A Critical Perspective

As one of Russia's top film critics, Andrei Plakhov has been to dozens of film festivals large and small, all the way from sunny, glamorous Cannes to chilly, remote Khanty-Mansiisk. He has now catalogued these experiences into a new book called "Under the Sign of F: Film Festivals." The book takes its title from an an observation that many of the words associated with film festivals begin with the letter "F", such as "favorites," "fur" and "finance," to name a few. "All these words will accompany us in this book, which I wrote in the genre of travelogue and memoir, in an excellent mood and under the sign of 'F,'" he states in the preface.

But Plakhov -- who writes for Kommersant and is the current president of FIPRESCI, the international film critics' association -- has written much more than a travelogue and memoir. His book is arguably the first comprehensive study of international film festivals published in Russia for a mass audience. It also explores an issue that seems especially relevant with the recent closing of the 28th Moscow International Film Festival: the question of whether Russia can raise its stature in the film-festival world, as the organizers of MIFF perenially hope to do.

"I wanted to explain to readers what film festivals are about, why they came into being and why they still exist ... and are likely to stay around for quite some time," Plakhov said last week, sitting in the living room of his apartment in a quiet neighborhood near the Belorusskaya metro station. "They came into being as an institution in the middle of the last century, survived the turn of the millennium and moved to the 21st century."

Yet film festivals are changing, he stressed. "Because of the very diverse range of festivals, because of the fact that some move into the shadows while others enter the limelight, it's clear that this is a complicated process that has some internal meaning," he said. "In this book, I was trying to figure out what kind of meaning this process has, and to convey that meaning to readers who may not know much about cinema."

The media often present a superficial picture of film festivals, Plakhov said. Even people who are part of the film industry often have a primitive understanding of how festivals work, he added, especially when it comes to the selection of films and the distribution of prizes. "In many instances, the superficial, glamorous image of a film festival obscures the very essence of it, which is to stimulate the development of cinema and the art of cinema," Plakhov observed, placing special emphasis on the words "the art of cinema."

"Outside the festivals, there is a lot of cinema that is primarily commercial, but film festivals fill a niche [of art films] that distributors often leave empty," he explained.

Plakhov's book consists of five sections. The first three deal with the world's top international festivals -- Cannes, Berlin and Venice -- focusing on their history and some recent trends. Along with historical anecdotes and the author's own personal recollections, these parts devote substantial space to how Soviet and, later, Russian films performed at these world-class events.

After that, the book moves on to MIFF, which, although technically belonging to the A category -- the same as Cannes, Berlin and Venice -- is still struggling to achieve international prominence. Plakhov is something of an insider when it comes to MIFF, as he has served on the festival's selection committee for a number of years.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Besides being the film critic for Kommersant, Plakhov is the current president of FIPRESCI, the international film critics' association.

About 15 years ago, he said, there was a chance to transform the event into something more important on an international level. "I was a member of the selection committee even before perestroika," he recalled. "And when I was head of the committee in 1989, I wanted to improve the festival. There were grounds for that, as interest in Russia was substantial and foreign stars, like Milos Forman or Marcello Mastroianni, were willing to come to Moscow. But we didn't use this opportunity. On the one hand, there was still Soviet-era inertia that was difficult to break, and, on the other hand, new mechanisms were not yet there and people, including me, lacked experience and an understanding of how the system worked."

In the following years, Plakhov continued, interest in Russia declined and could no longer be used as a tool to make the festival more prominent, while Russia's economy and culture went through a period of "vulgar commercialization," leading MIFF to become a showcase of New Russian glitz and glamour, something Westerners had little interest in.

Today, Plakhov said, it is important to preserve MIFF and try to improve its international standing, although he admitted this would be a challenge. "Developing the Moscow film festival is difficult because ... it's difficult to find a formula that would distinguish it from similar festivals, such as Karlovy Vary, which takes place at about the same time and also in Eastern Europe," he said.

Plakhov added that all the problems of MIFF he was talking about were on display at the most recent event, which took just place after the book was completed. "It wouldn't be right to say that it failed, but calling it a successful festival would also be an exaggeration," he said. The author noted that the festival had turned out, once again, to be "transitional," and sadly joked that "transitions" of some kind have been accompanying the event for years, perhaps even decades.

The book's final section, titled "Really Exotic Animals," focuses on smaller and less-prominent (though not necessarily less-worthy) film festivals, encompassing a huge variety of locations and styles. These events range from "The Spirit of Fire," a debut-feature festival in the oil-rich Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiisk, and "Faces of Love," another domestic event, to festivals in Istanbul and Buenos Aires.

While most festivals have traditionally focused on cinema as an art form, things have become much more complex in the past few decades as the border between art-house and commercial film has begun to blur. "There should be balance between art-house and commercial cinema," Plakhov remarked, adding that some major festivals try to raise the profile of art-house cinema by luring mass audiences with visits from stars and premieres of blockbusters.

D Grafics

Plakhov's book seeks to explain the complicated inner workings of international film festivals.

In his book, Plakhov asserts that Russian film is still viewed in a very stereotypical way at international film festivals. He notes that Russian cinema is primarily associated with auteur directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and, more recently, Alexander Sokurov and Andrei Zvyagintsev.

"The stereotype of Russian cinema as primarily art-house is still there," Plakhov said. "If we look at the Russian films that were released internationally in the last few years, we'll see that films like Zvyagintsev's 'The Return' or Sokurov's 'Russian Ark' were the most successful commercially, although these are not commercial films. Meanwhile, domestically produced commercial films, except for 'Night Watch,' did not find a market abroad."

Plakhov predicts, however, that the situation may begin to change. "In the West, there is growing interest in commercial Russian cinema, but at this point, distributors have taken an observing position and are not in a hurry to buy Russian films," he said. One of the reasons that domestic films don't get international releases, Plakhov added, is that many Russian "blockbusters" are modeled on Hollywood films and thus are not original.

Overall, the author was optimistic about the prospects of the domestic film industry, which has experienced something of a boom in recent years. "It's good that the traditions of auteur cinema have not been lost in a situation when there is a lot of interest in commercial cinema," Plakhov said. "These two flows should develop simultaneously and feed off of each other."

"Under the Sign of F: Film Festivals" (Pod Znakom F: Film Festivals) is published by D Grafics. Vladimir Kozlov is a journalist, fiction author and recent graduate of the PCFE Film School in Prague.