-too-familiar story to witness city residents forcibly relocated from their homes, from run-down apartments in good locations to new, but distant housing at the outskirts of the city. Old apartment buildings are left to rot and decay so that they can be condemned as uninhabitable, thereby allowing legitimate tenants and owners to be evicted. The property can then be demolished, a new, shiny high-rise can be built, and new luxury apartments can be sold—all highly profitable transactions taking place beyond the reach and at the expense of the original owners. However, the attentiveness of the police to the case of the missing boy comes as a surprise. Of course, this misplaced initial attentiveness was for naught, hindering far more than helping. Throughout the film, more typical police responses to the increasingly desperate circumstances of our protagonist range from sleepy yawns to caustic indifference to distracted sobs interrupted only by a request for some vodka. ... Reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2010 in KinoKultura

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