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The biggest showcase of Russian films outside Russia, this year’s program features 29 films, including seven recent award-winning and box office hits that range from historical epics to dramas, adventures, comedies and the first ever, (and irresistible) 3D animation Russian feature film, plus a retrospective of nine WWII films made between 1957 – 2002.

The opening nights are legendary, combining vodka with other kinds of high spirits, but the festival of Russian films is also a feast of Russian cinema, an energetic and robust screen culture, curated by festival founder and director, Nicholas Maksymow. One of the highlights is the first 3D animation from Russia: Belka & Strelka: Space Dogs (2010), directed by Inna Evlannikova, Svyatoslav Ushakov.

The first thing you notice about this film is that the characters are different – not in that they’re animated of course, but that the animation is different. Humans and dogs alike are unlike the characters from US or Japanese animation studios – and the freshness is a bonus. The quality of the animation is excellent, and there is a sense of humour, a lightness of touch to it all that makes it instantly engaging an enjoyable.

Maksymow watched it with his two children, 7 and 5. “What I really like about this film is that it appeals to us grown ups with its humour, and to the kids with its action thrills.”

The period settings (1960-ish) are wonderfully captured in a clean but detailed style and driven by a feisty and effective score, the film signals the arrival of a new force in animated moviemaking.

"inspired by the world famous dogs who were sent into space"

The story is inspired by the world famous dogs who were sent into space on Sputnik 5. Belka, the amazing flying dog, is unexpectedly hurtled into the streets of Moscow when the rocket she is in as part of her circus routine malfunctions. She is literally hurled into the life of the streetwise Strelka and her irredeemable rat friend Lyonya. The new trio is soon chased by a terrifying Bulldog and his ingratiating offsider, Pug. After a narrow escape they are pursued by a mysterious black car before being finally captured. Belka, Strelka and Lyonya awake to find themselves part of the Soviet space program. A program that will see them as the first canine cosmonauts to be launched into space, that’s if Bulldog and Pug don’t beat them to it.

Opening Night film, Nikolay Dostal’s Peter On His Way to Heaven (2009), which won the Best Film Award at the Moscow International Film Festival, is set in the oppressive Soviet era Russia just before the death of Josef Stalin.

Peter, who is a little slow, lives in the prison camp town of Kandalaksha, and works conscientiously, believing he is the town’s traffic officer. It is March 1953, and the inhabitants of this frozen backwater encourage Peter’s role as the town fool with great enthusiasm. This is not to say they are mean, indeed he is treated with great affection. Through Peter we meet the town’s locals: the Doctors who have affairs in broom cupboards, the anti-Semitic Colonel Bogoslavskii and the local hero, engineer Konovalov. They all seem to be living lives just as restricted as the convicts whose camp is only a stone’s throw away.

“From a personal perspective,” says Maksymow, “what is most pleasing is that there are people out there that have developed a following for the festival and every year are looking forward to the next instalment. And we too, are trying to ensure that the program is diverse and that anyone out there is bound to find at least one film in the program that will appeal to them personally. The festival is now officially the largest festival of Russian Cinema outside of Russia today; an interesting statistic and scenario in that Australia is so far away from Russia, yet maybe close in that a foreign language film festival of this nature has been cemented.”

Maksymow and his small but enthusiastic team was determined to get a balanced program; “we wanted to have comedies, war films and typical Russian dramas in a more balanced program than in the past.”

The Sydney season has been stretched to 2 weeks, Melbourne up from 7 days to 10 and an extra venue added, as there was in Brisbane.

Some Highlights:
KANDAHAR (2010) Dir Andrei Kavun
Based on true events, this film describes the capture by the Taliban of an Ilyushin-76 freight aircraft in Kandahar during 1995. Accused of shipping arms the crew were imprisoned for over a year in Afghanistan and almost forgotten by the outside world. The story centres on the drama between the crew members and their captors while revealing and sometimes challenging contemporary attitudes. Along with casting some of Russia’s finest actors the film is punctuated by intense action scenes and stunning visual effects of the airborne Ilyushin-76.

Andrei Kavun’s direction is firm and focused, and the storytelling makes for gripping cinema. Excellent performances and nuanced storytelling combine with action thriller elements to add cinematic value to this amazing story.

The special effects supervisor and crew for the film were Australian. Kent Miklenda met Andrei Kavun at the Russian Resurrection Festival in Sydney in 2006 where Andrei was showing his previous blockbuster ‘Hunting Piranhas’. In 2007 they started work on the production of Kandahar together.

There will be a special presentation of ‘behind the scenes’ photographs from the production projected on the big screen after the film at selected sessions.

BLACK LIGHTNING (2009) Dirs: Dmitry Kiselev & Alexander Voitinskiy
Dima is a shy student at Moscow University. Like most young men his age, he wants three things: money, a girlfriend and a car to impress the girlfriend. When Dima’s father buys him a car for his birthday, an old vintage Volga, Dima is a little disappointed. The car appears old fashioned. Taking advice from a local businessman, Kuptsov, Dima decides to become a millionaire and gets a job delivering flowers in his old Volga. By sheer accident Dima discovers that his car can fly. A real advantage when you’re stuck with a car full of flowers in a Moscow traffic jam. Kuptsov and his men are trying to hunt down Dima’s flying old Volga in order to retrieve its nano fuel processor. Using this powerful device Kuptsov plans to get his hands on vast underground diamond deposits, putting millions of lives at stake.

“Aimed squarely at the mid-teen market,” says Maksymow, “this is Russia’s Spider-man kind of film. It’s a fantasy action movie made for Russians by Russians.” The film came No 2 behind Avatar at the Russian box office.

BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON (2010) Dir: Vladimir Khotinenko
During WWII, a Russian Orthodox priest ministers under German occupation in the Pskov region – an area that has changed political influence multiple times over a single generation. Under the occupation, Father Alexander is able to rehabilitate church life. But he is also able to aid the weak and help the prisoners of war. He is a patriot, a man with a deep conscious who is a hostage of competing propaganda machines. In Sergei Makovetsky’s remarkably nuanced performance, he is overcome with doubt about who to serve and how. While he tolerates the German occupational regime he suffers humiliation and doubt caught between faith and allegiance. His mission of mercy turns into a tragic trial, making the priest a hostage of the lurid history of the 20th century. When the territories are recaptured by the Soviets, the missionaries are deported.

Over the years the logistics have got easier, says Maksymow. “We have developed a network of contacts so we can get hold of anyone in the Russian film industry, which was not the case earlier.” It has made his year-long job a little bit easier.

Published August 5, 2010

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Belka Strekla: Space Dogs

2010 Festival dates:
Sydney: 19 August – 1 September
Melbourne: 25 August – 5 September
Brisbane; 1 – 8 September
Perth: 8 – 15 September
Adelaide: 9 – 15 September
Canberra: 5 – 19 September

Peter on His Way to Heaven


Black Lightning

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