Cannes Hits and St. Petersburg Strolls At the Moscow International Film Festival
by Anna Franklin
The Moscow International Film Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in style this year with a gala all night party on Red Square opposite Lenin's tomb that must have left the embalmed and still unburied communist leader rolling over in his mausoleum. A floodlit Red Square was closed to the public for the occasion and decorated with tens of thousands of red poppies. Hosted by festival president and Oscar-winning Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov and general director Renat Davletyarov, guests included Ken Russell, Fanny Ardant, Steven Seagal, Gina Lollobrigida, and Agnieszka Holland and along with Moscow's business and cultural elite who partied throughout the night.
Earlier in the evening the winners of the nine-day competitive event (approved A-list by the International Federation Of Film Producers Associations) were announced at a modest but tasteful ceremony featuring several world-class opera singers and followed by a screening of Franco Zeffirelli's "Callas Forever." Russian director Sergei Bodrov, whose production "Caucasian Prisoner" was nominated for an Oscar, chaired the international jury. The grand prix went to Spanish director Miguel Hermoza for "La Luz Prodigiosa" (The End Of A Mystery), a drama set at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. "Koktebel," a Russian road movie about a young boy and his alcoholic father who catch a ride on a box car bound for the Crimea, won the special jury prize for directors Boris Hlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky. Best director went to Korean Jang Jun-Hwan for "Save The Green Planet" while best actor went to Faramaz Garibian for Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's "Dancing In The Dust" and best actress went to Sinobu Ootake for her role in Kaneto Shindo's "Owl." The FIPRESCI (International Federation Of Film Critics) Prize for best film went to the Danish/Swedish coproduction "Skagerrak," directed by Soren Kragh-Jacobsen.
Earlier that same day Russian president Vladimir Putin met Seagal, Ardant, and Lollobrigida privately and the three sang his praises during the closing ceremony. Seagal scored a hit with the local audience by revealing that his father is Russian. Ardant received the Stanislavsky award, Russia's highest accolade for acting excellence for a foreign actor.
The festival altogether screened nearly 150 films. Other sections outside the main competition included Panorama, Great Expectations, 8 and a Half, National Hits, and a number of retrospectives and special focuses. Tributes to Andrei Delvaux and Gina Lollobrigida rounded out the programme. During the event, guests included Peter Greenaway who presented his latest film "The Tulse Luper Suitcase," a Russian co-production, as well as Sophie Marceau and Max Von Sydow.
Founded in 1959, the Moscow International Film Festival was held every two years alternating with Karlovy Vary during the Soviet period. It only became an annual event in 1999 and this year the festival celebrated its fifth year under the direction of Mikhalkov and Davletyarov. During the 1990s, after the collapse of communism, the festival fell on hard times suffering from revolving door management, poor organization, and a lack of funding. But in recent years the festival team has stabilized and the quality of organization has improved. The expanding Russian economy has put new life into the Russian film industry and nearly 100 feature films have been produced over the past year. For foreign guests, the most eagerly awaited part of the festival was the New Russian cinema section, which screened 30 new films. There were also three new Russian films in the competition, "The Stroll" directed by Alexei Uchitel, "Koktebel" directed by Alexei Popogrebsky and Boris Khlebnikov, and "Petersburg" directed by Irina Yevteeva.
"The Stroll," which opened the festival, follows three young people on a stroll through St. Petersburg, a tribute to the city's 300th birthday celebrations this year. Most Russian films are produced in Moscow many using the facilities of Mosfilm Studios. But Moscow's northern neighbor St. Petersburg is also a smaller but very active center for film production. Lenfilm Studios which is situated there is the oldest film studio in Russia and leading directors like Alexei Balabanov, Alexander Rogozhkin, and Alexander Sokurov still work there turning out films like "Brother," "The Cuckoo," and "Russian Ark." The city has its own film festival -- the St. Petersburg Festival of Festivals -- that was held from June 23-29 this year. It is a much smaller event than the Moscow festival, but this year the city's birthday celebrations put the St. Petersburg event into the spotlight.
"We used to screen all of the new productions," said Moscow festival general manager Davletyarov, "but this year we have the chance to be selective." Davletyarov said that during his first five years as general director his task had been to bring stability and a solid organizational structure to the event. He has kept the same team in place since 1999 including program director Kirill Razlogov. While the competition is still not a first choice for most film directors and producers, the team has managed to secure a wide selection of first-class films in most of its other sections. This year Russian public had a chance to sample the best of Cannes competitors including screenings of Lars Von Trier's "Dogville," "Les Invasions Barbares" by Denys Arcand, and "Les Cotelettes" by Bertrand Blier less than a month after they were seen in Cannes.
A lot of the improvement in the festival's fortunes is connected to the general economic situation in the country. Russia's economy has been expanding rapidly since the 1998 economic crisis that triggered a wave of restructuring in the country's financial and industrial sectors. Last year the economy grew by 4.3 percent and this year it is on target to expand by more than 5 percent. Perhaps more importantly for cinema exhibition and distribution, real incomes increased by 10 percent in 2002.
This means the average person has more money in his pocket and a night out at the cinema, formerly a luxury for the privileged few, is now affordable for a growing number of people. This increase in spending power has translated into a rapid growth at the box office, which climbed to $115 last year, a massive 45 percent increase over $65 million for 2001. Admissions increased from an estimated 20 million in 2001 to 33 million in 2002, while the average ticket price now hovers around three dollars. The box office is expected to reach $150 million this year. The improvement in the economy has also sparked a rapid expansion in the number of cinemas in Russia. Five years ago there were less than 20 modern screens. Today there are nearly 300. National Amusements which will open a new 11-screen cinema in central Moscow this summer will become the first foreign exhibitor to enter the Russian market but others are expected to follow soon.
"Of course the improvement in the economy has made things easier," said Davletyarov, "It's becoming easier to attract good films and stars. Now Russia is an increasingly important market for film distributors and the festival acts as an instrument for the promotion of both Russian and foreign films."
But if putting together a winning team and bringing stability to the festival seems like a major achievement, Davletyarov is not one to sit on his laurels. He is already looking ahead to the next five years. He said: "My first task of stabilization has been accomplished. Next year I think it will be time for some major changes in the structure of the program. We want to increase the budget for the selection of the program and perhaps have permanent representatives in Asia, Europe, and the USA. We also want to stabilize the image of the festival."